F.F. Bruce: Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. First published in the U.K. under the title Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit. The Paternoster Press Ltd., 1977. Printed in the United States by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Paperback edition, 2000. 510 pages, 16 photographic plates, 3 indexes. Available through Amazon.com, $ 17.67
Biblical scholar Frederick Fyvie Bruce(12 October 1910 – 11 September 1990) was considered by many to be one of the foremost twentieth century experts on the Pauline corpus. Bruce had a long and distinguished teaching career at the University of Edinburgh, the University of Leeds, the University of Sheffield (head of the Department of Biblical History and Literature), and most notably as Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, England from1959 to his retirement in1978. During his life he wrote more than forty books and commentaries; his first book, New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (1943), was placed on the list of the top 50 books which had shaped evangelical thought by Christianity Today in 2006. From 1962 to 1990, Bruce also served as general editor of the New International Commentary on the New Testament.
After finishing this volume, one might have to ask: is this a biography of Paul or a history of the early church? Or is it a discourse on Pauline theology? Happily, the answer to all of these questions can be answered “yes.” In Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, F.F. Bruce presents the reader with an extensive biography of Paul skillfully interwoven with sections of history and theology, and he does it all without “skimping” on anything.
Bruce first prepares us for Paul’s life and place in the dissemination of Christianity by presenting the “back story: three historical chapters (The Rise of Rome; The Jews under Foreign Rule; and Of No Mean City) leading up to Paul’s birth. These are followed by two chapters of biography (This Man is a Roman Citizen; and A Hebrew Born of Hebrews), followed by the last two chapters of history alone (When the Time had Fully Come, and The Beginning of the “Way”). Arriving at Chapter Nine (Paul Becomes a Christian), biography and history are seamlessly blended together for the remainder of the book.
The historical timeline on which Bruce hangs the rest of the story is based on the scriptural account presented in Luke’s Book of Acts. Any biographical “gaps” are filled in through the witness of Paul’s other epistles and occasionally by clues from other letters. One thing needs to be made very clear: while Bruce fleshes out the man Paul based on the Scriptural witness, he never does so by creating something out of thin air. In the manner of the highest scholarship, the rare supposition or conjecture is always labeled as such.
As Bruce fleshes out the man Paul, he also beautifully draws out the almost Dickensian cast of characters that interact with him in his ministry to the Gentiles. Readers need go no further for information on those who helped (Timothy, Barnabas, Apollos, Aquila and Priscilla, Epaphras, Gaius, and Lydia), and those who hindered (Felix, Festus).
Interesting also is Bruce’s treatment of the Pauline epistles. The author spends a great deal of time on the major epistles, sometimes embedding them within the historical timeline of Paul’s life (the discussion of Galatians, for example, is found in the chapter The Gentile Problem), while other times devoting entire separate chapters to individual epistles such as Christianity in Thessalonica and The Gospel According to Paul (Romans). Oftentimes these discussions move beyond what would be considered a laymen’s level, such as the extensive discussion of the Corinthian correspondence. Surprisingly, Philemon receives much more attention than is usually given it, while very little time is spent on Philippians and the three Pastoral Epistles (1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus).
There can be little doubt that the epistles of Paul have largely shaped Christianity’s understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ since the early days of the Church, and perhaps the greatest aspect of the book is its presentation of Bruce’s rich understanding of Pauline doctrine. Bruce treats the major doctrinal aspects of Paul in separate chapters that are also logically interspersed along the way. These chapters, What the Law Could Not Do, Flesh and Spirit, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in Pauline Thought, Paul and the Life to Come, and The Gospel According to Paul (Romans) could be combined and presented as a fine text in its own right.
A word about the indexes: along with a Select Bibliography and a very useful Chronological Table (I’ve already consulted this reference for other research), Bruce provides an Index of People, an Index of Subjects, and a quite unexpected Index of References. This last index references not only Old and New Testament sources, but also those taken from Classical Writers, Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Philo, and other Jewish and Christian Writings. This is another welcome research tool!
My only caveat regarding this wonderful volume is that its level of writing does seem to fall between that of a broader survey intended for laymen and a much more detailed account for scholars. In other words, theologians might find it too general, and laymen might find it too theological. This is certainly not a “coffee table book,” and the general reader should be prepared for a slow read. That being said, I believe that any reader who puts in the time on this fascinating study will find Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free immensely rewarding. You’ll thank me later.