Galatians and the Palimpsest of Commentary

A palimpsest is a manuscript whose original text has been scraped off in order that the papyrus or parchment might be repurposed for the production of another text. A classic and fascinating example of this phenomenon is Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (C 04). The header image above is a screen-grab from 04 and illustrates the phenomenon nicely. A palimpsest manuscript, like 04, is meant as a reproduction of a given text, disconnected from the text that was scraped-off. But, as is obvious in the above image, we can still catch glimpses of the original text. It bleeds over and impinges upon the later text.

More than a kind of ancient manuscript, though, palimpsest lends itself nicely as a metaphor for biblical commentary. In this metaphor, we could say that the present historical circumstances of the historian or commentator are the the initial text—the one we try to “scrape off” when we don our Objective Biblical Scholar Thinking Caps™. I may try to bracket out my own context and biases, but they creep back in and give animation to my inquiry no matter what. Commenting on NT scholarship and its attempt to negotiate Gadamer’s “two horizons,” Davina Lopez and Todd Penner suggest that “there is in fact no way to negotiate the ‘two horizons.’ […T]here is only one horizon—and that is the horizon of the present.”[1] The historical moment and concerns of the interpreter always lend shape to her interpretation. Like a palimpsest, a scholarly commentary attempts to foreground a new text (the commentary itself) but, when read closely, certain elements of its hypotext (the historical moment and concerns of the interpreter) can be glimpsed.

I agree with Penner and Lopez. We’re all doing this kind of palimpsestuous writing. In my preparation for an exam on Galatians, I’ve noticed that two interpreters do it in particularly interesting ways: Martin Luther and Brigitte Kahl. Luther, as is well known, was responding in part to the Catholic Church in his commentary on Galatians. His circumstances—his hypotext—then lent shape to his reading of Paul’s letter: Paul’s opponents became stand-ins for Luther’s. Whatever Luther got right about Galatians, he himself makes perfectly clear that he views Paul’s opponents as causing the same sort of trouble as Paul’s opponents at Galatia (pick a page, almost any page, in Luther’s commentary and you’ll probably see what I mean). Brigitte Kahl, a contemporary NT scholar writing hundreds of years after Luther, does much the same thing. In her 2014 Interpretation article, “Hagar’s Babylonian Captivity: A Roman Re-Imagination of Galatians 4:21-31,” Kahl names in the first paragraph her concerns about the effects this passage has had throughout the history of Christian interpretation. Both Luther and Kahl, then, are self-consciously doing palimpsestuous commentary: the hypotexts of their concerns and circumstances are shown for all to see. This is laudable.

But naming one’s perspective, biases, and concerns does not get one off the hook for letting them be too determinative in one’s reading. Luther gets nailed to the wall throughout the New Perspective lit for this kind of thing: he let his critique of Catholicism drive the bus in his commentary, and the interpretive tradition has been so much the worse for it. While Kahl’s work does not lend itself nicely to the kinds of catastrophic after-effects that Luther’s reading did, I think she is doing the same kind of thing. She names her ethical concerns about Gal 4:21-31 (the Hagar/Sarah allegory), and then those same concerns explicitly shape her interpretation.

In her article, Kahl appeals to Roman iconography to exegete Gal 4, which she reads as a counter-imperial hidden transcript. Paul does not devalue Hagar in favor of Sarah but rather uses her slavery as a stand-in for Roman domination, leaving Sarah to represent God’s liberation from Roman hegemony. This is attractive stuff for anyone with a slight radical streak, but the article, like her imaginative monograph on Galatians (see what I did there? #hiddentranscript), leaves much to be desired. Because Paul does not mention Rome in Galatians, Kahl has to turn to Roman iconography imaging women as conquered slaves in order to root Gal 4 in any kind of counter-imperial discourse. Sure, the reading is possible, even beautiful, but likely? I’m not so sure.

By naming their perspectives, concerns, and historical moments, both Luther and Kahl do us a favor but also give us reason to be suspicious. For both commentators, the hypotext is determinative—too determinative, I would say—for the interpretation: Luther has (forgive the technical term) mad beef with the Catholic Church and, voila, he finds much grist for his mill in Galatians; Kahl is concerned about the reception of Gal 4 and its use throughout imperial Christendom and, voila, she finds that Paul is just as anti-imperial as she is. Luther’s Paul comes out as anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic; Kahl’s comes out brazenly anti-imperial in a text that only tortuously lends itself to imperial critique. Both readers of Paul end up on the hook for special pleading as both produced particularly palimpsestuous commentaries in which the hypotext is not so much scraped off but acts as explicit and rigid paratext, guiding the author’s interpretation at almost every step.

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting my engagement with some of the “big ideas” in Galatians studies in preparation for a comprehensive exam.

[1] Todd Penner and Davina C. Lopez, De-Introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 63.

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