How should we understand Paul’s significance as a leader in the early Christian movement? He was a passionate, strong-willed man, and his legacy has been deeply influential. In his missionary efforts, Paul was remarkably successful at planting and fostering communities of Jesus followers in towns and cities scattered across the Roman Empire, and in the course of these efforts, he was no stranger to disagreement or conflict. Remarks in his own letters and other New Testament passages like Acts 21-22 give ample evidence for this.
But how did Paul’s theological convictions stand in relation to the rest of the early church? This is the basic question probed by Jerry L. Sumney, who currently teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary, in his new book, Steward of God’s Mysteries: Paul and Early Church Tradition. It’s not surprising that there were some differences between Paul and his contemporaries, given the real theological diversity present in the first-century church. That strikes me as a fairly uncontroversial statement. However, some go further and take a somewhat more radical position, contending that Paul more or less “invented” Christianity as we know it today. It is with these thinkers that Sumney engages in most of his book’s pages.
Paul as an Interpreter of Early Tradition
In recent years, those who maximize the rupture between Paul and the rest of the early church include scholars like Hyam Maccoby and James Tabor (p.1). Reza Aslan’s Zealot can be seen as another example of this, given his suggestion that Paul’s teachings about Jesus “would have been utterly unrecognizable to the person upon whom he claims it is based” (2013, p.188). Sumney points out near the beginning of Steward of God’s Mysteries that versions of this characterization can also be found in the older writings of influential figures like Adolf von Harnack.
One approach taken by those seeking to engage with these criticisms of Paul is to compare his writings with the portraits of Jesus sketched by the Gospel writers, seeking to highlight the similarities between their respective teachings. While not dismissing the potential value of this approach, Sumney comments that those who make this argument must negotiate the methodological complications that come with comparing the primary writings of Paul and the secondary accounts of Jesus in the canonical Gospels (pp. 14-15).
Therefore, Sumney pursues a different line of argument. He focuses on “the relationship between the teachings of the earliest church and Paul’s thought” (p.15). This strikes him as a fruitful approach because it lets him delve into the question of whether Paul tended to adopt existing teachings about Jesus that were already present in the church or to invent them in the midst of his missionary endeavors (p.15). The heart of Sumney’s book centers on an examination of how Paul incorporates and interprets preformed traditional materials/formulas in the undisputed Pauline epistles, exploring “what sorts of coherence or conflict there are between it and Paul’s thought and theology” (p.15).
Now, conducting this kind of study brings up a rather obvious methodological issue for Sumney: he must develop and utilize a sound methodology for identifying pre-Pauline creedal, confessional, and hymnic materials in Paul’s letters that avoids becoming too subjective. Therefore, he builds on the previous methodologies of scholars like Claus Bussmann and Markus Barth, setting out no less that fourteen criteria for identifying preformed material in Paul’s letters (pp.15-18). Prominent among these criteria is the presence of linguistic and/or rhetorical features of the text that help distinguish traditional phrases and passages from the rest of Paul’s prose.He restricts himself to exploring only passages that meet at least three or four of these criteria (p.18). Granted the unavoidably speculative nature of this endeavor, I think Sumney should be commended for putting real effort into making sure his study’s methodology is careful and rigorous enough to give him a defensible basis for identifying materials as pre-Pauline and forming conclusions about Paul’s use of them.
The chapters in Steward of God’s Mysteries address a broad range of theological areas, including topics like the identity of Jesus and the significance of his death and resurrection, as well as the shape and nature of the church’s early eucharistic practices. Sumney is able explore all of these areas because his efforts have convinced him that Paul made significant use of traditional materials in his letters and that these pre-Pauline passages do real work; they aren’t merely stylistic additions (pp.19, 159). Broadly speaking, Sumney’s contention is that Paul remained indebted in important ways to theological traditions developed by the church in its earliest years, prior to his rise to influence. Sumney points out, for example, that the tradition cited in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 shows that Paul wasn’t the first to see Jesus’ death and resurrection as having a central place in the faith (p.159). Similarly, “The Aramaic term Maranatha shows that the earliest believers proclaimed that Jesus was Lord and saw him as one who could be present with them and who would be God’s eschatological agent” (p.161). Of course, Sumney isn’t claiming here that the earliest Jesus followers somehow had a fully developed Nicene christology, but he is arguing that Paul wasn’t the first to emphasize these elements of the Christian faith.
The Paul that emerges from the pages of this study is no doctrinal “lone cowboy.” He is part of a larger landscape where he is far from the only important voice. Sumney concludes that, “His [Paul’s] influence and his genius are seen in the ways he is able to bring those beliefs into new environments… Paul is his churches’ leading interpreter of the beliefs expressed in the church’s earlier traditions” (pp.173-174). This perspective emphasizes the continuities between Paul and other early Christian leaders while still leaving some space for understanding Paul as a distinctive (and indeed controversial) participant in the early church. On a critical note, I think that given the shape of his argument Sumney would have done well to engage more with Paul’s words in Galatians 1:11-12. Yes, Galatians is one of Paul’s most polemical letters, but the passage still shows that Paul could at least present himself as being free from reliance on earlier Christian traditions, despite his actual use of them in his letters as a whole.
While the details of Sumney’s thesis will continue to be debated, I appreciate his intentional movement away from what one might call the “Great Men” theory of history. Instead, he follows the lead of scholars like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in explicitly acknowledging the ways in which entire communities of early Christian voices were important for the development of Christian thought (p.8). He highlights the significance of understanding Paul in the context of a Christian movement that existed before him and didn’t always accept his point of view without dispute. Now, it may be the case that Sumney overcorrects and moves too far in this direction, but I think bringing it up for fresh discussion is good.
In the end, Steward of God’s Mysteries takes on the topic of Paul’s place on the early Christian landscape and explores it in a fairly original way. I imagine that for some readers this book will cause them to read Paul’s letters with new sensitivity, noticing maybe for the first time that—in addition to citing Old Testament texts—he also engaged with hymns and other materials from the earliest Christian communities in his writings. This is a book that leaves readers of all sorts, even those who disagree with Sumney, with much to mull over.
Disclosure: I received this book free from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.
Other Works cited
Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York, NY: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014.