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Texts and Their Reading Communities

March 30, 2012

In an interesting recent essay on Roman-era literary texts and the “reading communities” in which they were read, William Johnson comments about how certain literary texts can exercise an interesting role: “The text, that is, does not merely reflect or serve its readers, but projects and thereby actively seeks to create the ‘ideal’ reading community to which the writing aspires.” William A. Johnson, “Constructing Elite Reading Communities in the High Empire,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, ed. William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 320-30, quotation from p. 329.

My immediate thought was whether we should consider a similar role exercised by Paul’s letters to his churches, and perhaps in Paul’s case, indeed, such an explicit intention. It is interesting to think of Paul’s letters as directed to, and as intended to shape, the early Christian “reading communities” to which they were directed, and then subsequently those other groups among which these letters circulated. We study Paul’s letters as reflections of him, his thought, his rhetoric and beliefs, and as reflections also of the Christian circles to which the letters were sent (often in response to reports of issues in these circles). But Johnson’s observation gives us another way to consider Paul’s letters (for, though formally letters, they are in content also “literary” texts), as texts that also had a role in creating and shaping those circles. Johnson shows that in pagan elite circles certain texts functioned in a dialectical manner with the groups that read them, and I think that we can posit something similar in the case of Paul’s letters.

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  1. Larry Chasteen permalink

    Greetings, Dr. Hurtado:

    In Historical Jesus Debate: An Unexamined Premise? you ask: “Why should a difference between what Jesus taught about himself and what believers subsequently came to assert about him be a problem?” You then affirm “…whether he (Jesus) expected all that earliest believers were convinced had been conferred on him, I don’t know. And, although it’s an interesting question, it’s not actually logically or theologically vital to answer.” . . . . In other words, what Jesus taught and what Christians believe would seem to be both logically and theologically vital.



    • Your comment seems really directed to the other posting you mention, rather than this one. (I’ve also trimmed your lengthy comment, to get to the bone of it.) So, a brief response. Clearly, Christians have always taken Jesus’ teachings as “vital” and authoritative, evidenced as early as Paul’s letters (e.g., 1 Cor 7). But my point was that the basis for treating Jesus as worthy of divine honor & reverence in the NT writings isn’t that Jesus commanded it, but that God has exalted him and now requires it. Moreover, the NT writings clearly indicate that in the “post-Easter” period, dramatically new and fuller revelations of Jesus’ status and significance came to believers, on the basis of God’s new/further act in raising Jesus from death and installing him in regal glory (e.g., Rom. 1:1-4; Philip 2:9-11). So, this level of reverence offered to Jesus was never based on whether Jesus did or did not think of himself as divine, or whether he did or didn’t teach his divine status. It was based on God’s actions and command.

      • Larry Chasteen permalink

        Doctor, I apologize for not using the following quote. It would have segued better:

        “…it seems to me that the accounts (in the Gospels) are intended not simply to reflect beliefs, etc., but also to promote and shape Christian beliefs and behaviour, so helping to shape the reading communities in which they circulated.”

        Without Jesus’ divine authority as reflected in the Gospels then reinforced post-Easter, how could reading communities possibly have interpreted the meaning of what they’re doing?

      • You’ve got the sequence backwards: The post-Easter experiences came first, and the Gospels later. But, to be sure, as I’ve proposed in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 53-64), Jesus was himself one of the factors that generated and shaped the phenomenal devotion to him that erupted so soon after his execution.
        (Scholars write books to lay out their analysis adequately for others to assess it. So, as much as I appreciate blog-site readers, I do ask serious interrogators of my views to take the trouble to read what I’ve written.)

  2. Thanks Larry. This is reminding me of Peter Oakes’ helpful and pertinent comment that he was surprised how little commentaries on Rom 12 spoke about how the believers in Rome were expected to behave in response to this chapter. He does this himself beautifully in response to four reconstructed figures in ancient Pompeii in his wonderful book Reading Romans in Pompeii (London: SPCK, 2009).

  3. Darren permalink

    I think that Paul’s letters certainly have the intention of “shaping” the Christian communities to which he wrote. We must be careful that people understand that Paul is shaping those Christian communities to look and act like the kingdom of God that Jesus came into the world to bring. His purpose was NOT to shape the Christian communities to conform to his “brand” or “style” or “interpretation” of Christianity.

    • Well, yes, in Paul’s mind he sought to shape his churches in light of the kingdom of God. But, of course, that’s the kingdom of God as he saw it. Moreover, Paul does speak of “my gospel”, and of himself as given a special task to bring about “the obedience of the gentiles”. And surely even those other Jewish-Christians whom Paul sometimes lambasted also thought that they were promoting the kingdom of God, but had a very different view of what kind of shaping of Christian communities that involved.

      • Darren permalink

        To what texts do we give credit for shaping Paul and his thinking about Jesus and the kingdom of God? The Pentateuch? Isaiah 40-55? Also, to what extent do we consider Jesus’ appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus as a “shaping event?” And while Paul does speak about “my gospel,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that his gospel differed in any way from Peter’s or John’s or any of the other apostles.

      • The volume of scholarly discussion on the factors that shaped Paul’s view of Jesus is huge. In brief, we have to allow for a combination of things: What he knew of earliest Jewish-Christian beliefs (against which he initially reacted with hostility prior to his own “revelation” event), his own revelatory event (the cognitive content of which was Jesus’ glorified status), further interchanges with fellow Jewish Christians (e.g., his two-week stay with Cephas), and his re-reading of his scriptures (a “christologically shaped” re-reading of the OT), are prominent factors.
        As to differences between Paul and other apostolic leaders, we have to take account of Paul’s narrative of conflict in Antioch (Gal 2), where he says he rebuked Peter and Barnabas for their “hypocrisy” by which they endangered the freedom of gentile believers. There were, it seems to me, differences, at least in emphasis, and Paul. At the same time, Paul claims commonality in “core” traditions (as in 1 Cor 15:1-7).

      • Bobby Garringer permalink


        In the study of the New Testament, I like the emphasis on intent and content — over against speculations about theoretical oral and written sources.

        Understanding the authors of these documents and their audiences — Gospels as well as letters — surely holds much more potential for reconstructing what early Christianity was like.

        The interaction of reader and audience, as you portrayed it in a recent post, is something I had not considered. Do you have specific documentation for this, that is, specific examples?

      • Paul’s letters are the easiest examples, because we know to whom they were sent and they often include references to the issues and interests Paul has in writing. It’s clear that he intended to shape his churches through his letters. Consider, as prime example, pretty much the whole of 1 Corinthians! With the Gospels it’s much more difficult to match with specific Christian groups. But even in these cases it seems to me that the accounts are intended not simply to reflect beliefs, etc., but also to promote and shape Christian beliefs and behaviour, so helping to shape the reading communities in which they circulated.

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