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“Paul the Jew”: New Book

I’m pleased to have my contributor’s copy of Paul the Jew:  Rereading the Apostle as a Figure of Second Temple Judaism,  ed. Gabriele Boccaccini & Carlos A. Segovia (Fortress Press, 2016, the publisher’s online catalogue entry here).  This volume presents edited versions of twelve papers given in an invitational conference held in Rome in 2014.  My paper included in the volume:  “Paul’s Messianic Christology,” which I summarized in a previous posting after that conference here.

The effort to take the Apostle Paul’s affirmations of his own Jewishness seriously has been decades long now, reaching back to such important earlier works as W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (New York: Harper & Row, 1948); Johannes Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (German original:  Aarhus/Copenhagen: Universitetsforlaget/Ejnar Munksgaard, 1954; ET, Richmond: John Knox Press, 1959), and, of course (to cite a work now more familiar to younger scholars), E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).  Also, among more recent German works (often overlooked by English-speaking scholars), I note Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr, Heidenapostel aus Israel: Die jüdische Identität des Paulus nach ihrer Darstellung in seinen Briefen (WUNT 62; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1992).

For various historical reasons, Paul has often been depicted as a radical “Hellenizer”, even a Platonist, and in some Jewish thought as a renegade and apostate.  In some historic Christian tradition, Paul is depicted as having renounced his Jewish identity and everything that went with it in a “conversion” on the Damascus Road.  But all of these claims founder on the evidence of Paul’s own statements in his letters that form part of the NT.

The remaining problem for interpreters is often how to respect Paul’s firm retention of his membership in his ancestral people (for example, reflected in his readiness to undergo repeated synagogue floggings, 2 Cor 11:24), while also taking account of the significant “mutation” in his beliefs and devotional practice attested in his letters.  In my essay, I propose that Paul’s Jesus-devotion should be seen as initially a distinctive and novel development in second-temple Jewish messianic traditions.

“Divinity School,” “School of Divinity,” and American Confusion

In a session at the recent SBL annual meeting in which I served as a panel-reviewer of a recently published book, the discussion descended into speculations about how the views of panellists were shaped by whether they taught in a public university or a “Divinity School” (i.e., theological seminary preparing individuals for Christian ministry).  And it became clear that the other panellists thought that I was attached to the latter type of institution, which meant that I was supposedly working from some different set of presumptions than the other panellist.  So, some clarification is needed.

First, as for me, I last taught in a theological college with a faith-commitment in 1978.  Thereafter, I taught for 18 years in the University of Manitoba, Department of Religion (the major public university of Manitoba).  Then, from 1996 to 2011 I was Professor in the University of Edinburgh, a public-funded British university, not a church-related university.

Second, the “School of Divinity” of the University of Edinburgh isn’t a “Divinity School” in the American sense.  It’s a bit confusing, I’ll admit, so I’ll explain things.  All major units of the University of Edinburgh are “Schools.”  And “Divinity” is the old Scottish term equivalent to “Theology.”  Out of a sense of tradition, the term has been retained for our “School.”  (I guess this is another example of the old quip that the USA and Britain are two societies divided by a common language!)

But there is no confessional test for academic staff or students, and our main teaching “business” is about 300 undergraduate students (“majors” in the American sense), making us one of the largest units for the academic study of religions in the UK.  (These include maybe 30 or so who are taking courses for academic preparation for church ministry.)  In addition, with about 80-90 PhD students and about 40-50 masters degree students, we’re one of the largest postgraduate centres in religion study in the UK.

Our academic staff (about 30) have a diversity of individual stances on matters religious:  some are various kinds of Christians, others no religious affiliation, and others Muslim and Jewish.  Our courses likewise involve the study of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, aboriginal, and other religious traditions and phenomena.  So, you should really think of the “School of Divinity” here as a massive department for the study of religions, with a small “nested” degree programme for academic preparation for ministry, and a large postgraduate population too.

Also, brushing off someone’s arguments on the basis of the kind of institution they work in is, in my view, pretty silly.  In any case, I’m retired since 2011, so I don’t work for any institution!   But, to repeat the point to ensure clarity, the “School of Divinity” here isn’t a “Divinity School.”

“Destroyer of the gods”: The Panel Discussion

The panel discussion of my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, was a lively and (in my view) productive event at this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (in San Antonio, Texas, 18-22 Nov).  (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.)  In previous postings, I’ve referred to various video and audio interviews on the book.  For example, note the video interview held in our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins here.

One panellist wondered if my emphasis on early Christian distinctiveness was a protest against a comparison of early Christianity and other religious movements of its time.  I should hope, however, that I make it sufficiently clear that I fully approve (and carry out) the “taxonomy” task as a first step in then identifying the distinguishing features of early Christianity.  And, contrary to his suggestion that I seem to focus on anomalies, I countered that my focus is on what I would call particularities, i.e., features that allow us to distinguish and identify this or that phenomenon from other members of its type.

Another panellist, Kyle Harper (a classicist with award-winning books of his own on early Christianity; see here) was most encouraging in his appraisal of my book.  (Indeed, the most positive appraisals thus far have been from classicists and ancient historians, in comparison with colleagues in biblical studies.  Interesting.)  He suggested an interesting line of further investigation and reflection:  What larger changes might have been taking place in the first couple of centuries that might have helped to prompt and shape developments in early Christianity?

The third panellist, however, gave what I am bound to judge a very misleading account of my book.  He described it as portraying a uniformity of Christian belief and practice with regard to the larger religious setting, accused me of making “an inane contrast” between early Christianity and “everything else,” and insinuated that the book was some kind of covert triumphalist and apologetic tactic.  In my response to the panellists, I had to note how puzzeling his presentation was, observing that the book he condemned wasn’t the book I had written!  I then had to set the record straight over against his misleading characterization of it.

As I clearly state early on in the book, it is intended as a case-study in making the larger point that the category of “religion(s)” comprises some movements that vary considerably from one another.  I know early Christianity best, so that’s what I choose to discuss.  “Distinctive” doesn’t necessarily mean “valid.”  What you make of early Christianity as to the validity of its teachings and practices is a matter of individual judgement.  The point I make rather clearly and repeatedly in the book is that, whatever your own stance with regard to early Christianity, it has helped to shape your world, especially some commonplace assumptions about “religion.”

So, a lively, frank exchange at some points, but, in the end, a discussion that I hope will have clarified some matters for all those who attended.  Christmas is drawing near, so pick up copies of the book for all your relatives 🙂

Erasmus’ Greek NT: Exhibit

A bit late but better late than never:  The New College copy of the 1516 (lst) edition of Erasmus’ printed Greek NT is on display in the New College Library, with notes describing it and its significance.  This is our small observance of this 500th anniversary year of the first published printed Greek NT.  As well, there is a simple booklet with images of particularly “visual” pages with brief explanations.  Here’s the title-page of our copy, with the rather lengthy title printed in the shape of a chalice.  And note the signatures of a previous owner.  “Novvm Instrumentum Omne” = “Complete New Testament.”

This was a Greek-Latin edition, with a Latin (with a number of differences from the Vulgate) in the right-hand column, and Erasmus’ hastily-prepared Greek text in the left-hand column.  (For my earlier posting on Erasmus’ edition of the Greek NT, see here.)



“Destroyer of the gods”: “Homebrewed” podcast

My podcast interview on Destroyer of the gods has now appeared on the “Homebrewed Christianity” site here.  Pop open your favourite beverage and enjoy the talk.

“Copying Early Christian Texts”: New Book

An important new book presents a case that early Christian texts were typically copied by trained, skilled scribes, and that “there is no firm evidence that the copyists were generally Christians”:  Alan Mugridge, Copying Early Christian Texts:  A Study of Scribal Practice (Tuebingen:  Mohr-Siebeck, 2016), the publisher’s online catalogue entry here.

Mugridge mounts this case against previous scholarly views that in the earliest centuries Christian texts were copied “in house,” informally by Christians themselves.

The labor that went into this book is prodigious.  Mugridge examined over 500 papyri, noting the characteristics of the copyist of each, these data given in the valuable “Catalogue of Papyri” that comprises pp. 155-410 of the book.  These papyri include copies of Old Testament texts, New Testament texts, “Apocryphal” texts, Patristic writings, Hagiographic texts, Liturgical prayers, hymns, etc., Gnostic and Manichaean texts, and “Unidentified” texts.  Tables at the end of the book present the manuscripts in these categories, each item described as to contents, writing material (papyrus or parchment) and whether it derives from a bookroll, codex, sheet, or wooden tablet.

The analysis of these data take up the first 154 pages.  After laying out the scope and approach of the book, the papyri included for study, and an introduction to writers and writing in the Roman imperial period, the following chapters focus on particular scribal features.  Chapter 2 deals with “Content, Material, Form and Size”;  Chapter 3:  Page Layout; Chapter 4:  Reading Aids; Chapter 5:  “Writing the Text” (which covers a wide variety of matters including letter height, interlinear spacing, letters per line, lines per column, critical signs, marginal notes, decorations, abbreviations (with a special section on the nomina sacra), stichometric counts, and a few other matters.

A full engagement with this book will obviously require readers seriously interested in the details of how early Christian texts were copied.  But the issues addressed are larger than simply papyrological minutiae.  As I emphasize in my own recent book, Destroyer of the gods, early Christianity was a distinctively “bookish” movement among the new religious movements of the Roman imperial period.  Texts were central, and Christians devoted impressive resources to composing, copying, and circulating them.  So, this major and detailed study of the material evidence of these activities is “solid gold” for anyone seriously interested in historical knowledge of early Christianity.

I judge Mugridge to have made a major contribution in this book, and I also think that his analysis of the several hundred manuscripts studied is (so far as I am able to test it) fair and accurate:  most early Christian texts were copied by individuals with some skill and dedication to their task.  I have hesitations about a few matters, however.

First, I think that Mugridge too readily makes evidence of a competent/skilled copyist as indicating a “professional” scribe, i.e., a copyist who was paid for his work.  Only a very few early Christian manuscripts have the stichometric counts that we usually judge to be evidence of a professional copyist.  The features of early Christian manuscripts reflect generally skilled and experienced copyists, but it is another question as to whether they did the work for hire.

I also don’t share Mudridge’s confidence that many early Christian texts were copied by non-Christians.  He argues that non-Christian scribes could have been instructed in the distinctive early Christian scribal practice known as the “nomina sacra.”  Yes, but why should we favour that over what still seems to me a simpler notion, that early Christian texts were typically copied by Christian copyists acquainted with this scribal convention.

Another matter that doesn’t receive adequate treatment by Mugridge is the remarkable early Christian preference for the codex.  This was certainly not a typical bookform for literary texts, and so not likely a form with which most “professional” copyists would have been accustomed to use.  Moreover, constructing a codex required decisions and skills in addition to those usually required in copying a bookroll.  So, again, it seems to me a more reasonable supposition that the copyists of most early Christian texts were themselves Christians, who knew and accepted the early Christian preference for the codex.

But, despite these hesitations over some specifics, I commend this study heartily, which should be received with gratitude to Mugridge for the massive amount of work reflected in it.

“Destroyer of the gods” in Edinburgh

Advance notice:  On 14 Nov, 4-6pm, the Edinburgh book-launch of Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  The event will include a discussion of the book, a reception, and a book-signing.  And the publisher has made available a limited quantity of copies at a specially-reduced price.  The event will be held in New College, in Martin Hall, and is sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins.  Here is the poster for the event: hurtado-book-launch-final-1.



First Monograph Competition

The respected publishing firm, Walter de Gruyter, has announced an “Emerging Scholar Monograph Competition,” full information here.  Submissions are invited across a wide spectrum of disciplines, including Theology and Religious Studies. Scholars who received their PhD after 1 June 2012 are eligible to submit a proposal for a monograph based on their completed thesis.  The proposal must be submitted by 31 January 2017, and instructions for what it should include are on the web site link given.  The finished book manuscript must be delivered for publication by 30 June 2017 (latest).

“Law” Statistics

Here are some raw figures to contemplate about the usage of “law” (Greek: nomos) in the NT (relying on Bibleworks):

  • Total NT occurrences: 199x (including references to “the Law and the Prophets”
  • Of these, total occurrences in the entire Pauline Corpus:  95x
  • Of these, 82x occur in Romans (56x) and Galatians (26x).  In 1 Corinthians 6x, Philippians 3x, 1 Timothy 3x, Ephesians 1x.
  • The other significant numbers are Acts 18x, John 13x, and Hebrews 13x, 10x in Luke
  • Cf. 8x in Matthew (wouldn’t you expect more?)

Clearly, the sizeable numbers of usages are in writings that address questions about Jesus-faith and the OT and/or concerns about Torah-observance and its role now in the new setting occasioned by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

To focus on Paul, the term appears with frequency only in two writings:  Romans and Galatians, and only 9 other times scattered across 1 Corinthians and Philippians among the uncontested letters of Paul.  No uses at all in 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon, or in 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, 2 Timothy, Titus.

I get the impression that Paul engaged “the Law” when required to do so in the course of his mission to bring former pagans to faith in Jesus and commitment to the God of the Bible.  So, e.g., the densest usage in Galatians was obviously provoked by those who seem to have been promoting Torah-conversion among Galatian churches to complete their conversion to God.  And the largest single number of uses in Romans, likewise seems to have been prompted by Paul’s need to set out his mission and teaching with the aim of securing the acceptance of Roman churches, and to correct any misrepresentations of him there, especially by Jewish believers who opposed or suspected the terms of his gentile mission.

A “Law-Free” Apostle Paul?

For a brisk and characteristically incisive discussion, read Paula Fredriksen’s article that challenges the notion that the Apostle Paul forsook Torah-observance and discouraged others from The Torah as well:  “Why Should a ‘Law-Free’ Mission Mean a ‘Law-Free’ Apostle?” Journal of Biblical Literature 134 (2015): 637-50.  The article draws on and anticipates arguments in her forthcoming book, Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle (Yale University Press).

Fredriksen grants that Paul firmly believed that he was called to summon pagans to abandon their idolatry and to trust in Christ as the basis for their new relationship to the God of Israel and the multi-nation family of Abraham.  So, Paul vigorously opposed efforts to require his gentile converts to take on the sort of Torah-observance that would represent a proselyte conversion to Judaism.

Paul insisted that his former pagans who turned to God and Christ must remain gentiles, believing that this represented the fulfilment of biblical prophecies that the nations would come to the God of Israel . . . not as proselytes, but as the “nations,” “gentiles.”  So, to require a Torah-conversion of them would be to work against what Paul believed was the fulfilment of God’s eschatological will.  Moreover, to impose Torah-conversion on these pagans would effectively treat their trust in Christ (and so Christ himself) as an insufficient basis for a full relationship with God.  It would relativize Jesus, making their baptism simply a nice first step that required completion in a Torah-conversion.

But Fredriksen also rightly contends that Paul’s conviction about the basis on which his pagan converts should come to God is one thing, and how Paul saw his own relationship to Torah quite another.  Granted, when among his gentile converts, Paul no doubt had to take liberties in such matters as food, etc., as he seems to describe briefly (and rhetorically) in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.  But the exigencies of his gentile mission don’t mean that he renounced Torah altogether, or that he threw off any responsibility to maintain his Jewish identity.

Subsequent Christian theologians (from the second century onward) have presumed otherwise, making Torah-observance serve as some kind of alternative (and inferior) form of religiousness to pit over against trust in Christ.  Indeed, even Jewish believers in Christ were condemned if they continued to observe Torah as incompatible with their commitment to Christ.  But, as Fredriksen cogently argues, this was all a misguided and fallacious adaptation of Paul’s arguments against gentile Torah-conversion.

Indeed, as Fredriksen contends, in requiring his pagan converts to abandon their ancestral gods (“idolatry”), Paul was enforcing the central requirement of Torah:  to serve the one God alone!

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