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.

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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.

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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)

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!)

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

Expertise and Denial: NT Studies Edition

In the late 2000s-early 2010s it was particularly in vogue to respond to the work of various philosophers who had expressed interest in St. Paul, perhaps the most monstrous figure Christianity had on offer.

Paul and the Philosophers

While Jesus is often above significant reproach (note Nietzsche’s divergent feelings toward these figures…), Paul is often a figure of backwardness, misogyny, a sort of lawful lawlessness, a static-rule filled Christianity that just can’t get in line with the radical Jesus who fulfills the dreams of both conservative and liberal readers.

This interest helped to bring back shades to Paul that were often missing outside of the discipline. But, the figurations of Paul created have often be loathed by NT scholars. Why?

Well, a rather obvious answer is that the plaything of the discipline was being shared outward with disciplines that seem to lack the critical tools to deal with the apostle. There is a shared difficulty here: while the charge could be true, the ability for many biblical scholars to understand the nuances of what is actually going on in these figurations of Paul is stunted.

I don’t recall many Pauline scholars orienting themselves around the works of Schmitt, Benjamin, or Taubes in order to better understand how Agamben is utilising Paul, and whether it coincides with what could be said about Paul from popular disciplinary readings.

But, what I find more annoying is the half-baked reading of theory that often happens in the discipline. I recently noted this happening in regard to the concept of ‘gift’ and the fixation on Derrida. Which, really, is fine to do. Derrida is, after all, well-known for his work on the gift. But, every time I have found Derrida in contemporary NT studies, he is butchered and lays on the page as a sort of scapegoat, sacrificed for just not getting what the gift really is (he should have just paid more attention to Mauss, obviously…).

Except, every time he comes up in this regard, he is understood in a facile manner. And, while it may not ruin the argument being made by the writer, it is certainly egregious because Derrida is asking questions that pierce to the heart of the issue!

It was while ranting about this on social media that Jonathan Bernier noted the importance of treating scholarship like a dialogue with not just a thinker, but the community of scholars who are working on that thinker and within a separate discipline. This is surely something we need to keep in mind, especially when attempting to use work that is outside of our usual disciplinary marker.

Let us read more, listen more, and respond with caution.