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Book Review: The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Seyoon Kim)

Seyoon Kim. The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007. 402 pp. $46.00.

OriginIf you have an academic interest in New Testament studies, you’ve most likely heard of the WUNT monograph series from Mohr Siebeck. These are among the most prestigious in the field, but unfortunately, like all academic monographs, are rather inaccessible to most. This is why I take notice (and rejoice!) whenever there’s a more affordable reprint, and I want to spread that cheer far and wide. I’ve previously reviewed Wipf & Stock’s reprint of Aquila Lee’s WUNT monograph From Messiah to Preexistent Son, and today I’m highlighting another Wipf & Stock reprint – Seyoon Kim’s The Origin of Paul’s Gospel. This is a slightly revised version of Kim’s doctoral dissertation under F. F. Bruce submitted to the University of Manchester in August 1977. Despite the fact that this study is dated, it is an important one in the history of Pauline research and deserves a wider readership.

In contrast to much of modern Pauline scholarship which attempt to explain the origin of Paul’s gospel in light of literary and religionsgeschichtliche parallels, Kim’s thesis is that Paul’s “gospel and apostleship are grounded solely in the Christophany on the Damascus road and that he understands himself solely in light of it. The Damascus event is the basis both of his theology and his existence as an apostle” (31). Convinced that we can only truly understand Paul and his theology when we take seriously his insistence that he received his gospel from the Damascus Christophany, Kim guides us through a tour of Paul’s own testimony with a historico-philological method rather than a search for parallels between Paul’s theology and this or that stream of ancient Mediterranean belief.

Kim begins by setting the background (chapter 2) with a brief look at Paul before his conversion. Chapter 3 goes on to examine Paul’s Damascus road experience, arguing that for Paul the Damascus Christophany constituted not only his gospel, but also his apostolic commission for the Gentile mission; that Paul saw this experience as analogous to the resurrection appearance in which the risen Lord commissioned The Twelve. Next, in Chapter 4, Kim examines the revelation of the gospel, for Paul had received his gospel “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12, 16). Kim argues that this revelation refers to the Damascus Christophany, where God revealed to Paul the mystery of His divine plan for salvation for both Jew and Gentile. Paul sees his Damascus experience in light of Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 49:1-6, and it is the combination of these two passages that explains Paul’s Gentile apostleship and the mystery of Romans 11:25 (95).

In Chapters 5 and 6, Kim gets into Paul’s Christology. “The gospel that he received on the Damascus road Paul defines, first of all, Christologically…in Paul, Christology and soteriology are not two separate doctrines but one, the former being the ground of the latter and the latter the anthropological and cosmological application of the former” (100). The remainder of the book examines how Paul derives the main lines of his theology from the Damascus Christophany as he interprets it in light of his background (Jewish theology, the early Christian kerygma, etc). Chapter 5 focuses on the Christological titles Christ, Lord, and Son of God, which appear in Pauline passages referring or alluding to the Damascus event. This section draws heavily upon the work of M. Hengel in examining what the early Christians meant by these Christological titles and is a bit dated, as the book precedes a flurry of significant research on the origin of an early high Christology. Nevertheless, Kim illuminates the key aspects of Paul’s Christology bound up in the titles of Christ, Lord, and Son of God, such as pre-existence, mediatorship in creation, and Jesus as divine Wisdom. As divine Wisdom, Jesus has superseded the Torah, acted as God’s agent in creation, and was sent forth into the world to redeem God’s people from sin and the law (135).

Chapter 6 continues examining Paul’s Christology by looking at Christ as the εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ. This is the most extensive chapter of this book comprising over 1/3 of the study. Kim looks at the background and origin of Paul’s Adam-Christology, such as the Gnostic Urmensch-redeemer myth as well as Jesus’s self-designation as “the Son of Man” but does not draw his own conclusion concerning the origin of Paul’s Adam-Christ typology. He then proposes and defends the thesis that Paul came to perceive Christ as the εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ at the Damascus Christophany and came to derive his Adam-Christology from this prior conception. Kim does so by looking at the linguistic data, drawing out the formgeschichtlichen links between the Damascus Christophany and Jewish epiphany visions, and examining the possibility of a traditionsgeschichtliche link. Kim ends the chapter with a brief look at the development of wisdom-Christology and Adam-Christology from Paul’s εἰκὼν Christology and summarizes the main thesis of the chapter as follows:

Paul saw the exalted Christ as the εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ and as the Son of God on the Damascus road. This perception led him to conceive of Christ in terms of the personified, hypostatized Wisdom of God (together with his realization at that time that Christ had superseded the Torah) on the one hand, and in terms of Adam, on the other. Thus, both Paul’s Wisdom-Christology and Adam-Christology are grounded in the Damascus Christophany.”

(Kim 267)

The book concludes with a chapter dealing explicitly with soteriology, in which Kim examines and synthesizes a few elements of Paul’s soteriology that he sees as direct consequences of the Damascus Christophany – namely justification, reconciliation, and transformation.

Paul’s soteriology is strongly stamped by his experience at the Damascus Christophany. The characteristics of his doctrine of justification sola gratia and sola fide are due to the insights into the questions of the law, human existence and man’s relation to God which he developed out of his Damascus experience. It was out of his personal experience of God’s forgiveness and God’s reconciliation on the Damascus road that Paul developed the imagery of “reconciliation” to interpret God’s saving work in Christ. And finally, it was by seeing the risen and exalted Christ as the Son and image of God who has restored the divine image and glory lost by Adam that Paul developed his soteriological conception of the believers’ being adopted as sons of God, their being transformed into the glorious image of Christ and their being made the “new man” or καινὴ κτίσις through their incorporation into Christ the Stammvater of the new humanity.

(Kim 329)

So much has changed in the landscape of Pauline studies in recent decades (and subsequent to the publishing of Kim’s The Origin of Paul’s Gospel) that one might wonder how fruitful it is to read a monograph from 1977. While this study is certainly in some sense dated, the thesis is unique enough in Pauline studies such that it is still worthy of reading and consideration. Because the prevailing approaches to searching for the origin of Paul’s gospel seek it in various forms of Judaism, mystery-cults, and even Gnosticism, this study that looks deeply into Paul’s own testimony of his Damascus road experience rather than trying to draw parallels with the ancient world is a breath of fresh air and is a must-read in the history of Pauline research. Kim has subsequently published a follow-up to this work that specifically responds to the New Perspective on Paul, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel.

Thanks to Wipf & Stock for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review!

Purchase: Amazon

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