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Scholarly Amnesia on Paul

September 21, 2011

Unintentionally having created a controversy that (in the words of one blogger) went “viral”, with what I presumed was the modest contention that those seeking a PhD in NT/Christian Origins should be able to read the Greek NT, and should also be able to engage at least scholarship in English, German and French, I will also reiterate another contention:  That scholars need to read old(er) books.  Otherwise, “scholars” blithely may assume to have discovered something that was long ago known and published, may ascribe some “new” idea to a more recent publication (when the idea was actually out there much earlier), and in general may deprive themselves of the riches of earlier scholarly work. 

One scholar I’ve mentioned in an earlier posting and who is curiously overlooked today, sometimes not even cited, is Johannes Munck.  Two key works deserve notice by any Pauline scholar (and I shall not name those who curiously seem not to know Munck today, which include some widely-known figures in current Pauline studies). 

Munck’s Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (ET, Richmond, VA:  John Knox Press, 1959; German original, Paulus und die Heilsgeschichte, Copenhagen:  Munksgaard, 1954) remains hugely important.  It’s a series of studies, rather than a consecutively-developed work, but the studies all inter-relate to make an important, thought-provoking, and valuable total contribution.  E.g., in the first chapter, “The Call”, Munck clearly showed that Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience wasn’t a “conversion” but instead a powerful prophetic calling (an idea for which Krister Stendahl is now more commonly given credit, but Stendahl got it from Munck).

Munck also argued that Paul saw himself as a crucial figure in “salvation-history” (the divine plan for world-redemption), likely understanding himself in light of biblical texts, esp. from Isaiah.  Munck contended that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was intended to provoke the salvation of Israel (Paul having come to an eschatological vision the reverse of that held by the Jerusalem church).  Munck emphasize that Paul wasn’t really a theologian in any modern sense of the word, but instead his theological thinking was the consequence of his mission, and his letters (including Romans) were all conditioned by that mission.  There is a lot more I could cite from this work that justifies saying that everyone concerned with Paul should study it carefully. 

Munck’s other insufficiently-known work is his careful exegeticial study, Christ and Israel:  An Interpretation of Romans 9–11 (Phildelphia:  Fortress Press, 1967; Danish original, 1956).  As only one example of the curious neglect of Munck’s work,  N.T. Wright’s exegetical study of these same chapters makes no reference to it (The Climax of the Covenant:  Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, pp. 231-57), although Munck’s reading of Romans is perhaps the most serious alternative to Wright’s.  E.g., contra Wright, Munck contends that Romans 11:25-32 shows that Paul continued to affirm an eschatological salvation of “Israel”, and that by “Israel” Paul meant the Jewish people.

Munck deserves to be cited and engaged as a major contributor to the late 20th-century “discovery” of Paul’s very Jewish-ness, and should be factored into the debates about the putative “new perspective” on Paul.  The flood of new/continuing publications serves the understandable purpose of getting scholars published (and so getting hired, tenured, promoted).  But, frankly, a good deal of it is  . . .  well, less than necessary reading.  But works like these by Munck definitely belong on the “must read” list, especially for Pauline scholars. 

Scholarly amnesia on this or other topics doesn’t simply involve a failure to acknowledge and remember the contributions of earlier scholars.  We deprive ourselves of insights and provocative observations that can fuel our own.

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  1. scott caulley permalink

    Thanks for your (again) timely comments, Larry. Though I was not happy with the requirement to include a “history of research” chapter in my dissertation, I have been grateful for the opportunity ever since. I discovered that some of “my” ideas had been expressed by others centuries ago, which helped me to put my work into perspective. You remind us that without the tools (ancient and modern languages), the “scholar” cannot hope to do meaningful work in the primary sources, and thus advance the body of knowledge surrounding and deriving from those sources. As such, it is crucial to know what has been said about a given idea, passage, or method. Otherwise at best the scholar reinvents the wheel, but more likely just spins his/her own.

  2. I am thankful for the recommendation as I work through my master’s thesis in Romans.

    One of the great difficulties with Paul, and Romans in particular, is that the body of secondary literature is so vast that no one truly claim mastery. Still, I am thankful for Schweitzer and Ellis’s respective reviews of Pauline literature. Are there any other Paul “must-reads” that you tend to see overlooked?

    My research is focusing on Paul’s use of the OT and Romans 8.

    • Nothing in particular on the OT & Romans 8. But you’re right that the amount of publication on Paul is . . . oceanic, and one simply must find ways of identifying what MUST be read and what can be ignored. Fortunately, quite a lot falls into the latter category. More broadly on Paul, I’d say go to the key current works and check out their notes & bibliog, and check out the classic works (e.g., Deissmann, W.D. Davies, A.D. Nock, Schoeps, A.M. Hunter, and more recent classics such as Meeks).

  3. Thanks for the recommendations, Larry. I’m always looking to add to my understanding and not always sure which are the best to consider studying. Amazingly, the paperback edition of Munck’s Paul and the Salvation of Mankind, is available used at for a dollar.

  4. I was lucky, when studying at Yale, to have been introduced to both Munck and Nils Dahl as sources for understanding Paul, and I was delighted to pick up a second-hand copy of Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (and fortunate again that it wasn’t one of the books I had to leave behind when crossing the ocean). But awareness of and respect for particular scholars goes in cycles, and is inflected by academic ancestry (students at the four doctoral-degree institutions with which I’ve been associated — Glasgow, Yale, Duke, and Princeton Seminary — take for granted distinctively different bodies of scholarly literature. It’s not just amnesia, it’s also regionalism.

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