Sunday, February 27, 2005

Review of Horsley (Final Part)

[Previous review parts: part 4; part 3; part 2; part 1]

[The complete review may be found on my website.]

There is a clear sense in many chapters in this book that Paul cannot be seen as a "rabble-rousing revolutionary" (Horsley, 3). But is seems – fortunately – that we are getting to the point where western scholars can see that there is more to "resistance politics" than open revolt à la Spartacus, Simon bar Kokhba, or Che Guevara. Both Horsley and Heen explicitly refer to James Scott's study, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, which signals an emerging realisation on the part of first-world academics that "the subaltern's response" is complex. Scott argued that the analysis of power relations 'in the real world' must include the subtleties and complexities of the subaltern's response. Direct opposition is not the only form of resistance; there are 'hidden transcripts' not immediately obvious to the outsider. Of course, many who lived and worked in 'marginalised contexts' did not find Scott's work all that new or surprising (though it did offer new conceptual tools): it describes an aspect of the struggle that is being encountered all the time in the real world, where people make day-to-day choices while trying to survive. Paulo Freire's famous concept of the "culture of silence" among the oppressed describes only one aspect, though it is the one most obvious to the outsider. For obvious reasons, we need more sustained work on this aspect of Paul (and indeed the whole of the Biblical witness); and in fact, Horsley apparently just edited a book of essays along these lines. It should not surprise us to find that this may become a fruitful field for further Biblical research.

The essays in this book are to be understood, Horsley emphasises, as "somewhat exploratory ventures into uncharted territory" (19). It is well to highlight the fact that serious study of Paul in this light is still 'young'. However, perhaps this does not pay sufficient tribute to earlier attempts to read Paul in this way. Works like Klaus Wengst's Pax Romana (which analysed the concept of peace as it relates to justice), published almost 20 years ago, began to develop new directions for Paul as well. It seems odd that such work remains largely underrated, if not ignored today – in spite of clear parallels, such as Wengst's overt structural device of contrasting the NT witnesses with the imperial propaganda of Aelius Aristides ("To Rome").

No doubt one could quibble with other details in various essays in this book. For example, Smith at one point states: "If Paul is drawing on the prophetic tradition and especially Deutero-Isaiah in 1 Thessalonians and throughout his corpus, he assuredly is writing resistance literature."(53) This strikes me as a non sequitur; the one does not necessarily follow from the other. In some chapters I wondered whether putting Paul too much in the context of his Hellenistic environment does not fundamentally neglect his rootedness in "the law, the prophets and the writings". At times, one also wonders how influential the often cited – let's call it: generally postcolonial – theoretical literature really has been for this collection of essays: sometimes it looks more like lip-service to what is expected in the secular academy rather than an important, integral element of the study concerned. And finally, some of the essays are clearly more persuasive than others.

But these issues matter relatively little given what is otherwise a series of well argued pieces in this emerging field of study. Much more important than the inevitable minor shortcomings in a book at this early stage is the fact that a strong voice develops that counteracts the dominant paradigm in Biblical scholarship, which is both ideologically tied to global capitalism and theoretically imprisoned by the Western cultural framework which sees 'religion' as private, individual choice in a limited sphere of life. The book's focus on 'imperial order' also clearly resonates with issues we are facing ourselves (Horsley himself is quite explicit about that).

On the whole, then, the emerging body of recent work that is exemplified by Horsley's collection presents a welcome new wave of Pauline scholarship, shaped as it is by recent social-scientific and socio-historical approaches: as such, it opens up the possibility of even closer cooperation between socially engaged theologians in the tradition of liberation theology, and Biblical scholars (not that these are mutually exclusive camps!). Of course, we are no longer at the point that Gottwald criticised in the 1980's: that liberation theologies tended to exhibit an insufficient grounding in serious social-scientific and socio-historical scholarship. And yes, the Biblical work on Paul as presented in this book is in many ways still in its infancy. However, it does seem to me that we are at a point again where 'cross-disciplinary' engagement shows great promise.

It is important to stress though that this book is not all comforting reading for 'the Christian left'. It is not a matter of finding the resources to say at last: "now we have key to read Paul as a subversive theologian". At least some of the studies in this book also signal the alterity of Paul, of his communities, and his world. There is no easy correspondence between 'us' and 'them'. This is a discomfort that is important not to try and sweep under the carpet. Knust's chapter in particular highlights this, and it is not surprising that this happens in relation to recent work on the ancient mediterranean sex/gender concept (and is it an accident that Knust is the only woman author in this book?). Issues of ethnicity in the Bible, including paul, no doubt present another, complex field that will demand close attention in this regard. Paul and his world remain 'other' not only in the sense that they, in their own way, challenge the prevailing consensus of global capitalism, but also in the sense that the 'hidden transcripts' of the resistance of his communities remain partly alien to Christian resistance as conceptualised in the West. But that is hardly surprising in cross-cultural interaction (ie. reading the Bible), and it would be a mistake to think that either is therefore necessarily 'not of the gospel'.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Review of Horsley (part 4)

[Previous review parts: part 3; part 2; part 1]

The penultimate contribution in the book is perhaps the only one that draws attention to aspects of Paul which are probably not quite as comforting to some of us as the rest of book. Jennifer Wright Knust ("Paul and the politics of virtue and vice", 155-173) studies the rhetorical invective of sexual slander in Paul. By calling outsiders – and Gentiles in particular – sexually depraved, Paul follows a long-standing practice in both Hellenistic / Roman rhetoric, and Biblical tradition. In itself, such invective can be seen as an attack on imperial propaganda, which depicted the emperor as the paragon of virtue; Rom 1 in particular is a fruitful text in this regard. Utilising current research on Paul and the sex/gender systems of the ancient Mediterranean, Knust concludes that "Paul's condemnation of the sinful world in Rom 1 relied upon the gendered assumptions of his culture even though his goal was to depict his culture as entirely depraved." (170) (One might ask what exactly "Paul's own culture" might be, but that is another matter.) Similarly, she argues that it is possible to read Rom 6-8 in light of "the traditional association between 'slavishness' and desire" (171).

The final, brief chapter consists of a summary reponse of the classicist, Simon Price ("Response", 175-183), upon whose work many of the contributors draw, directly and indirectly. Price stresses the need for setting Paul in local community contexts rather than a vague notion of 'the empire', not only because 'Rome was far', but also because the interaction between the imperial centre and the provincial city authorities was a complex web of subaltern negotiation. "The issue is whether the provinces took any notice of developments in Rome, and if so, how they did so, and what differences (if any) local reception made to the local context. In other words, understanding the Greek context on its own terms is crucial." (177). Arguing for Paul and his communities as 'subversives', Price says, must be done in the context of the complex way in which local elites related to Rome ("Jews (and Christians) were not the only people to be unhappy", 179) – something which Price acknowledges is hard to do because it runs counter to prevailing classical scholarship, which tends to stress the 'harmony' of the empire. As a result, Price criticizes Jewett's argument as relying to strongly on a contrast between Paul and Roman (as opposed to local, provincial) imperial sources, though Price then immediately points to precisely such local examples in the Greek East which could 'bridge the gap' between Paul's provincial communities and Rome – thus supporting Jowett's conclusion. There is a subtle element of suspicion on the part of Price that the contributors to this volume have not quite succeeded in convincing him that Paul and his communities should be seen as 'subversives' in the empire.

The book as a whole maintains a number of important general points about Paul and his world, highlighted by Horsley's introduction, which is itself a very useful summary argument. Slavery as a complex social reality; patronage; the imperial cult; and rhetoric emerge as key elements in the re-evaluation of Paul. Perhaps chief among the points made in this book is the notion of 'religion' in the ancient Mediterranean (and especially, what it is not). Horsley in particular points out the contrast to the pervading paradigm of modern Biblical Studies, which sets Paul in contrast with 'Judaism' as a religion, understood as a personalised, individual faith, which is, and may be analysed as, a separate entity from other, equally 'separate' spheres of life (economics, politics, etc.). Even the much debated 'new perspective' on Paul, following Ed Sanders' influential Paul and Palestinian Judaism – which breathed new life into scholarship by challening the fundamental opposition that Christian scholars had seen between Paul and Judaism – did not fundamentally alter the paradigm itself: the discussion about the 'new perspective' is predominantly couched in the same old stale notion of "Paul's religion". Instead of reading Paul in this fashion, Horsley argues, Paul should be understood in contrast not with first-century Judaism(s), but the early Roman imperial order, where 'religion' (if the term is used at all) is understood as an integral part of people's life that cannot be separated from 'other' spheres of life.

[Final part to follow]

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Review of Horsley (part 3)

[Previous review parts: part 2; part 1]

Rollin Ramsaran's contribution to the book ("Resisting imperial domination and influence: Paul's apocalyptic rhetoric in 1 Corinthians", 89-101) takes a closer look at the way in which Paul uses Greco-Roman rhetoric in an apocalyptic key. While his clearly makes use of certain conventions that we find in the rhetorical handbooks, his use of apocalyptic topoi effectively undercuts the value system inherent in classical rhetoric: for example, the critique of the "rulers of this age", the stress on the renewal of the people in their new community, and the ultimate vindication of the believers attacks the status-conscious ideals of some in the community (1 Cor 1-4).

In the fifth chapter, Efraim Agosto ("Patronage and commendation, imperial and anti-imperial", 103-123) shifts the focus to the patronage system that undergirds the empire. Drawing on the work of Richard Saller and others on the patron-client relationships, Agosto directs attention to the way in which Paul's 'commendations' subvert the fundamentally entrenched system of patronage in the empire: a system which in many ways provided the social, political and economic 'glue' that held the empire together: oiling the wheels, entrenching social status. Agosto finds that while there are superficial similarities with letters of commendations in this patron-client system, Paul subverts this system fundamentally by promoting a value system that is quite contrary to the ideology of the elite (1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Cor 16:15-18; Phil 2:25-30, 4:2-3; Rom 16:1-2) – including his refusal of becoming the 'client' of wealthy 'patrons' in his new communities, and insisting on working "with his own hands", or by stressing self-sacrificial service rather than the elite practice of euergitism, public 'good works' which serve to maintain the status of the elite.

One of the most interesting chapters, and also the longest, is Erik Heen's ("Phil 2:6-11 and resistance to local timocratic rule: isa theô and the cult of the emperor in the East", 125-153), but I may be biased because I worked a bit on what I then called a 'materialist reading' of the Christ-hymn in Phil 2 in the early 90's. The surprising (or perhaps not so surprising!) thing is that reading the Christ-hymn against isa theô ('equal to God') claims in the imperial cult is not much more common! With a nod at Scott's notion of 'hidden transcripts' (put bluntly, the Christ-hymn functions in a covert way), Heen discusses the use of the formula in the eastern part of the empire, including Philippi. Rather than againt the usual (though often debated) theological notion of the pre-existence of Christ, Heen interprets Phil 2:6-11 "as an expression of a hidden transcript that sets Christ over agains theRoman emperor" (137). One wonders though how 'hidden' this 'discourse' would have been given that Heen himself points out the early imperial restriction of divine honours to the emperor (in the eastern empire).

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Review of Horsley, Paul and the Roman Imperial Order (2)

Robert Jowett ("The corruption and redemption of creation", 25-46) proposes reading Rom 8:18-23 in the context of the imperial (specifically: Augustan) ideology of the renewal of the world / fertility / "creation". Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, for instance, proposes an almost messianic idea of a regent who will restore nature, broken by barbarians and the evils of luxury: under this regent, "shall this glorious age begin... the earth shall not feel the harrow, nor the vine the pruning-hook; the sturdy ploughman, too shall now loose his oxen from his yoke" (27). Augustus had the Secular Games in 17BCE put under the aegis of the rejuvenation of Mother Earth: the birth of a new age. When Rom 8:18-23 is read in this context, it is nothing short of calling this imperial propaganda a lie. Instead "of nature's joy at its deliverance through August and his successors, Paul hears only agonized groans" (41): in Rom 8, (personified) creation is still groaning, waiting not for the sotêr (saviour) Augustus, but for true salvation ushered in by the Christ event.

Abraham Smith ("'Unmasking the powers': toward a postcolonial analysis of 1 Thessalonians", 47-66) suggests reading 1 Thess not against the background of eschatology and "fanciful speculation about a 'rapture'" (47) but as Paul's attempt at "'unmasking the powers' operative in Thessalonica" (ibid.). Set in the theoretical context of postcolonial studies' focus on historical and discursive ways in which (a) colonial powers seeks to control, as well as (b) subaltern people resist, Smith locates 1 Thess in the context of a tradition of "historical Israelite resistance to foreign rule", both in terms of physical resistance, and discoursive challenge. Paul's formation of a network of small, 'alternative communities' such as the one in Thessalonica enabled solidarity in the nascent movement which constituted "a fundamental 'critique of this age and its values'": a subtle critique, not surprisingly, in the face of the empire, but a fundamental critique and opposition nevertheless (54, citing J. Paul Sampley). The Thessalonian city authority took care to cultivate the Roman imperial rulers, becoming "local instruments of the Roman order" (58), highly visible in the day-to-day reality of the people in Thessalonia in the mid-first century CE. Smith then proceeds to read 1 Thess 2:13-16 and 1 Thess 5:1-11 specifically as instances of "Paul's encouragement of resistance to that imperial order" (ibid.). While the reading of 1 Thess 5:3 ("When they say, 'There is peace and security' then sudden destruction will come upon them, ") as directed against imperial propaganda of the pax romana is not that new, Smith's less common reading of the notorious passage in 1 Thess 2 also enables him to overcome the problem of the charge of "anti-Judaism" against Paul.

In the third contribution, Neil Elliott ("The Apostle Paul's self-presentation as anti-imperial performance", 67-88) studies ritual representations of power, both in the urban context of the Roman empire, and in Paul's presence. Drawing on Price's work in Ritual and Power, Elliott maintains that the provincial reality of urban life was characterised by an increasingly pervasive presence of the imperial cult, leading to "an effective imperial monopoly on the imagery of triumph" and a "distinctly Roman piety", enabling the emperor "to accumulate 'symbolic capital' for himself", while "piety in the provinces became saturated with the symbolized presence of the emperor" (71). Based on rhetorical studies in letter-writing and the performance of letters in an essentially oral culture, Elliott analyses the effect of Paul's letters on their intended audience. In this context, then, Elliott offers a close reading of 2 Cor 2:14-16 and imagery of Christ's triumph; of 2 Cor 10 and the imagery of war; and of 2 Cor 1-11 and the theme of affliction (closely associated with the ritual of triumphal parades), pointing out the close connection between the cross and the resurrection: "'showing forth the Lord's death' thus constitutes a ritual gesture of defiance, a refusal to allow the Empire's exhibition of a crucified corpse to be determinative of the future of Jesus, or of the creation" (84). In all this, Paul's conception of power, humiliation, shame and triumph invert the imperial propaganda. A thoughtful "ecclesiological postscript" on the connection between the eucharist and torture today completes the chapter.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Farting in the face of the empire

Finally getting round to reading a book I have been meaning to get to for months: Paul and the Imperial Roman Order, ed. by Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg, Trinity Press International, 2004; ix+198pp)

I'll try and blog about this, sort of chapter by chapter, over the next few days, whenever I get the time (ahem...) Just a few preliminary comments for tonight.

For most, Paul does not have the reputation of a political revolutionary. (In)famous texts – and their Wirkungsgeschichte – like Romans 13:1-7, or his advice to slaves, have a lot to do with this. Who can forget Howard Thurman's recollections of his grandmother, who had been a slave in the US-American South, refusing to listen to Paul's letters because her former master's preacher had used Paul to admonish the slaves to be obedient to their master? I well remember a fellow graduate student, when I was writing an MA dissertation on Paul in Apartheid-South Africa, who quipped: "You are not trying to make us like Paul, are you?"

It is too easy to answer that like or dislike is not the issue; the effect of his texts lives on. However one may look at the exegesis of Rom 13:1-7, both its actual text and its history continue to shape our reading of it: we cannot ignore it or escape it.

This is the third volume of studies on Paul in this vein, edited by Richard Horsley, though this may be the most innovative. In 1997, Horsley edited Paul and Empire, which was more of a student textbook drawing on excerpts from published works like Neil Elliott's Liberating Paul, or S. R. F. Price's Ritual and Power. Three years later, Horsley published a further edited work, this time as a Festschrift for Krister Stendahl (Paul and Politics) – a book which had a broader focus, presenting much more diverse views, but which included provocative studies like Sze-Kar Wan's "Collection for the Saints as anti-colonial act", a detailed study of Paul's so-called 'collection' in light of postcolonial ethnographic theory. Horsley's latest edited volume, Paul and the Imperial Roman Order, is the result of a Pauline Studies group in the Society for Biblical Literature. It builds on the previous work and sharpens the focus on the complex relations between Paul's gospel, his communities, and the Roman empire as experienced in those local communities.

More to follow...