`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.