Pp. xix, 248 , Fortress Press , Minneapolis , 2008 , £16.99 .

This is an extraordinary book; certainly out of the ordinary. Davina Lopez rejects the so-called idealist exegesis of traditional scholarship to bring the reader down to the social-political and non-idealist earth, ruled in Paul's time by the Roman empire, and to incorporate insights from feminist, queer, black and postcolonial interpretative methods. The author would not object to this being called a Lesbian understanding of Paul but her intention is that this should be ‘liberationist’.

The author calls the book a gender-critical re-imagining of Paul. This involves using iconography and archaeology to help understand the New Testament, something not quite as innovative as she claims, and using gender representations from Roman images to, as it were, re-genderise Paul's language and, indeed, Paul himself. Reimagining Paul in practice involves presenting the reader with a fresh image of Paul but which, alas, is presented by way of assertion rather than an analysis of evidence to support an argument. This is re-imagining, then, rather than re-interpreting.

At the centre of this, Lopez asks us to imagine that when Paul spoke of the ethne/nations/gentiles he was not predominantly using the Jewish sense of non-Jews but the Roman sense of conquered non-Roman nations which, of course, included the Jews. In Roman iconography these defeated nations were frequently represented as women being assaulted (or ‘penetrated’ to use Ms Lopez's oft repeated word) by a divine, armed, Roman male figure who usually represented an emperor. Where one of these nations is represented as a defeated, male warrior, illustrated here by a single figure from the breastplate of a statue of Augustus, we are told he has been made effeminate by his stance. In fact this particular stance looks ordinary enough to me and his large curly beard makes him look fairly butch. However, the first real problem comes when the author asks us to imagine that Paul often or sometimes used ‘nations’ in the Roman sense so that Paul, when he finally appears two thirds of the way through the main text, can become ‘the apostle to the defeated nations’, including the Jews, rather than our traditional apostle to the gentiles. (And Peter was the apostle to whom? The Romans presumably. He did after all achieve a certain status in Rome.) The evidence, however, does not support this imagining. Sticking to Galatians, which is the only text of Paul's that Lopez spends any space discussing, and even then only a few passages, the key verses are 2.7–15 where ethne/nations occurs six times. The reader will see that the nations are clearly and explicitly identified as the akrobustia/foreskin/uncircumcised and contrasted with the circumcised/Jews. It is quite right, then, to here translate ‘ta ethne’ consistently as ‘gentiles’ as the NRSV does. It is contrary to the sense of the letter to translate it as ‘defeated nations’. And there follows after 2.15 the beginning of Paul's discussion of righteousness, faith/faithfulness and the law/Torah. The context is Jewish; there is nothing specifically Roman here. Would we not anyway expect Paul's language to have been influenced by the Jewish scriptures rather than what we later find in Pliny and Tacitus? The Greek Bible that Paul read consistently uses ta ethne to refer to nations other than Israel. Consider the 56 such uses in Psalms, a book that Paul cited often, particularly in Romans.

Evidence, however, is not Davina Lopez's strongpoint. Originality and imagination is. Paul has become the apostle to the nations conquered by Rome who have been rendered semiotically female in Roman ideology. The good news he brings them is unashamedly political, that the nations should free themselves from world-wide slavery. Squabbling among themselves only makes Rome's task of pacifying the nations easier; they should achieve solidarity by rejecting Rome's ideology of power and masculine aggression. Femaleness becomes the image of suffering, subordination and defeat (being penetrated, as we are told) and as the author wants to redeem Paul from the slander of misogyny and being domineering, she – semiotically – turns him into a woman, one who suffers, as he certainly did. By p.142 she begins referring to Paul as s/he and ‘her'self, she calls him ‘the defeated woman, the laboring mother' and eventually at p.154 the change is complete when Lopez writes that ‘Mother Paul voices her (sic) allegorical call to freedom …’ etc.

Turning Paul into a theological transsexual seems to be based on just one verse in Galatians at 4.19 where he uses the metaphor of suffering birth pains on behalf of his readers, and on his reference to the two women in the allegory of 4.21–5.1. The allegory is given a strongly political interpretation: ‘Paul manipulates the Hagar/Sarah mother entanglement from Genesis to further his unnatural genealogical justification of alternative power alignments among the defeated’. And similarly with the much misused 3.28 which is not about ‘solidarity among the defeated’ but, as the context shows, is about baptism. Paul's discussion there is about circumcision, the sign of the old covenant, which was only for Jewish, free men (actually they circumcised their slaves too), which he contrasts with baptism, the sign of the new covenant, which is for all races, all ranks of society and both genders.

The language of this book is opaque throughout. At times it smacks of academic obscurantism – it is a doctoral thesis, of course. There are many diagrams which do not aid clarity of meaning. There is little engagement with what Paul actually wrote and more assertion than argument. There is a huge amount of repetition of the main ideas and one admires the ingenuity of the author in managing to say the same things in so many different ways. But the result is that the reader has to wade through many paragraphs of thick language in which nothing new is being said. In that sense the book at 173 pages (plus many end notes) is too long. While the author gets top marks for originality, ingenuity and boldness, she gets the lowest marks for lucidity and argumentation. Paul is a difficult author to deal with at the best of times and, while this is a harsh review, understanding him is too important for cavalier treatments like this to pass uncriticised.