July 2017


If you are able to be in Dallas, TX next March, you should consider attending the annual SWCRS meeting. It meets on March 11-12 near DFW airport. SWCRS consists of several professional societies, including SBL and AAR. It is a good size meeting, but not overwhelming. If you have never attended a professional meeting, this would be a good one to start with.

You can find information about the call for papers at the SWCRS page. I (Jason) chair the New Testament section for SBL, and I’m always looking for good papers. I’m happy to consider papers from faculty and PhD candidates. If you have never presented, this is a good place to do it.

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In a previous post I (Jason) noted what I think is the most important claim made by Campbell in his book Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography. It is the role he assigns to Ephesians/Laodiceans as the summary of Paul’s theology. In this post I want to raise a potential methodological problem with Campbell’s project.

As the subtitle indicates this book uses exclusively Paul’s epistles to establish Paul’s biography. Campbell is following John Knox when he identifies Paul’s letters as “primary” evidence. This primacy is set over against the book of Acts, which is treated as “secondary” evidence.

I want to note two problems with this approach. First, while I appreciate the need to ensure that one understands what each letter itself is saying about Paul’s travels, it strikes me as problematic to exclude evidence when one is trying to reconstruct a person’s life from 2000 years ago. My impression is that this is not the way historians typically operate. Historians draw on all the available material to construct an account of what happened. When we have so little material to work with, it seems mistaken to disregard from the outset a potential source.

Second, and more problematic to me, is Campbell’s willingness to use other sources besides Paul’s letters to collaborate or explain potential historical connections, which Campbell does at key points in his account, while maintaining a complete disregard for Acts. It is unclear to me why he is willing to use this material but not Acts. Campbell’s argument is not exclusively using Paul’s letters for the reconstruction. For example, the Thessalonian correspondences do not clearly identify when they were written or why. Yet, Campbell confidently claims that they were written against the backdrop of the Gaian crisis in 40-42 CE. This may be the case, but the only way Campbell can make this claim is to draw on non-Pauline material to establish a potential historical referent. The Thessalonian correspondences do not explicitly identify this issue. But here is precisely the problem: as soon as one allows any source beyond the letters into play, one must be willing to allow all the evidence into play–including Acts.

Campbell indicates at several points that a follow up study of Acts is in the works (or at least a study of Paul that incorporates Acts). I wonder when Acts is evaluated will the evidence of Acts at points be allowed to modify the reconstruction Campbell offers in Framing Paul? Or, will the conclusions drawn here be given priority and allowed to overrun Luke’s account? Is the framing presented in this volume actually as tentative as Campbell indicates at times? Or, is the frame now a fixed structure and any material that does not build on this pattern going to be rejected outright? Is Framing Paul the blue prints that are still subject to adjustment, even moving a whole wall if necessary, or is it a steel structure and Acts can only add some decorative features?

As with physical health, the core matters. One of the ways to have a strong core when studying Christian origins is a good general sense of the ancient world through primary texts. While you (or I!) may not be able to devote the amount of time that Shawn Wilhite describes in this post on A Strategic Approach to Reading Background Texts of the New Testament, doing any aspect of it will help.

As we have been working on Reading Mark in Context, the follow-up to Reading Romans in Context, it’s struck me again how much knowing this contextual literature is essential. What Shawn’s post captures is that it’s the consistent devotion to reading practices over time that is the most formative.