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.


“New culture, yes—coup, no”: A Review of C. Kavin Rowe’s Theo-Political Reading of Acts

C. Kavin ROWE. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

With the present volume alongside his previous Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (Baker Academic, 2009), C. Kavin Rowe has emerged as an important and self-consciously interdisciplinary contributor to ongoing conversations in Luke-Acts. Where Early Narrative Christology employed narrative criticism to track the meaning and usage of kyrios in Luke’s Gospel, in World Upside Down, Rowe blends traditional biblical exegesis, narrative criticism, political theory, and constructive theology to marshal an argument about the theo-political logic of Acts (7).

In Rowe’s reading, Acts sits uncomfortably within Greco-Roman culture. On the one hand, Acts is not, as some have posited, a kind of apologia for Christian quietism within the empire. On the other, neither is it quite anti-imperial propaganda, either. Rowe is after a reading that eschews such false dichotomies, and he upsets both old scholarly orthodoxies and newer assumptions by arguing that Acts is “a highly charged and theologically sophisticated political document  that aims at nothing less than the construction of an alternative total way of life…that runs counter to the life-patterns of the Graeco-Roman world” (4). Rowe argues that there is a “profound tension” in Acts, as Luke presents the nascent Christian movement as both a threat to Graeco-Roman politics, economics, and religion as well as a movement whose kyrios is not in direct competition with Caesar.

Rowe explores this tension in Acts between cultural collision (chapter two) and avoiding direct competition with the Empire (chapter three). In narrating the elements of Acts that conflict with Graeco-Roman culture, Rowe assists his readers in paying close attention to the responses garnered by Paul and his compatriots when they take their message out into the world. In Rowe’s framing, the story of Paul and Barnabas refusing sacrifices after the healing of a paralyzed man in Lystra in Acts 14 is “the summons that…involves the destruction of an entire mode of being religious” (21). Similarly, Rowe reads Luke as further destabilizing Graeco-Roman piety by emphasizing that, for example, even the name of Jesus Christ is enough to displace a pagan pneuma/daimon and exorcise it from a slave-girl (Acts 16:14ff). Rowe is a careful exegete and well aware that “religion” should not be reduced to a discrete element of human life and thus contends that the implications of these stories upset multiple levels of religious and civic life. When Paul and Silas exorcise the spirit of divination from the slave-girl, her owners are correct to be outraged: Luke’s version of the Christian confession has (negative) implications for their economic practices. Rowe contends that other characters are quite savvy to notice just how disruptive the Christian movement is to every level of pagan life. Public responses at Thessalonica, Athens, and Ephesus to the Christian movement further illustrate the multiple strata of cultural disruption that Luke’s confession causes.

Rowe’s argument is a nuanced one, however, and he stops short of baptizing Acts in the waters of modern day politically-subversive wishful thinking. Acts is not, Rowe contends in chapter two, a direct threat to Caesar and Roman rule. Rowe shows how Luke narrates the Christian movement as dikaios—innocent—of any charges of sedition towards the emperor. Here Rowe illustrates the “profound tension” of Acts particularly well: yes, the Christian confession destabilizes multiple spheres of pagan life and Acts’ non-Christian characters are right to name the writing on the wall, but no, the Christian movement of Luke’s narrative is not interested in seizing upon Caesar’s throne. As Rowe memorably puts it: “New culture, yes—coup, no. The tension is thus set” (92).

Chapter four moves further into the tension that is the theo-political imaginary of Acts as Rowe shows how the confession and practices of the nascent Christian movement eclipsed, but did not directly challenge, the Graeco-Roman ways of knowing and being in the world. The Christian confession of Jesus as lord, practice of mission, and the formation of mixed communities of followers signal Luke’s mixed-bag of theological politics (135). The Christian movement was not founded in response to Roman rule or other aspects of Graeco-Roman culture; rather, it was founded on this confession and these practices, all of which signaled a fundamental break with Roman culture and jurisprudence—truly, a “world upside down.”

In chapter five, Rowe moves from the ancient world to our own and allows the political imagination of Acts to speak into, and perhaps even shape, our own. Rowe writes as a Christian and, in this chapter at least, is engaged in the work of constructive Christian theology. Rowe does not, however, cheaply port over the theological politics of a small messianic movement from the backwaters of the Roman Empire to modern-day, Western contexts. The differences are too vast and Rowe’s theological acumen is too strong for such easy moves. Instead Rowe uses his final chapter as a kind of exercise in thinking with Acts—embodying its particular Christocentric epistemology—to come at modern politics, and even the practice of critical biblical scholarship, from an Acts-inspired perspective derived from apocalyptic claim in the story of Acts that Jesus is lord of all (176).

The present volume is a must-have for all serious readers of Acts. Although Rowe, who teaches in the Divinity School, rather than the Religion Department, at Duke University, writes with theological aims in mind, his work must be engaged by anyone who would make a claim about the political life of the post-Easter Christians. This text would be a welcome addition to any graduate or upper-level undergraduate course on Acts, and would be a helpful conversation partner for ministers, religious leaders, and thoughtful laypersons looking to read Acts carefully and with an eye for questions of theology and politics in the shadow of empire.


What to Expect When You’re Expecting (1 Thess 5:1-11)

Below is a short exegetical paper I wrote during my final semester at Emmanuel Christian Seminary.

The climax of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church (5:1-11) is a discourse in dialogue with the shared discourse(s) of the Thessalonian audience, and strikes harmonies on at least two levels of shared tradition: the religious and social-political. The former harmony echoes in Paul’s adoption of “day of the Lord” (ἡμέρα κυρίου) and “birth pains” (ἡ ὠδὶν), language from inherited prophetic traditions of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple sources (5:2-3). The latter discursive harmony, echoes of the social-political milieu shared between author and audience, is found primarily in the strange appeal to the “peace and security” saying of an unnamed “they” in 5:3—an allusion, I argue, to Roman imperial propaganda.

On the Fence about Rome

On the Fence about Rome: A Critical Review of McKnight and Modica’s Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013).

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not Edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica

An edited version of this review appeared in the most recent print edition of Englewood Review of Books, Eastertide 2013, Vol. 03, No. 03, p.40 (“Grappling with the Biblical Concept of Rome”). My thanks to editor Chris Smith for the opportunity to review this book.

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies presents readers with an entry point into an ongoing discussion regarding the New Testament and its engagement with the Roman Empire. The volume is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica and features ten essays exploring the New Testament’s navigation of and engagement with the Roman Empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is primarily a critical reading of leading scholars who, using an interpretive lens known as “imperial criticism,” suggest that the focus of particular New Testament documents is to resist and critique the Roman Empire. As such, this volume reads like one side of an ongoing and lively conversation. This may pose difficulties for readers who have not engaged the scholars with whom the contributors are in dialogue.

For readers familiar with current trends in New Testament scholarship related to postcolonial and imperial criticism, there is significant ambivalence to be found throughout these collected essays as well as in the introduction and conclusion from McKnight and Modica. At times, contributors suggest that various New Testament documents are critical of the dominant imperial order (e.g., Diehl, 38-81; Willitts, 83; Strait, 143; Bird, 161). At other points, even within the same essay, contributors argue that the Empire is not the—or even a—target of a given New Testament composer’s critique (e.g. Pinter, 114; Strait, 141; Bevere, 183ff). Most of the essays offer a balanced approach to the New Testament and Empire, thus supplying helpful correctives to certain postcolonial readings which have overemphasized a focus on Rome. Diehl’s essay on anti-imperial rhetoric in the New Testament, Willitt’s exploration of Matthew and Empire, Skinner’s treatment of John, Bird’s reading of Romans, and Sheets’ piece on Revelation and the Empire all stand out as helpful, corrective readings of biblical texts and certain imperial critics. These essays are also careful imperial-critical readings of the texts in their own right.

Often when the contributors suggest a given text is not so heavily-focused on Rome, we would do well to accept their helpful attempt at swinging the pendulum from one extreme to a more moderate point. But when the social world of the New Testament is so muted and the argument is made that the gospel has only to do with resistance to Satan, as the editors suggest in their conclusion (McKnight & Modica, 212), the corrective has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Although Modica, who is suspicious of imperial criticism, suggests that it requires certain “hermeneutical gymnastics” (Modica, 20), one wonders what sort of interpretive calisthenics prepared Bevere, for example, to argue that Colossians 2:15 does not brazenly critique Judean client-rulers and their imperial patrons as well (Bevere, 193), or that Paul’s letter to Philemon may not subtly (and brilliantly) subvert the practice of slavery in the Greco-Roman world (Bevere, 194). One wonders also how Luke’s social location is comparable to Josephus, or how Josephus, who inherited the emperor’s former residence in Rome, can in any way be described as writing “from the margins” (Pinter, 103).

Similarly problematic are the editors’ concluding remarks: “To make the claim ‘Jesus is Lord,’ one does not make specific sociopolitical allegiances; rather the claim forthrightly involves repentance and following Jesus” (McKnight & Modica, 212). Here the emphasis is placed squarely on the individualized spiritual experience of the lordship of Jesus while the socio-political dimensions are muted. The editors thus fall into the very trap they caution against by creating a “binary confusion” which requires the lordship of Jesus to be about repentance and discipleship and not about political allegiances. By so spiritualizing the lordship of Jesus, the editors have created a neat bifurcation between “politics” and “religion,” or “social” and “spiritual.” Such a dichotomy is simply anachronistic to the New Testament and its social world. Although the editors later argue that the Kingdom of God is both spiritual and political, by overemphasizing the “stark contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan,” the reader is left to wonder how such a posture towards Satan ‘plays out’ on the stage of early Christian communal life in the Roman Empire (McKnight & Modica, 212-213).

In effect, suggesting that the New Testament is concerned with subverting Satan only pushes the question one step further back. It leads naturally to the question of how the kingdom of Satan impinged upon the world that the earliest Christians inhabited and how the Kingdom of God pushed back against it. The New Testament stands on the shoulders of inherited prophetic and apocalyptic traditions which connect the work of evil and otherworldly powers with the machinations of empires (e.g. Daniel 7-12; portions of 1 Enoch). Skinner, in his essay on the Gospel of John, offers a helpful perspective in a footnote: “Almost continuously from 605 BCE to 192 CE, Israel was under the rule of…foreign empires. […] This series of foreign subjugations no doubt played an important part in Jewish self-identity during the first century CE” (Skinner, 117n1). Add to this the “apocalyptic and messianic narrative” of Paul’s gospel (Bird, 161) and it seems clear that the earliest Jesus followers understood Rome to be one of the functionaries of Satan’s reign, just like the empires which preceded it.

In all, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is a very good collection of essays from diverse perspectives on the New Testament documents and their posture(s) towards the Roman Empire. This diversity of perspective is helpful and allows readers a glimpse of the variety of available readings of the New Testament in its Roman imperial context. A significant lacuna exists, however, in the absence of a chapter on Mark alongside the chapters on Matthew, Luke, and John. Especially with the recent publication of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man[1] and Richard Horsley’s sustained imperial critical reading of Mark throughout much of his work,[2] this is a glaring omission.

Overall, McKnight and Modica’s Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is a welcome contribution and may serve as a valuable point of entry for those who are not aware that such a discussion about the New Testament and Rome has been taking place among scholars over the last few decades. It would provide excellent fodder for discussion in church bible studies, small groups, and undergraduate settings in Christian colleges.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th Anniversary Ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008).

[2] Richard A. Horsley, “The Kingdom of God and the Renewal of Israel: Synoptic Gospels, Jesus Movements, and Apocalypticism,” ed. John J. Collins, The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism: Volume 1: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity (New York: Continuum, 2000); Ibid., Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001); Ibid, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving Beyond a Diversionary Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

Jesus, Resistance, and The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games and Resistance

I am almost 2/3 of the way through Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.  My wife, Naomi, sped through the series in five days.  Between work, school and other distractions (such as a Kindle-stealing wife), I am plodding my way through a bit more slowly.  The slow pace gives me a chance to be more fully immersed in the story world – the narrative sticks with me, I think about it, and like all good stories, it impinges upon my life and colors my perspective for a while. For those who have not read the books, the plot revolves around a few central teenaged characters who are pitted against their peers, deathmatch-style, in a massively-televised competition called The Hunger Games.

On the largest scale, the novels take place in a future dystopian, post-“American” North America in which, after some great unnamed (?) event, all power is consolidated in the hands of the evil governmental authority called “The Capitol” – leaving the common folk of what used to be America to eek out a subsistence-level living in the shadow of the empire.  Years before the novel takes place, there was an uprising – a revolt – of the people against the Capitol.  The revolt was brutally quelled and, as a result, the Capitol instituted the yearly Hunger Games.  The Hunger Games are one part death match competition and another a mixture of reality TV, government propaganda, and institutionalized violence to further cow the people into submission to the Capitol.  Each year, two children (aged 12 and up) are chosen, one male and one female, from each of the twelve districts to act as “Tribute” to the Capitol – twenty-four children will go into the Capitol’s arena and one will come out.  This reminds the people that it is the Capitol who holds the reigns of power; in fact, it is the Capitol who owns their children’s lives.

It is against this backdrop that the novel unfolds.  The main character, Katniss, is called as Tribute along with her friend Peeta to go to the Capitol and fight in that year’s Hunger Games.  Unsurprisingly, a love story unfolds.  But don’t let that fool you: the story is not about children, puppy love, or even what takes place within the Arena.  The story is about resistance, and the main characters become emblems of the cause.  Take, for example, Peeta’s words that mix the hopelessness of the situation with the wishful thinking of resistance:

“…I want to die as myself.  I don’t want them to change me in there.  Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.  […] Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their games.”[1]

These words, which are repeated throughout the story and serve as paradigmatic for the message, strike a nerve within the reader.  We see heroism in them, hope and an unswerving conviction that, with back against the wall, even if they win, it is not “the bad guys” who define who a person is.

The Jesus Story and Faithful Resistance

As a student of the Bible, and with an interest in political readings of the New Testament in particular, I cannot help but allow a co-mingling of The Hunger Games and the story of Jesus.  To a certain extent, author Suzanne Collins won’t let me not draw those connections: her Capitol is clearly modeled after all of the most brutal, despicable elements of the ancient empires of the Near East.  Social elites within the Capitol are given such telling names as Octavia, Claudius, Darius, Flavius, Romulus, and so on – each one a pretty pointed reference to what the Capitol is modeled after.  Like Octavius at the end of the Second Triumvirate, President Snow retains his autocratic power over the Capitol and the Twelve (Thirteen?) Districts while paying cheap lip service to the long-dead idea of a people’s government.  As the story unfolds, Katniss and Peeta become banner images for a people’s resistance, somewhat akin to popular revolts led by various groups in first century Roman Palestine.

Though a long-silenced area of Biblical study, the story of Jesus is, similarly, a story of resistance.  The history of Israel, from ca. 586 BC/E down to the time of Jesus in the first century CE/AD, is one that is marked by imperial control from above.  With the exception of one brief period of independence in the 100’s BC/E, Israel was always and ever under the control of foreign powers, starting with Babylon and ending with Rome at the time of Christ.  Like Collins’ The Hunger Games, the New Testament story is one whose story unfolds across a context of imperial domination and oppression.  Take, for instance, these words from a Caledonian chieftain:

“[The Romans] rob, butcher, plunder, and call it ‘empire’; and where they make a desolation, they call it ‘peace.’”[2]

Or perhaps the words of Josephus, a Jewish historian whose writings date to the first few decades after Jesus, who records the fate of the poor who attempted to escape the besieged city of Jerusalem around 70 CE/AD:

“They were accordingly beaten and subjected to torture of every description…[Titus, the Roman General] hoped that the spectacle might induce the Judeans to surrender for fear that continued resistance would involve them in a similar fate.”[3]

It may sound silly (and under a certain amount of scrutiny, it is), but what Katniss and Peeta are for the common people of the Districts, Jesus was for first century Christians.  Katniss and Peeta present a counter-claim against the Capitol: where President Snow claims to hold the power over the lives of all within the Districts, the people are galvanized to claim otherwise, that they are not the property of the Capitol and that “the bad guys” do not get to define them.  When Jesus comes preaching the Kingdom of God[4], he is doing something remarkably similar.  For, if God’s Kingdom descends upon the small, backwater province of Judea and makes claims of imminence and universality, whose authority is being challenged and, consequently, who is now out of a job?  In proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom, Jesus pronounces a counterclaim that the powers of empire no longer hold sway — that the New Time of God’s Reign has begun and the people, at least those who align themselves with Jesus and the Kingdom, are liberated.

At this point the two narratives, The Hunger Games and the Gospel, diverge.  Collins’ story, wonderfully gripping though it is, is still built upon the myth of violent resistance and expects its readers to applaud the bloody fight against the powers that be until the end.  The Jesus story is much different.  It calls for resistance, to be sure, but never for violence.  Hear the striking words of Jesus, and compare them with Peeta’s:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will loves it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the good news [of the Kingdom of God], will save it.” (Mark 8:34b-35)

In other words, Jesus echoes Peeta (er, Peeta echoes Jesus) in making the counterclaim that the empire does not own you.  They may kill you for what you stand for, but they can never own you; you are more than a piece in their game.  But, again, the narratives are divergent: for what Jesus calls for is resolute, faithful resistance that would sooner take up a cross and die a martyr’s death than take up the sword in defiance.  For the message of the Good News writ large is that humanity and all of its brokenness, of which systemic, oppressive violence is but a symptom, can be restored; the message of stories like The Hunger Games, Braveheart, or various histories of The Revolutionary War is that, with enough resolve, the bad guys can be beaten with a weapon.

And so I commend both stories to you, The Hunger Games and the Gospel.  Be taken aback by the absurdity of the Capitol’s brutality, but also know that it mostly comes from ancient stock — and know that God has an answer for it.  Be moved by the characters as they begin to galvanize the people, fomenting revolution in the face of great evil.  But then open a Bible, flip over to the New Testament, and read about how the God of Israel and his Messiah Jesus confound the machinations of human power, dominion, and oppression in the people’s resistance movement par excellence.

[1] Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (New York: Scholastic, 2008), 142.

[2] Caledonian chieftain (in Tacitus), quoted in Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress,2003), 15.

[3] Josephus, War 5.449-51, quoted in Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress,2003), 29.

[4] Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43; etc.