Sunday, March 27, 2011

making sense of Paul

As I continue reading Kathy Ehrensperger and J. Brian Tucker's edited volume, Reading Paul in Context: Explorations in Identity Formation (LNTS 428; London: T&T Clark International, 2010), I find myself scratching my head sometimes. I've raved about Ekkhard Stegemann's essay (here and here), and I enjoyed Robert Jewett's analysis of the relationship between the gospel and the revelation of God's wrath in Romans (even if, in the end, I was unconvinced by his universalist interpretation). Neil Elliott's political reading of Romans was significantly less convincing than Stegemann's, perhaps because he trades in the same distinction between theology and politics that he criticizes in others. Mark Nanos's interpretation of Rom. 11.25–26 is suggestive if still, in my opinion, unsatisfying.

But Ian Rock's essay, "Another Reason for Romans—A Pastoral Response to Augustan Imperial Theology: Paul's Use of the Song of Moses in Romans 9–11 and 14–15" (74–89), strikes me as odd. I'll raise two issues here. First, I simply have no idea what Rock means when he refers to "the substantial evidence that the addresses of this letter are not Christians but rather the saints in Rome (Rom. 1.7)" (74; my emphases). Does anyone have any idea what distinction Rock might have in mind here? Is this the complaint that the term Christian is anachronistic for the mid-first century CE? Or does Rock have two distinct (and distinguishable) groups in mind here?

Second, Rock locates Paul primarily within the sphere of Roman imperial political rhetoric (rather than within Israelite/Hebrew biblical tradition), a move reminiscent of Elliott's essay, mentioned above. In fact, Rock asks,
Could Paul's references to the kingship of David, the universal covenant with Abraham, the cosmic character of the Law of Moses, the historicity of the people and Israel as the true people of God, his articulation of the messiahship of Jesus the Son of God and Lord, have all stemmed from a subcultural reading the Aenid? (78; my emphasis)

In general, we biblical scholars don't usually ask questions that can be satisfactorily answered, "yes" or "no." But this one is easy: No. The emphatically Jewish topoi Rock names certainly and without doubt did not "stem from" Paul's reading of the Aenid or any other Roman literature. Are we really to imagine Paul developing the ideas we find in his letters about "the kingship of David, . . ." in response to the imperial claims coming out of Rome? What, then, did Paul think before he encountered these claims (or rather, before he needed to formulate responses to them)?

It may well be that Rock didn't mean to ask whether Paul's Jewish ideas "stemmed from" his encounter with Roman propaganda. Perhaps he's merely after how Paul employed Jewish theological resources to answer things that were being advocated about Caesar, for example in the Aenid. But this isn't what he said. And NT scholarship needs to carefully explore the way NT texts employ Jewish theologoumena to counter Roman political and theological ideology without obscuring the fact that, among the NT authors, Jewish ideas and concepts precede Roman ideas. Our authors were Jews navigating Jewish identity in Roman contexts, not Romans engaging Jewish ideas.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ekkhard Stegemann on Romans 13.1–7

In a post last week I mentioned Ekkhard Stegemann's essay, "Coexistence and Transformation: Reading the Politics of Identity in Romans in an Imperial Context," which opens the volume, Reading Paul in Context: Explorations in Identity Formation. Essays in Honour of William S. Campbell (LNTS 428; London: T&T Clark International, 2010). I cannot recommend highly enough this essay, which, in my view, treads the narrow path between ignoring the political, Roman imperial context that defined every moment of early Christianity in its opening centuries, on the one hand, and focusing on that context so thoroughly that early Christianity becomes, in effect, an anti-Roman response to imperial dynamics, on the other. In some discussions the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Caesar, not Christ, provided the driving impetus for the theologizing processes we see at work in the NT texts; Jesus becomes, almost, merely the vehicle for opposing Rome.

Not so with Stegemann's analysis. I have already said enough to introduce Stegemann's primary thesis (see the post I mentioned above). In his own words, he builds upon William Campbell's work "to show that for Paul the insistence on obedience to the (Roman) rulers and the obedience of faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God in power and Lord, which implies the expectation of the coming of God's kingdom, coexist as well—and that without contradiction" (22). But my introduction does not do justice to Stegemann's masterful portrayal of this coexistence, for example, in the essay's closing paragraph:
Virgil's prophecy for Augustus, which he put in the mouth of Anchises, the father of Aeneas, promised Augustus Caesar, the descendant of the divine (divi genus), that he will extend his empire beyond the stars, and bring a golden age to the Latin land. He will eventually ascend with all th Julian offspring to the exalted firmament (omnis Iuli progenies magnum caeli ventura sub axem; Aen. 6.790–92). For Paul it is Jesus Christ and his followers who will ascend to their Father, God, and his kingdom in heaven, Jesus Christ as the firstborn of the resurrection of the dead and his brothers and sisters after him. But up to now they still coexist with this aeon and its frailties. (23)

I'm not so certain Paul trades on the idea of "ascent" as much as Christian reading of Paul has supposed it has (largely on the basis, I think, of 1 Thess. 4.13–18). And Stegemann, as you can see, includes that idea here. Even so, this is an excellent essay, nearly poetic. And it points the way, I think, for responsible explorations of and appreciations for the political dynamics underlying every word the early Christians said and wrote.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

on Mark's ending

David Parker addresses "The endings of Mark's Gospel" in the eighth chapter (124–47) of his short but important treatise, The Living Text of the Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). In this chapter, Parker does more than present and analyze the manuscript evidence for the various endings of Mark; he also assesses the effect of these various endings upon the whole story of Mark.

I certainly don't want to deny that the decision of how (or when) to end one's reading of Mark matters. I think the earliest recoverable ending of Mark is 16.8, and it matters for how we read 1.1–16.8 that the final words of the gospel—ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ ["for they were afraid"]—leave the account of Jesus' life after the crucifixion unnarrated (but not unstated!).

Nevertheless, I think Parker over-reaches in his discussion of the endings' importances. Parker writes,
Both the Intermediate and the Long Ending, with their emphasis on proclamation, provide the Gospel with its own validation. By writing, Mark is obedient to this command, for he enshrines the command within his book. The Short Ending provides no such security for the book. Indeed, quite the reverse, for the women's silence means that, within the story, we have no means of knowing that any of it happened. (146; original emphasis)

Ending with the women's silence and fear is certainly strange. But isn't Parker's limitation—"within the story"—rather artificial? Doesn't the very fact of Mark's gospel (by which I mean Mark 1.1–16.8) indicate that the silence is broken, that the women have found their voice despite their fear, and that their testimony has been taken over and become Mark's? If, "within the story," the women never pass on the angelic announcement, then there is no "within the story" to speak of.

But instead, by ending the story at 16.8, with the women fearful and silent, the Markan narrator leaves open a space for the audience to consider their response to the narrative. Will they speak through their fear, as the women surely must have, or will the gospel's proclamation come to an end after its reading? Mark 16.8 encourages—even requires!—not only the women but also us to begin to tell Jesus' story anew. This, in fact, is the transgression of the so-called Longer Endings: Mark 16.8 doesn't call for 16.9 but rather for a return to 1.1, ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ["The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ"]. After 16.8 the audience becomes the narrator, the silence is overcome by the beginning of the gospel, and we the audience-become-narrator become the messenger of God who prepares the way for Jesus (1.2–3).

a point finely (and finally) made

I've begun reading Kathy Ehrensperger and J. Brian Tucker's edited volume, Reading Paul in Context: Explorations in Identity Formation (LNTS 428; London: T&T Clark International, 2010), which presents a collection of essays in honour of William S. Campbell. The first essay is Ekkehard Stegemann's, "Coexistence and Transformation: Reading the Politics of Identity in Romans in an Imperial Context" (3–23), in which Stegemann nuances the politically sensitive readings of Romans that have been cropping up recently.

But this is the point that is (or should be) both patently obvious and thoroughly heeded. Stegemann notes:
Reading Romans in a Roman imperial context does not exclude the recognition that Paul's words and message belong at the same time and to an even greater extent to a Jewish cultural concept, more precisely to an 'apocalyptic' or 'theocentric' or 'messianic' Jewish language. Admittedly C. Bryan stresses this very difference in his critique of the counter-imperial reading of Paul, 'Christians were using some of the same words about Jesus as pagans used about Caesar, but they were hardly using them in the same context, or meaning anything like the same thing by them.' But Jewish culture and especially its 'apocalyptic' or 'messianic' version in some sense represents imperial rhetoric too. (6, citing C. Bryan, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005], 91)

I'm not sure how "precise" the language of apocalyptic, theocentric, or messianic Judaism really is. But Stegemann rightly resists reading Paul in either Jewish or pagan contexts and understands him as operating as a Jew in a pagan context. To say things a bit differently, I don't think Paul used words like euangelion ("gospel"), kyrios ("lord"), pistis ("faith[fulness]"), etc. simply because these were the catchwords of Roman imperial rhetoric; these are terms that are clearly operative in his biblical/Jewish context. But neither was he unaware of the imperial employment of these terms. And I don't understand why we should think we need to choose between Jewish and Roman readings of Paul. At least since Martin Hengel's landmark study, Judaism and Hellenism (1974), we have known that these aren't two discrete cultural universes. Stegemann's study helps us see more clearly Paul, the Jewish philosopher/evangelist, as he was formed by and engaged with the Roman imperial context in which he lived his entire life and ultimately met his end.

Friday, March 04, 2011

"collective" and/or "social" memory

I'm reading Samuel Byrskog's article, "A New Quest for the Sitz im Leben: Social Memory, the Jesus Tradition and the Gospel of Matthew" (New Testament Studies 52 [2006]: 319–36). Byrskog has recently fired off a series of essays looking to reframe the form-critical concept of Sitz im Leben within the contemporary theoretical framework sustaining NT scholarship. Of course, as I've mentioned previously, I'm not as interested in salvaging NT criticism's form-critical heritage. But inasmuch as Sitz im Leben has degenerated into a fairly generic term that means not much more than "context," it remains flexible enough to serve contemporary needs while maintaining an apparent continuity with the research of previous generations.

At any rate, Byrskog is rightfully drawing attention to the surprising terminological disarray in the secondary literature regarding the communal dimension of memory. "There is a confusing variety of terminology. The literature uses 'family memory', local memory', 'popular memory', 'public memory', 'relational memory', 'cultural memory', etc. These expressions sometimes carry different connotations, but are also often employed synonymously" (321–22). Byrskog's right; the loose use of language here is unfortunate and, I think, masks a worrying imprecision with respect to what we're after when we use these terms.

So I'm sympathetic with what Byrskog's trying to do when he defines more precisely what he means by "social" and "collective" memory. But I'm not sure he's successful. He clarifies:
With James Fentress and Chris Wickham, I will use "social memory" as a label distinct from "collective memory". While the latter is social in that it includes those recollections of a group that are shared by all of its members, being something else than the sum total of all the individual recollections, the former is social in that it deals with the social aspects of the mental act of remembering. Social memory is thus interested in the memory of individuals in social contexts which are larger than the individual and yet related to the individual. (322)

Byrskog describes beautifully the most important insight of social memory theorists: that every act of memory is social. But I'm not sure what his use of "collective memory"actually refers to. Byrskog equates collective memory with "recollections of a group," but I'm not sure what a group's recollection actually is, how it's manifested, for whom it's manifested, or whatever. Funnily enough, Byrskog himself has balked at this very idea of "collective memory": "Groups and cultures might have what we call ‘memory’, which affects the members of those contexts, but groups and cultures do not remember and recall; individuals do” (2000:255; original emphasis). Granted that in this current context (Byrskog's NTS article) he still focuses on the individual rememberer (notice the reference to "all of its [viz., a group's] members"). But I don't understand at what point a sufficient number of individuals within a group exhibit a particular recollection, and I don't understand what makes the memories of individuals "collective" other than, apparently, the mere fact that multiple individuals share them in common.

In a rough draft of another paper, I've questioned Byrskog's concept of "collective memory" this way:
Byrskog affirms that “groups and cultures do nurture a memory of their past” and that “memory is to some extent a social construct” (2000:255), though he does not explain what processes, social or psychological, are involved in this nurturing. This problem plagues Byrskog’s work at multiple points; another example, taken at random: “[O]ral historians of today often attempt to control the uniqueness of each eyewitness account with a sense of its representativeness and a careful method of strategic sampling. In order to do this, one needs to single out persons who are representative of a larger group, and compare their versions with each other. Groups are important, but one needs to focus on the individuals within each group, because the collective version [of the past] might be entirely different from the version of the individual” (2000:69; original emphasis). But what, precisely, is “the collective version” that an oral historian could compare and contrast with an account given by any given individual? And which individual, for that matter, is able to give an account of the past that isn’t already reflective of the history, interests, and culture of the groups to which s/he belongs?

I should clarify that I wrote these comments solely in reference to his very important monograph, Story as History, History as Story (Mohr Siebeck, 2000). However, the same problems are operative in his 2006 article. I'm very, very sympathetic to the interest in the social dynamics of even the most individual of processes (here, memory). And I do think that "remembering together" affects the way individuals express and employ memory. But I just can't convince myself that "collective memory" refers to "group memory" or even the aggregate of individuals' memories. Individuals and groups aren't separate (or separable) entities; my memories all by themselves are already social creations. The act of remembering with other people doesn't transform my memories into social facts; still less does it produce social facts in the melding of multiple individuals' memories. Remembering together augments and extends the social-ness of my/our memories; it does not cause that social-ness.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

getting ready for SECSOR 2011

The SECSOR 2011 meeting is this weekend (4–6 March) at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, KY. The pictures look gorgeous, and I'm excited to get on the road. I'll be presenting my paper, "Speaking of Jesus: 'Oral Tradition' beyond the Form Critics," in the SBL New Testament section on Saturday evening. I've been working on this paper for over a month, and I think it's pretty good. But I would think that, wouldn't I?

In the spirit of open and public academic discussion and debate, I've uploaded my paper to both Scribd and Google Docs. I'll embed the Scribd version below. If, for some reason, you prefer Google Docs, you can use the link I've included. Both documents are completely public.

The highlighted numbers in the paper refer to the accompanying PowerPoint presentation. I've tried to upload the .pptx file to Scribd and Google Docs, but it didn't display properly in either place. If you're interested in seeing the PowerPoint, leave a comment here and I'll happily e-mail it to you.

UPDATE: I've finished the handout that I will distribute to anyone determined to listen to my paper. Like the paper itself, you can find the handout on Google Docs, or you can see the embedded Scribd version, below.

Speaking of Jesus: "Oral Tradition" beyond the Form Critics
Speaking of Jesus: "Oral Tradition" beyond the Form Critics (handout)

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

thinking poorly about Mark's audience

As part of my senior-level undergraduate course on Mark's gospel I've assigned James Edwards's commentary in Eerdman's Pillar New Testament Commentary series (The Gospel according to Mark [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002]). Edwards argues that Mark was written for gentile Christians in or near Rome. While I don't have a problem with this position (though neither do I subscribe to it), I do have a problem with Edwards's favorite argument in its favor.

Whenever Mark translates an Aramaic phrase or a Jewish custom (e.g., Mark 5.41–42; 7.2–5), Edwards makes a comment regarding Mark's gentile Roman audience. And whenever he does so, I make a point to explain to my students how unnecessary such comments are. But now Edwards has crossed the line from claiming more than the data demands (a common and, in my view, acceptable practice) to making claims that simply aren't true. Let me explain.

In his comments on Mark 7.34 ["Jesus looked up into heaven and sighed, and he said to him, 'Ephphatha' (which means, 'Be opened')."], Edwards drops a footnote in which he claims, "The need to translate an Aramaic saying into Greek again indicates that Mark is writing for non-Jews" (2002:225, n. 28). But this simply isn't true! At the very least, such a view assumes that every Jew in Mark's world understood Aramaic.

Instead, we need to recognize at least two basic facts, both of which require explanation. First, Mark includes Jesus command in an Aramaic form. Second, Mark translates the Aramaic command into Greek. Edwards focuses on this second datum and infers, therefore, that Mark must be writing for non-Jews. But, as I've already said, this goes too far. The most we can say with confidence is that Mark is writing for people who know Greek but do not know Aramaic.

The really interesting question, I think, is: Why did Mark include the command in Aramaic in the first place? Answers will be speculative, of course. But I can think of two: First, there was a power associated with Jesus' actual spoken words, and so Mark included those words even though he wrote for a Greek-speaking audience. We have remains of hundreds of magical papyri, mostly from Egypt, that attest the perceived power of foreign words (somewhat like the pseudo-Latin of Harry Potter). But second—and here's where Edwards goes astray—the presence of both the Aramaic command and its Greek translation may suggest that Mark is writing for a multi-ethnic (and multi-lingual?) audience. If so, then Mark may preserve the Aramaic/Judaic form of much of his tradition because many among his audience were well positioned to appreciate its preservation, but he explains the Aramaisms/Judaisms because others (many?) among his audience would not have understood them.

At any rate, if you're convinced, along with Edwards, that Mark writes for gentile Christians in/near Rome, then you need to provide some explanation why Mark includes words like, Ephphatha, or Talitha koum, or Elōi, Elōi lema sabachthani. Certainly the gospel story is intelligible without them, so why does Mark bother to include them at all?

the men of my dreams?

When I woke up this morning I realized that I had been dreaming that I was having a dialogue with Bart Ehrman about David Parker's discussion of the manuscript tradition of Jesus' teaching(s) on divorce (Matt 5.27–32; 19.3–9; Mark 10.2–12; Luke 16.18). I'm sure this says something about me, but for the life of me I just can't imagine what.

Just to add to the weirdness, one of Ehrman's children made a brief cameo appearance (not one of his actual children, I don't think). After Bart and I (we're on a first-name basis) finished, I ran into my Academic Dean.

Dreams don't get much more random than that.

For Parker's analysis, see, The Living Text of the Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 75–94.

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