Letters of Paul

Bruce Malina & John Pilch (2006), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is not a commentary on the Pauline writings. (I Thessalonians; 1,2 Corinthians; Galatians, Romans, Philippians, Philemon are seen as authentically Pauline and treated in this volume.)  This volume draws insights from a range of social perspectives such as anthropology and social psychology, by examining the typical Eastern Mediterranean social behaviours witnessed in Paul’s letters.  Such an exercise is needed; readers need to enter Paul’s world, bringing to their reading mental scenarios proper to Paul’s time, place and culture, instead of imposing our own modern categories; ‘modern Christianity has little to do with ancestral expression in the Jesus groups of Paul’s day’ (p 3).  Eg taking the phrase ‘Judean and Greek’ as meaning Jews and Greeks is erroneous. Judeans were people who practised the customs of Judea; Greeks were people who practised the customs of Hellenists, a broad catch-all for Mediterranean citizens who used the common Greek language.  To have Judean and Greek mean ‘Jews and Greeks’ (or ‘Jews and Gentiles’) is simply wrong; this has obvious implications for reading Paul.

Pp 331-409 contain reading scenarios, short essays on key cultural components underlying the Paulines.  These provide wonderful brief ‘essays’ on topics such as ‘altered states of consciousness’ (visions, dreams), Greeks and Israelites, honour-shame societies, meals, patronage systems and religious/economic/politics.  Eg we can’t read Romans 13 to generate a theory of separation of church and state; that is an imposition of our own culture that separates these.  ‘relationship of subject to official is an interpersonal one in which disobedience personally dishonours the official’ (p 393).

A great book to refocus our reading the Paulines.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.