Review of Paul Barnett’s “Paul: Missionary of Jesus”

Paul: Missionary of Jesus. After Jesus, vol. 2. By Paul Barnett. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008, xvi + 240 pp. $18.00 paper.

Published in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15.1 (2011), 112–13.

In this book Paul Barnett asks whether the mission and message of Paul the Apostle was the mission and message of Jesus of Nazareth. Having introduced the question, Barnett devotes a chapter that surveys both those who have driven a wedge between Jesus and Paul and the information about Jesus in Paul’s letters. He then takes the reader on a chronological flyover of Paul’s life, concluding that “He was from an aristocratic Diaspora family and a Roman citizen by birth, yet conservatively Jewish in nurture (in Tarsus) and education (in Jerusalem); he was an eminent younger Pharisee, yet bilingual and an accomplished scholar of the Greek Bible” (44). Barnett then asks why Paul persecuted the church, when his teacher, Gamaliel, advised against it (Acts 5:33–39). Barnett argues that the combination of the conversion of numerous priests and Stephen’s preaching that touched on the role of the temple and the law (Acts 6:7–13) catalyzed Paul’s violent opposition, forcing him into action in spite of Gamaliel’s earlier advice (48–49). The significance of the Damascus event in Paul’s life and thought is examined next, with Barnett arguing that “the core elements of Paul’s doctrines that he was to preach were formed in Damascus” and that what happened there “represented a complete relational and moral turnabout that was accompanied by a radical new vocation” (75).

Barnett then takes a close look at what can be known about the so-called unknown years, from the time of Paul’s conversion at Damascus (Acts 9) to his first westward mission starting from Antioch (Acts 13). He notes that the details from Acts and from Paul’s narration in Galatians agree in the sequence of locations (77). In chapter 7 Barnett asks what he considers “the most critical question of all”: “Was Paul’s mission to the Gentiles according to the mind of Jesus and an authentic extension to his own ministry in Israel?” (99). He shows that a two-stage “Israel first, then the nations” trajectory can be seen in Mark and Matthew’s portrayals of Jesus. This matches Paul’s to the Jew first and also the Gentile mentality. Further, Paul regarded himself as seized by Christ, and leading apostles confirmed Paul’s call to preach to the Gentiles (114–15). Interacting with Donaldson and Sanders, Barnett discusses the way that “Paul appears to have regarded himself and his life’s work in fulfillment of a number of OT texts” (118).

Barnett’s final chapters deal with Paul’s mission and what he calls the countermission. He writes, “Paul’s mission immediately provoked the rise of a Jerusalem-based countermission in churches that insisted Gentile believers be circumcised. This countermission was active throughout the decade of Paul’s mission in the provinces, and it was the major problem Paul faced during those years” (135). Barnett holds that most of Paul’s letters come in the decade of AD 47–57. Though there is no mention in Acts of Paul being imprisoned in Ephesus, Barnett posits an Ephesian imprisonment and claims that Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians were written while Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus it in AD 55 (136­–37, 215–17). Barnett suggests that apocalyptic ferment, the hardening of Israel, and the political stability under Claudius opened the door for Paul to move beyond the God-fearing Gentiles in synagogues to the intentional evangelization of Gentile idolaters. Barnett sees this as a paradigm shift that provoked a Jewish countermission (137–42). The only evidence he has for this is Paul’s letters, and in my judgment he over-reads that evidence at several points. For instance, somehow he knows that as Paul was laboring on the collection of funds for the poor in Judea, the difficulties culminated “in the revelation in Corinth of a Jewish conspiracy for a shipboard interception of the money” (154). Perhaps Barnett is drawing an inference from Acts 20:3, but he gives no scripture references and cites no other evidence for this event. He also over-reads the evidence when he makes a bizarre suggestion about why Paul wanted to collect money for the famine-struck poor in Judea in the first place: “Implied, perhaps, is the underlying motive that the Gentiles sent such gifts to secure a place in the covenant in lieu of circumcision” (155). So now a financial gift in time of need is something like a bribe? Calling this grace-based does nothing to ameliorate this problematic suggestion. Barnett continues his foray into fiction when he writes of how this bribe was received, “So far as we can tell, the collection was not successful in fulfilling Paul’s hopes. His cool reception from the elders of the Jerusalem church suggests that, initially at least, his hopes for strengthening the fellowship between Jews and Gentiles with consequent recognition of the Gentile churches were not realized . . . . In short, they are unimpressed with Paul’s Gentile companions and their money!” (155–56). I think this is a total misreading of the texts that rehearse this situation, and I doubt very much that Paul would have countenanced the suggestion that he was using a financial contribution to smooth the way for his law-free gospel. Barnett writes, “the collection . . . was to secure unity within the new covenant people of the Messiah” (158), but Paul sees the gospel, not monetary gifts, as securing that unity (cf. Rom 14–15; Eph 2:11–22).

There is more over-reading of the evidence in Barnett’s discussion of the relationships between Apollos and Paul and Peter and Paul as reflected by the Corinthian correspondence (166–70), culminating in this totally unwarranted statement: “We infer that Cephas prompted questions about Paul’s apostleship but that Paul did not reciprocate regarding Cephas” (170). This is little more than slander directed at Peter! The book concludes with a chapter arguing that Romans was Paul’s comprehensive answer to the Jewish countermission, a final summary of “Paul’s Achievement” (198), and appendices on Paul’s name, Acts and Paul’s letters, how Paul made decisions, the provenance of Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians, and Paul’s names for Jesus.

I have noted several things with which I strongly disagree, and those concerns registered, the historical perspective makes this is a stimulating book. Barnett rightly argues for the historical reliability of Acts and for a harmonious reading of Luke’s narrative and Paul’s letters. In view of the way he sometimes slides into the writing of historical fiction, readers will want to test Barnett’s claims against the actual evidence, holding on to what is good.

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