Book Review: St. Paul: The Traveller And The Roman Citizen

St. Paul: The Traveller And The Roman Citizen, by William M. Ramsay

I was pleased to find this book while rummaging through the home library of my employer, and having seen it noted as a source in a few books I have read about the history of the early Church of God, I thought it a worthwhile one to read, and so I borrowed it. The book was written originally in 1897, and being a work of its time, it owes a great deal of its provenance (as all works do) to the controversies and issues of its time in the Late Victorian world of New Testement textual criticism and studies. The author in particular is at least mildly skeptical of both the Byzantine M-text and the Alexandrian text and has a great love for the Bezan text, one of those quirky “Western” manuscripts that many contemporary textual critics so greatly enjoy despite (or perhaps because of) their rather eclectic nature.

This is a very good book, even if the references to such long-forgotten historians and textual critics such as Lightfoot (who is frequently mentioned in this book) are a bit obscure at this point. That is not to say that the book is perfect, as it contains numerous but fairly typical flaws, including a hostility to and ignorance of biblical practices (the author assumes that Luke did not keep the biblical Holy Days as a Macedonian Greek himself, but that he merely saw Paul keeping them), a chronology error in assuming that the evening of the first day was a Sunday night instead of a Saturday night because of his inability to understand biblical time and a misguided and quixotic desire to support Sunday worship in the early Church of God, but these errors are generally easy to spot and correct.

The book does possess considerable virtues, including a remarkable tolerance of the supernatural within a work of rather sober history that is rare for his time, an understanding of Luke’s precision of phrase and his character as a Greek writer (with a great fondness for ports, something I happen to share) with a great deal of personal modesty. The author makes some major contributions to citing and dating Paul’s work that seem pretty solid on the whole, resolving some major chronological difficulties involving Paul’s visits to Jerusalem, and making a solid case to support Luke’s identity, the reason Titus is largely unmentioned in Acts, as well as making a solid case to support the South Galatian theory.

Even more remarkably, the author manages to do this through an examination of the text of Acts (along with plenty of cross-references to the Pauline epistles) that is very narrative and easily readable in its flow. Here is a scholarly work of considerable erudition that is nonetheless pretty easy to read for the lay Christian reader interested in biblical history more than a hundred years after being written. It is unlikely that any modern-day scholarly work of biblical history is even close to as easy to read and yet as rewarding on an intellectual level as this work is.

The author shows, through rather sensible means, that Acts is best seen as an incomplete work of history, something that is rather obvious to most people who read it, given the lack of closure as well as the implication in Acts 1:1-4 in the Greek that the series of books in mind was at least three volumes long and that something prevented Luke from finishing the work. The author, through an extreme sensitivity to tone, seeks to present the sensible theory that the book of Acts was written during the rule of the Flavian emperors (Titus and Domitian in particular), seeking to justify the tolerance of the Roman Empire toward Christianity in a period where that toleration was being threatened and where the mere identity of someone as a Christian was fatal. If this view is indeed correct (an the case is a plausible one), it would be fatal to the view of preterists that all books of the Renewed Covenant scriptures were finished before 70AD, so that everything involving the return of Christ and the Great Tribulation could refer to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and a supposed and illusory “parousia” wherein the saints were resurrected.

The book is strongly weighted toward the middle of Paul’s life, that best attested by both Acts and Paul’s own writings. Only very little time is spent discussing the beginning and end of Paul’s life, although these telling and highly intuitive comments include speculation on an ugly scene that divided Paul from most of his family, and the fact that the similarities between Paul and Seneca may relate to the philosopher Athenodorus of Tarsus that both may have learned from. These rich and deeply intriguing details make this work (a moderately sizable but readable 400 pages or so) highly valuable even today, given the fact that the author sees it fit to describe such intriguing details of life in the early Roman empire that would have been of great interest to a generation steeped in classical education, which sadly cannot be said for our own generation.

As a whole, this book offers a very scholarly and well-written perspective, presents its theories on different grounds of certainty ranging from the very well supported to the intriguing possibility worthy of further study. The book is written in a way that is accessible to a general audience while also immensely rewarding to a believer with intellectual inclinations. Though this work is probably fairly rare at this time, if one can find this book in a personal library or that of a religious institution, it is a worthwhile read, despite its age and its minor flaws. Like the book of Acts about which it is a most excellent study, this book manages to be an impressive work about history that is itself worthy from the historical perspective, making it a historical work of the first order. I think Mr. Ramsay would approve of that sentiment.

About nathanalbright

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19 Responses to Book Review: St. Paul: The Traveller And The Roman Citizen

  1. steven martens says:

    What is the theory about Paul and his family in the book?

    • Actually, there are a few theories that combine to make a fairly strong, but mostly conjectural case. One starts with the biblical evidence, that Paul himself had to work with his hands to avoid poverty despite his great education, suggesting a major rupture over his conversion to Christianity. Then there is the fact that Paul’s nephew was given information about a plot against his life, which assumed that a substantial part of Paul’s family was not friendly to him. Added to this is the evidence at the end of Acts that Paul was able to live in some style (rented house, the appeal to Caesar, having a Roman governor expect him to bribe for his freedom) suggests a state of affairs where Paul had an ugly rupture with his family upon converting to Christianity but that through the bravery of his nephew established some kind of positive relationship during his time in Caesarea and was able to draw on some fortune during his first trial in Rome. That seems a pretty fair theory to me; not proven, but suggestive at any rate.

      • steven martens says:

        It would seem consistent with the suffering that Christ told Ananias — that Paul would have to suffer great things for His name — for Paul also to have to be bereft of personal family help when he effectively turned his back on much of his father’s teaching.

        FWIW, Ron Dart used to point out that, when teaching the Epistles of Paul class in college, that it was the one class that did more to impel a student to conversion that any other class. I have mused that a main factor in such student’s conversion that comes when studying Paul is the recognition of how persuaded Paul was of the resurrection and the utter dedication if the face of overwhelming suffering. That a recognition of this pure motivation in the man — including sans family help — allows us to commit more easily.

      • I agree with this particular line of thought. Paul was not the only apostle who was promised suffering (Peter was told that he would die the death of a criminal, crucifixion, as a result of his preaching) but the extensive record we have of Paul’s suffering and Paul’s total sincerity (including his statement that the sufferings of this present evil world are not worthy of being compared to the joys of the world to come) would be very inspirational to a certain sensitive type of soul. I myself have never failed to be inspired by Paul’s life and writings, and angry at those who try to twist his words into damnable heresy. But they did such things while he was alive, so of course they would not fail to do such things after he died. Still, Paul’s pure motivations of belief serve as a way to demonstrate the truth of Christianity through experience, given that Paul was not a man for half-measures or half-hearted zeal.

  2. steven martens says:

    Any thoughts on Paul’s thorn in the flesh which he dubbed a “messenger from Satan?”

    • He does have some thoughts on that. He theorizes that it was a type of recurring malaria with massive headaches, and as someone who is familiar with the red hot iron of headaches, I think it’s a good argument. I had read that theory before, but it may have been from one of the books that cited Ramsay as a source.

      • steven martens says:

        Possible. Once, when touring Ephesus, we learned that the city had become abandoned because of Malaria. A stream had run to the sea and created swampy conditions. Now, apparently the coast is six miles farther out than it was in the first century.

        Of course, Paul may have had no idea of the cause of such headaches. M. Rhodes told me that going back to Africa — that is the long plane ride– would subject him to a recurrence of malaria with its bout of high fever and dehydration.

      • I remember hearing the same thing when I toured Ephesus myself. The author speculates specifically that the malaria occurred for the first time upon visiting Pamphylia (which is an area of Turkey still known for its malarial and unhealthy conditions), and that it dramatically affected his work in South Galatia. Additionally, the author comments based on some writings of the time that malaria was considered as a particular curse from God in the cultures of the day, at least its symptoms were, even if they were not aware of the actual disease vector. Dehydration an be really bad on long plane rides too.

  3. steven martens says:

    Did the book speculate if Paul was divorced or widowed and whether he was once a member of the Sanhedrin?

    • He did not comment on Paul’s marital life in speculations, though he did claim that Paul was about 30 years of age upon entering public life. I think the author’s lack of familiarity with Judaism prevented him from speculating in that area. The book is strongest where it talks about Greek and Roman customs and weakest when it talks about Judaism.

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