Clubbing together in Corinth (a review)

Detail of Roman banquet

It’s always interesting to read a book which works hard to overturn a consensus. I’ve just finished a scholarly monograph which attempts to do just that: The Pauline Church and the Corinthian Ekklēsia by Richard Last.

Last’s aim is to set the Corinthian church in the context of Greco-Roman associations. He thinks previous scholarship has overestimated both the size and the distinctiveness of the Corinthian church. As he makes his case he pays particular attention to questions of membership dues, elections of officers, and honorific awards. Continue reading “Clubbing together in Corinth (a review)”

Mr Sanders’ Pharisees – and Paul’s (reviewing Sanders on Paul)

I’m still not entirely sure what I think of E. P. Sanders’ Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought. Most scholars who have written extensively on Paul want to write their “big book on Paul”. Examples include James D. G. Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle, a little over a decade ago or Tom Wright’s comprehensive version of his apostle in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

At one level, Sanders’ book belongs in such company: the older statesman rehearsing his views at the end of his career. At another level, this is a different kind of book. It is written, quite clearly, for undergraduates. Little is assumed, and scholarly methodology is exposed to view in a pedagogically helpful way. Sanders is, it seems, committing to paper his Paul for undergraduates. It is, above all else, clear. The reader knows what Sanders thinks, and what Sanders thinks is that he can offer a relatively Rankean delineation of early Christian history. He claims to prescind from theology, and write as an historian. Continue reading “Mr Sanders’ Pharisees – and Paul’s (reviewing Sanders on Paul)”

Remembering Paul: a brief review

Remembering PaulTom Wright rather over-eggs his pudding when he claims in Paul and the Faithfulness of God that St Paul invented Christian theology. The earliest Christians’ reflections on memories of Jesus and his teaching, as well as their experience of the Easter event and the presence of the risen Christ with them in the Spirit, were already what Paul the pre-Christian persecutor was reacting to as he chased them down.

Paul is, however, the most influential of Christian theologians, not least by virtue of his writings being canonised as scripture. His range is greater, more diverse, and more practical than “John”, his major canonical competitor for the title. It is not surprising then, that when subsequent Christians articulate their theology, they want Paul on their side.

Remembering Paul is Benjamin White’s exploration of that attempt to claim Paul as one’s own, as his subtitle “Ancient and Modern Contests over the Image of the Apostle” suggests. In the first chapters of the book he looks at some of the ways modern critical scholarship has both claimed a “real Paul”, and how post-Enlightenment scholars read the early history of Pauline reception in the second century church.

Modern scholars have (at least until recently) chosen a Paul whose theological heart is found in Romans, Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, the so-called Hauptbriefe. Most commonly the “real Paul” is held to have written seven letters, adding Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon to those four. The Paul so constructed is a Lutheran Paul, but not only was justification of the individual believer made the cornerstone of constructing Paul, it also became the yardstick by which Pauline influence on the Apostolic Fathers and other early writers was measured. Where they are non-Lutheran, they are judged un-Pauline. So scholars invented a Pauline captivity, in which he was held prisoner by Marcion, Valentinus and other heretics, before Irenaeus reclaimed him for orthodoxy at the end of the 2nd century, albeit a more catholic orthodoxy than the “real Paul” (read Lutheran Paul) would have been happy with.

This narrative lasted until almost the close of the 20th century, and it is White’s claim that what is now needed, and what he seeks to provide is a new prolegomena to Pauline studies that sees Paul as a constructed, remembered, frequently re-imagined figure. He proceeds through mapping the history of scholarship since F C Baur, explores how the narrative that held sway from Baur onwards has now been largely exploded, and offers his own fresh study of how Paul is remembered by the orthodox using 3 Corinthians (p. Bodmer X) and Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses.

He ends with an eight point program for better Pauline studies. First, he argues that interpreters need better to situate themselves in their own context, not least that of the history of interpretation through which they approach the text. He argues (2) for better awareness of the institutional framework (perhaps disciplinary framework would be better?) of the academy’s practice and that (3) the academy ought to provide a place for the proper contestation of methods assumptions and interpretations. His fourth point is that critical engagement with methodology must always be at the heart of the discipline. One could be excused for thinking those four points are the same thing said in different ways.

Fifthly, he suggests that claims about the “real Paul” need to be accompanied by descriptions of how they might be falsified. Given his literary approach to historiography, this seems to come from a rather more positivist discipline than any he has articulated. Sixth, appeals to the canonical letters are appropriate as primary evidence “inasmuch as there is a high probability that at least some … go back to Paul’s apostolic team” (p 180) Well, that’s a relief! His seventh point is that even authentic letters are rhetorical constructions, and that a developing mind, never mind a potentially inconsistent one, means that a fixed-point “real Paul” will always be elusive. Finally, he concludes that the remembered Paul may be a matter more of broad impressions, rather than a clear historical reconstruction.

That last point shows a deliberate overlap with, indeed imitation of, the place of social memory studies in historical Jesus research which White particularly explores in his fourth chapter. Those of us who are unconvinced that social memory studies bring anything significantly new to the table of Jesus studies are even less likely to be convinced that they have something new to bring Pauline studies. The historical Jesus left no writings and is only accessible through the refracted memories of the tradition. The historical Paul left writings in his own voice, and even if our reconstructions should rightly be chastened by many of the points White makes, the Paul we remember is one who left us his own words, even if we dispute still which words in fact be his.

Rejecting Rankean positivism (White repeatedly uses “wie es eigentlich gewesen” as a rhetorical dismissal) is nowadays somewhat passé. That dragon has been slain, or to change the metaphor, no-one in academia sails that close to Scylla any more. However, White sails far too close to his namesake Hayden White, a Charybdis at least as risky as Ranke. If Hayden White be a historiographer, then he is one at which most practicing historians curl their lips and roll their eyes.

There is, I think, a genuinely interesting parallel which White draws out between the ways in which ancient and modern writers alike construct a Paul congenial to their cause, a “real Paul” from whom they draw the comfort of their orthodoxy. In drawing attention to that process, however, White really ends up saying very little about how we deal with the represented Paul of the canon, whether those are the self-representations of a man who constructs his rhetoric carefully, while professing not to use “plausible words of wisdom” or the representations of a wise mentor of young pastors that we find in the Pastorals. Nor does he explore how those and other representations (such as Luke’s) might refract the same apostle, and what methodologies might be employed to hold them in some kind of interaction that doesn’t simply reject what is not the “real Paul.”

And finally, I cannot but draw attention to his conclusion that it is right to appeal “to specific Pauline letters and passages within letters as primary evidence for Saul of Tarsus” (p 180). I rather hope it is a conscious irony that he chooses to refer to the Paul of history by the referent “Saul of Tarsus”. After all, the Paul of the letters nowhere claims that Hebrew name, or that Cilician place of origin. Remembering Paul is indeed in need of careful historiography.