This is well outside my norm, but I’m up for a little controversy today. Here you go (it’s a two-parter):
The floor is open to serious, whimsical and even sarcastic responses.
One of the effects of constantly interacting with other people’s work, is that you gain a sense for where a line of argument is about to go once it starts. Usually this happens because of two related reasons: 1) familiarity in a particular field of study gives you an understanding of the “consensus” views/arguments on a given subject, and 2) when certain names, terms or watch-words are dropped into the discussion, you simply know how such things are ordinarily used. Thus, the second is the result of the first. I am certainly not as gifted in this regard as many others I know (my supervisors, for example), and I candidly admit that I am occasionally wrong–a consequence of not being as gifted, I guess. However, in some respects I think I am getting better. Slowly.
This morning I listened to the first lecture of a course on hermeneutics given by a professor whom we will call, “Bob.” I was delighted to hear Bob’s decision to begin with the letters of Paul, since, technically speaking, they were the first works of the NT to be written.* My delight rests in the acknowledgement that, if we want to study the NT historically then Paul’s letters are first on the agenda. (However, if want to study the NT theologically then the present, canonical order is the best. Another discussion for another time). Sadly, though, my delight in Bob’s approach began to wane for two reasons.
First, Bob started with the letter to the Romans. I am not suggesting that Romans is a bad letter; I happen to like Romans very much. What bothered me was the apparent inconsistency in Bob’s overall approach. Step 1: when studying the NT, start with Paul’s letters. No problem; they are historically first, so that would make sense. Step 2: when studying Paul’s letters, start with the one to the Romans. Quoi?! Why use a historical criterion to determine which texts to begin with and then chuck that criterion once the determination is made? To quote from a great movie: “That don’t make no sense!” However, and despite this, I knew why Bob wanted to start with Romans.
Second, Bob launched in a series of questions on specific topics, all of which have become rather familiar to me. Thus, I knew where he was about to go and why. The line of argument ran something like this: Paul wrote a bunch of letters; literacy rates in the ancient world were exceptionally low (it was at this point I though/knew: “Oh crap, he’s about to rope in the rhetorical stuff”); since literacy rates were low, and since Paul wrote letters, the natural conclusion is that they were meant to be heard; since Paul’s letters were meant to be heard, they function more like speeches (“…here it comes…”); ergo, we can/should study Paul’s letters as comparable–if not synonymous with–ancient rhetorical speeches (“ding, ding, ding!”).
However, in laying out this line of argument Bob said something that completely surprised me. He said: “So some people use a wonderful ancient discipline called, ‘Rhetorical Criticism’ to see how in these letters they are put together rhetorically–that is, in terms of putting together an argument” (emphasis added). I had to back up the recording and hear it again just to make sure I heard it right the first time. I did. Bob called “Rhetorical Criticism” an “ancient discipline.” Why, Bob why?
While studies/training in the art of rhetoric are quite ancient, Rhetorical Criticism is not. In fact, Rhetorical Criticism, as a discipline, is fairly recent–specifically, post 1969 (i.e. post-James Muilenburg’s SBL speech).** To come at this from another direction: the ancients used theories to educate people (before the fact) in how to deliver public speeches that would be persuasive; modern scholars use models of interpretation to study the historical circumstances of those speeches and their persuasiveness (after the fact). The one is not the other; the two are quite distinct and should not be confused.
* Caveat: I allow for the possibility that the epistle from James (if written by Jesus’ brother) predates the writings of Paul by one to two years. The basic argument here is: James presided over the Jerusalem Council in 49 CE; the letter of James says nothing about the Council (namely its substance and outcome); ergo, the letter predates the Council. However, I tend to read James–at least the latter portion of chapter 2–as responding to an immature understanding of Paul’s teaching on justification. Since Paul only did one missionary tour prior to the Council, and since the general substance of Paul’s message remained the same; we can assume that it would take time for word of this immature understanding to reach James and thus require a response. Thus, this report would either be related to Paul’s first missionary tour or at least the second, which occurs after the Council.
** I admit that both Judah Messer Leon and Desiderius Erasmus conducted what could be classified as “rhetorical criticism”; however, their approach was distinct from how post-1969 Rhetorical Criticism is (typically) done.
This comes from Stephen Westerholm’s wonderfully insightful (and, at times, rather humorous) introduction on Paul:
Contemporary confidence that the ‘scientific method’ can resolve the dispute is misplaced. Science may observe nature’s conduciveness to various kinds of life; it has no instrument for determining whether life is good. Science may note the patterns or the chaos apparent in the fraction of reality open to its observation; but its grasp of “all that is” can never be sufficient to justify claims about the structure, or lack of structure, of the whole; nor, if there is structure, can the observations of science distinguish between a mechanically functioning order and an intelligently formed design. Science can tell us how to exploit nature; it is silent to what extent we should. To evaluate the fundamental human issues raised by a comparison of worldviews, we will need to summon human resources both deeper and older than the “scientific method.’
–Westerholm, Preface to the Study of Paul (1997), 13-14
While discussing a notorious pastor (who will remain unnamed) with my office-mate, the following quote came to mind:
The impatient, who are concerned only about results or practical application, should leave their hands off exegesis. They are of no value for it, nor, when rightly done, is exegesis of any value for them.
–E. Käsemann, Commentary on Romans (1980), viii.
Thursday evening, while waiting on my lovely wife to come home from work, I moseyed through Bo Reicke’s insightful essay on the background to the Jerusalem Council and the Antioch “incident” noted in Gal 2.1-14. This essay comes from Reicke’s book, Re-examining Paul’s Letters: The History of the Pauline Correspondence (2001), 16-25. Given the date of the book, we might be allured into thinking that Reicke’s take on this issue is relatively new and thus relevant for current scholarly discussions. In truth, however, this essay is merely a translated reprint of the German original which was a part of a Festschrift in 1953,¹ and it has received minimal attention since then.
After a general search, I could only find a small number of scholars who interact (to varying degrees) with Reicke’s proposal–namely, Traugott Holtz (1974), Marcel Simon (1978), Richard Bauckham (1979), D.A. Carson (1986), Ronald Fung (1988), and Johann Kim (2009).² For whatever reason, James Dunn (1993), Paul Tarazi (1994), Kenneth Boles (1997), Roy Ciampa (1998), Philip Kern (1998), Yon-gyong Kwon (2004), Ben Witherington (2004), Atsuhiro Asano (2005), D. François Tolmie (2005), Andreas Du Toit (2007),³ Brendan Byrne (2010), Martinus de Boer (2011), and Ian Levy (2011) all say nothing, which is surprising given their respective discussions on the importance of the Antioch incident. Moreover, those who do say something about Reicke’s take do so only in passing or in a relegated footnote. This, for me, is rather unfortunate.
Reicke attempts to understand the infamous Antioch incident not primarily in terms of harmonizing Acts with Galatians but in the light of political and religious pressures in and around the time of the incident. Specifically, Reicke argues for a rise in religious fanaticism within particular sects of Judaism (i.e. the Zealots and Sicarii) in the light of political changes that seemed to threaten the integrity or sanctity of the Jewish identity.
In particular, there was a deep concern of not only Roman culture and ideology being imposed on Judaism but also Judaism being “tainted” by Gentile proselytes. Reicke contends–rightly, in my opinion–that this tension began in Judea with the appointment of the Roman procurator Ventidius Cumanus (48-52 CE) and became more acute leading up to and during the time of Antionius Felix (52-60 CE). Reicke also shows that the fervor for maintaining Jewish identity (at all costs) was not exclusive to Palestine; traces can be found in regions outside of Palestine, namely Alexandria (Egypt), Syria, and Asia-Minor (i.e. Turkey).
Vital to Reicke’s hypothesis–and again, I agree with him on this–is the assumption that the Jerusalem Council (of Acts 15) took place either on or just prior to 48 CE. This is significant because prior to 48 CE, the historical evidence suggests a relative peace or concord between Jews and Gentiles (take that Baur)–especially Gentile converts to Judaism (and the Jesus-people). Thus, the decision of the Council occurred during a time when it was “safe” to make such a decision, which, I should point out, is not to downplay the overall need for the decision.
Now, as Acts 15 tells us, both Peter and Paul were present at this Council and naturally in support of the decision to accept Gentiles into the εκκλησια (i.e. the community of Jesus-people) without needing circumcision–to which the Gentiles said, “Thank you very much!”. Thus, when we read Gal 2.11-14 we can appreciate–or at least understand–Paul’s surprise with Peter/Cephas, who is now (post-Council) apparently bowing to certain Jews demanding that Gentiles be circumcised in order to be counted as God’s people. How do we account for this (apparent) sudden shift in Peter’s commitment to the Council’s decision? Also, is Paul reacting wrongly or is there merit to his rebuke?
Reicke’s hypothesis stresses the importance of being aware of not only time lapse between the Jerusalem Council and the Antioch incident but also the religious changes that occurred during that interim. Conservative estimates place the Antioch incident shortly after Paul’s return from his so-called second missionary journey (see Acts 18.22), a return dated to c. 53 CE. As noted above, specific Jewish resistance to outsiders and Gentile influences gained momentum around this time and made itself known in regions outside of Palestine. Moreover, this resistance movement was not characterized by civil dialogue and pot-luck dinners; it was–in many cases–quick, decisive and violent, and no sending flowers afterward.
It is also vital to stress that during the period between the Council and the incident (i.e. 48-53 CE), Paul was spreading the message of the gospel in Asia-Minor, Macedonia and Achaia; Peter, on the other hand, presumably remained in Jerusalem for a time before making his way north to Syria-Antioch. In other words, Paul was on the move over vast stretches of land and usually a few steps ahead of specific Jewish opposition; Peter appears to be more confined in movements and right in the midst of the opposition. The spell in Antioch seems to be his first respite, yet it is one that fails to endure (as is the habit of respites).
In Antioch, Peter is communing with Gentiles–ostensibly in the comfort of the Council’s decision (not to mention the divine command from Acts 10)–when the opposition arrives, an arrival that causes Peter great fear, and this fear causes him to behave hypocritically, and this hypocritical behavior brings down upon him the rebuke of Paul. If Reicke’s hypothesis is true, then the specific Jewish opposition that Peter encounters at Antioch is not simply a group well-meaning of Jews wanting to debate theology; the opposition is a band of sword-wielding loyalists determined to preserve the sanctity of the Jewish identity no matter the cost.
Since these loyalists come from Jerusalem, the assumption is that they already exerted their influence in a similar manner over the εκκλησια in Jerusalem, where James (Jesus’ brother) is in charge. As a result they now carry out their wider mission ostensibly with the sanction of the Jerusalem εκκλησια. The deck certainly appears to be stacked in their favor. Reicke’s hypothesis suggests that Peter’s actions are not motivated by theological dishonesty but self-preservation–an impulse that is completely understandable in such circumstances.
Paul’s rebuke, however, seems to be aimed at Peter’s self-preservation at the expense of theological honesty. In other words, from Paul’s perspective, Peter was not behaving Christ-like. While being tried, beaten, punched, spat on, verbally abuse and mocked, and with the knowledge of death by crucifixion looming, Jesus didn’t say, “You know what guys, I was only kidding about this Messiah stuff; I’m really just an average person and I’m sorry for all the trouble I caused. What do you say we call it a day?”
Moreover–albeit to a lesser degree–after being imprisoned, beaten beyond remembrance, whipped severely (5 times), beaten some more, a storm of rocks chucked at him, shipwrecked, stalked by evil people, foodless and drinkless, and constantly chased by his opponents, Paul didn’t bend and say, “Maybe I should forget this Jesus-stuff and go back to my old ways; it would certainly make my life easier.”
Just as Christ endured what he did for the sake of the world (i.e. he remained theologically honest, which cost him his life), so too Paul endured what he did for the sake of the congregations of Jesus-followers he helped establish (i.e. he remained theologically honest, knowing that his life was at stake). Peter, on the other hand, apparently caved to external pressure and sacrificed theological honesty in order to preserve his own life.
Thus, it would seem that Paul’s frustration is not simply with Peter’s actions or even a possible shift in teaching (i.e. Peter is now saying Gentiles have to be circumcised); the frustration appears to be with the inconsistency between life and faith in the gospel, an inconsistency that can radically affect the believability of the gospel message. In other words, if those on the “inside” who proclaim this stuff don’t live by it, why should anyone else?
¹ Bo Reicke, “Der geschichtliche Hintergrund des Apostelkonzils und der Antiochia-Episode, Gal. 2.1-14,” in Studia Paulina in honorem Johannis de Zwaan septuagenarii (Haarlem: J. Bohn, 1953), 172-87.
² Reicke’s article is mentioned first in Günter Wagner’s helpful bibliography for scholarly works on Romans and Galatians (1996: 296).
³ Admittedly, both Tolmie and Du Toit mention Reicke, but it is in reference to entirely different works and subjects.