Review of Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography by Douglas A. Campbell

March 21, 2018

Campbell, Douglas A. Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. Pp. xxii + 468, $39, paperback.


Douglas Campbell has achieved prominence through two monographs, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel (2005) and The Deliverance of God (2009), which place him broadly within the “apocalyptic” perspective on the apostle Paul, over against “Lutheran,” salvation-historical, or New Perspective views. He holds the position of Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. He is also the resident provocateur in the field of Pauline studies, and this his third tome, Framing Paul, proposes a fresh chronology of Paul’s life and letters that differs in significant respects from the current consensus.

In his first chapter, “An Extended Methodological Introduction” (pp. 1–36), Campbell sets out a methodology to “frame” the apostle’s letters — that is, to give an at least provisional account of the contingent circumstances of all the books bearing Paul’s name (see esp. pp. 11–18) — that avoids the “vicious circularity” (p. 13) often present in such a project. Campbell criticizes the common practice of suggesting a particular doctrine (e.g., justification) as Paul’s “coherence” (utilizing J. C. Beker’s terminology) that is drawn particularly from a subset of his letters (in this case, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians), and then determining that other letters (say, Colossians or Titus) cannot be authored by Paul himself because they insufficiently fit the theme. If you say the essence of the color wheel is cool colors, based on a close inspection of blue, green, and purple, then of course orange will not make the cut, but the initial subset chosen has determined the result. Campbell, therefore, approaches the Pauline epistles as “innocent until proven guilty” (p. 25). However, since many scholars doubt the reliability of Acts, he excludes it entirely from his project (hence “epistolary” in the subtitle). In this he is, by his own admission, following a method pioneered by John Knox, but doing so with much greater depth and with certain modifications along the way (pp. 19–36).

The fruits of Campbell’s process are generally plausible, always stimulating, and often novel. He begins in ch. 2 (pp. 37–121) with the “epistolary backbone” of Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians. He chooses these because they are Paul’s three longest letters, and they all mention a collection Paul is raising for the poor in Judea. Campbell argues for the integrity of all three epistles, including the often dissected 2 Corinthians, and proposes (against the view of most) that 1 Corinthians is the “letter of tears” that 2 Corinthians mentions. This compresses the timeline of the Corinthian correspondence to three letters (including a now lost initial letter to Corinth) in two years. Campbell then “augments the backbone” (ch. 3, pp. 122–89) with Philippians and Galatians. He proposes a Corinthian imprisonment as the most likely situation for Paul’s epistle to Philippi, one that soon ends in release. Rather than turning to either the southern or northern provenance for dating Galatians, he instead uses Gal 2:10 to tie it into the collection effort and further notes that it fits into the “year of crisis” that Paul faces with his Jewish-Christian opponents. Campbell slots Galatians just prior to Philippians, itself just prior to Romans. It is at this point that Campbell’s timeline takes on a firm shape. Galatians 1–2 contains Paul’s most specific dating of his own life, so the developing frame is now put within a wider Pauline biography. More significantly, Campbell links the reference to Paul’s stay in Damascus, mentioned in Galatians, with an obscure event in 2 Cor 11:32–33. This event, Campbell avers, can be dated precisely. King Aretas IV of Nabataea could have been in control of Damascus during only a short window of time, from late 36 to 37, and so there is an absolute date within the Pauline corpus that anchors the thus-far relative chronology into history (pp. 182–89). The result is that Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem (the Jerusalem Council) is in 49/50, and his “year of crisis,” including the letters so far surveyed, all fall within the span of 51 to 52. This is not far off from one common date proposed for Galatians, but it locates Romans (as well as Paul’s apparently fateful third visit to Jerusalem) half a decade earlier than where most scholars put it.

Chapter 4 (pp. 190–253) defends the authenticity of both 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians, and Campbell locates them shortly after the effort by Gaius Caligula to install an image of himself as Jupiter in the Jerusalem temple, an event that occurred ca. 39/40. (If he is right, the first extant Christian document dates to within a decade of Jesus’s death and resurrection.) In ch. 5 (pp. 254–338) Campbell turns to the epistles associated with the province of Asia. He understands their situation to be this: Paul is experiencing an otherwise unknown imprisonment in the year 50 in Asia Minor en route to his founding visit to Ephesus (he proposes the city of Apamea as a potential location), writing to churches he has not yet met. He begins with a summary of his gospel as it pertains to gentiles in our “Ephesians” (which he takes to be the Laodiceans of Col 4:16 — and he calls for Bibles to rename this letter!), when he is paid a visit by Onesimus, who informs Paul of certain false teachings present at Colossae. So Paul finishes up “Ephesians,” repurposes much of the material in writing Colossians, and then also composes Philemon, sending the three together as a packet. All of this occurs, in his view, before Galatians or the Corinthian correspondence are written.

In the final substantive chapter (ch. 6, pp. 339–403), Campbell attempts to locate Titus, 1 Timothy, and 2 Timothy individually (rather than as a unit, “the Pastoral Epistles”) in the developing frame. At the outset he gives each the presumption of authenticity, but ultimately finds telltale marks of anachronism, implausible accounts of Paul’s travel, or oddities of style that do not fit with the other letters. He is least certain about 2 Timothy, but in the end it, too, is deemed pseudonymous. Having disassociated these letters from the apostle himself, he finds evidence of anti-Marcionite warnings, and pushes them into the mid-second century. In a short conclusion (pp. 404–11), Campbell gives the main results of his study: the frame includes ten letters, with 1–2 Thessalonians in 40–42, followed by “years of shadow” of largely unsuccessful missionary activity, an Asian crisis around 50 (“Ephesians,” Colossians, Philemon), difficulties with the church in Corinth in 50–51, and his “year of crisis” (Galatians, Philippians, Romans) in 51–52. After this, Paul makes for Jerusalem, and as far as his epistles are concerned, we lose sight of him. In the last couple of pages, Campbell intimates an upcoming study of the Acts of the Apostles, in which he will use this frame to test the accuracy of Acts and supplement our knowledge of the apostle (pp. 410–11), a task he does not touch in this monograph.

Framing Paul is an important work from a well regarded scholar. Campbell’s ingenuity, if not idiosyncrasy, is an asset, and makes for an enjoyable, unpredictable read. An imprisonment at Apamea, with “Laodiceans” as genuine and pre-dating Galatians? Yet the Pastorals are anti-Marcionite tracts from around 150? Romans in the spring of 52? Paul is writing authoritative letters in the early 40s, not just recalibrating in Syria or Arabia after his visionary encounter with Jesus? Campbell is, to be sure, an independent thinker, and it is on clear display in this “epistolary biography” of Paul. His methodological reconstruction of Paul’s life is at every step engaging and plausible. Indeed, in many instances, I find his case cogent, such as locating Paul’s escape from Damascus in 36/37, and I think his objections to circular reasoning and selective use of evidence, particularly in regard to judging pseudepigraphy, are on target. The chronology Campbell ultimately proposes is self-consistent and at least possible.

Whether his reconstruction is compelling is another matter. For one thing, probability introduces an unavoidable fragility into any firm dating of Paul’s letters because uncertainty multiplies at every juncture (a danger Campbell is aware of; see p. 403), barring, of course, any later reconfirmations that boost the probability. For example, if there are two steps to a proposal, and each has a 70% chance of being true, the possibility that both are true is now under 50/50 (49%). Add a third step, also at 70%, and it drops to a one-in-three chance that all are right (34.3%). This problem is most acute for the early part of a logical progression, since any doubt will ripple through the remaining reconstruction amplified. And I have my doubts about Campbell’s conclusions at various points. For example, despite his arguments that Paul’s stated travel plans will not brook a separate, now lost, harsh epistle between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, I have a hard time equating 1 Corinthians with the “letter of tears,” for the simple reason that 2 Corinthians seems far more likely to induce tears than 1 Corinthians. It would be odd for the more severe letter to refer to the gentler one as a causing sorrow. But even if we grant that Campbell has a 70% chance of being right, any subsequent, 70%-likely judgment that is based on this identification still means the overall scenario is more likely to be incorrect than correct. Framing Paul is a book with many steps that build on each other. Some have confirmatory evidence later, but on the whole, I doubt that we can sequence Paul’s life with such precision. A letter or event, here or there, might be dated independently with some exactness, yes, but I think the very concept of a highly developed “frame” like this one holding together is questionable. Remove a couple of bricks from the foundation, and the wall topples.

For another thing, at times it seems like Campbell’s thumb is on the scale as he weighs the evidence. This is most evident in the contrast between ch. 5 and ch. 6. Having (correctly, in my opinion) disputed the stylistic arguments often wielded against Colossians and Ephesians, style is used as part of the evidence against the Pastoral Epistles. Now, with Titus and 1 Timothy, Campbell has other evidence at the forefront, and stylistic differences come in secondarily, but with 2 Timothy two of the main arguments he employs differentiate the prescript and thanksgiving of 2 Timothy from the other Pauline letters. Also, throughout ch. 6 Campbell contends that 1–2 Timothy and Titus are unlike Paul’s other writings since they address individuals, not churches. However, even if Philemon is sent with Colossians and Ephesians, the majority of the letter is in the second person singular: it is written to Philemon, even if it is heard by the whole church at Colossae. A single addressee is not unprecedented for the apostle. For these and other reasons, I suspect that the major alternative Pauline chronologies will not be dislodged, despite Campbell’s spirited campaign.

I would also add here that Framing Paul is not advised for beginning or even intermediate students in biblical studies. Unless you are well acquainted with the academic debates surrounding Paul’s biography and corpus, this book will be prohibitively difficult. It is a work meant for scholars, and it includes untranslated foreign languages (esp. Greek, but also Latin and modern languages) and various technical discussions occurring in dense commentaries and high-level journals. At almost 500 pages, it is also time consuming to read. Campbell does recapitulate his main points at the end of each chapter, and an appendix helpfully summarizes his key chronological dates (pp. 412–14). However, quick recourse to Campbell’s conclusions does not do justice to the logical path he travels to get there.

These concerns noted, however, let me end with appreciation for Framing Paul. There are many incidental points and observations throughout this work that I cannot cover here but are valuable, irrespective of one’s agreement (or not) with Campbell’s specific proposals. More importantly, if only as an exercise in thinking through Paul’s life and letter-writing, this book repays close reading. Campbell identifies the crucial issues at play, and by arguing often uncanny positions, he challenges us not to lapse into safe and perfunctory dating schemes. It is easy to adopt the general conclusions found in the literature on Paul. But processing through all the details, options, and hints in Paul’s letters is not unlike a “treasure hunt,” as Campbell promises near the outset (p. 15). For those with several years of academic study under their belt, this is a worthy book indeed.

Timothy A. Gabrielson

Sterling College

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