A Couple of Disturbing Trends in Pauline Scholarship

Recently, as I was perusing a book on Paul’s temple imagery in 1 Corinthians, I was struck by a couple of trends in how scholars approach his letters.  The first is the matter of determining authorial intent.  Call me old fashioned, but a reading that takes no interest in what Paul actually intended is doomed to be damaging.  The author of this monograph, John Lanci, writes:

‘The goal [of this study] is to construct a plausible reading of the text, rather than to discover the original intention of its author…I will nowhere discuss the original intention behind the argument’ (3).

Now, if the monograph were titled in such a way as to focus on the reader’s interpretation rather than the original author’s than I can swallow such a statement.  The fact that he titles the book “Rhetorical and Archaeological Approaches to Pauline Imagery” means to me that he wishes to trace Paul’s rhetoric – an element that is inseparable from intention.  If we are interested in Paul’s persuasive power (rhetoric), can it be done by just proposing a plausible ‘reading’?  Now, what Lanci ends up doing is pretty good and I appreciate that he is attentive to the social background of the original readers.  What I am more concerned with is when we give up on trying to know what Paul actually intended to say!

More and more people are asking, ‘how did the readers receive Paul’s statements?’  To a large degree this is not only highly speculative, but also almost completely irrelevant to what Paul has to say to us.  Now, if you are just saying, ‘Paul knew his audience and spoke to them in terms they would understand’, that is well and good – but that still involves authorial intent.  In my mind, a helpful reading must still be interested in intent of author matters.

Second, we continue to see Paul in terms of either Hellenism OR Judaism and this is simply wrong.  But, it is certainly recognized that the Jewish Scriptures (in Greek) were the single most influential materials for his language in his letters.  Lanci argues against the notion that Paul’s imagery of temple in 1 Corinthians must refer to the Jerusalem Temple.  Instead, Lanci proposes that Paul’s temple language is mulivalent.  I would agree that Paul was not trying to establish a ‘spiritualized’ replacement for the Temple, but his language is almost always distinctly Jewish (i.e., influenced by the LXX).

Lanci’s reasoning is this: Paul’s audience was composed of Gentiles.  Paul would have wanted to communicate to his audience ‘in their own idiom’ (10).  Thus, it is ‘not unlikely’ that he would use imagery that came from the set of knowledge available to his readers (10).  Here is where I think Lanci errs.  If we were in Paul’s shoes, we would probably write very differently – a few more examples from Greek life and argumentation from Hellenistic philosophies.  But, our starting place must be what Paul’s argumentation style actually WAS.  And, we know that he reasoned FROM SCRIPTURE REGARDLESS OF HIS AUDIENCE.  Though quotations are more prominent in some letters than others, all of his letters are saturated with echoes and allusions.  1 Peter, for example, was written to Gentiles.  Should the author have been more sensitive to the fact that his readers may not have known Exodus 19.5-6?

We cannot know what Paul expected from his readers (despite Chris Stanley’s objections).  What we do know is that the encoded/implied reader was quite savvy with Scripture.  Paul’s primary tool of identity transformation apart from the example of Christ (and himself) is his Judaeo-graphic hermeneutic – his bringing of his audiences into the story, characters, statutes, themes, places, and objects of the Old Testament.  What did it mean to his audience when he called them a lump of dough from Passover?  What did it mean when he told them ‘OUR Fathers…were baptized into Moses’ (1 Cor. 10.1-2)?

To borrow from Richard Hays, Paul sought the ‘conversion of [their] imagination’ by reframing their past, present, and future in terms of the the Scriptures through echoes, quotations and even metaphors.  That is not to deny that metaphors of, lets say, running or politics, came from the wider web of knowledge in the ancient world.  Certainly.  But, on the matter of such an important image as the temple, all ‘backgrounds’ would probably not have had equal weight.


5 thoughts on “A Couple of Disturbing Trends in Pauline Scholarship

  1. Nijay,

    I could not agree with you more. Did you happen to see my post asking whether Paul’s audiences were scripturally illiterate? (esp. the part on Stanley’s constructs of audience reception)

    Reader-oriented approaches are all well and good, but why some are so quick to dismiss authorial intentionality is beyond me. Is is due to laziness, or the fear of not coming up with something ‘novel’, sacrificing good exegesis and hermeneutical strategies along the way?

    Keep the good work and Merry Christmas!

  2. Good stuff, Nijay.

    I suppose in my opinion the primary benefit of a study like Lanci’s – which I haven’t read – would be found in the plausible reconstruction of the rift that came between Paul and the Corinthians in the time between 1 & 2 Corinthians. If it can be determined how Paul’s audience(s) would have interpreted and responded to his theological and ethical correctives, irrespective of what he ‘intended’ to say, then we might become more aware of why problems escalated in in certain churches, such as Corinth. Now, you’re right, this will always be somewhat speculative, and I have no idea if Lanci even set out to unravel this. Nevertheless, I can see how a study that aims to explain the issues that arose during that in-between period could benefit NT scholarship at an historic level.

    When do you think it is permissable to draw conclusions about how the original readers would have interpreted a particular literary piece? You suggest that it is okay so long as authorial intent is considered, i.e., when scholars presume that ‘Paul knew his audience and spoke to them in terms they would understand.’ But methodologically speaking, how do you do this without making the same error(s) as Lanci? I ask because my study will have to consider similar kinds of social responses, although based upon Paul’s use of stewardship and benefaction language.

  3. It seems to me that there should be a difference between a “plausible reading” and Paul’s intention. To make such a distinction…I don’t know exactly what that would mean.

  4. I agree with you wholeheartedly Nijay. The abandonment of historical-critical method in favor of reader-response and ideological methods is very irksome to me. Like you stated, these methods don’t help us get at the meaning of the text before us, which is what we should be doing! Isn’t it?

    My guess is that all of this is stemming from today’s “postmodernism” that finds any claim on “meaning” or “intention” to be arrogant. While I do agree that we must be humble and acknowledge that we have few sources and the time/culture gap is huge, we can’t stop reading the Bible in ways that help us understand what it says!

    On the other hand, I do like historically-based reader-response studies. It is beneficial to know some things about how a first-century audience would have understood Paul. To me, however, this is simply an extension of the historical-critical method.

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