Sunday, June 01, 2008

A Book Review: Navigating Paul by Jouette M. Bassler

Title: Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts
Author: Jouette M. Bassler, Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.
ISBN: 978-0-664-22741-8
Retail: 19.95 USD
Publisher: WJK, Louisville, Kentucky
Year: 2007

The purpose of this book is to describe in some detail key theological words or phrases in Paul's authentic letters. In the preface Bassler writes that "[t]his collection of essays is intended to orient the interested reader of Paul to the significance of these concepts and the contours of the debates" (ix). She admits that this collection cannot be comprehensive, while also endeavoring not to oversimplify any issues, instead revealing their complexities. Apparently the publishers of this book originally intended for Bassler to write a glossary of Paul's theological vocabulary but the essays are longer than a normal glossary and the breadth of topic covered is narrow. The contents of the book are as follows:

Chapter 1 - Grace: Probing the Limits
Chapter 2 - Paul and the Jewish Law
Chapter 3 - Faith
Chapter 4 - In Christ: Mystical Reality or Mere Metaphor?
Chapter 5 - The Righteousness of God
Chapter 6 - The Future of "Israel": Who Is Israel?
Chapter 7 - "The Comes the End...": The Parousia and the Resurrection of the Dead

Bassler makes use of endnotes in Navigating and her book also includes good indices of ancient sources, modern authors, and subjects. In most of the chapters Bassler outlines the nature of problem being addressed, the sources to be perused, and the general outline of the debates said passages have engendered. At times the theological implications of one side or the other of a particular debate are explored, though not often both sides (see especially the chapter "Paul and the Jewish Law" where the traditional perspective's theological implications are largely ignored in favor of those of the New Perspective).

This is probably my biggest overall critique of the book. Bassler envisions Navigating as an introduction of key issues in Paul to educated readers of Paul and yet sometimes presents one side of an argument with much more verve than the other. At times she will offer large and devastating critiques against particular interpretations (e.g., the traditional understanding of "grace" and "Law" [5-7]), while leaving other proposals largely unchallenged or defending them vociferously against supposed objections (e.g., the newer interpretation of "grace" and "Law" [7-9]). I am not claiming that all of Navigating is one sided - not at all! I am simply saying that at a few points, even a few significant ones, Bassler's positions can be seen clearly, thus moving Navigating beyond and introduction at these points. However, how can I (or anyone else) expect an author to leave his/her convictions at the door when writing a book of any kind?

As any regular reader of this blog might have guessed, I am most interested in Bassler's chapter which deals with Paul and the Law, since that is my primary area of research interest. So it should come as no surprise that the margins of this chapter are crammed with notes! Also, since Bassler is a proponent of the New Perspective and I am not (at least not en toto), there are many places where we disagree. A few examples will suffice:
  • The evidence presented by E.P. Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism is not adequately critiqued (Bassler admits that some question Sanders' findings [14-15] but moves over this point rather quickly). As many people have pointed out since the publication of Sanders' important book, he forces many of the texts to fit into his matrix of covental nomism. Thus, simply referring to Sanders as proof that Second-Temple Judaism was not legalistic is not adequate anymore.
  • The most basic problem with the interpretation of "works of the Law" by those who agree with the New Perspective is that the phrase contains the word "works" in it. While I believe that the portrait previously presented of Second-Temple Judaism by NT scholars was highly skewed, there is evidence of legalistic tendencies in some corners of Judaism during the period of the NT. Thus, it is plausible that Paul himself was one of these Jews (cf. Phil 3 where Paul includes in his Jewish heritage both things into which he was born and things that he himself accomplished and his phrase "my righteousness") and/or that his opponents (especially those in Galatians and Philippians) also leaned toward legalism. This is not an indictment of all of Second-Temple Judaism, instead it is merely an admission that it was not as monolithic as is often present by both sides of the debate.
  • Also, the focus on the social function of Paul's understanding of "works of the Law," namely as boundary markers separating Jews and Gentiles, championed by James Dunn, is not robustly critiqued. While some of the texts may make "works of the Law" appear to function socially, not all of them do. Also, the so-called social function of the "works of the Law" may in fact simply be a result of Paul's new view of the Law since his encounter with the risen Jesus. It seems most plausible to me that the Law was relativized in comparison to knowing Christ (Phil 3.7), and this relativization is what allowed Paul to make statements like he does in Gal 3.28. Function and definition should not be confused necessarily.
  • There are many other places where I think that Bassler is too sympathetic with the New Perspective and too critical of traditional interpretations, but the three examples above should serve to illustrate my point.
One could also argue that Bassler left out some "key theological concepts" in Navigating. Due to the length of the study and the nature of the book itself, this is inevitable. However, dealing in detail with some other issues would have strengthened the book some, specifically the death of Jesus, the resurrection, the church, the function of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and sin. Their omission, however, is certainly understandable.

Up to this point, the reader of this review may be under the impression that I did not like this book. Nothing could be further from the truth! Navigating has many strengths that make it worth reading for those interested in Pauline theology (especially those looking for textbooks for a Pauline theology class at university, seminary, or even adult education classes in churches). One major strength of the book is that Bassler has written it with style and grace throughout. It is not a dense and slow read, instead, thanks to Bassler's writing prowess, the reader is allowed to move quickly through this very difficult terrain. Perhaps the best example of this was her coverage of pistis christou "faith in/of Christ" (27-32), in which she explored this complicated and entrenched debate with great dexterity. Also, one of Bassler's emphases throughout is that the reader of Paul should not read his/her situation onto that of Paul. This is a common critique of traditional interpreters of Paul, but this critique should always be held in the mind of every interpreter of the Bible. Also, Bassler's sensitivity in dealing with difficult issues is very pleasing to the reader. She addresses issues such as Paul and gender and Jewish-Christian relations with flexibility and care.

Overall I would recommend this book to any serious student of Paul, especially those who have already done some reading of secondary sources or those who will be guided through this territory in a classroom setting. The reason why I say this is that otherwise the uninitiated reader may be too easily convinced of some of the arguments here without giving a fair shake to the opposing opinions. However, Bassler still presents her readers with a very helpful look at a few key Pauline concepts. Four out of five stars!

Check out my other reviews here!

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