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  • Paul as a Problem in History and Culture: The Apostle and His Critics through the Centuries by Patrick Gray
  • Arland J. Hultgren
Paul as a Problem in History and Culture: The Apostle and His Critics through the Centuries. By Patrick Gray. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016. x + 262 pp.

“This book is about Paul and those who regard him as a problem, indeed, the most nettlesome problem of the past two thousand years” (7). The book reviews Paul’s place within intellectual and cultural history from the first century up to the present era.

Questions about continuity and discontinuity between Jesus and Paul dominate the book. Such questions have been raised and dealt with by many scholars in New Testament studies. Gray discusses some, taking up the views of Rudolf Bultmann, Ferdinand Christian Bauer, Adolf Deissmann, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, Ernst Renan, Albert Schweitzer, and others. The treatments are brief, but sufficient to demonstrate how some major scholars have sought to show continuities between Jesus and Paul, while others have maintained with vigor that the differences between the simple message of Jesus and the abstract theology of Paul are so great that it is impossible to reconcile the two.

Most of the book, however, is not about the Jesus–Paul question among theologians but about assessments of Paul among philosophers, historians, playwrights, film makers, and writers. The list of persons brought forth is impressive, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Sigmund Freud, Georg Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Blaise Pascal, George Bernard Shaw, Baruch Spinoza, Leo Tolstoy, Alfred North Whitehead, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Repeatedly, the book surprises one with the sheer number of intellectual leaders who have expressed views, usually negative, about the apostle Paul. Charges against Paul include that Paul perverted the simple gospel of Jesus, was the actual founder of Christianity, was of pagan (not Jewish) ethnicity and heritage, was still Jewish as an apostle (having a “mutational Jewish identity,” 141), was anti-Semitic, was antinomian, and more.

Some chapters are devoted to subtopics of anti-Paulinism, including how Paul is considered among religious traditions outside of Christianity, such as Judaism and Islam, and in light of modern social [End Page 480] and moral concerns, such as Paul’s views concerning women, slavery, the state, and Judaism. Concerning these, the author responds by setting Paul into his ancient context. Included among modern issues is “the religious but not spiritual” trend. On this, the author takes issue with the view that Paul and others betrayed Jesus, the “spiritual” leader, by creating Christian communities which became institutions. Had Paul not founded churches, “it is possible that Christianity would not have survived” (151). He concludes “Historically, at least, it has proven more difficult to divorce the religious Paul from the spiritual Jesus than critics would have expected” (155).

Toward the end the author comments, “After listening to the many voices in this admittedly one-sided survey, one may come down on the side of Paul’s critics” (201). Gray is not quick to rescue Paul, but he makes some important points. He says that “Paul’s despisers often start from a stance of antipathy toward established Christian tradition and then labor to assign the deficiencies to him instead of to Jesus” (208), and that one may “argue that Paul, though different from Jesus in many respects, maintains a creative fidelity to his person and to the proclamation of the early church” (209).

Gray’s work is thorough in its coverage. He refers to hundreds of authors, both positive and negative in their views on Paul. The book is accessible to the general reader, but it is also a handy resource for scholars or anyone else who wishes to track down original sources that reflect anti-Paulinism. That means, of necessity, that the works of the authors surveyed are not given as much discussion and engagement as one might desire. More discussion of fewer authors would be the alternative. Nevertheless, the coverage and the insights provided are admirable, taking the reader on a journey of often unexpected encounters with major shapers of Western culture. [End Page 481]

Arland J. Hultgren
Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota


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