Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The Apostle Paul

Great Courses:  The Apostle Paul, taught by Professor Luke Timothy Johnson

With a name like Luke Timothy Johnson, it is perhaps inevitable that the professor would have been interested in the life and writings of the Apostle Paul.  What is remarkable is that given the somewhat shaky standard of the Great Courses in matters of biblical history [1] that this is actually a genuinely enjoyable even if I do not agree with the author’s perspective completely.  If you are looking for an intellectual and academic discussion of the writings of Paul that takes the Bible seriously, this is definitely a good place to look as the author demonstrates the weakness of source criticism as an approach to the Bible and also demonstrates the essential ambiguity and lack of systematic nature of biblical Christianity in general and Paul in particular.  Not everyone who listens to this course is going to be able to quickly grasp the author’s own perspective or the reason why he seems to be so much in favor of the Pauline writings as a whole and the way they can be read in an egalitarian and somewhat radical way while at the same time having such harsh things to say about Paul using the language of contemporary political correctness, such as with regards to Paul’s imagined andocentrism (if that was a bad thing to begin with).

The twelve lectures, half an hour each, that make up this course are organized in a straightforward fashion.  The instructor begins with a look at Paul as an apostle both admired and despised both in his time and in our own (1) and examines some of the reasons for that controversial aspect of his reputation.  After that the author offers some helpful ideas on how we should read Paul (2) not as systematic theology but as a writer of occasional letters and as a moral teacher focused on building Christian communities.  The next two lectures focus on Paul’s life and letters (3) and the main sources for them in the Bible as well as some of the problems faced by early Christianity in terms of its identity and legitimacy (4).  From here the professor spends most of the remaining lectures focusing in the letters of Paul, starting with the letters to the Thessalonians (5) and then moving on to First Corinthians (6) in looking at life in the world, Second Corinthians and its concern of life in Christ (7), the relationship between life and law with Galatians (8), the ethical demands of righteousness in Romans (9), the fellowship sought in the prison letters (10), and the relationship between history and theology in the pastoral epistles (11).  The professor then closes with a discussion of Paul’s influence through influential readers of him through history (12).

While I am critical of the author’s interest in the radical Paul and in his hostility to conservatism in general, there is admittedly a great deal to appreciate about this course.  For one, the author is a shrewd textual interpreter and one who is deeply aware about the rhetorical aspect of Paul’s writing as opposed to the way that many writers past and present view Paul’s writings autobiographically.  Likewise, the professor reveals a lot about himself in his attempts to interpret Paul.  He manages to interpret Galatians and its commentary on Jewish identity without being antonomian in the way that Galatians (and other Pauline writings) are typically interpreted.  While I would not agree with the author’s opinions on everything, you can do a lot worse than listening to this series of lectures and see what a fair-minded academic has to say about the legitimacy of Paul’s writings, which makes what most other academics have to say beyond the line of legitimacy.  Perhaps one can consider this series of lectures to establish a “Johnson line” when it comes to a minimum acceptable view of Paul’s life and writings, and given how badly most views of Paul fare, that is quite an accomplishment indeed.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The Apostle Paul

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I’m not surprised by your reaction. There are areas in which Johnson is liberal, but there are also times when he can be iconoclastic towards liberalism. One of his books that I read years ago was The Real Jesus, and it was highly critical of the Jesus Seminar.

  2. Pingback: How To Appeal To Nathan Albright: A Case Study In Logos, Ethos, And Pathos | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: God’s Canon | Edge Induced Cohesion

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