Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul

Pauline commentary has been dominated by introspective cliche more than any other part of New Testament study, and trust two members of the Context Group to help rid us of this malaise. Malina and Pilch, as expected, put the reader on ancient soil where honor and shame were matters of life and death, saving face more important than wealth and honesty, and soul-searching a foreign intrusion. In many ways the commentary lives up to expectations, though in others it disappoints.

The commentary follows the structure of Malina and Rohrbaugh's (second-edition) commentary on the synoptic gospels, and like its predecessor is a useful tool for identifying and understanding biblical cultural cues. The complete text of Paul's seven authentic letters is laid out in sections followed by the commentary, with pointers to more detailed reading scenarios at the end of the book. The reading scenarios explain phenomena such as "altered states of consciousness", "challenge-riposte", "circumcision", "city", "death/resurrection", "demon possession", "devolution", "dispute process", "evil eye", "meals", "opinion leaders", "slavery", "violence", "wrath", and more. These scenario titles are referenced in bold throughout the commentary where relevant.

Malina and Pilch arrange and date the letters in the following order: I Thessalonians (51 CE), I Corinthians (between 53-56), II Corinthians (between 54-57), Galatians (between 54-56), Romans (between 56-58), Philippians (between 56-57), Philemon (between 55-56). II Corinthians is partitioned as follows: Letter #1: 2:14-6:13, 7:2-4 (written before the dispute); Letter #2: 10:1-13:14 (written during the dispute); Letter #3: 1:1-2:13, 7:5-16 (written after the dispute); [8:1-24 and 9:1-15 are seen as later inserts, and 6:14-7:1 a non-Pauline fragment]. (see pp 133-135)

The first five letters -- I Thessalonians, I & II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians -- are explained as products of Paul's missionary activity among Greek-speaking Israelites. Romans, on the other hand, is occasioned by Paul's travel plans and a church he had no part in founding, and in this letter alone we see a presence of Gentiles, acknowledged briefly (Rom 11:13-32) and in most unflattering terms (pp 273-274); for the most part Paul addresses the Israelite group in an attempt to persuade them how much he has much in common with them, and to "rectify the distorted gossip they may have heard about him" (p 24). Finally, Philemon shows Paul acting legitimately as a mediator between a slave and his master.

That the recipients of the first five letters were diaspora Jews (or Greek Israelites, as the authors prefer) is the most controversial claim staked out in the commentary, resting on the idea that circumcision was introduced into Judea only in the Maccabean period, while Israelites in the diaspora generally shunned this and other "barbaric" Torah-customs. In that case, then, what did Judeans and Greeks have in common? The authors explain:
"What characterized the various Israelite groups and their Judaisms was a common 'genealogical' story of mythic origin rooted in Abraham. Some of Paul's Israelite clients would know Israel's scriptures, but for Paul's audience these would be in Greek. When it came to Judaism, that is, the customs of Judea practiced by Israelites, there was little unity or commonality around the Mediterranean. In a world based on gossip and networking, such unity would simply be impossible. In his approach to Israelite residents among non-Israelites, Paul presumed, it seems, that his audience held Israel's story as sacred along with Israel's ancient sacred writings and that his essential task was to proclaim how the God of Israel was revealed in the resurrection of Jesus, thus appointing Jesus Israel's messiah with a forthcoming Israelite theocracy. This presumption makes it quite clear that Paul's message was meant exclusively for Israelites." (p 20)
In other words, devotion to YHWH, the figure of Abraham, and perhaps the cries of the prophets for a forthcoming theocracy add up to the few commonalities shared among the house of Israel. Temple and Torah were largely about the Judean way of being Israelite.

While there's no denying the diversity of Judaism in the first century -- and while it wouldn't surprise me in the least to learn that certain aspects of the Torah weren't practiced in the diaspora, or even Galilee for that matter -- the idea that Paul confined his mission exclusively to "Jews" won't hold water. The way Paul describes his converts' former lives points to non-Israelites. I could potentially buy the idea of uncircumcised Israelites (Gal 5:2), but not worshipping idols (I Thess 1:9; I Cor 12:2) (about which the authors say these "Israelites" had been "far along the way of assimilation, including adopting local worship patterns" (p 38).) "Pagan" may not be the best translation of ethne, as Malina and Pilch claim (p 79), but it certainly refers to "the other peoples", and that's exactly what Paul calls his converts in I Cor 12:2. To shift the meaning of ethne in this case to refer to a "social standing" (p 114) is getting a bit desperate.

I agree with what Malina and Pilch -- and many Context Group members -- have been telling us about the term Ioudaios. "Jew" is indeed an anachronism in the first century (though I still use it as a lazy convenience, depending on context). But even if "pagan" calls to mind fourth-century stereotypes of "backwards and boorish villagers" (p 79), ethne clearly refers to non-Israelites. This need not necessarily undermine Malina and Pilch's claim that Paul uses ethne in a geographical sense too (perhaps in Gal 2:7-9), but that Paul evangelized Gentiles, and predominantly at that, seems clear.

The rest of the commentary is easy to swallow and helpful, often making sense of key texts critics have had problems with. For instance, I Thess 2:14-15 is seen as authentic, plausible as coming from Paul, and compatible with I Cor 2:8. Both the Judeans and imperial rulers killed Jesus. "Judeans are proverbial killers of the prophets" (p 41), while "the rulers of this age rule by controlling people [the Judeans] who do their bidding." (p 70) This is an obvious place where a precise translation of Ioudaios clears up confusion and does away with interpolation theories owing to modern concerns.

The authors allow us to appreciate the dynamics of Paul's dispute process in II Corinthians 10-13 and Philippians, and how honorable it was for him to railroad his opponents so that his converts might adjudicate in his favor (pp 353-356). We understand the wrath of God as satisfaction taken to defend the deity's honor in the face of Israel's repeated shame and dishonor (sin) (p 408). We see why Rom 16 was appended to the original letter to the Romans, for Phoebe could not have been recommended to the Romans -- it would have been shameful and socially impossible for Paul to make such a recommendation to people he didn't know (p 292). We laugh at Paul's wit: that he was clever and evasive like Jesus (or any macho man) when it came to defending his honor -- as in his flippant retort to the charge that he was out of his mind: "If I am, that's God's affair; if I'm not, that's to benefit others." (II Cor 5:13) (p 146)

Paul's real genius surfaces in the way he continually presses shameful virtues into honorable service. For instance, he boasts in his weakness (II Cor 11:30), not because he's endorsing a lame form of double-speak, as if to imply that "your weakness is my strength". Rather, in surviving hardships (II Cor 11:23b-28) through his weakness, the manly virtues of endurance, strength of resolve, and courage are demonstrated in the long run (p 158). Paul was able to turn shameful things about Christianity into something honorable, but in ways that could actually have been acceptable -- to at least some -- in a world of Mediterranean machismo.

Noticeably lacking in the book is any discussion of lying and deception. This is surprising, not only since Pilch has done so much work in this area, but because Paul offers plenty of missed opportunity. I would have liked to see the authors treat Paul's deceptive rhetoric in places like I Cor 1-4, I Cor 9:19-23, and II Cor 3:7-4:6, and see how their honor-shame treatments contrast with Mark Given's sophist approach in Paul's True Rhetoric.

The only place the issue comes up briefly is in II Corinthians, and it turns out to be a wasted opportunity. The authors rightly describe Paul as a shrewd strategist who refused the hospitality of his own converts, thereby insulting them, challenging their honor, and thus forcing them to be obligated to him rather than vice-versa (II Cor 11:8-9) (p 155). This -- among many other things, like his self-serving missionary strategy (I Cor 9:19-23) -- called forth the charge that he was "crafty and took them in by deceit" (II Cor 12:14-16). But again, there's no actual reading scenario for lying/deception. So if one is looking for a balanced counter (or supplement) to Mark Given's own study of Paul's lies and deceptions, one will not find it in this commentary. I felt a bit cheated on this point, especially given the importance of honorable lies in biblical culture.

I should conclude with a word about the Context Group, because in the past I've had discussions with people who for some reason think this is a "closed club" of idiosyncratic scholars who all think alike. The Context Group takes as its cohesion some basic presuppositions about ancient Mediterranean culture, sometimes in the interest of bridging that world with ours on a more authentic basis than usual, despite seemingly impossible difficulties. But the members are a diverse enough bunch and certainly don't "all think alike". In this sense, while Malina and Pilch's commentary stands as a Context Group publication, it does not speak for every member of the Context Group.

An example may illustrate the point: Malina and Pilch tell us that "conversion" is an inappropriate term used to describe Paul's Christ-calling. Per Stendahl, they believe he was "called" in the same way the prophets of the Hebrew Bible were called (p 13); and he wasn't converting people, rather announcing "a new stage of Israel's corporate history, a new development in Israel launched by the God of Israel" (p 23). Zeba Crook, on the other hand, another Context Group member, has pointed out that by the time of Hellenistic Judaism, it was indeed possible to speak of someone being called and thus converted: Paul was invoking the call of the divine patron-benefactor (which involved conversion by definition) and the call of the prophets at the same time (see Reconceptualizing Conversion, p 176). Philip Esler also thinks "it is reasonable to speak of Paul's conversion" (Galatians, p 126), but differently than Crook: "the way in which Paul seeks to characterize his new orientation, by describing himself as called like Isaiah and Jeremiah, cannot be the end of the issue, since his contemporaries who opposed his activity were easily able to deny such claims...he [actually] taught apostacy" (ibid, pp 121-122). This is a way of reminding what should be obvious: that the Context Group members are perfectly capable of thinking uniquely and differently, unlike many of the honor-shame collectivists they write about!

In the end, despite certain problems and shortcomings, this commentary belongs on the scholarly shelf, especially if the shelf is top-heavy with theological or literary intertextual approaches to Paul. It's not as sharp as Malina and Rohrbaugh's commentaries on the gospels, but it's the first of its kind for Paul, and necessary at that.


Blogger Michael Pahl said...

Loren, thanks for this review. Very helpful!


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