A Brief Look at James Aageson’s Paul, the Pastoral Epistles, and the Early Church

Those of you who have browsed the what we’re reading tab above have seen that I’ve been reading a book by James Aageson called Paul, the Pastoral Epistles, and the Early Church. The book is interesting largely because of its unusual approach. Aageson seeks to locate the Pastoral Epistles within the trajectory of Pauline theology as it develops after the death of Paul. His approach is based on comparing theological patterns in different texts and noting their similarities and differences. He does this to map the emergence of what he terms “Paul the Personage” from “Paul the Person”.

In terms of the construction of Paul’s image in the early church, Anthony Blasi’s argument about charisma [emphasis original] is important. He argues that charisma is bigger than an individual and the person who has charisma is not only a “person” but a “personage.” The term “person,” according to Blasi, refers to a historical individual, whereas the term “personage” refers to an individual’s public and charismatic persona constructed in the minds of other people. For a person to maintain charisma and continue to be a personage, his or her charisma must be constructed anew for each generation. (pg. 8)

Aageson’s book takes a long look at the texts and authors that come after Paul to see how Paul is understood and reconstructed in these texts. He begins with the Pastoral Epistles, and he sketches out the theological motifs which seem to dominate each individual letter of the PE (for example: suffering in 2 Timothy). He doesn’t start with the assumption that these texts are pseudepigraphal, but rather he prefers to locate their place in this Pauline trajectory by exploring two lines of inquiry.

First, Aageson examines the relationship of the three PE to each other. He does this by comparing the theological pictures he outlined in the previous chapter letter to letter. I was particularly pleased that Aageson highlights the way 2 Timothy is significantly different in theological approach and exhortation from 1 Timothy and Titus. The parallels between 1 Timothy and Titus are quite apparent: household codes, instructions about leaders, concern with external appearances for the sake of evangelism. On this basis, Aageson suggests that 2 Timothy has a different author than 1 Timothy and Titus.

Second, and this is where the book is really interesting, Aageson chooses the  undisputed Pauline text most similar to  each Pastoral Epistle to compare the theological patterns within. He compares 2 Timothy to Philippians based on the parallels in style noted by Stowers, 1 Timothy to 1 Corinthians based on similar observations from Luke Johnson, and Titus and Galatians based on their address of Judaism. I won’t go into detail about his conclusions, but he ultimately concludes that the PE are not written by Paul. Given his previous conclusion that 2 Timothy was written by a different author from 1 Timothy and Titus, Aageson then argues that 2 Timothy represents an earlier appropriation of Paul than 1 Timothy and Titus. By highlighting the differences between 2 Timothy and the undisputed Paulines and then between 2 Timothy and the rest of the PE, Aageson begins to outline a trajectory of Pauline appropriation.

Aageson continues to trace this trajectory through the earliest Christian documents. I could say quite a bit about this part of the book especially, but for brevity I’ll just relate what texts he chooses to examine. Aageson starts by making comparisons between images of Paul in the PE and the Book of Acts. Following this, he compares the theology of the PE with the Deutero-Pauline epistles. Having exhausted his canonical comparisons, Aageson embarks on a series of comparisons with Early Church Fathers. Starting with the Apostolic Fathers Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement, then proceeding with a who’s who of early Christian thinkers, he covers the likes of Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. He highlights the way “Paul receded into history” in the Apostolic Fathers and how his writings slowly and steadily moved from authoritative apostolic witness in the second century to divine writ in the third and fourth.

Last, but certainly not least, is the fascinating discussion of the Acts of Paul and Thecla and their relationship to the PE. For those not familiar, the Acts of Paul and Thecla tell the story of a young woman who hears Paul preach and as a result puts off marriage to go about the work of evangelism. Thecla is the earliest text to exhibit the trend which develops in the early church of viewing chaste women as the equals or near-equals of men. It takes a somewhat negative view of marriage which has lead to differing theories about its relationship to the PE. Some scholars argue that the PE and the Acts of Paul and Thecla represent two schools of post-Pauline thought who both seek to appropriate Paul against the other. Other scholars see the Acts of Paul and Thecla as dependent on 2 Timothy (a position advocated by Richard Bauckham). The whole discussion is a positively fascinating look at the development of the personage of Paul in post-apostolic communities.

All in the all, I don’t know if I can really buy into the conclusions of Aageson, mostly because they are predicated on a certain understanding of the PE. I’m still on the fence about authorship, so the force of Aageson’s arguments are ultimately greatly reduced. Even so, the book makes a fantastic introduction to the way Paul and his letters have been viewed throughout history. It is a bit like a reception-historical study but focused on a person rather than a specific text. Aageson can be wordy and dry at times, but the uniqueness of the subject matter and approach more than make up for it. Read it, and you most likely won’t regret it.

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