Friday, June 08, 2007

Pondering Paul

During the fall semester of 2006, I taught a course on the "Life and Teachings of the Apostle Paul."

A big bunch of questions immediately confront the teacher for a course like that. Trying to figure out how the class should go was one of the toughest jobs I've taken on in a long time.

For example, the two main sources for the topic are (1) the letters of Paul and (2) the Book of Acts. But the question of how those two sources might work together for someone who's trying to figure out "the life of Paul" . . . well, that's hard to answer.

Why? Because neither Luke (writing Acts) nor Paul (writing his letters) was particularly interested in a biography of Paul. This is just one of the many places where the actual character of the Bible doesn't fit so well with the interests of scholars and the procedures of the academy. But that's another post.

Next, what about the teachings of Paul? Should the students simply read the letters in chronological order (assuming that you have that figured out)? Or would it be better to take a thematic approach, dealing with different topics?

For what it's worth, my class walked through the letters in what I think might be their chronological sequence. But this naturally begged for some sort of explanation from me. And, it required a basic level of historical competence on the part of the students. (As much as I like my students, I have to say that such competence is uncommon). Why go in order of time if the students have no concept of the the overall story?

Since some of you teachers and preachers out there will wonder, Yes, we used the book by F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, as the supplemental text. But I don't think I'll do that again.

Why not? Well, for one thing the book is a bit of a hodge podge. Bruce never set out to write a text about Paul. Most of the chapters in "Paul" were originally published as articles in a wide array of journals and magazines. I'm guessing that it was a publisher's idea to bring them all together, have Bruce fill in the gaps, and come out with a book on Paul. Not to mention that the Bruce book is a little beyond most of my 1st and 2nd year college students.

So, just in case I ever teach that course again, what can you tell me about how you might decide some of these questions? What approach might you take? What alternative to the Bruce text can you recommend? (For reasons explained above, Wright is wrong for my purposes). Anyone been a part of a great Paul class? Who taught it? And how?



When I studied the life of Paul ... the very same book was used. The class was enlighting. It was a Jerry Klein class.

My teaching is a little different than yours. You're on a time limit having to get thougt a semister, I can take as long as I need.

I went through the letters of Paul last year with a ladies class. I did use some of FF Bruce. But I also used other commentaries.


Matt said...

What about Ben Witherington's book? I have not looked at it but it is probably decent.

Those are some tough questions. Many people have focused on the second half of Acts being the story of Paul but it clearly isn't. If it was about Paul why not tell what happened to him in the end? It is a much bigger picture than that. Jervell is good from the Acts side of things. The Bruce book seems to be pretty good.

You could teach an entire class just on pairing Acts and his letters. It seems like you could easily get bogged down in minutia very quickly.

The problem with a thematic approach is there are so many varying contexts to his letters that it is hard to get people to read what is there from the proper perspective rather than seeing it all very flatly.

Good luck!


What St Paul Really Said.

I know you said no to Wright, but I think that is a mistake. If your students don't want to study that bad, then flunk em. They are not worthy of the subject and should take other classes.

Wright is setting the agenda in Pauline studies. And he pack some amazingly complex ideas into simple language. I figure that students leaving class today without some exposure to Wright now will feel shortchanged down the road when they wake up behind the eightball.

Witherington is a good suggestion, I think. I have not actually read his work on Paul, but a respectable voice all the same. However, I think the PROPHET paradigm works better than SAGE (of course that comes from a guy who has yet to read the work on SAGE).

Just my thought. I was undergrad when I studied Wright with Wendell Willis at ACU and I have never let Willis go a minute without telling how profoundly appreciative I am he made me read that book.

Jesus is Lord.

Frank Bellizzi said...


You're right. There really are some significant differences between the places where we teach, in spite of the fact that both are in the panhandle. The letters of Paul in year; you must have kept up a pretty quick pace.


I haven't read the Witherington book on Paul. Is it on the short and simple side? That's what I'm looking for. Something in the category of primer.


Sorry I'm just now getting around to publishing your comment. It was a busy weekend.

I totally forgot about "St. Paul" by Wright. I skimmed it when it first came out and haven't taken it up since. When I made my "No Wright" comment I was thinking of the newer book "Paul: In Fresh Perspective," which is way too advanced for my purposes.

The part about "flunk 'em" points up one of the central dilemmas of my work. Not all, but many of my students come to me ill-prepared for college-level work. The question of how to maintain academic integrity without overwhelming people who, in some instances, are genuinely trying is a big one. Some college teachers are notorious for handing out A grades to people who occasionally show up with a pulse. My first semester, about 30% of my students received Ds or Fs. About 50% deserved Fs.

Matt said...

Short and simple? Try Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P. Sanders. That should give them a nice lite treatment of Paul :)

On the Witherington book, I have a copy around here somewhere but can't find it. I have not read it but what he puts out is normally good quality. James Dunn has a book on Paul's theology but it is pretty thick 500-600 pages.

Frank Bellizzi said...

That's my problem, Matt. Lots and lots of folks have written books about Paul that, in terms of difficulty and length, are medium to long. But something by way of a primer is harder to come by.

I think that Wright's "What St. Paul Really Said" might be exactly right for my purposes. Alas, MG, it looks like I gave my copy away. I do that sometimes when I know someone really should read a book but that they probably won't run out and buy it.


"I feel your pain" as our once great president used to say...


Many blessings...

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Bruce's book is something of classic. It is starting to get dated but he has some very good material that remains valid. I like it because it goes into some depth where N.T. Wright's recent work is quite brief.

But for a new undergrad class I probably would go with Wright and assign supplemental readings in primary sources (NT and first century sources).

Of course I could not teach a NT class and not have my students doing some reading in the Apocrypha.

For Paul in Acts, Jacob Jervell has a great book called "The Unknown Paul" with some very good insight into Acts.

Bobby Valentine