This is a labor of love for both Paul and John Chrysostom. The author relates that during the book's long gestation, her husband's "nettlesome question" was whether this was a book about Paul or Chrysostom. The answer, of course, is both-not about the historical Paul, but not about the historical Chrysostom, either. Mitchell follows the course of Chrysostom's seven homilies De laudibus sancti Pauli, also bringing in other materials from other homilies. What Chrysostom does is to follow the ancient rhetorical art of encomium or ekphrasis, a depiction of a character or scene done so vividly by the preacher that hearers can imagine that they are actually face to face with the real person or event. The result is 499 pages of rather fine-print text, in reader-friendly format that places the very extensive notes on the same pages.
The key to this largest collection of Pauline commentaries from the early church, Mitchell suggests, is John's author-centered personal devotion to the person of Paul, in which Chrysostom sets out to portray Paul's body and soul, both in equally idealized terms. John claims to be the best portrait painter of Paul because he loves him so much. She notes toward the end that John's portrait of Paul bears a striking resemblance to himself as a frustrated ascetic plunged into pastoral problems, so well has he identified with his subject.
In Chapter One, Mitchell reviews the history of past scholarship on John's treatment of Paul. In the past seventy years, only six articles have been written on the topic, two of them by women. Chapter Two notes the increase of interest in the fourth century in biography and in Paul. The surge of Pauline commentaries in the fourth and fifth centuries may have resulted from a new interest in the study of Scripture, especially from monastic memorization of passages from the New Testament. John's aim is a portrait of body and soul, the joining of the visual and literary portrait that springs from a developing tradition of imperial portraits. Thus Paul is the image of the imperial Christ and John uses him to exhort his hearers to paint their own portrait in imitation of Paul, with the example of his virtues as the paint. Chapter Three examines the more than sixty-five epithets used by John to describe Paul, quick portraits in a few words, like "heavenly trumpet," "teacher of the world," "brighter than the sun" (because he talked with Christ), "athlete," "general," "gladiator," and "spiritual lion." Mitchell groups them into three categories: "pure" biblical taken directly from biblical texts, "derived" biblical developed from some biblical word or image, and independent. Chapter Four discusses the rhetorical portraits of Paul's body, which do not, surprisingly, derive from the physical description of Paul in the Acts of Paul, though Chrysostom was familiar with the text. Head, feet, chest, belly, hands, back, mouth, eyes, and heart are described in ideal terms. Chapter Five looks at the portraits of Paul's soul in the seven homilies in praise of him. Here Paul outdoes the Old Testament patriarchs and even John the Baptist in his virtue and nobility of soul.
In Chapter Six we see the ways in which Chrysostom used the semi-biographical information of 1 Cor 1:18-2:5, and his rhetorical comparison, or synkrisis, of Paul and Nero in his homiletical comments on 2 Tim 4:3-4. Here Paul is the triumphant miracle worker who turns to faith rather than wonders to convince and convert his hearers. Details about Paul's death from the Acts of Paul are brought in to help construct an imaginative personal conflict between Paul and Nero. Paul becomes the antitype and superior hero to the Jews, Julian, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, and others. Chapter Seven asks questions about the placement of this idealizing in the context of the supposed penchant of the Antiochene school, to which Chrysostom belonged, for the historical rather than the allegorical. John presents Paul, Mitchell suggests, as the human ideal of what the human can become. The relative neglect in John's preaching of Peter, who was strongly associated with Antioch in early traditions, is something of a mystery. Mitchell shows how Chrysostom used the full range of rhetorical conventions of his day to employ the figure of Paul as a means of working for social transformation in Antioch, and later in Constantinople, where his efforts were to prove disastrous and drive him into exile.
Chapter Eight gives us a quick look at Augustine, who also read his own experiences into Paul, but in an entirely different way that was to affect the whole of Western theology after him. A brief glance is also thrown at some twentieth-century interpretations of Paul. Two appendixes give full translations of the seven homilies in praise of Paul and a list of fifteen illustrations of the Chrysostom-Paul relationship from illuminated manuscripts and wall paintings. Six of these illustrations adorn the back of the book, followed by bibliography and indexes of ancient works and modern authors. The plates are charming; two depict Paul leaning over Chrysostom's shoulder as he writes.
This is not an easy read. The arguments are sometimes dense, but the results always delightful. It will repay the long and intense attention of the devoted friend of Paul or John Chrysostom with a revelation of how a gifted and exciting fourth-century preacher could draw on a figure from three centuries before once again to animate and inspire his audience. John believed that Paul could still speak to the people of his day. The unending popularity of Paul through the subsequent centuries has proven him right.