Whiteness and New Testament Studies (Part 1)

The 20th century birthed movements that questioned (though not for the first time) the particularity of interpretation, broadly. Our discipline starts, formally, with the advent of ‘scientific’ readings of texts, new methods in discerning proper interpretation. But, movements distanced themselves from these readings as they realised the way that not only Christianity, but our assumptions about texts, silence and subjugate divergent readings. The reality is that readings have material affects. Our readings reveal ideology, and ideology is not simply about abstracted ‘worldviews’, but is about materiality.

It is too bad that postcolonial* readings of biblical texts are marginal. But, David Horrell’s recent BNTC address acts as a sort of wake-up call, one that I hope haunts the minds and writings of those who occupy the centres of NT studies, hopefully directing those with power to sustained recognition of the importance of acknowledging the place of (white) identity within the discipline.

What did he say, though? In the following I will be summarising his address, with brief comments of my own. In a second part of this series of posts I will provide some more nuanced comments, along with some thoughts on the state of the discipline, partially through contrasting with the end of the BNTC this year.**

Interpretive Shifts

Horrell is careful to clarify that his address is primarily concerned with reflecting on how race/ethnicity shape interpretation. He initially illustrates this in the address by comparing a wide range of commentaries on Galatians, honing in particularly on Galatians 3:28. Horrell sticks to these commentaries for good reasons. Commentaries are, often, a culmination of current research on a textual body, and they are also mediums of communication for a wide readership. Influence and excellence, then , are usual characteristics of (some) commentaries.  He also picks the text for a good reason: this section of Galatians is often utilised for universalising (liberalising?) purposes.
It goes without saying, of course, that we are all aware of the diverse purposes and readership of series. Some are for lay people, some for preaching, others for scholars who utilise the commentary for the diverse needs they place upon the text. And so, for good reason, Horrell is not concerned with determining what Paul ‘really meant’ in Galatians 3, but instead he is attempting to note general tendencies in how it has been read by scholars, and further what this reveals about biblical studies and the importance of attending to whiteness.

Horrell begins his review of commentaries by picking several anti- or pre-NPP examples. Ernest DeWitt Burton’s ICC commentary (1921), William Hendrikson’s 1968 commentary, and Leon Morris’s 1996 commentary are prominent examples. All of these exhibit a stark difference between a particularist reading of Judaism (often described as inhospitable to non-Jews) and the universalising theology of Paul.

Following from this brief survey, Horrell points to NPP commentaries, which one would expect to be distinct form previous forms; however, the shift is not quite as substantial as one would think. Dunn’s 1993 commentary, echoed by Walter Hansen’s 1994 commentary, exhibits the same sort of tendencies as the commentaries above, stressing the ‘ethnocentric’ (using Hansen’s word) disposition of Jews. While the stress isn’t laid on Jewish ‘law’, it exhibits the same formula: Jewish exclusivism vs. Pauline inclusivism. However, a crucial difference rests between the two categories of commentaries (NPP: non-NPP). NPP (or those thinkers who have benefited from the broad ‘movement’) point to an abolition of old identities, or at least (for Dunn) their ‘relativization’.

Horrell spends much time detailing some of the distinctions that exist in these commentaries, but he ends this first main section pointing to the possibility of noting the contextuality of these readings, and the importance of pointing to such. He turns to whiteness studies to do so.

Thinking About Whiteness

A brief history and description of whiteness studies is explored. Crucially, it focuses on critiquing whiteness as an identitarian formation which exhibits social privilege (a claim that is, perhaps, especially controversial in a post-Trump world). One of those privileges is the universality of whiteness, it’s characterisation as a sort of default setting, an invisibled race. Whiteness is the universal perspective, untainted by particularity, by place, by space, by time. As a contemporary realisation, the invisibility of the structure is distinct from previous centuries of explicit difference. It was, of course, much easier to talk about the superiority (read: universality) of whiteness in contradistinction with non-whiteness/racialised.

Horrell notes that one of the main goals of whiteness studies is to underscore the racialised identity of whiteness, and especially how it is constructed and maintained. ‘Unmasking’ and ‘contextualising’ whiteness is, then, a main goal. Such serves to make whiteness ‘strange’, disturbing tendencies to universalise whiteness, or treat it as some normative default.

And Pauline Interpretation?

Horrell, in his final main section returns to Paul with a particular eye toward how whiteness studies can elucidate modern Pauline interpretation. This post, however, is getting a bit too long. A second post will describe this final section, while including some of my own thoughts about the piece, the state of the discipline, how this plenary fit into this years BNTC, and where I think we go from here.

Thanks for reading!


*I’m not saying, of course, that this is a postcolonial piece.
**Any misreadings or misrepresentations are on me, not David.

(image source: http://imgarcade.com/smiling-jesus-lds.html)


Paul and Badiou: The Importance of Death

Badiou is nearly inescapable. 
Not that one should really want to escape the purview of such an immense thinker.

Recently I was able to publish an article I wrote on Badiou and Paul. I’ve been fascinated with both of these figures for years, and so it was a tedious joy to write ‘Badiou and Pauline Theology: Detecting a Theology of Death’, which seeks to bring out the crucial role of death in Paul’s work. Underscoring death in Paul, I think, is important for Badiou’s Pauline project precisely because it allows for a more militant Badiouian Pauline figuration.

Simon_de_Vos_-_The_Beheading_of_St._Paul.pdfYeah, I’m not selling this well.

Take a look anyway!

(If the above link doesn’t work, visit JCRT’s page here ; there are some great articles in the issue, including stuff by Hollis Phelps, Carl Raschke, David Congdon, Mads Peter Karlsen, and my friend King-Ho Leung)

The Alleged Subversiveness of Jesus

Over a year ago Robert Myles (NT scholar) descended on Canterbury, taking the city by storm. His “winter” (crazy Antipodeans) break consisted of a nice stay in England. His time kicking around the city allowed for some interesting conversations, a few of which were recorded by moi.

Robert Myles finger

Robert was very excited about drinking some sweet British nectar.

Coinciding with last summer, Robert had an article published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus titled “The Fetish for a Subversive Jesus”, which critically engaged contemporary scholarship and questioned the various flavours of “subversive” Jesuses, figurations beloved by both sides of the ideological spectrum, from Tom Wright to John Crossan.

Thankfully, a wonderful discussion was caught on camera between Pauline scholar/philosopher/all-around-dude Ward Blanton and Robert.

Check it out here!

British New Testament Society: Some Subjective Thoughts and Highlights

Recently I was able to attend the British New Testament Society’s annual conference for this first time, which took place in Maynooth, Ireland from August 31st through September 2nd. Despite living in the UK and working on my doctorate in, primarily, Pauline scholarship for three years I’ve somehow neglected to attend the BNTS. Perhaps this is to my detriment, as one is expected to network, and attending an annual conference dedicated to my main disciplinary area is, undoubtedly, a great place to meet like-minded people. The prospect of meeting some Pauline scholars I’ve yet to chat with in person, as well as finally having a reason to travel to Ireland, was tempting enough for me to sign-up and come along. Likewise, it is always nice to see friends like James Crossley, Michelle Fletcher, John Lyons; likewise, it is great meeting new people like Paul Middelton, Simon Woodman, and many others. (In hindsight, this looks a little too much like name-dropping; but, really, so few care about NT studies that such a charge should appear foolish!)


Maynooth University

I have to note, however, that my research occupies the margins of the discipline. Most of the conferences I have attended since moving to the UK have been variously philosophical, critical theoretical, or theologically focused events. Still, despite my inter-disciplinary interests, I was able to find much going on at the BNTC that caught my eye.

I attended the Pauline section which was, as far as I could tell, occupied by some usual historical-critical scholarship, some presentations dedicated to cataloguing, and overall expected papers (comparing Paul and Phil, for instance…). I, however, broke from attending the Pauline session (though one is encouraged not to skip around) to listen to a tantalising paper delivered by James Crossley. While I was familiar with James’s recent political work, this paper (presented in the Jesus session) reminded me the importance of tracing the use of the Bible in political discourse in various contexts (I’ve done so, recently, with Trump’s electoral campaign). James, for instance, spoke to the various readings of biblical texts by mainstream political figures, namely Thatcher, Benn, and Corbyn. He also answered some questions about the possible ways the Bible’s use could develop in the current and upcoming generations of political activists. After all, one has to wonder about the place of the Bible in political discourse within a nation that is, now, composed of a majority of non-religious subjects.

An added bonus to the conference was finally being able to meet some of scholars I had not been able to connect with personally yet. I’ve long been a fan of David Horrell, AKM Adams, John Barclay and several others. It was a real treat to meet them in person and talk a bit.


David Horrell

The above, however, is personal and largely inconsequential. Most important, in my mind, was the plenary session Horrell delivered on the evening of the second day of the conference. Merely writing the title is perhaps provocative enough: “Paul, Inclusion, and Whiteness: Particularising Interpretation”. It has to be acknowledged that discussing ‘whiteness’ in connection with methodology in NT studies isn’t usual within the discipline, a discipline after all where there is much gesturing to postcolonial, feminist, or ‘postmodern’ (I hate this moniker, but find it difficult to avoid, unfortunately) interpretation but very little (comparatively) done in these areas, such that they remain on the extreme fringes of the discipline.

In the next few days I will be writing up some more posts that present David Horrell’s plenary session in more detail, while also contextualising it within the discipline.

I want to spend time doing so because not only do I think the presentation was important, but also because I don’t want the emphasis of such a presentation to lose momentum. I fear that, if the momentum is lost that most will simply forget that there is needed serious self-criticism within the discipline, that there is very little done which acknowledges significant ideological issues.

I recall reading a back-and-forth in the blogosphere by Larry Hurtado (a senior scholar) and Robert Myles (an early career scholar). It became apparent to me in reading the exchange that while senior scholars will readily acknowledge their situatedness, that they occupy a perspective, that they are ideologically motivated subjects, not often is this taken as seriously as it should. With Horrell’s plenary session, we can see an acknowledgement of not simply the ‘checklist’ of subjective realities a scholar occupies and must note before doing some good ol’ objective historical work, but the problematics of the discipline as a whole. It is because of the seriousness of the critique, and the venue that it occurred in, that I find it important to ruminate further.


Dale Martin on Ancient, Biblical, and Modern Families

Dale Martin is fairly well-known in New Testament studies. He is, perhaps, best known for his work on social history and it’s impact on understanding the NT (See, for instance, his highly influential book The Corinthian Body), as well as important scholarship on sexuality and the ancient world.


Dale B. Martin

Earlier this year he stopped by the University of Kent and presented a lecture (Ancient, Biblical, and Modern Families) open to the public, introduced by UKC’s own Ward Blanton (whose doctoral project was supervised by Dale). The link below leads to a video of Dale’s lecture, so feel free to take a gander.

Please forgive the video’s non-HD quality.

Ancient, Biblical and Modern Families lecture


The Masquerade

I’ve been increasingly annoyed with theological readings masquerading as objective, non-ideological products of biblical studies.

This is most evident in work on the Historical Jesus or St. Paul. Because a scholar has already committed to a very specific representation of Jesus or Paul, they cannot even fathom the possibility that there can be counter-evidence or different approaches to a specific text. Contrary to what many believe, reading Jesus as an agent of resistance is not as absurd as thinking Jesus was merely a figment of Roman Imperial propaganda. But, attempts to think of Jesus as modeling a specific ethic of political apathy, for instance, is always bound up within a fundamentalist reading of history, one that cannot be qualified, and if qualified the additions or excisions are always already agreeable to one’s own theological agenda.

Sad Jesus

Sad Jesus is Sad.

It’s just a rather usual example of confirmation bias. Qualifying data is thrown out if it at all threatens what the scholars believes. So, in the instance mentioned above, any scholarship that could fall within Empire Studies (as well as any postcolonial readings) would be regarded as, in some way, illegitimate, or simply ignored. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated it may be, it has already been determined to be illegitimate in the eyes of the creator of theologised readings of Jesus or Paul.

What I found most liberating early in my work was recognising my own bias, my tendency to fall into the Great Man myth with Jesus and Paul, to theologise their persons such that I wasn’t able to approach the text except through my very specific lens, one that molded Paul into a sort of figuration that followed my own political/ethical/theological proclivities. It wasn’t that I was naive to the problem, but I did my best to fight against counter-evidence by staking my claim instead on evidence that supported the Paul that mirrored my own reflection.

This isn’t to say that I think aren’t bound to ideology, that I think we can somehow loosen the shackles and escape into a purely objective reading of the text. In fact, it is often those who think so, or who edge toward thinking so, that, blind to ideological sway, theologise when they say they are merely doing ‘biblical studies.’

Instead, what I suggest is that we all are, already, stuck in this mode, and that it is only through acknowledging it that we can even begin to stop producing naive stories.

Expertise and Denial: Philosophical Edition

Soon after I wrote my last post (too long ago, unfortunately) I attended a wonderful workshop on political theology. The University of Kent’s School of Law, in conjunction with Birkbeck and some other university’s, started a wider project focused on juridification and political theology.

Gil Anidjar

Gil Anidjar

The workshop was wonderful, and including participation from many researchers from Kent, Canterbury Christ Church University, Birkbeck, and other places. Political philosophers, critical legal theorists, theologians, and biblical scholars met and dialogued over fascinating papers. I remember clearly, still, Gil Anidjar walking us through Hobbes, images of war, and the fascinating frontispiece found on early versions of Leviathan.

But, as great as this event was, I recall most vividly a rather concentrated dialogue that many in the room engaged in. What concerned me about this intense discussion was it was filled with misconceptions about, foremost, St. Paul! And, the misconceptions were stated in a confidently intransigent manner.


Thomas Hobbes’s masterpiece Leviathan’s frontispiece.

In a room full of theologians, philosophers, legal theorists, and biblical scholars no one engaged the simplification, which dealt with Paul’s attitude to the law, explicitly. And, this is a big problem.

The philosophical reception of Paul has been encouraging for me, as a New Testament scholar. There have been challenges and an increasing number of figurations that take into account the wisdom found in diverse disciplines because of this movement of the academic wind. But, likewise, it has allowed for some rather naive views to flourish, often unchecked.

My mild reaction, here, against the obvious lack of expertise found in this discussion, also, isn’t merely about being dead-set against creative philosophical Pauline figurations. What I found dangerous was the intransigent, simplistic view of Paul being antinomian (with no qualification) that a researcher excitedly claimed. There was no interest in how a nuanced view of law may change Paul’s significance to discussions on juridification or political theology.

Here’s to hoping, as well, that I’m a bit more bold about speaking out.

It’s a bit difficult, after all, to summon the courage to do so in a room full of well-known scholars.