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]
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