Studying Paul’s Letters: Contemporary Perspectives and Methods
Because of the unwavering emphasis on Paul’s writings, many students of the Protestant tradition will find the title of this edited volume appealing. However, a quick glance at the table of contents may leave them baffled, wondering what many of the new approaches (spatial, economic, feminist, queer) mean and why they matter. While this book may appear more suitable for academicians, pastors or seminary students will nevertheless benefit from learning how others read Paul and from reflecting on the potential blind spots in their own interpretative paradigms.
The book opens with the familiar topic of historical criticism, but instead of lauding this foundational discipline, Melanie Johnson-Debaufre looks to crush the naïveté some might have concerning the objectivity of its findings. By demonstrating how history can be colored by both the ancient historian and the modern interpreter, she challenges the historicity of the accounts in Paul’s letters and argues that distortion is inevitable when one reads the text through Christian and religious lenses. As a remedy, she urges the reader to view Paul as a Jew and not a “Christian,” to become attuned to the political forces of Paul’s days, and to read the letters through the lens of the oppressed and unprivileged.
In chapter 2, Todd Penner and Davina Lopez argue for the pervasive use of rhetoric in Paul’s letters. Applying rhetorical criticism to the “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2:6–11, they suggest that Paul composed the hymn in the style of an exemplum in order to reprimand the community for their behavior, to encourage a new, countercultural way of life, and to establish a hierarchy with Paul as the head. They suggest that using Christ as the model to be followed was a subtle way for Paul to promote himself as the example to be followed and so establish his own leadership in the community, in keeping with his ulterior motive. The authors also assert that rhetorical analysis should extend beyond Paul’s theology and ideology to the examination of the reader’s present world. Next, on spatial perspectives, Laura Nasrallah elucidates the need to heed the place, the space, and the interrelated element of power in each city. This involves familiarizing oneself with the history and the physical layout of the specific municipality where a letter was sent, as well as examining the spatial imageries employed by Paul.
In the chapter on economic approaches, Peter Oakes sensitizes the reader to spot economic clues in the text and discusses three ways in which economic analysis could contribute to interpretation. This discipline enables the interpreter to create a social-economic profile of the community from which to gain insight into the motivations behind the letter and uncover a fuller significance of the message for the specific social group. Next Davina Lopez calls for attention to visual perspectives. She demonstrates how the ancient world was dominated by visual imageries and cautions that interpreters are often predisposed to seeing only images that suit the interpreter’s purpose. The metaphors of “Jerusalem now” and “Jerusalem above” (Gal. 4:21–5:1), for example, convey a drastically different meaning when they are interpreted according to the common images of the first-century Roman Empire. In the following chapter, Cynthia Kittredge presents feminist approaches to reading Paul that strive for equality not only for women but also marginalized men, who have long been degraded by society due in part to the text and how it has traditionally been read. The proponents of these approaches lay blame on the androcentric nature of both the text and the culture behind the text and seek to expose the long-established tendency to downplay or ignore the presence and importance of women in the Bible.
The next three chapters present approaches from different ethnic perspectives. In chapter 7, Pamela Eisenbaum discusses Jewish perspectives, which operate under the propositions that Paul must be read in the context of (1) first-century Judaism, (2) Gentile mission, and (3) an apocalyptic outlook, and the premises that (4) Jesus did not come to save the Jews and that (5) Paul did not experience a “conversion.” Demetrius Williams introduces the goals and values of African-American approaches, which look to expose racism in interpretative traditions, and he explores distinctive readings in African-American communities. He also defends the legitimacy of utilizing the reader’s experiences in interpretation. In chapter 9, Sze-Kar Wan expounds the concept of “ambivalence” (defined as “the feeling of wanting one thing and, simultaneously, its opposite,” p. 179) through his personal experiences as an Asian-American. When applied to the context of a foreigner’s struggling for acceptance, ambivalence refers to the coexistence of antithetical sentiments toward the dominant group. He argues that such a sentiment best explains Paul’s seemingly contradictory responses toward the Jerusalem leadership.
The book concludes with the topics of postcolonial and queer criticisms by Jeremy Punt and Joseph Marchal. Postcolonial criticism, covering the period from the outset of colonization to its termination and beyond, studies the responses of the colonized in the forms of resistance to the imperial hegemony and the power-struggle among the conquered groups. By examining the writings of the subaltern and uncovering the hidden transcripts of anti-imperial ideology, the author proposes an explanation for Paul’s ambivalent stance towards the empire and the reason why he felt the need to compete with rival groups. Lastly, the queer approaches seek (1) to justify and defend the sexual orientations that are considered “abnormal” and, more importantly, (2) to challenge and undermine the worldview that casts people into such modes. The image of Paul as a mother in labor (Gal. 4:19), which the author terms “a single transgendered mother” (p. 220), provides an opportunity to reflect on the existing social structure and to question its exclusive claim to normalcy.
As an edited volume, this book is to be commended for its extensive selection of topics, eleven in all, and uniformity across the essays. Each chapter begins with the aims and contributions of a particular approach, followed by a discussion of its tenets and presuppositions, which are then applied to a specific passage in Paul.
Due to the large number of perspectives presented in this volume, a reader unfamiliar with these approaches may wish to start with one or two topics of interest. One should not feel the need to accept these approaches wholesale but should interact with them critically, recognizing a degree of subjectivity in the postmodern approaches to interpretation. For example, Wan senses “a far subtler form of white supremacy” from his superior’s comment that “in fact I think your English is excellent” (p. 175, 177). However, this reviewer, who is also an Asian American, has received the same comment numerous times but never took it the same way. The reader is within reason to question the legitimacy of reading such an individual experience into Paul. That said, this book proffers a number of thought-provoking perspectives, which the reader will find valuable upon further reflection.