Book Review: 40 Questions About the Apostle Paul by Benjamin P. Laird and Miguel G. Echevarría

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.


40 Questions About the Apostle Paul by Benjamin P. Laird and  Miguel G. Echevarría, 320 pp. Kregel Publishing, 2023.

As I glance at my library of theological books, there is no doubt that books on Paul take up a lot of space. There has been a slew of books written on Paul and there is no end in sight. The authors of 40 Questions About the Apostle Paul concur by saying “ Why write another book on the apostle Paul? Is there really anything else to say or anything new to explore? We would argue that the question itself speaks to the need for the present volume. For many, it is unrealistic to wade through the large number of books, articles, and monographs about Paul that continue to be published on an annual basis. One could spend an entire lifetime devoted to the study of only a portion of Paul’s writings or a single element of his teaching, let alone the entire body of his writings or the sum of his teaching.”- pg. 11.

I will mention some of the highlights from some of the chapters. I can’t comment on every one of the 40 questions the authors cover in the book.

The first section of the book deals with questions about Paul’s life. Just a little sidenote:  Sometimes when we say Paul became a Christian this means he “converted” to Christianity. But the challenge is linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century wasn’t seen as a single “way.” Before Paul came to know Jesus, what we now call ‘Christianity’ was no more than a messianic sect within first-century Judaism, or better, within Second Temple Judaism — ‘the sect of the Nazarenes’ (Acts 24.5).

Anyways, the authors cover questions such as where Paul was born and raised, his education, his family, etc. Luke records that Paul was from Tarsus (Acts 9:30; 11:25; 21:39; 22:3), where he was likely born in the first decade CE. Sources from antiquity describe Tarsus as a flourishing city. Some might even call it a metropolis. Paul’s description squares with what we find in contemporary literature—that it was “an important city” (Acts 21:39). Tarsus’s reputation was largely centered around its economy and devotion to philosophy. The biblical record clearly indicates that Paul was raised in Tarsus as a Jew (Acts 21:39). The apostle identifies himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” from “the tribe of Benjamin” (Phil. 3:5; cf. Rom. 11:1). According to Jerome (347–420 CE), Paul’s family likely relocated to Tarsus from Gischala (modern Jish) in Galilee. How they got there is debated. Paul was also born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28). His Roman citizenship would have granted him the same rights as other citizens of the empire, such as the right to appeal after a trial, exemption from military service, and the right to choose a local or Roman trial.- pgs.18-20.

Little is known about the specific members of Paul’s immediate family. None of his family members are referred to by name, and we can only speculate about the nature of Paul’s relationship to them, especially after his encounter with Christ. Aside from the brief reference to his sister and nephew in Acts 23:16–22, only a small number of possible references to members of Paul’s family may be found in the New Testament.- pg. 28.

As far as Paul’s education, Paul makes the claim that he was “brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day” (Acts 22:3). This is our most detailed reference to his more formal ties in Jerusalem. Gamaliel, as it is widely known, was a distinguished rabbi in the first century who was widely respected among members of various religious sects. He came from a prominent family, his grandfather was apparently the famous rabbi Hillel, and his opinions about the interpretation of the law were highly respected. For Paul to have studied under such a revered figure would have been no small honor and would have given him a unique opportunity not only to learn from an expert in the law but to build relationships with a number of prominent religious figures in Jerusalem.-pg. 34.

As far as Paul’s education after coming to faith in Jesus, his writings reveal a solid command of the Greek language and rhetoric, knowledge of the language and ideas associated with the various philosophical schools of thought (especially the Stoics), and the text of the Septuagint. How did Paul become so familiar with Greek culture, one might ask, if he was “brought up” in Jerusalem? Are we to suppose that his knowledge of the Greek world derived entirely from his childhood in Tarsus? Aside from the fact that Greek culture was much more widespread and pervasive than is sometimes recognized,  the fact that Paul spent a considerable number of years ministering in Tarsus after his conversion should not be overlooked (see Acts 9:30; 11:25; Gal. 1:21). -pg.35.

Paul doesn’t give a list of reasons as to why he persecuted the early Messianic community. It may be that Paul perceived faith in Jesus as a threat to Torah obedience. His zeal for the Torah is evident in his Letters (Phil. 3:6; 1 Tim 1:13). Any tampering with the Torah was off limits cause it defined the identity of the Jewish people.  Or, perhaps Paul wanted to help keep the peace. Hence, he feared a Roman reprisal of a Jewish sect proclaiming Jesus as Messiah.  Another possibility is that given that Deut. 21:22f. puts “the one who is hanged under a divine curse” and  Paul’s language about the offensiveness of a crucified Messiah (1 Cor. 1:23), Paul  knew the seriousness of his fellow countrymen proclaiming a crucified blasphemer like Jesus. In the end, we can’t be dogmatic as to why Paul was the persecutor that he was. Paul doesn’t list his reasons for why he persecuted the early followers of Jesus.

As far as Paul’s activities, Acts and his own letters record his ministry in Arabia (33/34–36/37 CE), his subsequent Visit to Damascus (37 CE), his initial Visit to Jerusalem (37 CE)— his ministry in Cilicia and Syria (37–48/49 CE), and his relief offering to Jerusalem (47/48 CE). Granted, there have been debates on the chronology of his entire life.

As far as Paul’s missionary strategy, Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary activities and his instruction in the Pastoral Epistles indicate that Paul was deeply concerned about the long-term stability, spiritual condition, and growth of the churches in which he served. Although Paul was certainly passionate about proclaiming Christ in new regions, he also recognized that his apostolic calling served an eschatological purpose that was to be carried out through the local church. From his perspective, he was charged not only with the proclamation of Christ, but with encouraging the spiritual growth and maturity of believers. Paul understood the importance of establishing strong and vibrant churches in large urban centers that could support further missionary activity in the local region and broader world, of living and working among the people he served, of presenting the gospel message in a manner that is appropriate to one’s target audience, and of focusing on the long-term stability and well-being of local churches- pgs. 89-91.

As far as Paul’s opponents and opposition, several New Testament writings indicate he often faced opposition from Jewish opponents who were convinced that his teaching was misguided and that it posed a significant threat. On other occasions he was opposed by Greeks and Romans who were concerned that he was the cause of civil unrest or that his movement was having a deleterious impact on the local economy. Despite the intensity of the opposition he encountered, Paul understood that his main form of opposition was spiritual in nature and that it was therefore necessary for him to remain faithful to the calling he received from the Lord and to view his struggles and hardships with an eternal perspective. – pg. 98.

The second section discusses Paul’s writings (his letters)

What sources did Paul use?

 Paul employed a variety of sources in his letters such as the Septuagint, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jesus tradition, and Greek poets. The Jesus tradition—teachings sourced in the historical Jesus, also known as Jesus sayings, which may have circulated in oral or written form, or both. Early Christian communities would have likely considered them authoritative for ecclesial instruction. Of these sources, Paul mainly relies upon the Septuagint, the version of the Old Testament with which his Greek-speaking audiences would have been most familiar. His letters also show that he may have relied on the Hebrew Scriptures, though not as often as the Septuagint. He also draws  on occasion, Greek poets. Paul often weaves such sources into his writings to support his respective arguments- pgs. 176-178.

Why Did Peter Say Some of Paul’s Writings Are “Hard to Understand”?

This is something I have always wondered about. But as the authors note, context is key.

After claiming that “some things in Paul’s letters are hard to understand,” Peter adds the following clause: “which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” The “ignorant” and “unstable” distort elements of Paul’s letters, likely those relevant to Peter’s argument, such as his teachings on sexual morality (1 Cor. 6:12–17) and the second coming of the Lord Jesus (2 Thess. 2:2–3; 2 Tim. 2:17–18; cf. 2 Peter 3:1–10). What the larger context of 2 Peter 3:16 reveals is that interpretive blame for misinterpreting Paul’s writings lies with false teachers and those who succumb to their doctrines. This does not negate that “some things” in Paul’s letters are “hard to understand.” Yet, such difficulties are no reason for describing Paul’s letters as incoherent or illogical. After all, Peter clearly assigns blame for misreading Paul on those who purposely twist the meaning of his letters. The problem is not that they are unable to understand Paul’s letters. Rather, the issue is that they distort the meaning of his writings in order to continue living in immorality, assuming that Christ will never return to judge their wickedness.- pgs. 171-172.

The third section discuses Paul’s Theology:

What is Paul’s view of the atonement?

Both “substitution” and “representation,” contribute to our understanding of the atonement. According to the substitution viewpoint, Christ died “in our place,” as our substitute, delivering us from the penalty of death. What we escape is the physical punishment for not doing all the Mosaic law requires (Gal. 3:10, 13; James 2:10; cf. Deut. 21:21; 27:26). According to the representation viewpoint, on the other hand, Christ died as our representative, permitting us to partake of the saving benefits of dying and rising with the Messiah. We need to avoid an either/or false dichotomy that forces us to choose one position to the exclusion of the other.- pg. 208.

What is Paul’s Christology?

The titles which Paul applies to Jesus—Christos, Kyrios, and Son of God—suggest he recognized him to be God’s royal messianic Son, whose death and resurrection result in his lordship and redemption of the creation. This fully divine and human Jesus died, rose from the grave, and will return to raise believers to life and condemn the wicked. When all this takes place, God’s rule over the cosmos will be forever restored and unchallenged.- pg. 201.

What is Paul’s Eschatology?

Paul’s eschatology follows a Jewish, dualistic understanding of two ages. Yet, his thought also develops beyond this basic schema—for he holds to an overlap between the old age, which is in the process of passing away, and the new age, which has not fully arrived. In other words, we may conclude that he holds to an “already–not yet” eschatology. Furthermore, for Paul the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the arrival of the Spirit indicate that the new age has arrived. When Jesus returns, he will judge humankind and restore the creation.- pg. 250.

The final section covers specific questions about Paul such as questions about the New Perspective on Paul, Paul’s teaching on marriage and singleness, the role of spiritual gifts and slavery and racial division and others.

What Is Paul’s View Regarding Marriage, Singleness, and Divorce?

Paul’s “already–not yet” eschatological framework drives his view of marriage, singleness, and divorce. If Christ is returning soon, then singleness should be preferred over marriage, so that believers can dedicate themselves to serving Jesus Christ without the responsibilities and concerns of marriage. Paul’s position does not suggest that he has a low view of marriage, however. He understands the necessity of marriage for those who do not have the gift of singleness which he possesses. While the marriage union provides an appropriate context for individuals to fulfill their sexual desires, its main purpose is to reflect the eschatological relationship Christ will enjoy with his church. Moreover, the marriage union is intended to be permanent, even if one’s spouse is an unbeliever.- pg. 277.

What are the Strengths and Weaknesses of the New Perspective on Paul?

The New Perspective on Paul has shifted the paradigm for reading the Pauline writings. Like any other movement, it has its strengths and weaknesses. We have suggested that its strengths include its emphasis on Second Temple literature, its positive view of Judaism, and its reading of Paul in a manner that places an emphasis on his Jewish background. On the other hand, it might be argued that the New Perspective often fails to recognize the variegated nature of Jewish soteriology, that it overemphasizes the covenantal nature of Paul’s letters, and that it tends to limit the extent of the “works of the law” to Jewish boundary markers. Such critiques are from our limited vantage point.- pgs. 264.

As you can see, there is so much to learn about Paul. But given he is such a prominent figure in the New Testament, it is worth the effort to learn as much as we can about him and what he communicated to us through his writings. While I don’t agree with everything the authors say, (that is common), I highly recommended this book.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback or any specific type of review.

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