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.


yeti said...

interesting blog. I'd like to read it again when I am a little more awake.

Rafael said...

Thanks, yeti. I'll be interested to know what you think.

My Visual Bookshelf