Reading a five hundred page book on Paul is not something I usually do. I was beginning to suspect that becoming a mother might have caused parts of my brain to be subsumed by several tonnes of information about things like Panadol, swimming lessons, toddler crafts and Colin songs. But no! I am enjoying the mental exertion of engaging with this book. What I love about Bruce is that what could be a boring tome filled with trivial debates rooted in centuries of academic speculation is actually a really thought-provoking read, which is stimulating and even really enjoyable. I press on towards the prize! (I might have to take a break and read a few novels over the Summer holidays, though.)
Chapter thirteen goes back to take up the chronological look at the events of Paul’s life that we left off at the end of chapter ten. Here we see Paul returning to the Greek world with a clear vision that he is to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. But it is not a Greek version of the Gospel. It is the “proclamation of deliverance and life through Christ crucified” that was in such contrast to Hellenistic values and was therefore seen by many as foolish. But Jewish missionaries had been there before Paul and there were many Gentile converts to Judaism and God-fearers throughout the provinces who were already receptive to what Paul was going to tell them.
And then Paul goes to Antioch. In chapter fourteen Bruce goes into a lot of discussion about whether or not Paul (who had a lot of ‘mystical’ encounters with Jesus) could be called a ‘Mystic’. He sums up his arguments by stating that while Paul’s dramatic conversion was the result of a ‘visionary’ experience, that he himself saw this as no different from the appearances of Jesus to the other apostles. The success of his mission was not needed as proof of the validity of his experience because his calling by Jesus stood alone as confirmation of his apostolic claim. He wasn’t a mystic with a “mystical theology”, but rather saw himself as “a figure of eschatological significance, a key agent in the progress of salvation history, a chosen instrument in the Lord’s hands”. He was “a man of vision” and also “a man of action”.
As he looks at the church leaders in Antioch, Bruce again delivers that fascinating historical context that makes the Bible come alive. In Acts 13:1 Manean, “sometime companion of Herod the Tetrach”, is one of the leaders mentioned. There are a few possibilities as to what that might have meant, but Bruce points out that Luke, another leader of the church, therefore had access to a former associate of Herod Antipas who could have provided him with “some of his special information about the Herods and their entourage.” This is another fascinating Bruce moment, where he brings together the names, places and specific cultural contexts of the Bible, and presents them clearly.
I am not sure that reading this book cover to cover is everybody’s idea of summer reading, or before bedtime reading, or even on-the-train reading. But I think that a little bit of mental exertion every now and then is very worthwhile. Thank you, FF Bruce.