Reviews of

The Pauline Effect: The Use of the Pauline Epistles by Early Christian Writers

In De Gruyter, Jennifer R. STRAWBRIDGE, Jonathon Lookadoo, NT reception history, Paul, Reception history, Uncategorized on July 11, 2016 at 10:20 pm


2016.07.13 | Jennifer R. Strawbridge. The Pauline Effect: The Use of the Pauline Epistles by Early Christian Writers. SBR 5. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2015. pp. vii + 309. ISBN: 978-3-11-043770-6.

Review by Jonathon Lookadoo, University of Otago

Many thanks to Walter de Gruyter for providing a review copy.

Amid the increasing popularity of reception histories in Humanities scholarship and particularly in early Christian studies, Jennifer Strawbridge has added a unique and timely study of the way in which Paul’s letters were received in the ante-Nicene period. A two-fold emphasis frames the book, which began as an Oxford DPhil thesis supervised by Christopher Rowland and Teresa Morgan. First, the book investigates the way in which early Christian authors used Pauline letters. Second, the volume considers how the interpretation of Paul’s letters may illuminate their role in early Christian formation. The formational element of this reception-historical study provides a particularly perceptive insight into the various ways in which Paul’s letters were interpreted by early Christian authors.

After introducing the aims of the book, the first chapter notes both the growing interest in early Christian reception history and various calls to fill a scholarly lacuna in comprehensive studies of Pauline reception during the second and third centuries. Strawbridge’s study intends to go some way toward supplying this need. In order to do this, she takes up a methodology utilized by ancient historians such as Raffaella Cribiore and Teresa Morgan, who have offered wide-ranging surveys of references to classical authors in Greco-Roman papyri. This method is able to discern quantitatively which passages are cited most often and allows for the possibility of a qualitative investigation into these frequently cited passages. The opening chapter contains a helpful discussion of the terminology that can be employed for citations and sensibly concludes that the terms “reference,” “possible reference,” and “reference not found” are sufficient. Strawbridge formulates a database of Pauline references that contains 27,051 references to the Pauline letters in ante-Nicene sources. To the excitement of this reviewer, a footnote indicates that Strawbridge’s database will be made available online as a searchable digital resource in September 2016 (10 n.30). The quantitative results in the database indicate that 1 Cor 2:6–16, Eph 6:10–17, 1 Cor 15:50–58, and Col 1:15–20 are the most frequently cited Pauline passages in ante-Nicene literature.

After this full yet concise introduction, the next four chapters form the heart of the study and explore the way in which early Christian authors employ these texts. The chapters exhibit a range of ways in which to analyze the usage of these Pauline passages. Chapter 2 proceeds by illustrating the various genres in which 1 Cor 2:6–16 is found, while Chapters 3 and 5, on Eph 6:10–17 and Col 1:15–20 respectively, work through the reception of particular images and phrases in each passage. Chapter 4 proceeds chronologically to cover the exploitation of 1 Cor 15:50–58 in Valentinian exegesis, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen.

In lieu of a lengthy description of each chapter, it seems better to note some of the more interesting interpretive trends that Strawbridge highlights. After noting early Christian authors’ utilization of the wisdom described in 1 Cor 2:6–16, Strawbridge rightly observes the way in which figures such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen make 1 Cor 2 a central passage to discuss the relationship between wisdom and formation. There is thus a teleological element to their understanding of wisdom. Taking up Eph 6, Strawbridge demonstrates that images from this text were employed most often around vulnerable times such as at baptism and during times of persecution. She also notes the overwhelmingly defensive nature of the armor. Chapter 4 engages with the often disputed exegesis of 1 Cor 15:50–58 during this time. Early Christians understood the resurrection body in different ways. This passage was called upon to support the Valentinian view that, since flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom, resurrection must be realized in the present; the position of Irenaeus and Tertullian that flesh and blood have moral overtones and thus the body that will be raised must be a physical body; and the judgment of Origen that a spiritual body will inherit the kingdom of God. Finally, Chapter 5 takes up the complicated matter of christological titles in ante-Nicene writings and tracks the development of various titles in Col 1:15–20 over time. For example, “the image of the invisible God” is understood by Irenaeus in conjunction with recapitulation, while Origen distinguishes between the image of God in humans and the image as applied to Christ. Finally, Eusebius defends the unity of God by appealing to the Son as the image who is constituted by the Father.

Chapter 6 summarizes the argument and reviews key findings from each chapter. The important relationship between early Christian exegesis and formation is again highlighted along with limitations and questions for future research. The book concludes with four appendixes that include the relevant sections of the comprehensive database from which Strawbridge’s analysis arises. The location of early Christian citations of the four passages explored in this book are usefully collected and visually demonstrate Strawbridge’s claim that these passages are amply attested. Finally, the bibliography and indexes are appropriately thorough and convenient.

Strawbridge’s attention to formation is consistently insightful and enables the reader to come to a more intricate understanding of how early Christians understood Pauline texts. The tendency within the discipline to focus on early Christian rhetoric, image-making, and theology sometimes obscures the key role that formation played. Strawbridge’s account of formation makes even more sense when the pedagogical purpose of much early Christian literature is considered. The teleological nature of wisdom found by interpreters in 1 Cor 2:6–16 and the paraenetic use of Eph 6:10–17 can be seen as part of the same formative aim. This focus on formation should continue to be explored by other reception-historical studies in light of the educational and exhortative purposes of many early Christian writings.

Another strength of the book is the application of a methodology that is both quantitative and qualitative. Engaging with the most-cited Pauline texts across a number of authors allows one to come to modest conclusions about the ways in which texts were employed in early communities. Yet, as Strawbridge admits, more questions remain (180). For example, would the results of this study’s focus on Pauline interpretation and formation be altered if more or less Pauline texts were considered? Future studies should test the results that have been found using this methodology, but they will be happily indebted both to Strawbridge’s helpful work in this area and to the database that she has developed.

Finally, the concision and clarity with which this knotty topic has been handled in so robust a way must be mentioned. It is admirable that Strawbridge places so many insightful observations with such intricate argumentation in only 181 pages of text. Yet there is a corresponding space for future research building upon Strawbridge’s crisp study. In addition to the question raised in the previous paragraph about how other Pauline texts might affect the results of this study, one might also consider how additional authors who cite the same Pauline texts would stand alongside figures such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, whose writings are more widely extant. For example, the priority justly given to the complex interpretation of 1 Cor 15:50–58 might be expanded to include possible references to the trumpet of 1 Cor 15:52 in Did. 16.6 and Acts Paul 7.3.24. In addition, the reference to Did. 16.6 highlights a question noted by Strawbridge but not able to be pursued in this study, namely, how did early Christian connections, like the one between 1 Cor 15:52 and Matt 24:31, affect interpretation? This issue is raised in connection with Eph 6:10–17 and other militaristic imagery as well as in conjunction with christological interpretations of Col 1:15–20, Phil 2:5–11, and John 1:1–18. However, there is room to press further in a different study.

As with all good books, Strawbridge raises questions that deserve further attention. Yet she has also gone a great way toward describing the terrain surrounding the question of how Pauline texts were interpreted throughout the ante-Nicene period by emphasizing the most frequently cited Pauline passages. Moreover, the consistent accent on Christian formation sensitively highlights an important facet of the Pauline writings for early Christians. For these and the many fascinating early interpretations observed in the book, Strawbridge’s study is heartily recommended for any who are interested in reception history and Pauline studies.

Jonathon Lookadoo
University of Otago
jonathon.lookadoo [ at ]



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