Review: Life of Paul by John McRay

I recently reviewed a few books for The Journal of Modern Ministry. I will post them here as time allows.

Paul: His Life and Teaching
By John McRay
Baker Academic: Grand Rapids (2003)

John McRay, emeritus professor of New Testament and archaeology at Wheaton College Graduate School, has provided a valuable contribution to Pauline studies with Paul: His Life and Teaching (hereafter: PLT). Many readers of this journal will also be familiar with his previous volume, Archaeology and the New Testament (1991). It is rare to find a book on the Apostle Paul that is both scholarly and useful to the church; yet, McRay has produced such a volume adding his voice to previous conservative scholarship on Paul (e.g., J. Machen, F. F. Bruce, R. Longenecker, R. Reymond).

PLT comprises 479 pages divided into two major parts (Paul’s life and Paul’s teaching). Part One consists of eight chapters which move the reader chronologically through the Apostle’s life from his upbringing in Tarsus to his death in Rome. McRay does an excellent job of keeping Paul in his first-century Jewish and Hellenistic Mediterranean context, avoiding the temptation to read 21st Century theology and ideas back into Paul. The author contends is that Paul should be read as a “first-century Jewish rabbi who accepted Jesus as his Messiah and became an ardent, dedicated Messianic Jew” (11). Noteworthy in Part One is McRay’s chapter three, “Toward a Chronology of Paul’s Ministry.” Dealing with chronology is one of the more difficult issues for Pauline studies. Refreshingly, McRay does not adhere to the critical assumption that the letters of Paul are a “primary” source in conflict with the “secondary” source of Acts. He notes, “Most studies of the problem give little credence to the historical view of Scripture that accepts Luke and Paul as equally inspired” (81). The author’s reconstruction of Paul’s life is not only a fascinating read but an encouragement to Christian perseverance in the face of constant opposition.

Part Two of PLT explores key themes of the Apostle’s theology.  It would be difficult to offer an exhaustive “theology of Paul” in just over two hundred pages. With this in mind, the author explores key theological themes in Paul’s teaching warranting significant discussion (e.g., law, ecclesiology, eschatology). McRay’s discussion of the law demonstrates considerable awareness of the plethora of current scholarship on this “most debated topic among Pauline scholars” (Hafemann, “Paul and His Interpreters,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 671). Though the author acknowledges weaknesses with his position, the author concludes, “His position [i.e., Paul’s] was that a Jew could keep the law but should not impose it upon the Gentiles and that even a Jew could keep it only for cultural and ethnic reasons, not as the means of salvation” (367).

The strength of PLT is the author’s attention to background details without being dry. McRay’s command of archaeological resources and backgrounds made for a fascinating read. There are hundreds of photos, maps, tables, and figures, which provide a rich supplement to the text. The author himself took many of the photos over the course of sixty journeys to the regions of Paul’s travels. The reader is greatly aided by a subject, author, and Scripture index, which assist in the study of textual details. The author also makes judicious use of footnotes where more technical matters are consigned.

This volume is not only worth purchasing but also a necessary text for those desiring to study the life Paul. PLT would make a great text for a college level or seminary class discussion, or for the congregant who desires to deepen his knowledge of the Apostle or the book of Acts. Overall, McRay is to be commended for putting in the hands of the church an accessible volume on a vast subject.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Hey! Saw your blog today and really enjoyed your thoughts on John McRay. Thought you might be interested in a brand new prepublication offer from Logos Bible software on the Journal of Modern Ministry! Thanks and let me know if i can help in anyway!

  2. Beth, I’m glad to see that Logos is showing interest in the JoMM, it’s an unusual journal in that it’s actually useful to the church. Thanks for alerting our readers to this pre-pub opportunity. I greatly appreciate the work that Logos is doing, keep it up!

    Paul Lamey

  3. Hi, just wondering what denomination John McRay is of?
    N.B. Hammond

  4. Hi again, could you give me the denomination of Timothy George who penned the Galatians Commentary. I would like to know this before I go further.
    Thanks in advance.

    N, Hammond

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