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.**
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)