Paul: Missionary of Jesus
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
Pages xvi + 240
After Jesus Series Volume 2
A Review by Dr. Don Garlington, Toronto, Ontario
Paul Barnett’s book on the apostle Paul is a fine contribution to the literature. Barnett’s writing style is flowing, easy to follow and often elegant. From page one, this volume is extremely interesting and, for its size, sheds an uncommon amount of light on Paul’s life and mission. Its main thesis is that Paul was not “the real founder of Christianity.” Barnett poses the issue in these terms (2): "Was Paul a true missionary of Jesus?" Embedded in that question are others. Did Paul know about Jesus’ life and teaching? Did Paul preach Jesus’ message? Was Paul true to Jesus’ intentions? Did Paul continue in the trajectory begun by Jesus?
In a nutshell, the answer to all of the above is yes. Barnett starts out with a discussion of Paul’s relation to the historical Jesus. By means of a very serviceable table of references to Jesus in Paul’s letters (18-20), it is established that the apostle, by one means or the other, had more than a passing acquaintance with the Christ of the Gospels. Consequently, in comparing the teaching of the Pauline epistles with the teaching of Jesus, and by bringing alongside of Paul Luke’s contemporaneously written account in Acts, it cannot be, contends Barnett, that Paul struck out on an independent course from his Lord, thereby becoming “the real founder of Christianity.” The whole is encapsulated in a quotation from J. Ross Wagner: “Paul’s mission . . . is nothing less than the outworking of Jesus’ own mission” (99). The heart of the book is chapter 7, in which Barnett demonstrates capably enough that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was but the logical extension of “Jesus’ promise to the nations” (Joachim Jeremias), as recorded most prominently in the Synoptic Gospels.
I must say that as a member of “the choir” I hardly needed to be convinced of Barnett’s conclusion that “there is no wall between Jesus and Paul, but only level ground between them” (22). Thus, the principal value of the book, I would propose, resides in the insights it offers into Paul’s life and apostleship. The following are particularly noteworthy.
(1) The discussion of Paul’s Tarsus years, including his Roman citizenship and his grasp of Greek, is brief but nonetheless helpful. I found it especially interesting that the principal route to Roman citizenship was either because of emancipation from the servitude of a distinguished patron or as a reward for significant services rendered to a noted Roman leader. In either case, according to Luke’s narrative, Paul’s announcement to the Roman tribune that he was born a citizen of Rome rings true (Acts 22:28).
(2) The survey of Paul’s formative years in Jerusalem yields some important insights into the psyche of the young Saul of Tarsus. Preeminently, while Jerusalem did not likely witness wholesale bloodshed during his years there, there were at least two immensely important religious issues current: the hated poll tax, symbolizing the kingship of Caesar over the covenant people, and the series of crises arising from Pilate’s attempts at subverting the laws of God.
A young man like Paul who grew to maturity at that time and who was religiously intense could not have been unaffected by these circumstances. In short, the era in which the young Tarsian Paul was living in Jerusalem was one of considerable religious and political tension. Paul the young Pharisee must have been deeply aware of the issues for his religion that Roman occupation created (32).
(3) The chapter entitled “Why Paul Persecuted the Church” takes up the question, What kind of Pharisee was Paul precisely? Given that his teacher was the illustrious Gamaliel, the student of the even more illustrious Hillel, it would seem to follow that Paul at least started out as a Hillelite (as opposed to the Shamaites). The Hillelites, as illustrated by Acts 5:34-39, were typically tolerant and accustomed to taking a wait-and-see attitude. But if such characterized the school from which Paul emerged, then what gave rise to his persecuting zeal? Barnett’s explanation is along the following lines. Paul’s “advance in Judaism” (Gal. 1:14) started out as academic, in the cloisters of Gamaliel’s academy. However, with his consent to the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-8:1) and the subsequent persecution of the church (Acts 8:2-3), he was thrust into the limelight in a way in which he had never been before. “In short,” writes Barnett, “his significant ‘advance in Judaism’ was achieved in scholarly privacy but was revealed at large in Jerusalem by his attempt to ‘destroy’ both the church and its ‘faith’” (51). In other words, Saul was so incensed and outraged by Stephen’s perceived attack on the temple that he had no choice but to reassess at least a portion of his training “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). I might add that this would not be the first or the last time a student would venture to disagree with his teacher.
Especially insightful is the way in which Barnett links the Christian Paul’s reassessment of the significance of Jerusalem to Stephen’s speech, especially verses 44-53. Says Barnett:
Implicit in Stephen’s criticism of the temple was a rejection of the eschatological centrality of Jerusalem. For him the mission of God for the gathering of the nations was not centripetal (pulling in to the center) but centrifugal (driving out from the center). That is to say, Stephen’s anti-temple polemic reversed the direction of the prophetic expectations, which saw God “pulling in” the nations to Jerusalem/the temple as the center of God’s end-time plan for Israel and the nations (52).
The same is true of Philip the evangelist, who was called “the evangelist” not merely because he was a passionate preacher, but also because he understood that God’s purposes were outward from Jerusalem, not inward to Jerusalem. By contrast, the apostles remained in Jerusalem, probably because they saw the Holy City as the center of God’s end-time universe (52). Barnett continues: “The notion of Jerusalem as centrifugal and not centripetal in God’s mission to the nations, which became so much associated with Paul, had its seeds in the vision of Stephen and the activities of Philip” (53).
(4) The chapter on Paul’s conversion tackles the question of whether Paul was “called” or “converted.” Since Krister Stendahl’s essay, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” in 1963, discussions like this have become inevitable. Again as one of “the choir,” I found Barnett’s conclusion to be entirely convincing (75):
Was Paul “converted” as well as “called”? The weight of the evidence from the book of Acts and the specific references, and the identifiable allusions in Paul’s letters, leaves no doubt that the Damascus event represented a complete relational and moral turnabout that was accompanied by a radical new vocation as one commissioned to preach to the Gentiles to bring them into the divine covenant.
The direction and trajectory of Paul’s life and movement from Damascus onward are written on every page of Paul’s letters and are the engine that drives the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles. To deny this is to deny the evidence of history.
The only flaw of the chapter is its less than accurate rendering of the “New Perspective on Paul.” Barnett links the NPP to Stendahl, who in some ways was a forerunner of the current movement. The slant resides in the claim that fundamental to the NPP are two views: (1) the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a legalistic system based on “works of the law” that provoked individual guilt; (2) Paul’s teaching on justification did not criticize the law but rather provided a means of entry for Gentiles to the covenant (55, n. 3). The first point is misleading in that the NPP does indeed acknowledge that “works of the law” form the basis of Judaism, not in terms of “legalism” but of ]]