BMCR 2013.04.23

Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in Their Roman Context

J. Albert Harrill, Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in Their Roman Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xv, 207. ISBN 9780521757805 $24.99 (pb).


Harrill has published extensively on the socio-economic contexts (especially slavery) of Paul’s letters;1 here he offers a biographical sketch of Paul with a very welcome discussion of how and to what extent ancient authors appropriated Paul and his teachings. Harrill urges that Paul be reckoned among the “key figures” of ancient Mediterranean history. Few scholars acquainted with the modern study of early Christianity would, I think, quarrel with Harrill’s assessment of the apostle’s historical significance and influence. Indeed, many would surely agree with Bruce Chilton’s apothegm: without Paul, no Christianity.2

Part I: “The Life” (chapters 1-3) reviews what we can know of Paul’s life and the first century Jewish and Roman contexts of his travels and travails. This territory has been frequently and well traversed in recent biographies of the apostle.3 What distinguishes Harrill’s discussion is his understanding of the Roman political and social contexts and his appreciation that Paul functioned not as an adversary of the Roman regime, but as a special messenger within that world.4

Part II: “The Legend” (chapters 4-6) is a clear, widely ranging discussion of the reception of Paul (man and letters) in antiquity. Chapter 4 (especially 97-101) stresses, correctly, in my view, that the canonical Acts of the Apostles should be viewed as an early aspect of Paul’s Nachleben, not as a primary witness. (On Acts, see more below.) Particularly informative is Harrill’s tracing of the (seemingly) unending discussions of Paul’s distinctions (depending on those he addressed) between works and grace; also enlightening is Harrill’s clear discussion of Marcion and Valentinus’s distinct claims to comprehend correctly Paul’s teachings. Likewise helpful is Harrill’s concise explanation of what Origen (who had to grapple with the refusal of the learned Jews of Caesarea to accept his Alexandrine Christ as messiah) and John Chrysostom (who mostly presented Paul as an inspirational holy man) made of Paul (131-37). Harrill’s discussion of that well-studied hagiographic romance, Acts of Paul and Thecla (107-115), is a good example of his ability to review well and (often, wittily) the “apochryphal” Acta concerning, in whole or part, Paul.

Throughout his book, Harrill properly stresses “Paul’s Roman identification, which, in turn brings with it a continuity between the Jewish ‘Saul’ and the Christian ‘Paul’ ” (3). That identity and continuity perforce require coming to terms with the Acts of the Apostles, whether we consider Acts an apologia pro Christianis directed at literate Gentiles (the traditional view) or an apologia pro imperio Romano.5 Harrill (as I noted above) considers Acts a secondary Pauline witness (perhaps early second century CE?). No argument, but Harrill may be too rash in viewing (97-101) Acts’s presentation of “Paul the traveler and Roman citizen”6 as “a fiction to defend the legitimacy of the early church, here embodied in Paul.” The narrative arc of Acts, however, makes little sense unless the author of that canonical book thought Paul was a Roman citizen capable of asserting provocatio ad Caesarem.7 And how would Paul have acquired civitas Romana ? Here is an old conundrum. Paul says nothing of his civil status in his letters. Harrill notes that Paul’s “first encounter with Roman authority” appears in Acts 13.4-12, where Paul (and Barnabas) meet the proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus. At that meeting (rather, an imperial audience), Paul proves to be a Jewish magician more potent than Elymas. Did Sergius Paulus then give Paul Roman citizenship, which a Roman proconsul certainly had the authority to bestow?8 That is precisely what Jerome assumed.9 Harrill, however, has no doubt: “no historical evidence of a historical Sergius Paulus survives; the figure is perhaps a Lukan fiction” (98). If so, the Lukan fiction has a solid foundation. A Lucius Sergius Paulus is attested at Rome as a junior senatorial officer, ca. 35-54 CE, while a Quintus Sergius is attested in Cyprus, ca. 46-54 CE, as (it would seem) a proconsul in (explicitly) the age of Claudius. Perhaps this latter Sergius is the brother of L. Sergius Paulus and is the Sergius Paulus appearing in Acts.10 Even an early Christian novella may include plausible factual details and personalities.

Harrill concludes his work with three appendices non-specialist readers should find extremely enlightening. Appendix 1 distinguishes the authentic from the pseudonymous Pauline letters. Appendix 2 is a concise dissection of that curious mélange, Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Students of early Christianity and late Roman traditions should find Appendix 3 valuable: a well-documented list of “Ancient Christian Works Containing Pauline Traditions and Legends,” with literary and material evidence clearly listed.

I have written enough here to suggest why Harrill’s book would serve well as a scholarly and accessible introduction to Paul and the Pauline tradition, especially for courses on the New Testament and early Christianity. Indeed, the book might serve as a provocative stimulus to further study. Harrill hints (10-11), for example, at a major concern in NT studies: to what extent did the Pauline (genuine and otherwise) corpus of letters influence the composition of the NT gospels? Long has it been recognized that Matthew and Acts depend in part on Mark. To what extent, in turn, did the Pauline letters influence Mark’s simple message of good news?11 A stimulating upper-division/M.A-level course might counter-poise Harrill with Tom Dykstra, Mark, Canonizer of Paul: A New Look at Intertextuality in Mark’s Gospel (St. Paul, MN: OCABS Press, 2012).

As we expect of a modern textbook, this volume is well endowed with “text boxes” presenting snippets of ancient texts discussed in the text. The bibliography and suggestions for further reading,12 as well as indices of biblical citations, persons, and topics, make for a usable, helpful textbook.


1. Notably, but not exclusively: J. Albert Harrill, The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995); and Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

2. Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (New York City: Doubleday, 2004), xi-xii et passim. See also John F. Gager, Reinventing Paul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

3. In addition to other books cited in this review, see especially Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Paul: His Story (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

4. Contrast John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2004).

5. A heterodox view set out in an underappreciated treatise: Paul W. Walaskay, “And so we came to Rome”: The Political Perspective of St. Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

6. The title, of course of W.M. Ramsay’s ground-breaking treatise, 3 rd ed., 1895/ repr. 1949. For a sophisticated, well-illustrated update of Ramsay, see Helmut Koester, Paul and His World: Interpreting the New Testament in Its Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).

7. See A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 48-70, 99-119.

8. civitas viritim donata : in brief, A.N. Sherwin-White, The Roman Citizenship, 2 nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 273, 291,and 306.

9. Jerome de viris illustribus 5.4; Comment. in Philemon; Migne, PL 26 (1866): cols. 639-41 (=603A-604C).

10. L. Sergius Paulus: CIL 6.31545b (= Dessau, ILS 5926); Dessau, PIR 1 3 (1898): 221, “Sergius 376”; Groag, RE 2 2 (1923): cols. 1715-18, “Sergius 34”. Q. Sergius, procos.: SEG 20 (1964) #302; see Eck, Der Neue Pauly 11 (2001): cols. 456-58. On the epigraphic evidence for both Sergii, see Bastian Van Elderen, “Some Archaeological Observations on Paul’s First Missionary Journey,” Apostolic History and the Gospel: Biblical and Historical Essays Presented to F.F. Bruce, W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin, eds. (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1970), 150-61, at 152-56.

11. The influence of Paul’s writings on the composition of Mark was recognized as (comparatively) early as Gustav Vokmar’s Die Religion Jesu usw (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1857).

12. To Harrill’s bibliography, add ( multa inter alia) especially James G. Dunn’s introduction to the Cambridge Companion to St. Paul, ed. James G. Dunn (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1-15, a guide to continental (primarily, but not exclusively, German) scholarship. Much in this Companion is pertinent to Harrill’s arguments: for example, see Alan F. Segal’s contribution, “Paul’s Jewish Suppositions,” 159-62, a concise summary and addendum to Segal’s Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).