Month: July 2012

last chance to win a free commentary

Abram K-J, over at Words of the Word is giving away a commentary on the letter to the Ephesians, by Clinton Arnold. Ephesians is a wonderful letter, Arnold is an exceptional writer, and the new commentary series is . . . well, new. There’s no downside. All you have to do is answer a question in the comment and the repost on either Facebook, Google+, Twitter, andor you own blog.

transient theological thoughts (4)

In the introduction to his little commentary on Romans, C.H. Dodd says:

Whatever particular dates be assigned to the epistles to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Galatians, they all preceded the Epistle to the Romans. I have indicated in the notes several passages where a train of thought in Romans can be recognized at an earlier stage of its development in one of those other epistles. Thus the short eschatological passage, [Rom] xiii.11-14, points back to the more elaborate treatment of the same theme in 1 Thess v.1-10. The discussion of the ‘body’ and the ‘members,’ in [Rom] xii.5-8, and of the problem of the scrupulous conscience, in [Rom] xiv.1–xv.6, presuppose the fuller and fresher discussion of these themes in 1 Cor xii and viii–x, without reference to which the passages in Romans are hardly to be understood in their full meaning.

–C.H. Dodd,The Epistle of Paul to the Romans(1963), 22-23

On the surface, I say: “Rock on!” I’m all for highlighting and emphasising the places where specific themes or ideas appear in different letters. I’m especially supportive of this when it leads to a more nuanced understanding of Paul’s thought and/or theology. As Dodd points out, having this more nuanced knowledge gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Paul when he writes what he does, and that is indeed a laudable opportunity.

Further reflection, however, leads me to say: “Hang on a minute.” I’m not sure if Dodd was aware of what he implies in arguing his case. If I’m reading him correctly,* Dodd’s near insistence on the necessity of recognising intertextuality seems to create problems for one of the more basic hermeneutical goals–i.e. to hear/read the text in its original context. In effect, Dodd wants us to imagine a historical context that is not necessarily fair, and the effect of that imagined context leads to a conclusion that is not warranted.

Let me say this in a different way: 1) our goal is to understand the letter of Romans in its original context (i.e. its effect on and relevance for its original audience); 2) Dodd contends that the full meaning of key elements of Romans is contingent upon having knowledge of what Paul has argued elsewhere; 3) thus, for the original Roman audience to appreciate and know fully Paul’s meaning, they would have to be aware of what he said in 1Thess and 1Cor on similar themes; 4) however, Dodd offers no evidence (provided there is any) that the Romans were aware of such texts, let alone what Paul argued in them; ergo 5) we must assume that the Romans’ awareness of Paul’s full meaning in his letter to them was lacking–if not deficient. That, for me, is a big problem.

While intertextual readings might be useful for us when seeking to ascertain wider meaning (or, the larger framework of an author’s thought), I do not think it is appropriate to require such things for original audiences. It might be appropriate, however, if such audiences had time and the ability to acquaint themselves with other texts by the same author beforehand; but we cannot say that is the case for the Romans–at least not at the time of the first reading of the letter. Thus I think Dodd suggestion has placed an unfair burden on the original audience, in their ability to ascertain Paul’s full meaning, and an unnecessary obstacle in our way of seeking to understand how the original audience would have read Paul’s letter.

* I (as always) admit to the possibility of being wrong, especially this week–my personal “demons” have been relentless.

cyrus the younger, paul the apostle, and a handshake

The other night before bed I was reading Xenophon’s Anabasis (as you do) and stumbled upon an intriguing phrase. For the sake of clarity, here is the material leading up to (and including) the intrigue:

‘My friends, I [Cyrus] have called you together so that I may act with regard to Orontas here in what, after consultation with you, we decide is, from the point of view of gods and men, the right way. This man, in the first place, was appointed by my father [Darius II] to be under my command. Then, on the instructions, he says, of my brother [Artaxerxes II], he held the citadel of Sardis and made war on me. I fought him and made him stop fighting me; then I gave him and he gave me the right-hand of friendship. Since then,’ [Cyrus] continued, ‘have I injured you in any way?’ Orontas replied that he had not.

–Xenophon, Anabasis 1.6.6 (trans. R. Warner), emphasis added

The intrigue is the similarity between this account and something we read in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Again, for the sake of clarity, here is the material leading up to (and including) the similarity:

And from those who seemed to be influential–what they are makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality–those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised also worked through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave the right-hand of fellowship to Barnabas and to me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised–only they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

–Galatians 2.6-10 (ESV), emphasis added

Leaving to one side for the moment my curiosity about these two texts, commentators often read the Galatians passage as Barnabas and Paul receiving validation for the gospel they proclaim (to the Gentiles).  In other words, the “right-hand of fellowship” is extended because the message Barnabas and Paul preach to the Gentiles is in agreement with the message upon the church in Jerusalem is based.  Martinus de Boer nuances this a bit by saying, “The pillars in Paul’s account . . . each offered to Paul and Barnabas not so much the right hand of friendship or agreement as that ‘of partnership’ ” (Galatians: A Commentary [2011], 124).* In this sense, however it’s nuanced, the “right-hand of fellowship” almost comes across as either a, “Welcome to the club” or, “We agree with (and endorse) what you’re preaching to the Gentiles–well done, boys” type of gesture.

While I have no problem with this interpretation in principle, especially given the meaning and use of the descriptive term “fellowship”, it does create two problems for me: 1) if the above reading is all that the handshake represents, then Paul’s reaction to Cephas (as described in Gal 2.11) comes across as a bit extreme and/or unjustified, and 2) the above seems to overlook or even sideline something more substantial about the handshake. This brings me back to my curiosity about the intriguing similarity between Xenophon and Paul.

The intriguing similarity is not just with the language of the two texts but also with the specific contexts in which the phrase about the handshake occurs. In Xenophon, the context is virtually judicial–i.e. Cyrus and the leading men convene to decide on how to deal with the traitorous actions of Orontas. The basis of the charge is related to the prior decision between Orontas and Cyrus not to fight–a decision sealed by a handshake, one characterized as “friendship.” Thus, Orontas is at present guilty because of his plot against Cyrus, which is seen as violating the previous “contractual” decision to keep peace–i.e. Orontas’ actions make him no longer a friend of Cyrus.

In Galatians (cf. Acts 15), the context can also be seen as judicial–albeit in an informal sense–for the members of the Council in Jerusalem convened to decide on the right course of action with regard to Gentiles coming into the community of believers. The members of the Council agree that the gospel preached by Barnabas and Paul and the “requirements” placed upon the Gentiles (in the light of accepting the gospel) are consistent with the gospel and “requirements” given to the Jews. This agreement is sealed with a handshake (with the provisio that Paul and Barnabas carry on with the Gentiles and the “pillars” carry on with the Jews).

When we come to Gal 2.11, we see Paul opposing Cephas “to his face, because he stood condemned.” On the surface, this language appears to be a bit harsh–if not over-the-top. (James Dunn reminds us of the ways in early interpreters attempted to deal with this apparent Pauline over-reaction).** However, a closer look suggests otherwise–i.e. Paul’s reaction is understandable. Following Ben Witherington’s (typical) suggestion, the language of “opposing” and “condemned” has an intended rhetorical effect, one that calls to mind a judicial setting–i.e. Cephas’ actions are on trial (see, Grace in Galatia [2004], 151-52). This reminds us of the context of Xenophon’s story. But what actions?

We might be tempted to say it’s Cephas’ failure to keep the provisio of the Council’s original decision–i.e. Cephas is cohorting with Gentiles when he’s supposed to be hanging with Jews. That, to me, would seem like we’re elevating a secondary agreement to the primary position. In the light of how Paul continues the argument (i.e. Gal 2.12-21), the actions in question appear to be the proclamation of the gospel, plus something else; and it is that something else that stands in opposition to what was agreed upon at the Council, an agreement sealed with a handshake. And since Cephas was one of the key “pillars” who initiated and extended the handshake to Paul, he should have known better. Thus, he stands condemned. Moreover we cannot simply spiritualize this and see Cephas as “already condemned before the divine tribunal” (Witherington, 151); he stands condemned because he broke the previously established “contractual” agreement.

* Cf. W. Moorehead: “The handclasp signified, not friendship, or love, or mutual good-will, but that these Apostles regarded Paul as a partner with them in the common cause and common work” (Outline Studies in Acts, Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians [1902], 209).
** See J.D.G. Dunn, “The Incident at Antioch,” JSNT 18 (1983): 3.