Varia on NTW’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God #3 (Gupta)

NTW2I am doing a kind of random series on Tom Wright’s “big book on Paul,” Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Now we are into some meatier sections of the book, so instead of “varia” I will focus on one important chapter: “The Plot, The Plan, and the Storied Worldview” (chapter seven).

His argument and flow of thought in this chapter are, I think, quite clear. First, Paul seems to have had a worldview (since everybody does). Second, a worldview, so the best theorists have told us, is storied or narrative-in-shape. I am with Wright in that I cannot see how and why people find this so problematic. But Wright points to people like Francis Watson (see p. 462) who say that Paul was not a storyteller.

Wright properly rebuts (if he is getting Watson right) that his narrative-worldview is not explicit in his letters, but implicit. Here is Wright’s “Here I stand” dictum:

As with Geertz, Berger and Luckman, Petersen and the thousand writers who have made this and similar points (and with whom the real quarrel should take place if the dissenters want to pick one), I insist that it is possible in principle, and not actually difficult in practice, to discover within the larger worldview and mindset, to which we have remarkably good access, what implicit story Paul is telling, behind, above, underneath, in and through (whatever spatial metaphor you like) the particular things he says in this or that letter. Discerning this is not arcane, not dependent on some fancy French philosophy, not particularly difficult (466).

I think Wright has made his point well in this chapter, even if he comes across a bit defensive. I am especially appreciative of his point that we simply cannot and should not pit “salvation history” (i.e., narrative-focused) approaches to what some call “apocalyptic” (which some may think is anti-narrative). Wright is happy to call “apocalyptic” (if you like) that dimension of Paul’s theology that is radical and surprising, “but it must be retained within the larger historical framework which we are exploring. How that ‘works’ remains to be seen. How it does not work is by elevating ‘apocalyptic’ as an overarching principle and insisting a priori that it rules out all continuity, all sense of a larger narrative within which the story of Jesus the Messiah, the story of Paul himself and the story of the communities he founded, make the sense they do. That is to deJudaize the context before we begin…” (461).

This is a helpful chapter, but, as with much of the book it is highly responsive so it would make much less sense to readers who are not up-to-date with what has been going on in Pauline studies in the last three decades. I am afraid this book will be received as a kind of monograph series of 8 volumes (for eight long chapters) bound into one of highly detailed and specific arguments and responses, rather than a volume in his “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series that will teach the next generation of New Testament historian-theologians.

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Mark Reasoner on Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook (Gupta)

ReasonerWhen I was at Durham I was in the disorienting position of having Tom Wright preach, lecture, and write about how Paul was threatening and challenging the authority of the emperor in my left ear, and John Barclay saying “Paul was not interested in Caesar at all; he is just a bit player on the stage of Paul’s battle against much larger and more important ‘archic’ powers,” in my right ear.

I think Wright has admitted that earlier study of “Paul and Empire” was, perhaps, a bit overstated, but Wright has not backed down. Barclay has not made this matter his main concern in Pauline scholarship, but neither has he changed his view. I have to admit that I still lean towards Wright’s perspective. I had a fun and lively debate with the ever-gentle Joe Modica on this matter when I taught at Eastern last year. I remain unrelenting too! (see my review of and response to Modica’s edited work).

Well, when I purchased Mark Reasoner’s Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook (Fortress, 2013) at SBL, I was very interested in what Mark had to say on this matter. In the introduction, he talks about the Wright-Barclay debate. Reasoner shows appreciation for Barclay’s concerns. The NT writers don’t call out the emperor directly (p. 3). Reasoner also echoes the idea from Barclay that Paul focused especially on “the polytheistic fabric of the Mediterranean world,” not the empire. We don’t get a clear message that Paul had a beef with Claudius or Nero. However, Reasoner goes on:

the fact remains that the Roman Empire found something wrong with Paul, even if he did not oppose the Roman Empire as directly as N.T. Wright suggests…[W]e are still left with a relationship of incompatibility between Paul the apostle to the nations and the Roman Empire. (4)

In Reasoner’s mind, then, it is worthwhile to know more about Roman imperial power, presence, and politics whether it is to see how the early Christians opposed empire (e.g., Deissmann/Wright) or simply ignored it (Barclay). Even though Reasoner tries to make the book appealing to both the Barclays and the Wrights, so to speak, he seems to favor a more Wright-ian approach. After all, he particularly chose texts and images for the sourcebook because he saw in them concepts “ideologically analogous to what we encounter in the New Testament” (5). At the very least, though, Reasoner thinks these texts open up windows on the world of the New Testament. That they do and we are in Reasoner’s debt.

On Reading and Studying Scripture: Lessons from Malherbe (Gupta)

malherbeAs I was looking up some of Abraham Malherbe’s work, I stumbled across a nice little essay called “On the Writing of Commentaries.” Malherbe (who passed away a couple of years ago) was a seasoned commentator and biblical scholar, perhaps most well-known for his work on 1-2 Thessalonians and Paul in the Greco-Roman world.

In his essay he talks about how different people do biblical research. Some, he notes, compile a bibliography and trudge through the secondary sources as of first importance (Doug Moo recently made a nod about this being his approach). Malherbe resists this move methodologically. He writes this:

Focus on the text! If something worthwhile has been written, it will bubble up as the commentator pursues more basic work…The way to begin is to develop a close relationship to the text. Unburden yourself of the preconceptions you have of the text, acquired from your reading of interpreters and your previous research. To spend time with them at this stage is like washing your feet with your socks on. When confronted by the phalanxes of commentators, I am reminded of J. Frank Dobie, the father of Southwestern literature. When someone asked him why he never got his PhD, he retorted that the dissertation held him off, for writing one was like digging up bones from one hole and putting them into another.

I have always been taught (by my own mentors) to take Malherbe’s approach. And when I assign coursework in Scripture to my students, I try, as best I can, to get them deeply involved in the text as a first-contact priority. I like inductive exercises on most occasions better than deductive ones. At least initially, I want my students well-trained in exegetical method and historical context, rather than up on which modern scholar has this or that opinion about this or that issue.

Two models: Francis Watson and J. Ramsey-Michaels. As for the former, he rarely seems dependent on other previous interpreters (which is why he is always so difficult to categorize!). As for the latter, his NICNT commentary is fresh because he doesn’t feel bogged down by commenting on all the commentaries. In many ways, his volume is an exercise in plain reading, but profoundly so!

Preaching: I think that, because our seminaries in the US tend to promote “safe preaching” (tethered to popular opinions ‘in the commentaries’), I find most preaching very dull. This is, in part, I think, because preachers weren’t trained to really read the text carefully for themselves. They were trained how to look up what the text means in a variety of handy reference resources. Conversely, I love it when sermons show freshness of thought because the preacher said, “I was filled with gratitude and awe as I spent the last two weeks reading [X book of Scripture] over and over again, night and day. Here is what struck me…” Preachers, I think, used to see themselves as theologians once upon a time. Now they are all-too-often deliverymen and women.

A Plea to Remember the Biblical Languages: My heart breaks because seminaries are finding study of biblical languages optional, but not necessary. I know languages are hard, but so much of the freshness and inspiration, for me, comes from trying to sort out what in the world these Greek (or Hebrew) words mean and how we should translate them (formally and functionally). Malherbe, in his essay, gives some attention to this matter as well.

See Malherbe’s essay, “On the Writing of Commentaries,” Restoration Quarterly 53.3 (2011): 129-140.