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Confronting the centuries. (Books).

Richard A. Horsley, ed. Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000.

This collection of essays comes from the Paul and Politics Group within the Society of Biblical Literature, a group of progressive scholars challenging the traditional mainstream of academe and demonstrating that the apostle Paul did after all pay close attention to the political and ideological environment of his congregations. The volume is dedicated to Krister Stendahl (long a faculty member at Harvard Divinity School), who for forty-some years has made Pauline studies more responsive to the contemporary status of humans in their society -- both in the first and the present centuries. Stendahl is honored for being a pioneer in reorienting biblical studies in ways that confront the centuries of conventional interpretation of Paul along individualistic lines that also imply anti-Judaism and disdain toward women. But the guild of traditional scholarship has not welcomed efforts of interpretation by feminist, African American, and postcolonial voices. So it was that the Paul and Politics Group was founded with in the S.B.L. to provide a forum for a socio-economic interpretation of the texts, the social contexts and power relations which the apostle's words often reflect. From this collaboration the present book takes its shape. Its four divisions reflect the first four years of the group (1996-99) and its initial themes: Paul and the politics of interpretation, Paul and empire (especially as seen in 1 Corinthians), Paul and the politics of Israel, and Paul and the politics of the assemblies (congregations).

The first section sets the tone. Neil Elliott traces the paradigm shift in Pauline studies away from the older agenda of personal justification by faith vs. Jewish "works-righteousness and toward a more public context. Paul preached a message (to euangelion, "news of victory") of a new Lord (kyrios) who has triumphed over opposing powers and will return (parousia) just as ancient kings or generals did at the city gates. A study of Paul's rhetoric should not simply seek parallels with the literary deposits of the privileged classes, which constitute the bulk of surviving manuscripts and which were intended to persuade the masses to glorify their rulers; instead it should be contrasted with the coercive rhetoric of empire that intimidated slaves, the underclasses, and those colonized. To understand this language we need a more nuanced analysis of the whole range of colonial strategies by which the subjugated responded to or resisting a formidable array of imperial pressures. This essay is followed by one by Eli sabeth Schussler Fiorenza on the politics of interpretation, in which she underlines the exegete's responsibility for the practical effects of his/her work--what Stendahl two decades ago called "the public health aspect of interpretation." The new paradigm of "engaged scholarship" is able to see aspects of the text overlooked by what Schussler Fiorenza labels the "scientific malestream interpretation," so that when the two are used together the combination of ethical and cognitive criteria yields better results than either singly. For instance, Paul's fondness for dichotomies derives from an attempt to establish identity through a strategy of "othering" those who differ. But this habit too easily reinforces a gender dualism that favors the masculine and suppresses the alternate voices in primitive Christian congregations. What is the antidote? She asks that interpreters today recontextualize such early rhetoric into the broader setting of various freedom struggles throughout Western history. In his response t o these essays, Robert Jewett wishes to amend Schussler Fiorenza's argument by claiming that usually it is not Paul but, to the contrary, his conversation partners who reinforce "othering" and imperial power politics; thus Paul is the one who represents inclusiveness and freedom. In the infamous Romans 13 passage, for instance, the God who grants authority to governments is not like the emperor or the gods of the pantheon or civic cults, but is the God represented by the crucified Jesus. The whole context shown in the latter chapters of Romans is a series of exhortations to mutual love and servanthood, and with this every taint of imperialism is left behind.

The second section uses 1 Corinthians as the lens through which to view the politics and rhetoric of empire. Richard Horsley points out how the rhetoric of "civil concord vs. chaos" was the clever culmination of four successive means by which power relations in Roman imperial society were maintained. Today, through rhetorical analysis, we can uncover how Paul himself put to use key terms of that rhetoric of unity in order to consolidate the Corinthian congregation and thereby subvert the wider political order. He did so, however, at the risk of rein-scribing imperial images within the congregation itself, his countermonarchial language serving to sanctify future monarchial trends in Christian polity and eventually the Constantinian establishment. A second source of Paul's rhetoric was Judean apocalypticism that promises judgment upon oppressive rulers, as well as martyrdom and then deliverance for God's people; but even these images could not resist being co-opted by a later Christian triumphalist establishme nt.

In a somewhat similar fashion, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge holds that Paul in 1 Corinthians used imperial language both to undermine yet reinstate an imperial system. For instance the letter contains several implied hierarchies, with the middle of three terms providing the essential mediation; in the first (3:22) Christ is that mediator, thus legitimizing the human father/husband's priority in the others (4:14; 11:3). The effect of this is to leave intact the patronage system of modeling human relationships. Next Sheila Briggs writes about the social institution of slavery and the ambiguous Christian response to it, as exemplified in Paul. His "discourse of evasion" did not directly advocate manumission or condemn the widespread sexual exploitation of slaves, although by implication he seems concerned to ameliorate their situation. Instead of challenging the social structure, however, his preference is to transpose slavery into a theological metaphor for Christ's example and our obedience. This tactic reflected the status anxiety of his audience, the free-born Christians of Corinth who were of the humble classes and who did not want to be targeted as subversives by ruling elites. To both these presentations, then, Antoinette Clark Wire makes a brief response.

Relationships with early Judaism are the theme of the third section. Pamela Eisenbaum argues persuasively that Paul did not simply take Abraham as a role model for believing Gentiles to emulate, but that Abraham actually founded a new lineage of believers that includes Gentiles as well as Jews. Paul himself was conscious of acting the part of a "new Abraham," a transformed patriarch who is called from a past way of life and is divinely commissioned to benefit the other peoples (ethne) among whom he will live. Inheritance depends on more than blood line, and so the Gentiles are no mere adoptees but are now summoned to claim their rightful legacy alongside the Jews who earlier received it. The role of faith is to help God enact the divine promise already given the ancient patriarch to become the "father of many nations." The next writer is Mark Nanos, who reconstructs the situation in Galatia: Gentile converts to Christianity eager to be accepted also by the wider Jewish community are disappointed to find they are spurned unless they go on to complete the rituals of proselyte conversion. In Galatians Paul attacks the "influencers" requiring halakhic entrance standards for Gentiles, while defending his own Jewish identity and his accord with Jerusalem apostles. The quarrel thus is an inter-Jewish one, between a Christian Jewish subgroup and a larger Jewish coalition that includes some proselytes who are especially defensive about group boundary lines. Paul exhorts his readers to an alternative and more eschatological way of establishing group identity. This essay is followed by N. T. Wright, who offers four exegetical vignettes united by the theme that Paul's Jewish heritage grounds his polemic against the cult of Caesar. The "gospel" is a thoroughly Jewish announcement of the Messiah and Lord, who thereby challenges other imperial rule. Paul's high Christology, as Lord and God's son, is rooted in Davidic messiahship. "The righteousness of God" (Rom. 1:16-17) is an unveiling of God's covenant faithfulness that issue s in justice, and all this Paul pointedly presented in the letter directed to Rome, the very city priding itself on being the world's capital of justice (with a temple to the goddess Iustitia). The puzzling and vitriolic polemic in Philippians 3, seemingly anti-Jewish, is instead -- so Wright argues -- a coded warning to the Roman city of Philippi against a much more powerful threat, paganism and particularly the Caesar cult. Concluding this segment of essays, Alan Segal adds some words of comment and gentle extension.

The fourth and final section, dealing with Paul and the politics of the assemblies/congregations, begins with an extensive analysis by Sze-kar Wan of the "collection for the saints" in Jerusalem as an anticolonial act. Ethnicity is largely a social construct, and we see Paul walking quite a delicate tightrope in helping early Christianity attain its identity. The agreement reflected in Gal. 2:10 to collect money for the Jerusalem "poor" was less a response to poverty than a cultic act (see the cultic language of Romans 15) patterned after the temple tax of diaspora Judaism. But as such it points to the eschatological fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies about wealth flowing from the nations into Jerusalem at the end time. In the context of this universal vision, however, it may puzzle us that Paul is so careful to keep the role of Gentile converts a subordinate one. The hypothesis Wan offers is that Paul does this for two reasons: to preserve the Jewish context of Christian identity and also to block any expect ation by Gentiles that their generosity will somehow entitle them to dominance within the patronage hierarchies so prevalent in the Roman world. This latter point is then underlined by reference to 2 Corinthians 8-9, a separate letter soliciting the Corinthian Christians to contribute, which also is at pains to emphasize that the Jerusalem recipients would not thereby be under the customary obligation to their benefactors. The eschatological inclusion of Gentiles thus is a critique both of narrow Jewish ethnocentrism and also of the Roman vertical structure of patronage. A second, much briefer essay is by Allen Dwight Callahan, interpreting 1 Corinthians under the theme of emancipation. Triumphal memories of the Exodus and any hopes of full liberation for groups had been made impractical under Roman rule, so in their place early Christians saw emancipation for individuals as an attainable and mediated facsimile. As an expression of this motif, Paul's letter implicitly argues for justice, economic mutualism, a nd especially for manumission -- that is, Callahan holds that the church as a body would purchase the freedom of members who were slaves. Emancipation thus is the theme applicable today, as we too live under formidable constraints. There follow brief responses to these essays by Antoinette Clark Wire and Calvin Roetzel, who offer appreciation, encouragement, and some criticism. And so the book concludes.

This collection of essays has much to commend it. The scholars writing them are at the leading edge of exciting new trends in biblical studies, as social-scientific criticism is advancing rather belatedly into that portion of the canon attributed to Paul. And here we find in one volume firsthand material from the S.B.L. study group that is bringing this methodology into Pauline research. That is exciting. But it also entails some of the weaknesses of the volume. Clearly it is, indeed, a collection--with the unevenness, gaps, and overlaps one might expect from a protracted group effort later coaxed into a unity and adapted into a book. Some essays are exceptionally long and detailed, but with flashes of brilliance, while others are quite general and tantalizing. The introduction informs us that each of the four years convened under a broad theme, but that theme is not always clearly evident in the essays themselves. Perhaps if the reader were also offered a summary of the directions taken by discussion each ye ar, the general context might be clearer, the suspected subtexts teased out of hiding, and the rejoinders less bland. But perhaps such summaries are impractical or difficult to produce in such a publication.

Homage paid to Krister Stendahl pervades the volume, and rightly so, for many of the scholars have themselves been enriched by personal contacts with him. In the previous generation of biblical scholarship several of Stendahl's accomplishments lead up to at least the threshold of what is now called social-scientific criticism. He was a key figure in dismantling a long hegemony of pietism, the interpretation of Paul as a guilt-ridden introspective conscience who found his way to personal salvation only by taking a leap of faith and by breaking all ties with a supposedly legalistic Judaism. That emphasis was individualistic and doctrinal, forcibly reducing the variegated letters of Paul into a sonorous monotone of justification by faith. By contrast Stendahl worked to decentralized Pauline studies away from its preoccupation with the Letter to the Romans; and indeed in that letter itself he shifted attention away from the great creedal statements of its early chapters and toward an anticipated climax of salvati on-history in Romans, chapters 9-11. Nor did Paul ever reject his Jewish heritage as such, but worked anew within its context. And the apostle was more interested in life and people, both Jewish and Christian people, than he was in doctrine as such, so each letter must be studied quite concretely in light of its historical situation. That context would include the power relations and inequalities in each locality of late antiquity. Not surprisingly, then, Stendahl himself became active in Jewish-Christian dialogues and he wrote an early article on "The Bible and the Role of Women," for he remained concerned about the detrimental effects biblical interpretation has often worked upon both "minorities." All of these emphases have now been taken up and extended further by the current generation of social-scientific biblical critics, so it is indeed appropriate that this volume is dedicated to him.

At one point, however, I wonder if Stendahl would give unconditional approval to this new direction, valuable as it is. Social-scientific criticism is so intent upon the material conditions and power inequities of ancient communities that it tends to relegate theology to insignificance. At worst, theology seems an ideological tool used to dominate a dissident in-group or ward off the weight of imperial rhetoric and patronage. This may have been so, and such interpretation is a wholesome corrective to earlier generations of interpreters who narrowed their focus to endless dissection of orthodoxy from assorted heresies. But it also short-changes the power inherent in ideas themselves, the liberating impact of a proclamation that God has at great personal cost to Godself acted to bring humanity into a new relationship of blessedness. It avoids the truth question, the issue of what really is normative to Christian faith and its vision of the Really Real.

One should not fault the authors for doing what they set out to do, honing the tools of social-scientific criticism. But the general reading public, at least, is likely to put the book aside as another antiquarian exercise for the initiated. It would be helpful if the presentation also gestured toward, or made implicit room for, the theological implications of their anti-imperial depictions. And several do so (most notably Callahan, Jewett, and the feminist scholars)-but all too briefly. The apostle Paul would be among the first to claim that the Christian message is not only timely but timeless, and that its meaning is not exhausted by minute historical analyses. The critique of ancient ideology has potent implications for today's ideologies, and I think social-scientific research can make room for this without thereby betraying their own specialized work.

In short, I would like to see a combination of theological analysis with the best that the new perspectives from social science can bring. This would not only bring to life the full range of dynamics of earliest Christianity, but also offer a plausible model for how the faith is to be lived in our own day. And I suspect that Krister Stendahl himself might well agree.

G. Clarke Chapman, Jr. is a professor of religion at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
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Author:Chapman, G. Clarke, Jr.
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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