Pauline Eschatology: Dan Oudshoorn’s 2nd Volume on What Paul is Up to

Sorry Dan for being so slow!

Months after providing a bit of a review of Dan Oudshoorn’s first volume in his Paul and the Uprising of the Dead trilogy, I am finally back. While this volume is slimmer than the previous one, I found myself delayed by a move and trying to finish a manuscript. If you were awaiting this (um, sorry Dan!), then I offer my sincere apologies.

Oudshoorn’s previous volume provided several important contributions. They aren’t limited to the following, but these were what I found to be useful both for the critical scholar, and to someone relatively new to the subject: 1) Oudshoorn presents the reader with a fairly comprehensive survey of various positions on a) social stratification in early Christian congregations, and b) Paul and imperialism, b) nuanced discussions in eschatology; 2) while being fair with interlocutors he disagrees with, he also does a good job sussing out the evidence with, especially, matters dealing with stratification, dismantling some structural foundations of new consensus scholarship; and 3) Oudshoorn keenly uncovers ways of reading texts from below in a way that most middle class, comfortable scholars are not able to quite recognize, as they have not lived the conditions necessary to cultivate the forms of historical imagination needed; this, I think, is a particularly important point, and reminds me of a challenge that Larry Welborn put in a review of Bruce Longenecker’s Remember the Poor, namely that scholars needs to “cultivate an awareness of the inconspicuous strategies that ensured survival and flourishing for oppressed classes.” These, of course, are not comprehensive goods found in the book, but they stand out in particular to me.

Oudshoorn’s second volume (Pauline Eschatology: The Apocalyptic Rupture of Eternal Imperialism) is slimmer, but no less readable and important. Like the previous volume, it expertly deals with historical material, taking care to recognise the socio-material realities of what constitutes historical situations and change.

The volume is divided into, really, two main chapters (ignoring the introduction and conclusion), the first being “Apocalyptic Eschatology and the Founding Narratives of Empire: History and Resistance,” and “The Ideo-Theology of Rome: Justifying Empire.” If one has a decent grasp on the field of recent works in NT studies (especially works on Paul), then the general flow of these chapters may be evident from the titles.

Oudshoorn early on makes quite clear the basic thesis, noting that as he came of age( academically) much focus tended to be on claims about the end of history, and this is a reminder that ‘imperialism is heavily invested in promoting a realized form of eschatology’ (p 2). And, further, perhaps we can see some clear parallels between current iterations of empire (neoliberal capitalism, for instance) and the imperial cults of the first century CE. The book isn’t primarily focused on creating these parallels directly, even if they serve a useful purpose (perhaps, like, Neil Elliott wonderful book Arrogance of Nations). He doesn’t, for instance, set out bait for historical critical scholars to cry ‘Anachronism!’ The parallels, however, provide a good overview of what is happening here. Oudshoorn wants to show that, much as ’empire’ today is invested in rather grand (even theological!) claims about itself, and that these claims are forceful and have material impacts, so it was in the ancient world.

Many Pauline scholars would readily agree. And, while this may cause one to wonder why Oudshoorn pays so much attention to it, I want to gesture back to my previous review. I made clear there that one thing to keep in mind is that these are individual volumes in a larger project. Oudshoorn spends time on this, then, precisely because it elaborates on earlier parts of the broader picture he is painting. Here, then, we get some of the fine details and nuances that make sense of the scene.

What is empire trying to do? It really boils down to delimiting the future, to attempting to ‘eliminate the future as a domain of radical new possibilities that disrupt, overturn, or destroy the status quo…’, even if never bringing this goal to completion (p. 5).

While history is often purported to be a neutral mission of fact-finding, it never escapes ideology, and our ways of organising the past tell stories about what we value and about who is in charge. This can be seen quite clearly in the ancient world, though as Oudshoorn rightly notes it is true of the modern, as invested as we are in our own forms of mythmaking (pp. 9-10).

Just doing neutral research, yall!
Author: National Eye Institute

Our ways of marking time are important. And, while we tend to believe that divisions of time are products of objectivity and scientific achievement, they have generally tended to have much more to do with honour and ideology than simply with interest in mere precision. Oudshoorn notes, for instance, that the Romans often ‘marked time with honorific eras, with saeculum (marking a generation according to its oldest living member), and with anniversaries of years’ (p. 13). In fact, ‘events marked a shift to a new moment in history’ such as the ‘founding and refounding of (a new, better, truer) Rome by people like Romulus, Augustus, and Nero. . .’ (ibid). This helped shape Roman conceptions of historical progress.

Calendrical reforms occur in Rome that underscore the importance of the emperor. As time goes on the ‘cultic center’ shifts from older ways of reckoning hisotrical progress and centres on figures associated with the imperial cult. Oudshoorn notes that this has the effect of making the emperor ‘increasingly important to Roman ways of marking time and defining one’s identity and world as Roman’ (14). It’s a universalising project, one that brings all people under one calendar, under one understanding of time, that centres on a distinct imperial class.

Oudshoorn takes great pains to make this broader case, pointing to the creation of this cyclical, universal calendar, as well as noting the theological, political, and ideological ends of such a project. Holidays coinciding with births, the naturalisation of cycles of time guaranteed to subjects of the empire, and the requirement that citizens celebrate and participate unveils how deeply ways of marking time determine the scope of history, and re-fashion subjects of the body politic.

Christina Horsten/dpa

This interest in celebrating and moulding history is also about remaking the future, or perhaps rendering the present time as a time that persists in it’s abundance and perfection, a type of realised eschatology. As Oudshoorn notes, much was made about Golden Ages of the past, and Roman reforms (including attempts to re-make the subject through dividing time) is concerned with acknowledging a new age that corresponds to previous primeval golden ages. He notes the importance of the Secular Games, quotes from Virgil, Horace, and Ovid’s descriptions of past ages of prosperity to which Rome was reaching toward (pp 21-26). But of course, a golden age is only as good as its propaganda, which is why it is almost as if successive emperors have to re-do them, re-jig things in order to make this eternal moment in time more real. And, it is hard to make these moments seem real to any but the higher classes when there, as Oudshoorn shows through Cicero, was massive transfers of wealth to centres of the Empire (p. 30). We are surely familiar with this today. Many want to pretend, for instance, that America is relishing in a Golden Era (exemplified, perhaps by Golden Toilets), despite systemic racism, a massive underclass, the disenfranchisement of labour, and the rise of white nationalist violence.

From Chrono Trigger, Square.

But, just as there are resistances today, the ancient world found ways to resist. Rebellions are a great example, of course, but so are other forms of resisting history. Oudshoorn (drawing from Anathea Portier-Young) notes that apocalypticisms were a sort of ‘”equally totalizing counterdiscourse” dealing with themes of universalism, moral and ontological dualisms, vindication, imminence, judgment, and inspiration’ (p. 35; Portier-Young, Against Empire, 35). They exist as a type of ‘liberation of historical time’, a rupture (p. 36).

Oudshoorn goes on to note in the rest of the chapter Paul’s place in this, how Paul’s language follows along in the tradition of apocalypticisms, pointing to important, foundational work by scholars like J-L Martyn, perhaps best known for his Galatians work. This apocalypticism, despite in some ways mirroring the ‘ideo-theology of Rome’, is different in a crucial sense. It doesn’t posit a ‘clean instantaneous break’, but instead its rupture persists as a sort of overlapping of old and new ages (p. 42). Oudshoorn makes clear what this doesn’t simply mean: 1) it is not simply some individual internal struggle regarding righteousness; 2) it isn’t something strictly spiritual; 3) it doesn’t call for some aloofness wherein one ‘can simply continue to do what they can to make the world a better place, all while remaining very aware that the world is passing away’ (p. 43). Instead, this apocalypticism is a sort of interpellation, a call of a new, ‘militant subject’ who is part of an ‘awakened collective’ (ibid.). This is, quite obviously, political talk. And, Oudshoorn points to how Pauline language that goes against the realised eschatology of Rome buttresses this fact.

Despite all of this, Oudshoorn ends this chapter with a reminder that empires work to assimilate opposition, and attempting to co-opt imperial themes (in an attempt to flip them transgressively) is dangerous, inviting one to fall back into the ‘status quo’ of imperial power (p. 48).

Oudshoorn’s final chapter is a more thorough overview of what he terms the ‘ideo-theology’ of Rome, or, ‘the combination of beliefs and practices that provided the moral, spiritual, political, and economic foundations for the widespread implementation of imperial power’ (p. 52); this is important. If the general idea is that Pauline apocalypticism is connected to, or partially an obverse of/reaction to realised Roman eschatology, then understanding this ideo-theology would be important to understanding Paul.

Oudshoorn points to four main foundations of Rome’s imperial theology: 1) household; 2) honour and shame; 3) patronage; 4) ‘traditional Roman religiosity’ (p. 53). Most of these should be broadly familiar to those, especially, interested in social-scientific readings of NT texts. Further, aspects of them were touched on in the previous volume. Oudshoorn, however, point to numerous contemporaneous primary texts that undergird these as part and parcel of the broader ‘imperial theology’ of Rome, as well as pointing back to the Augustan reforms that he has discussed previously. This is important, especially, for his portrayal of the ideal Roman family, and the overall structure of the household. Significant time is spent on slavery, with Oudshoorn underscoring how views on slaves ‘contributed to the ideo-theology required to maintain the empire,’ primarily through a ‘view of foreigners and the urban poor as subhuman, targets of violence, and as objects to be feared’, which ‘justified military campaigns abroad and oppression at home’ (p. 65).

Oudshoorn’s section on patronage (pp. 69-79) is , I think, particularly important because of patronage’s pervasiveness, it’s ‘asymmetrical’ nature, and the types of social and material dependencies central to it (p 70). And, his final of the four foundations is crucial because, as Oudshoorn notes, it acts socially in a way that parallels the way that forms of conservative Christianity intertwine society and politics and make proclamations about normativity (pp. 79-83).

In order to keep this review from becoming unmanageable, let me gesture to the next big steps that Oudshoorn takes in the book, before saying a few concluding thoughts.

After discussing these four pillars of Roman imperial theology, Oudshoorn spends considerable time on detailing the Roman imperial cult, looking at source material (pp. 84-92), backgrounds for the spread of the cult in the east including details of the cult during the broad period of the NT’s composition/descriptions (pp. 92-99), and some of the central ‘themes’ of the cult (pp. 100-34). The themes, as he reckons them, are: 1) predestination to universal rule; 2) the gospel of Roman peace, salvation, and liberty; 3) war, victory, and justice; 4) piety; 5) mercy; 6) the rule of law; 7) the cult of Roma; and, 8) reverence of the divine Caesars.

Evaluating the Text, with a Final, Captivating End

This volume is, like the initial one, well-researched and well-written. It advances the broader work in important ways. But, I do think it could be useful for other purposes as well. This volume could be easily augmented for classroom use. While Oudshoorn is doing some important and novel things overall, he also provides a wonderful introduction and overview of Roman imperial ideology, the imperial cult, and how these things effect how we read the NT.

Tomb of Dean Fotherby, Canterbury Cathedral; http://www.canterbury-archaeology.org.uk/fotherby/4590809662

Oudshoorn also provides some important charges, really, for the person doing work in this area. I think, over all, he attends to historical imagination in a novel way. And, this is perfectly displayed in his surprising, and rousing, conclusion. Here, I think, is Oudshoorn at his absolute best, with a play between historicising and extracting theories’ energising potentialities. In these final pages, Oudshoorn notes works that have attempted to supersede Foucauldian biopower, positing a type of necropower wherein large intersections of underclasses are subjected to forms of zombie-like life, with their value is accorded to the maximization of economy (pp. 135-36; Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics”‘ pp. 40, 31-32, 34). And, attempts to break from these forms of life often results in subjects embracing ‘an incredibly brutal form of “necroempowerment,” wherein he. . . seeks to transform the situation of vulnerability “into possibilities for action and self-empowerment, and that reconfigure this situation through dystopian practices and perverse self-affirmation achieved through violent means”‘ (p. 136; Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism, 301, 74). The ethics that arises from these dispositifs , rather than ‘do no harm’ is ‘”Receive no harm, or Participate in harm as agents and no longer (only) as victims“‘ (p. 136; Valencia, 114). This gives way, as Valencia and Mbembe make clear, to a type of thanatophilia (or, perhaps as Roberto Esposito would say, a form of thanatopolitical community).

Oudshoorn, after detailing our situation using Mbembe and Valencia, points out however that these predilections existed before capitalism, before our current global situation/s. In fact, ‘although they are embodied in a wide variety of permutations and overcoded with many different glosses, ideologies, or gods, these dynamics are representative of imperialism qua imperialism’ (p. 137). These are dynamics present in the ancient world as well, in the Pauline context. ‘Empires are necrotizing fasciitis. Wherever they go, pain, rot, and ultimately annihilation quickly follow (p. 138).

In Oudshoorn’s story, the Pauline faction attempts in its own way to depart from this. ‘Paul and his coworkers do not pursue’ he writes, ‘the forms of necroempowerment that tempt other members of subaltern populations within the Roman Empire’ (Ibid.). More on that will follow, of course, in Volume Three.

Sexual Assault and our Discipline/s

Most of the Biblical Studies’ (and antecedent disciplines’) Social-Media-sphere are by now  well aware of Jan Joosten and his being caught with nearly 30k images of child abuse. It should go without saying that Joosten’s disgusting, abusive activities are derserving of punishment. And, indeed, his sentence of 1 year (if that…) is much too lenient for these crimes.

But, we have to remember that we have been here before. Several times. We can note, for instance, the well-known case of NT scholar Richard Pervo and Christian ethicist Bernd Wannenwetsch. Pervo, like Joosten, was caught with child pornography while a faculty member at the University of Minnesota. It should be noted that while he was suspended from the university, he was allowed the dignity to resign. And, while he did not teach at an institution of Higher Education after he was caught with child porn, he continued his work as a Fellow of the Westar Institute, with no mention of his past that I can find. The SBL made sure that he was highly lauded in his obituary, the writer of it noting that he was basically the funniest guy who ever had anything to do with NT studies. Nice. Thanks Prof. Rothschild….

We always see Twitter and Facebook erupt in outrage when horrible people in our discipline are caught, the most recent example being Dirk Obbink. And, I have to admit that I want to dwell in both the outrage of the whole disgusting affair, as well as other issues regarding what to do about citation. I’m thankful for the reminder that we should always remember the victim that @NaylorDavis supplied, rather than dwelling in outrage. And, also instructive is the twitter thread by @MAdryaelTong where we are reminded that instead of just sitting on the issues of citation, we need to think about prevention and long-term strategies/solutions. There are instructive questions in that thread.

Regarding prevention: with those examples of creeps who persist despite grievances being raised, maybe the idea of easily accessible databases need to be taken seriously?

So, in the last few years there has been a lot of attention given to child abuse in Southern Baptist circles. And, one of the big problems is that SBC higher ups just don’t seem to take it seriously. Pastors who abuse children don’t stop abusing them after they are caught. Instead (even if they have gone to jail over it), they just move on to another church to continue doing the same horrible things. When light was thrown on this darkness, the SBC threw their hands up and simply said ‘Yes, this is terrible. But, hey, we are an autonomous body so, sorry! Can’t do anything’. What a terrible response. They have the resources and socio-political power to make the right steps to make change. They could use their resources to set up a national database that would track pastors and church workers who abuse children and others. Further, they could compel individual churches to comply with safety measures and with making sure to check workers against the database. But, the will isn’t there. So, instead a personal friend of mine actually started a database with his own resources.

I know there are Google docs with this sort of info in academia that circulate to keep young scholars safe. But, maybe, just maybe, it would be instructive for HE institutions to throw money at creating some type of database. Further, government resources need to be withheld from public institutions unless they make sure that their tech infrastructure is able to track and report on faculty and staff who are peddling in child abuse.

 

Pauline Politics? Yes, Please!

This blog has been much too silent. But, I have things to say, I suppose. For the time being (in order to keep my head a little sharp), I will be publishing reviews of books that I have been recently reading. There have been several, but I wanted to start with a great, new book by Dan Oudshoorn.

Oudshoorn’s book, Pauline Politics: An Examination of Various Perspectives, is the first volume in a trilogy of works that have long been gestating. All of the volumes are currently out. I look forward to getting the other two in the near future.

Oudshoorn

Please purchase directly from the publisher, rather than Amazon. https://wipfandstock.com/pauline-politics.html

 

 

Pauline Politics is, I think, a good intervention in the cacophonous and overcrowded discussions on Paul, astutely evaluating various perspectives relating to, especially, the political kernel of Pauline thought. It is, as well, I think a work that attempts to break from the problem in NT Studies noted by Steve Friesen a decade and a half ago: capitalist criticism.

One would expect that ‘various perspectives’ would be evaluated, since the title mentions such being done. And, this does happen. So, that’s great! A title that honestly deals with much of what is going on in the volume. With regards to the purpose of the series as a whole, Oudshoorn writes that the series ‘will explore some of the diverse and contradictory ways in which Paulinism has been understood, and [Oudshoorn] will assert that the Pauline faction presents us with a particularly creative and subversive combination of eschatology, economics, and political ethics– a combination that abolishes the combination favored by empires, both then and now’ (p 2). This quote gives a fairly good idea of what is happening here, and of course tips the hat to the author’s figuration of Paul.

Divisions

Oudshoorn’s first volume is divided into three main sections. In his first section (pp. 25-66) he examines some of the main, various political interpretations of Paul. He does a good job of including all of the main perspectives on levels of Paul’s (or those various peoples who collectively contribute to the writing of the 7 uncontested Pauline epistles) politicisation. He provides summaries, doing a good job of fairly dealing with material that he doesn’t agree with, both noting the strengths, and then pointing to some of the main faults. In this sections he notes, for instance, the conservative or passive readings of Paul, counter-imperial readings, non-applicable Pauls, and more. He notes the nuances in the arguemnts of those authors he engages, and concisely points to the flaws with their particular readings. As an example, he brings up some of those various weaknesses with Pauline figurations that are ‘spiritualised’ and materially disconnected by pointing to outdated views on ancient life, the split between religion and politics, and the tendency to individualise ancient people (pp 38-40).

The second section of the book focuses on a subject that, personally, I have grown tired of (mostly because of writing on it for several years!). Namely, the socioeconomic status of Paul and early Jesus groups. Now, I noted my boredom of the subject precisely because I found this section to be exceptional! Ourdshoorn does an excellent job sifting through the data, criticising the social-functional readings of early new consensus scholars (though, unless I have read him wrong, he doesn’t include Deissmann with these readings, whereas it seems to me that he was a precursor; Steven Friesen points out the poor reading of Deissmann by new consensus authors [thereby destabilising the concept of ‘new’ consensus] in his 2004 JSNT article, ‘Poverty in Pauline Studies’), and pointing to alternative readings that are fuelled by his own experience among marginalised communities. These alternative readings are, he notes, difficult for many middle-class scholars to entertain, precisely because they lack the experience and imagination due to social privilege. There are so many gems in this section, gestures and emphases that have really helped me in thinking about my own work in new ways. For instance, Oudshoorn’s reminder that there are sorts of micro-divisions within those overarching social divisions that are mainstays, a reminder that helps us to imagine the relations between people in seemingly insignificantly different social places. More could be said aboit this section, but I want to end by noting that I am glad that he read Justin Meggitt’s work well. Too often I come across poor readings of Meggitt (especially in the reactions of the new consensus social-functionalist scholars).

Dan the man

This is Dan.

The final main section of the book is titled ‘Pauline Apocalyptic Eschatology.’ This section, especially, felt foundational. As if it is getting the reader primed for the fullness of the trilogy. Here, Oudshoorn details the apocalyptic markers found in Paul. But, he also spends much time noting the various ends that eschatological readings produce when, for instance, they are directed by scholars like Bultmann, Dodd, and Ratzinger, whose realized eschatology ‘result[s] in a form of conservative bourgeois moralism’ (p. 178). He notes how pervasive and mistaken are those eschatological Pauline figurations that ‘inserts foreign categories of thought into Paul’s letters’ and the problem of ‘[s]hifting the Pauline focus from history to eternity, concrete actions to anthropology, and from cosmic events to existential personal encounters’ (180).

Gripes

The subtitle of the book notes that there will be an examination of various perspectives.  This does not mean that all perspectives every where are examined, of course. The book, after all, is 226 pages including the bibliography. And, because of this, I am sure that there would be some who would nitpick on certain details. For instance, because this book is dealing with ‘Pauline politics’, one would rightly expect that the empire critical approaches would factor into the discussion. And, they do. And, in fact, while Oudshoorn is up front with where he aligns with regards to this scholarly debate, he does a good job of representing the perspective of scholars who do not think that Paul had anything to say about Empire. Oudshoorn mentions one of the more important books on the topic, Seyoon Kim’s Christ and Caesar. Of course, perhaps more could have been said in this section. Maybe those who are dead set against a counter-imperial Paul would cry foul and expect more time and attention to be paid to the arguments against such a Paul. But, time and space are limited. And, in fact, I think the more robust arguments against a counter-imperial Paul are dealt with well. In other words, I think Oudshoorn makes a great case, even if I can imagine a hypothetical person who is not interested in a counter-imperial Paul disagreeing.

There are places of minor disagreement, or at least where I wanted more discussion. But, they certainly don’t problematise the thrust of the text as a whole. Just as an instance (again, these are small things), in a brief sub-section on ‘mobility’, he notes that ‘the ability to travel is frequently interpreted as a marker of wealth and privilege, as those who were poor could not afford to travel’ (pp. 100-101). This was in a larger section detailing the arguments made that Paul was wealthy. I think this is a weak argument (and I doubt Oudshoorn disagrees). I would have liked to have seen in dismantled, not only by thinking about it along with the experience of contemporary poor people who travel over large locations, but also through recent scholarship. An excellent book by Timothy Luckritz Marquis, Transient Apostle comes to mind (of course, being a precarious scholar I no longer have access to this book, and so cannot say much more with precision). I also was surpised to see little Marxist criticism interacted with (most of this Oudshoorn looked at was Kautsky). This may be because Oudshoorn sees Kautsky (and presumably other Marxist NT scholars?) as ‘importing class orders associated with post-industrial Europe in the Pauline context’ (p. 122). Perhaps this is due to my own biases, but I think paying attention to, for instance, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix would be helpful for the aims of this work. And, I side with Christina Petterson and Roland Boer in thinking that often scholars sidestep some important voices and methods (like Marxist criticism!) because of the charge of ‘anachronism’.

Final Words

This is an excellent, precise piece of scholarship. Not only does it pay precise attention to various discussions going on in Pauline studies, but it does a great job of advancing some of them by paying attention to arguments not often considered because of, especially, a lack of scholarly imagination. It is a reminder, then, that what Steve Friesen has said about ‘capitalist criticism’ in NT studies is too true. Scholars are beholden to a particular socio-economic form, such that it impedes their imagination and keeps them from thinking about texts in different ways. Furthermore, Oudshoorn does a good job of connecting the three sections. Especially important is noting the intimate connections between his work on the socio-economic place of Paul and Jesus communities, political, ethics, and eschatology. These sections flow well into each other, and it is clear how the social make-up of these communities isn’t somehow abstracted from a Pauline eschatology or the ethical and political pointedness of Paulinism.

On Finishing and Continuing

Many already know this, but I recently (Nov 14) defended my doctoral project.

I passed with minor corrections, which is the most common result. What this means is that there are a few issues, but they are not significant (no structural issues, nor issues with methodology; no crippling problems).

The viva itself was a lot of fun. In the weeks leading up to the event, I was nervous, hurriedly reading back through my dissertation and trying to anticipate questions, as well as noting any issues that I discerned in the text.

Image result for Taylor Weaver biblical studies

Me, looking angry. But, I actually was not.

But, while I had moments of anxiety beforehand, it ended up being a great back and forth between two top scholars in the fields that I interacted with (NT studies and critical legal studies/political philosophy). It was great sparring with two scholars who actually read what I wrote carefully (even the footnotes!), who didn’t simply thumb through my manuscript, skimming quickly over the the voluminous amount of ink and paper I presented to them.

This was also a significant moment for me in that not only did I pass (which is great as a distinct box being ticked), but I received feedback that really justified the time I spent, the amount of work I put into this.

The viva process is a gauntlet that a student goes through, being put through a type of ritualistic process, being pressed on weak points, and coming out the other end a recognised scholar. And, while this was great, it was amazing also receiving feedback that confirmed that, yes, I am on the right track, that my scholarship has meaning!

What was most surprising to me, actually, were the positive evaluations that I received. My project was couched firmly on the edge of several disciplines. While I do New Testament, and Pauline studies, my work sought to poke holes in both methodologies in Pauline research, but more importantly, it advocated for an unusual path in reading Paul, namely through reading with philosophy (and specifically with the Italian biopolitical philosopher Roberto Esposito). This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And after saying that I noted that I didn’t think that scholars like E.P. Sanders of Paula Fredriksen would be interested. Why did I say this (and even gesture to this in my project)? Because of their thoroughgoing historicism, and their reactions to Zizek and Badiou, whose work they do not think has much to add to the historical study of Paul. I’ve long held that this is short-sighted, following from work done by Ward Blanton.

But James Crossley, who was my external examiner, was adamant that I am on to something here, that my project does have the capacity to convince scholars like Sanders and Fredriksen. That, in fact, I was able to tread new ground in Paul, and that it stands up to scrutiny.

Wow, that felt great to hear in the moment! I did not anticipate being told this, especially because I am often a bit skeptical about the broader NT studies community. This was an important moment for me, verifying that I am a part of the guild. And, it has really boosted my belief in another project that I am working on, and with which I am hoping to land a postdoc. My new project (that I am have been partially playing with since the summer of 2017) is similar to my other work in that while it is multi-disciplinary and on the ‘edge’, has the capacity to (I hope) provide crucial criticism to NT studies, and chart a separate path.

So, here I am. Stuck in a strange moment where I am both completing and continuing, remembering the past, while anticipating (anxiously) the future. I don’t know where I will go, but I am grateful to be where I am.

Wow. I am still surprised that my four year journey is pretty much over.

On Being Stuck on Early Christian Stratification

I recently had a chapter accepted into an edited volume on, broadly, class and the New Testament. And, my piece concerned, among other things, those darn economic/poverty classifications in the first century, and some connections with mutualism and poverty.

This is one of those subjects that has always left me feeling a little isolated. My entry into this subject began with Bruce Longenecker’s 2010 book Remember the Poor, and continued on to Steve Friesen’s masterful work (some in concert with Walter Scheidel), and then I found the 1997 classic Paul, Poverty, and Survival by Justin Meggitt. I’ve tried to stay abreast of the work that has come out recently (I recall Zeba Crook and John Kloppenborg writing some amazing research on things related to my interests, here).

Now, I recognise something: Meggitt’s book, while a classic because it hit back in a powerful way at the so-called New Consensus, was criticised thoroughly. Dale Martin, Holmberg, Longenecker, David Downs, Meeks, and others spent many hundreds of words dispelling some of the simplicities. Binary representations of the Roman empire, or the problem of pointing to concrete evidence of ‘mutualism’, for instance. I use Meggitt’s work in a very particular way (to be seen in the forthcoming chapter mentioned above).

When it comes to stratification, work is still being done to figure early Christian congregations. I have serious doubts about some of this work, even while really enjoying (and commending!) it. I’ve expressed some of my reservations, primarily my pessimism about having sufficient evidence in regards to both associations in general, and early Christian congregations in particular.

Agape-Feast-1

Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome

A bit ago I did, however, find an intriguing article by Ryan Schellenberg, someone I was not familiar with previously. I wish I had stumbled into his stuff before I finished my essay. Instead of wasting anyone’s time with my own poor synopsis, I want to just quote the abstract:
“Although there is broad consensus that the majority of the early Christ-followers were poor, descriptions of the economic practices of their assemblies have focused on the contributions of a surplus-possessing minority. This article employs ethnographic accounts of the economic activities of the poor to challenge the assumption that Paul’s injunctions to generosity were targeted primarily at wealthier members. Since there is ample evidence from numerous societies of sharing among the poor, one cannot deduce from the fact that Paul commends generosity that he is addressing those with surplus resources. Moreover, the moral rhetoric employed by Paul addresses just such concerns as commonly arise when the poor participate in networks of reciprocal exchange. What Paul envisions and seeks to nurture are local networks of Christfollowers who utilize their mostly subsistence-level resources for their mutual benefit.” (Schellenberg, “Subsistence, Swapping, and Paul’s Rhetoric of Generosity,” JBL 137 (2018): 215)

What should be highlighted is this central point: that there is evidence that the poor  engaged in non-hierarchical economic activity, despite poverty; further, the article notes that the aim of this activity accords closely to Meggitt’s ‘mutualism’, even if Meggitt’s work seems to obscure the fragility of such practices.

Furthermore, there has been robust discussion on (as noted above) stratification in early Christian communities, and that because of the usual types of resource allocation seen in association, there must be wealthy members bankrolling things (who to pay for meals, burials, etc?). I’m unsure, as noted above, however, about the evidence. While I have much to go through, what I have seen seems too provisional because of the nature of the evidence and the analogous games being played.

This post, I think, calls for a followup. But, in conclusion, I think there are some provocative things going on in Ryan Schellenberg’s article. Maybe I will try to spell those out more thoroughly in the near future. If you have access to JBL, go check it out.

N.T. Wright and Biblical Stu– Er, I mean, Theology

I dimly recall, desperately struggling against the skips in my memory, reading a baffling section in one of NT Wrights many, repetitive works that one must start from ‘theology’ when attempting to reach back into the past and work toward conceivable and coherent histories of the New Testament documents and early Christianity.

Now, I may be pre-disposed to mis-remembering, especially because I have become increasingly skeptical about Wright’s work as I have slowly worked my way toward becoming a scholar in, among many things, New Testament studies. (And, I would appreciate if anyone more familiar with Wright would point to a source, even if I have gotten him completely wrong)

NT Wright fellow kids

Yeah, I made this masterpiece.

Nonetheless, even in my inchoate state as an undergrad, I recall being taken aback. After all, what are we doing here? Surely, we are attempting to unearth the murky, dusty, scratched reality that was, right?

As has been stated too often, this smacks of apologetics and reminds me of  my undergraduate obsession with the well-known evangelical philosopher and ‘NT scholar’ William Lane Craig. While an expert in debating tactics, and also well-respected regarding his work in philosophy of religion and philosophy of time, his work on the resurrection often relied on not just pointing to certain fairly established facts regarding the historical Jesus, but also noting the importance of one’s presuppositions. Namely, one’s assumed theological/philosophical worldview.

This brings up the big roadblock as, of course, discussions about the possibility of a physical resurrection relies on what one assumes about the world that they live in. And, while Craig is routinely in the role of ‘apologist’, this is the common tact of our opener, Wright. The resurrection is possible precisely because, well, possibility is opened through rejecting forms of ‘methodological naturalism’ that usually operate within historical (or, well, most any) disciplines. The problem is skirted, really.

I still find myself baffled by this, and the only explanation I can really find is the one put forward by James Crossley in his 2006 book Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE).  Namely, that biblical studies too often plays a sort of ministerial role, in a wide sense (paraphrased). And, you can find this to be widely true when you look at the history of biblical studies. There is often a ministerial element. I recall that famous story about Julius Wellhausen, the OT scholar and one of originators of one of the documentary hypothesis. Wellhausen apparently resigned from his post at the University of Greifswald because he recognised that, as a Professor of Theology, he wasn’t able to properly prepare students for their ministerial duties. However, his resignation also mentions why he became a professor of theology: because he was intensely interested in the scientific study of the Bible.

I am unsure that this sentiment has left the professional study of biblical texts completely. It is surely present in those most famous biblical scholars, such as Wright. And, I don’t know precisely what to do about it.

I don’t deny that all scholars are bound up within their ideologies, some of them explicitly theological. I don’t deny that it is a good thing to make clear your ideology (although, as I have pointed out in previous posts, just pointing to biographical markers doesn’t really do anything; it doesn’t cause you to change how you are reading a text. It just makes you feel a little better, a little more responsible as you carry on your way).  I’m not even denying that it is a good thing to make clear one’s own theological proclivities.

Perhaps all I am really saying is that NT Wright kinda annoys me.

Edit: I don’t want to appear as if I am completely against the ministerial element. I am definitely not, and as Jonathan Bernier reminded me, most of the world reads the biblical texts precisely from such a perspective. And, it isn’t really a point that has to be stressed, but biblical texts inform theology.

What is frustrating is when biblical scholarship becomes merely a vehicle for expressing one’s theological proclivities. When  distinctions become difficult to see and disciplines mix without clearly stating so. Wright’s theology steadily slides into ‘biblical studies’ for his reader, and it can be difficult to discern where the shifts take place.

Reconceptualising Conversion

The market is saturated with academic books of various types: newly published dissertations, edited collections, and established scholars’ latest projects. This is not new information for a scholar at any level who pays attention to their disciplinary boundaries.
It can be difficult to keep up, and too often books slip under the radar for a number of reasons. Perhaps they were not marketed well; or, more likely, an avalanche of titles gathered speed from atop Publisher Mountain, enveloping any onlookers, burying them in a mass of (quite expensive) scholarship.

Because of this, I wanted to highlight a book that was particularly influential to my early PhD work. A volume that, actually, will soon be given new life!

In 2004 De Gruyter published many books. Among those was an updated version of Zeba Crook’s PhD dissertation, entitled Reconceptualising Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean, and included within the highly respected series Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wisseschaft. It can be easy to dismiss dissertations, especially these days since the academic market seems flooded with them. But, Crook’s Reconceptualising Conversion helped to make apparent several crucial problems while also suggesting solutions.

Reconceptualising

Despite the beginnings of noticeable disagreement with ‘personal guilt’ as a necessary component to understand Paul (often marked by Krister Stendahl’s 1963 essay ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’) and the rise of the so-called ‘NPP’, many scholars continued to rely on psychology (including cross-cultural models) to understand the conversion of Paul. This is one of the tracts in studies of conversion that Reconceptualising attempts to combat, primarily because the temporal and geographical gaps are much to wide for such methods to be deemed constructive. Trying to utilise ‘psychological’ models are, for Crook, problematic precisely because there are diverse ways of viewing the self, and modern psychology relies on strictly modern understandings of the self. This is, of course, a vital point because it cuts through the muck of individualisation that many Pauline scholars seem to be stuck in, even in the rather wide embrace of the distinctions between ‘collectivist’ and ‘individualist’ cultures (granted, this binary is a simplification) within NT studies.

But, going beyond this important beginning, Crook spends much of the rest of the book setting up a discussion on Paul that pierces through the often overt theologisation of conversion and, crucially, charis. Crook, then, spends time dealing with the intricacies of reciprocity, as well as patronage and benefaction. Here is, perhaps, one of the most compelling points of the book. Crook brings out the importance of benefaction language, how it plays into ancient religion, and how this changes how Paul is read. Again, Crook breaks the reliance on ‘grace’ as a strictly ‘theological’ concept filtered down through certain, pervasive theological structures that are often found in discussions around grace within the academy. Instead, Crook underscores the importance of Paul’s conversion as a response that can be read more coherently when compared with other similar moments of patronage between deities and individuals in the ancient world.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

So, I don’t mean for this to be a review of a book that says much more than I what I have written above (much is going on in the book; for instance, there are crucial discussions on pistis, fides, and other trust and loyalty terminology that predate Teresa Morgan’s large 2015 volume on the subject).

More, important, is the announcement that this wonderful book will breathed new life by Wipf and Stock in the near future!

A few months ago I was finally able to get my hands on Stephan Joubert’s Paul as Benefactor and James Harrison’s Paul’s Language of Grace in Its Graeco-Roman Context (neither of which my library had, but both of which I had encountered at previous universities). These were two expensive academic books published around the same time as Crook’s, dealing with many of the same themes (in fact I’ve often seen these three as an important coterie of studies essential for readings of grace, Paul, and conversion) that were thankfully resurrected into ‘new bodies’ through Wipf and Stock’s Reprint division.

paul and language

Yay! Now this book is affordable!

I had the naive idea to email Wipf and Stock and suggest a re-print of Reconceptualising Conversion. They were super interested, and I was able to briefly operate as a sort of middle actor between Crook and Wipf and Stock. I’m pretty excited that I was able to help make this happen and I hope that many will pick the volume up when it finally comes out.

I do think the book is an important volume, even nearly a decade and a half later, and I am still shocked that while it does make an appearance in many books that deal with ‘grace’, not even John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift gives the book it’s due attention.

Now, no one will have an excuse.

Paul and Marxist Criticism

Here is a video of a talk I did a few weeks ago at University of Kent. The Religious Studies department had their weekly seminar and I was able to present a ‘work in progress’ paper.

Basically, this is something I am currently working on. Further, it is distilled from a much longer piece, and thus much of the piece is skating around more important clarifications and digressions.

Take a look:

 

BCTR(S) 2018: London

Call for Papers and announcement of details for this years Bible, Critical Theory, and Reception conference. I can attest to the great fun and intellectual importance of these conferences, so do consider coming along!

Bible, Critical Theory, and Reception: The official seminar of the Royal Association of Biblical Studies

The eighth annual BCTR Seminar will be dedicated to some of the latest developments in biblical studies. Building on the success of the Bible and Critical Theory seminar and journal in the southern hemisphere, this approximate northern hemisphere equivalent will welcome papers in the general areas of critical theory, cultural studies and reception history.

Reception history is broadly understood to include the use, influence and receptions of biblical texts in all aspects of what might conventionally be called ‘culture’ (e.g. film, pop music, literature, politics etc.).

This two-day seminar will be held in London 23-24th July, 2018 at a venue to be announced shortly. CWkrThe seminar will run from noon on day 1 to mid-afternoon on day 2 and will be free of charge; accommodation will have to be found privately.

Anyone interested in presenting a paper (typically in a 30 minute slot), or would like any other further information…

View original post 36 more words

English Political Christmasses 2017

James Crossley providing ace commentary as usual.

Harnessing Chaos

Theresa May: The Ghost of Cameron Past

TMXmasTheresa May’s construction of Christmas is a little different this year. The usual praise is certainly present (e.g., emergency services, armed forces, aid workers etc.) and potential controversies alluded to, in this case a mention of the Grenfell Tower disaster just after she was strongly criticised for not appointing a diverse panel for the inquiry into the fire. And there is also the typical mention of Christmas as a time to construct a British Christian heritage (‘Let us take pride in our Christian heritage and the confidence it gives us to ensure that in Britain you can practice your faith free from question or fear’) and the usual vague values associated with Christmas in English political discourse (‘As we celebrate the birth of Christ, let us celebrate all those selfless acts…that epitomise the values we share: Christian values of love, service…

View original post 1,272 more words