Studying Paul’s Letters (Fortress Press) – a critical review of a critical book

Earlier in 2012, Fortress Press published a collection of essays entitled Studying Paul edited by Joseph Marchal (Ball State). This book is not what you might think from the title. It is neither an exegetical guide to studying Paul nor is it a survey of his life, thought, and theology. The subtitle is very helpful in getting a grasp on this book’s goal: “Contemporary Perspectives and Methods.”

The chapters fall into these basic categories

Historical Approaches – M. Johnson-DeBaufre

Rhetorical Approaches – Todd Penner and Davina Lopez

Spatial Perspectives – Laura Nasrallah

Economic Approaches – Peter Oakes

Visual Perspectives – Davina Lopez

Feminist Approaches – Cynthia Briggs Kittridge

Jewish Perspectives -Pamela Eisenbaum

African American Approaches – Demetrius Williams

Asian-American Perspectives – Sze-kar Wan

Postcolonial Approaches – Jeremy Punt

Queer Approaches – J. Marchal

Now, some of these chapters demonstrate that part of the purpose of this book is to help readers of Paul to make sense of his letters in their socio-historical context. But Marchal has in mind more. The context in which he teaches Paul is not a confessional one, so he is not very interested in theological interpretation of Scripture. His interest, it would seem, is in a kind of deconstruction of Paul.

Because biblical ideas have become central to the most populous religion, and because people from Christian-majority cultures have gone virtually everywhere else on the planet (with otherwise good or bad intentions), it would be inadvisable to ignore the impact of biblical, and especially Pauline, image and argument. Whether you or I see it as legitimate or not (or ourselves practice it or not), people continue to use Pauline arguments and images to found or reinforce a variety of practices and standards, including those that have destructive and dehumanizing effects. With the help of the critical approaches and perspectives to follow, studying Paul’s letters can make us savvier about such dynamics, certainly when biblical claims or worlds are being deployed but also more generally when appeals are made to any kind of authority or ‘foundation’ in culture.

When I was reading through the book (which did, of course, contain some helpful information), I couldn’t help but get the impression that this book had the purpose of either redeeming Paul for people uncomfortable with evangelical Christianity or deconstructing Paul for people who just don’t like him at all. In that sense, another title may have been: Savvy Tips for Shooting Down Fundamentalists. Certainly some parts of the book offer necessary corrective lenses, such as Pamela Eisenbaum’s reminder that Paul was very “Jewish,” so we should not see him trumpeting the triumph of “Christianity over Judaism.” Still, in a number of essays, it seemed as if these scholars (aside from Peter Oakes, I am sure) find Paul to be someone we can treat as “a man in history that happened to have great influence (and often to our chagrin),” rather than a theologian with something very serious about which to teach us.

I am not blind to the fact that by-and-large the contributors are “religion” scholars and this kind of “critical” reading is what they do for a living. Still, I am not sure how I feel about calling this “Studying Paul.” In one way it certainly is. And I understand that comparative-religion programs want to train their students in the history and philosophy of religion. Yet, it still appears that Paul is set at a great distance, lest he taint the interpreter with his religio-babble.

Let me give an example. I am reading Ben Sira, and though I don’t read him as an OT prophet or an inspired Christian, when I study him “critically,” I cannot help but admire and appreciate his love of wisdom and honor.

I do hope even in AAR and SBL, though we try our very best to be rigorously “critical,” we haven’t lost sight of the fact that almost all of us began studying religion because we are religious and because we felt, perhaps even just at one time in our past, people like Paul and Jesus have something good to offer to the world.

Okay, stepping off my soapbox, let me give credit where it is due in this book Studying Paul’s Letters. First of all, the authors in general have their heads on straight when it comes to why we study history. We don’t do it for collecting dates and figures. We do it because it tells us about our time now and it gives us access to other worlds that aid us in processing our own culture and sense of “reality.” The book also contains excellent visuals (Fortress always does a good job with this!). Finally, each chapter ends with endnotes (which I think is OK in a book like this) and a short annotated bibliography. Given how “new” many of these contemporary approaches are, I do appreciate the annotations.

Who should buy this book? It is meant to be a kind of textbook for religion programs, and I think it will flourish in that setting. If you are interested in any one of these critical perspectives, Marchal did bring together the very best scholars in their respective fields.

While I do not agree with endorser Tat-siong Benny Liew that this is “arguably the best and most accessible textbook for a course on reading Paul,” I do think that there are a number of topics that will open your eyes to thinking critically about Paul, his times, and his letters in ways you would have never thought of before.


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