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Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography [Hardcover]

Bruce Chilton

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Book Description

Aug. 17 2004

A brilliant new biography of Saint Paul, whose interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus transformed a loosely organized, grassroots peasant movement into the structured religion we know today

Without Paul, there would be no Christianity. His letters to various churches scattered throughout the Roman Empire articulated, for the first time, the beliefs that make up the heart of Christian practice and faith. In this extraordinary biography, Bruce Chilton explains the changing images of Paul, from the early Church period when he was regarded as the premiere apostle who separated Christianity from Judaism to more recent liberal evaluations, which paint him as an antifeminist, homophobic figure more dedicated to doctrine than to spiritual freedom. By illuminating Paul’s thoughts and contributions within the context of his time, Chilton restores him to his place as the founding architect of the Church and one of the most important figures in Western history.

Rabbi Paul is at once a compelling, highly readable biography and a window on how Jesus’ message was transformed into a religion embraced by millions around the world. Drawing on Paul’s own writings as well as historical and scholarly documents about his life and times, Chilton portrays an all-too-human saint who helped to create both the most beautiful and the most troublesome aspects of the Church. He shows that Paul sought to specify the correct approach to such central concerns as sexuality, obedience, faith, conscience, and spirit, to define religion as an institution, and to clarify the nature of the religious personality—issues that Christians still struggle with today.


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From Publishers Weekly

In this follow-up to Rabbi Jesus, Chilton turns his attention to the life and work of Christianity's most enigmatic figure, Paul of Tarsus. Raised as an observant Jew in the commercial center of Tarsus, Paul not only absorbed the traditions of his fathers but also witnessed the worship and celebration of the city's pagan gods. Since scant information about Paul's early life exists, Chilton re-imagines Paul's youthful religious enthusiasms and his training as a Pharisee. Once Paul became a follower of the Jesus movement, he combined his deep-seated legal learning with a spiritual fervor that emphasized an internal encounter with the Son of God rather than an experience of God confined to the external revelations in the Temple. Paul thus emerges as a shaman or spirit guide, a "master preacher [and] oral poet" whose teachings about the spiritual life in Christ spurred the growth of early Christianity. Although Chilton adds nothing especially new to our knowledge of Paul, his inviting prose, ability to recreate the cultural contexts of Paul's life and deep affection for the Apostle bring new life to a tale that has been told many times before.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Chilton, the author of Rabbi Jesus (2000), once again offers an insightful and highly readable biography of a biblical figure. Here, Chilton has the advantage of having Paul's own writings to call upon. In fact, it is Paul's letters to the various churches he helped found that form the basis for the book, and Chilton does readers a real service by explaining the evolution of these churches and the intricate religious politics that entangled them. The book not only does a credible job of deciphering the various positions of the nascent Christian movement vis-a-vis traditional Judaism but also offers revealing portrayals of Paul's rivals, Peter and James the Just. Getting a handle on the quixotic Paul is a monumental job, but Chilton hangs on quite well, speculating only occasionally and clearly identifying the contradictions in Paul's theology; for example, how could someone who proclaimed all are one in Christ be so dismissive of women, especially since women were so important in the early Christian movement? Like Paul himself, bold and fascinating. Ilene Cooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
47 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Scholarly Appraisal of Saul/Paul of the New Testament Sept. 27 2004
By C. Hutton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In a companion work to his "Rabbi Jesus" (2002), Bruce Chilton writes a concise biography of the Paul from the New Testament. In both books, Mr. Chilton emphasizes the Jewishness of his subjects in his quest for the historical person. This work does not break new ground but pulls together the leading scholarship consensus on Paul.

This work is intended for the general reader as an introduction to Paul's life and evolving theology -- it is thorough but concise at 350+ pages. Working from Paul's letters to the leaders of the local churches and from the Acts of the Apostles, Mr. Chilton emphasizes how Paul was responsible for broadening the faith in Jesus as the Messiah to including gentiles without the burden of the Law (the dietary rules and circumcision requirements). Among Paul's many contributions to Christian theology, this was the key one -- when the Jewish-Christian Church based in Jerusalem disappeared during the chaos of the War against Rome in the late 60's, the Gentile Church remained to carry on.

For a different approach toward Paul, the reader can read Jerome Murphy-O'Connor's "Paul: His Story". Utilizing the same framentary material as Mr. Chilton, Mr. Murphy-O'Connor argues for a more unique and sometimes creative history of Paul. I prefer Mr. Chilton's less-daring but more probable account of the life of Paul. For a more advanced look at Paul, the reader can consult the earlier works of either E.P. Saunders or Gunther Bornkamm.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging Popular Biography, scholarship in the background Nov. 22 2006
By B. Marold - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
`Rabbi Paul, An Intellectual Biography' by Professor of Religion, Bruce Chilton has a barely tautological title which is still capable of a hint of misdirection.

The virtually obvious aspect of the title is the fact that so little is known with certainty of the hard details of `Paul of Tarsus' life that a 332 page book must, by necessity, spend a lot of time on the intellectual content of Paul's Epistles which make up the most robustly theological portion of the New Testament. There are two facts about this book that can be slightly misleading. First, I believe the title of `Rabbi' applied to Paul may be just a bit of a stretch. `Rabbi' is a strictly Jewish title which, I believe, is only applied to a teacher of `the law' as laid out in the Torah and explicated in the Talmud. The main thrust of Paul's Christian theology was to make the Torah irrelevant to being a Christian. Second, while this book does deal with Paul's theology, I find it very odd that the author devotes less space to discussing the Epistle to the Romans than he does the two Epistles to the Corinthians. `Romans' is commonly believed by everyone from Augustine to Martin Luther to Jonathan Edwards to Albert Schweitzer to 21st Century commentators to be Paul's greatest theological work. Professor Chilton appears to give that honor to the Corinthians letters, which probably have somewhat more gossip than `Romans', so they provide more material for the narrative. Even some of his statements on the provenance of `Romans' seem shaky. He claims the letter was written in the Greek Asia Minor city of Mellitus, while most other reliable Biblical commentaries say it was written while Paul was in Corinth (See `The Oxford Bible Commentary', page 1108).

In one sense, this book can be seen as an exegesis to the Book of Acts of the Apostles, as this part of the New Testament provides most of the hard factual material upon which Chilton builds his speculations on the events in Paul's life. One example of `speculation' is the author's surmises on what Paul did during the years he spent in the desert of the Nabatean Kingdom south of Judea. The author's reasonable guess is that he made tents, as he came from a prosperous family of tent-makers in Tarsus. Aside from `Acts', `1 Corinthians' and `Galatians', there is relatively little material taken from the other Epistles.

This is not to say the book has no scholarly credentials. The end of the book includes about fifty pages of notes and comments on sources. But Chilton is certainly aiming his narrative at a popular audience, since his main text is singularly free of the impedimenta to smooth reading found in scholarly works on Paul, of which there are thousands. This includes words, phrases, and sentences quoted in Aramaic, Greek, or Latin; long footnotes in barely readable fonts; and indecipherable references to six volume works in German, Latin, or French. Thus, while most of those thousands of works have no value for the average interested reader, this volume had interest aplenty. I almost wish Chilton had done just a bit more referring to his sources in the main line of his text. Chilton firmly subscribes to the belief that Paul was influenced by the Stoics, but he doesn't connect Paul's beliefs with concrete Stoic works quite as well as I would like. I would like to know more about the Paul, the Stoics, and `eastern' mystery religions of this period, because I suspect Paul's Stoic `doctrines' could have come from other sources; but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt pending more reading on my part.

If this work achieves nothing else, it will give Paul a human personality, combining all known biographical facts we have about him with reasonable hypothesizing about his character and his interactions with his congregations in Asia Minor and Greece. One interesting question it answers is why Paul planned to travel to the ultimate West (the Roman province of Hispania, modern Spain) when it is highly unlikely that Christianity had yet been brought to all cities in the eastern half of the Mediterranean. The answer seems to be that Paul simply wore out his welcome with the good citizens of Asia Minor, Greece, and his home bases of Antioch and Jerusalem.

Since Paul's most important interpreter for our times was Martin Luther, an opinion Chilton firmly endorses, it is easy to think of Paul as having the same kind of constantly doubting `existential' personality. Chilton shows this was not even close. Paul was nothing if not sure of his positions and his beliefs. In fact, he may have been just a bit too self-assured as when he held positions contrary to the young church leaders in Jerusalem, especially Jesus' brother, James, the leader of the Jewish Christians.

It is easy to discount James in the history of Christianity. This book firmly establishes that James was certainly one of the `big three' among Christian apostles around 45 - 55 CE together with Peter and Paul. The problem with James is that while the Catholics lionize Peter and the Protestants promote Paul, James has no strong advocate among modern Christian groups.

One problem with writing a book for a popular audience is that you let yourself slide on some details; as when Chilton refers to an Asia Minor location as being in Turkey. The term `Turkey' didn't exist until the Ottoman Empire, and even then, it was probably not common until after the end of the First World War. At any rate, it certainly was NOT the name used by the natives or their Roman governors!

This book is a great commentary to be read in conjunction with a study of the book of `Acts of the Apostles'. It is also a superior `popular' treatment when compared to `The Gospel According to Paul' by Oxford (Lincoln College) don, Robin Griffith-Jones. If you wish to study Paul's theology, stick with the scholarly commentaries on his Epistles.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intrigued, Provoked, and Scratching My Head at Times Feb. 23 2006
By T. Atkins - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The best part of this book that I have read is the quote by Martin Luther on page 184. Parts of the book are thought provoking and the book is filled with intriguing speculation which appears to be guesswork. Chilton claims that the revelation given to Paul upon Paul's visit to the third heavens was concerning the make up of the "new Israel" of God. He fails to convince. He puts Paul on probation from Jerusalem, at odds with Peter, James and Barnabas and portrays him as a cavalier egomaniac and makes several unsupported jumps and conclusions. From what I have read of reviews on his book Rabbi Jesus these things seem as nothing new. At times he speaks somewhat negatively about the writing in the Book of Acts. It is not a horrible book to read, can be thought provoking, at times good in bringing out the Greek meaning of a word (such as euangellion which means announcement of a great victory) . . . and finally the great humor found on page 184. For more accurate reading on Paul let me suggest Paul and the Self by Knox Chamblain or Apostle of the Heart Set Free by F.F. Bruce.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I really wanted to like this book Jan. 21 2011
By Beth - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If I didn't have a basic background in Christianity and a brush of knowledge of Judiasm, I'd have found this book more of a challenge than illuminating.

Chilton managed, in my view, to suck the life out of, to distance us from one of the pivotal figures in history.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The First Universalist Oct. 19 2008
By Giant Panda - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book shattered my misconceptions of Paul as an usurper of the message of Jesus and a charlatan who lured away Chrisitianity. On the contrary, this book demonstrates how Paul was a founding figure without whom Chrisitianity would probably have never held its own as a major world religion and would have forever remained an obscure sect. Chilton presents Paul as the first true universalist - one who believed there is no distinction between races or classes or ethnic groups. He reached out to all to build his new religion and vehemently resisted those who wished to seclude their beliefs to their own. He paid heavily for his idealogy, but his efforts for inclusion admitted the kind of corruption that the Romans later were able to heap onto Christianity: the idolatry of icons, the incorporation of Roman holidays and festivals into Christianity, etc. Regardless, this is an exciting book that keeps you thinking and inspires your desire to read Paul's letters, after placing them in historical context.

The maps leave a lot to be desired. It is basically the same map reprinted on several pages at various levels of zoom. What would have been more useful is to plot Paul's itinerary at different stages on the maps.

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