Benedict on Paul’s biography

Papa Benedict dedicated his second reflection on Paul to the Apostle’s biography (to avoid needless repetition, let me flag up front my deep and pervasive dependence throughout on the work of my teacher, Douglas Campbell). He begins by observing that, while in Acts 9 Paul is referred to as a “youth,” in PM 9 he refers to himself as an old man (πρεσβύτης, though there is a dispute in the manuscript tradition between this reading and “πρεσβεύτης,” “ambassador”). Benedict observes that a “youth” could have been as old as thirty (and he’s right on that score, cf. Appian, Bellum Civile 1.10.94, where the 28 year-old Marius is referred to as a youth), while an “old man” would have had to be as old as sixty. Benedict proposes to approximate Paul’s birthdate by working backwards sixty or so years from the composition of Philemon (I’ll betray my sympathy for the “ambassador” reading of PM 9, and suggest that this strikes me as misguided, especially since I see basically no prospect for a rehearsal of Paul’s mission as spanning 30 years). Things get worse, though, because B. dates PM to the mid-60’s AD, during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (this is almost certainly the wrong location and date for the composition of PM, and Colossians and Ephesians along with it). To be fair, B. presents this only as speculation, though.

B. skips over the Damascus Road (promising to address it next time), and suggests that Acts’ portrayal of Paul’s three “missionary journeys,” together with a journey as a prisoner to Rome, will provide the basic framework for his biography of Paul. This breaks open a significant problem for any Pauline interpreter — what to do with Acts? Is its narration of Paul’s mission inerrant, worthless, or something in between? How does that inform our understanding of Scripture’s authority (that is, assuming that Scripture is authoritative, can we imagine such authority emanating from a document that contradicts other parts of Scripture regarding historical questions? My short answer: yes, and this is pointed up not only by Acts/Paul, but still more by Joshua/Judges or by the four Gospels). To this point, though, Benedict seems to be leaving these questions to one side.

B. does treat the decisive events of the Jerusalem Conference, and his summary is spot on: “Es wurde beschlossen, den bekehrten Heiden nicht die Befolgung des mosaischen Gesetzes aufzuerlegen (vgl. Apg 15,6–30): sie waren also nicht an die Vorschriften des jüdischen Glaubens gebunden; die einzige Notwendigkeit bestand darin, Christus zugehörig zu sein und mit Christus und nach seinem Wort zu leben.” (A more difficult question, it seems to me, is to work out how Paul and other early Christians interpreted the purpose of the Law in the light of the dramatic re-thinking effected by Christ.)

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