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.


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:


Stating the Discipline: Some thoughts on NT Studies

Let’s talk, again, about whiteness and the discipline in light of the last few posts about Horrell’s work. (Interested readers can access these here here and here)

Reports I had heard (unfortunately, I became violently ill and was not able to attend) about one of the final plenaries underlines, perhaps, one of the pervasive problems in the discipline. As a sort of prologue before this final session started, it was said from the pulpit that (in not so many words), despite the crucial realisation by many that the discipline needs to continue to overtly confront questions of diversity, questions of the predominance of ‘whiteness’ (including dangerous religious triumphalisms, as well as the manifestation of these in methodology), and the need to more concretely broaden the boundaries of the discipline, the speaker would continue on with what is traditionally done in the discipline. You know the spiel.

Now, I don’t particularly care about how close the interpretation above comes to the actual event. It serves, instead, as a sort of broader picture of the majority of the discipline. Despite the pandering to ‘diversity’, actual methodological diversity (informed by non-Western methods, especially) is scant. And, in the midst of interest in diverse discourses, no actual sustained interest is shown in different methods (ever read those ‘hurrah’ pieces by major scholars talking up postcolonialism, but never actually engaging in the discourse?). Perhaps because doing so includes the possibility that past work (often hard and difficult work) needs to be augmented in crucial ways, perhaps even re-evaluated.

NT WRIGHT.jpgA prime example of pandering was gestured to in the last post connected to this larger blog project on Whiteness and NT Studies. A common scholarly aside occurs in the beginning of a book or larger project, where a scholar will admit their specific social place. Perhaps they are a white, confessional academic who lived through the tumultuous 60s in America, and has also served in many churches within the diocese of such-and-such. Biographical material may be interesting. It may also be helpful for those who are interested in interrogating how these biographical realities may relativise the scholarship contained in the book or project. They do not, however, affect the material produced! In fact, they quite easily do the opposite of what they pretend to do. They, instead of challenging assumptions, reify them in the work. These are an outworking of ideology in a basic sense, affecting the material relations the subject has, re-inforcing assumptions because they have checked the bare minimums off of the list. They do not have to go any further because, well, they have done the bare-minimum.

Instead, there needs to be a displacement that occurs. This is the point of ‘whiteness studies’, and the importance of a relatively high ranking member of the guild employing and advocating for more of this in the discipline.

Now, this does not mean that everything has to be thrown out, that we need to wipe the slate clean, forget the past of the discipline (instead, noting the strangeness of whiteness allows from a more critical lens with which to view the history of the discipline). And, it also certainly does not mean that Horrell’s work represents some digression from everything that came before it. That would be insulting to those who have worked hard for years employing postcolonial criticism to biblical texts, which has profoundly shaped how directions in reading these texts, in exploring contexts, histories of oppression, and crucially challenging overtly confessional readings, and it would be profoundly racist, as if now that a well-known white scholar has spoken up the world is saved. While this has been a continual tension within the discipline, Fernando Segovia mentions in his essay ‘Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Biblical Studies’ that the initiation of the journal Biblical Interpretation mentioned the importance of a more pluralistic and public discourse around these texts within the discipline. The attempt to de-colonise the discipline has been a frustratingly long project, what he calls a continual struggle.

Sad JesusPointing to whiteness and its connection with Christianity underscores a difficulty with the discipline, one that I have noted over the years, and one that I previously (because of my confessional status) denied: the racial-religious dimension of the majority of the disicpline; the inability to recognise the hubris of claiming objectivity as well as the explicit ways that whiteness and Christianity position themselves as non-placed and invisibled.

I don’t actually have anything mind-blowing to say about the discipline that hasn’t been pointed to by others, most of whom are much better at expressing themselves (and more knowledgable) than I am. But, I do think there is a general tendency to eschew diverse methods, which is a real problem. It’s a problem because it is continuously pointed out, and yet change is always on the horizon. How can change happen, then? Introductions to the discipline need to strive to navigate these issues, and do so in such a way that does not assume a transcendent element in the usual ‘objective’ modes of the discipline. More senior scholars need to approach and do the dirty work that needs to be done, as well as make space for scholarship that furthers this discourse. Early scholars (many of whom have recognised the issues and are producing great scholarship) need to continue doing what they are doing. We need to strive to create spaces and make things happen that will drive change. Not change for changes sake, and not for entrepreneurial reasons, as if we are simply ‘indebted people’ who have been remade in the image of neoliberalism, striving in competition with others in order to produce the next cool thing.

If this can’t be done, the disicpline will continue on in the Sisyphean struggle of attempting change and challenging ideology perpetually. This is, perhaps, most likely. Can’t stop trying, though.  Maybe someone else has a master plan. I’m all ears.



Whiteness and NT Studies (Part 2): You Aren’t as Objective as you Think…

After a bit of a lamentable hiatus, let me return to David Horrell’s plenary discussion from the BNTC 2017, covering the latter half where he spends time outlining the importance of whiteness studies for reading Paul. Because of how long this post turned out to be, I will have to withhold any substantial commentary for a third post.

Horrell is concerned here with making a parallel between ‘whiteness’ and ‘Christianness’, how they operate structurally and delineate discourse surrounding texts. For an overview of the text he is using as an example (Galatians 3:28), and the brief history of the interpretation of this text, please see the last post by clicking here. Horrell wants to point out that the interpretive lens of the commentator shapes how the text is read. This isn’t something novel when stated in such a banal way. In fact, it is a fairly standard procedure to do so, now. Pointing out one’s context and history helps a reader identify the biases and probable ways that they shape the discourse surrounding a text. We can’t escape this inevitability.

But, Horrell wants to underscore the location of ‘Christianity’ much more strongly. Horrell wants to identify it so strongly that it is ‘made strange’, just as in whiteness studies the goal of the work is to underscore and recognise the strangeness of whiteness, rather than letting it continue dominating discourse as if it is some sort of default setting. Such is partially done through highlighting the extent.

Horrell, for instance, points to the tendency to portray unity in Christ as a ‘hopeful, inspiring, positive vision’, though in contrast to alternative visions. Oneness and unity are seen as elements exclusively found through Christian discourse, unavailable to others. And, Horrell points out that this is common in many of the sources he identifies previously in his plenary address (Witherington, Burton, and Morris, as primary examples).

But, one may wonder, isn’t this vision hopeful and inspiring? Paul here, after all, is attempting to do away with divisions, which is laudable! Horrell notes that, as has been pointed out by other authors (crucially from non-Christian perspectives; Daniel Boyarin is a prominent example), this sounds awfully imperialistic on cultural, political, and religious levels. Furthermore, it plays the same role that ‘whiteness’ plays in being a transcending reality that attempts a form of universalism by attempting to erase it’s own particularity. Remember, ‘whiteness’ is often located above racial structures, seen as a (often benevolent) default. Here, then, Horrell remind us that, actually, Christianity is operating as an exclusionary category, despite the pretenses of benevolent universalism.

This is proven to be a relevant critique precisely because, as was shown in Horrell’s analysis of commentaries on Galatians, Christianity is a unifying presence in contrast with Judaism (an ‘ethnocentric, marked, exclusionary identity’). Inclusive (universalistic) visions are acceptable only if particularity can be transcended or abolished. In noting the majority of commentators, Horrell incisively characterises the usual caricature of the relation between Judaism and Pauline Christianity as ‘transcending fratricidal snobbery, or ethnocentric pride’, that Paul is insisting people ‘pledge their trust and allegiance to Christ’ because doing so transcends the particularity of Judaism. This, of course, completely ignores the fact that Christianity is itself a boundary, a marker of difference, a call for separation and particularity.

Horrell also points to evidence that can suggest Judaism was, also, seen as highly attractive to outsides, contra to suggestions that it was the ugly counterpoint to Christianity. In fact, in similar ways Judaism allows for a type of ‘inclusivity’ that is just as attractive as the particular mode of Christianity that is moralistically triumphed by many commentators. Why is the similarity denied, and in fact why is there a moral emphasis here? Precisely because the default is Christianity and the discourse is controlled by, overwhelmingly, Christian scholars.


Rembrandt’s (and others?) The Apostle Paul.

In the final section of Horrell’s talk he goes a step further, bringing together whiteness studies and Christianity, noting particularly how these come together, intertwine and affect biblical studies in its various iterations, but especially in Orientalist ideas that spread in the mid-20th century. Not only religious, but racial, superiority is woven into the very fabric of the discipline. Drawing on Shawn Kelley’s work allows Horrell to note how strong this was until at least the 70s (where Kelley’s analysis stopped), but it certainly hasn’t magically disappeared since then. In our current era, the universalising of the Pauline (or broader Christian) vision in biblical studies has shifted. Now it is seen, instead of racial or religious superiority, as the advent of ‘multicultural liberalism’. Paul becomes, in much work, the place where we discover/uncover/augment liberal values, a foundation with neat correspondence to ‘western’ values. The ways that this recent past has impacted current biblical studies is more subtle than previous examples that were overtly triumphalistic, but the still rely on the same foundation.

But, whiteness studies also reminds us that, as Horrell notes, biblical studies operates as a sort of un-marked space. We can talk about, then, ‘Asian biblical studies’ or ‘black hermeneutics/biblical studies’, or any other qualified ‘biblical studies’, but to do so is to remind us that ‘biblical studies’ operates as does whiteness (and, is, also a uniquely white, European/American endeavour) with a univeralising, non-qualified gesture. There have been attempts at critiquing this, of course (though most substantially on the margins). Popularly, as noted above, it has become popular for a scholar to underscore his/her ‘location’. At the same time, I have to wonder what this really does. So often this admittance does not seem to lead to a qualification of the work. Instead, it serves as a marker that the author has, at the least, gestured to this reality. Have they actually recognised ways that they, particularly, or the discipline, generally, operate as un-marked and non-particular modes of discourse? Too often not. The marker is an after-thought, not a serious movement within the work.
Horrell ends with reminding us, once again, that ‘whiteness’ needs to be made strange through being dislocated, that just as ‘African American’ hermeneutics is often noted as being experientially important, so is the experience of the white scholar who (often haughtily) performs a type of objectivity in regards to the text.

Join me for next time! Hopefully I can finally get around to an analysis of this piece, and how it’s importance is felt when located within the broader movements of the field.


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)