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.

Appreciating Martyn and the Apocalyptic Reading of Galatians

“God would not have to carry out an invasion in order merely to forgive erring human beings. […] The whole of humanity…is, in fact, trapped, enslaved under the power of the present evil age. That is the background of God’s invasive action in his sending of Christ, in his declaration of war, and in his striking the decisive and liberating blow against the power of the present evil age.”

J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary AB 33A (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 105.

As I’ve outlined in a previous post, I don’t think we ought to follow Martyn in his pitting of “forensic” against “cosmic” apocalyptic in Galatians. The first sentence of this beautiful quote reifies and depends upon that typology, which we ought to leave  behind. But the rest of Martyn’s comment, drawn from his Anchor Bible commentary, seems to me to be a spot-on summation of one aspect of Paul’s gospel, namely its cosmic, liberative implications for life in the present age.

In Martyn’s reading, Paul’s gospel is of an invasive God: in Christ, his death/resurrection, and in the sending of the Spirit, God is invading enemy territory (“the present evil age”), resulting in an eschatological estuary, an overlap between the present evil age and the coming age which brings with it “the hope of righteousness” (5:5, NRSV; Martyn: “the hope of rectification”). This is classic “now-not yet” Christian eschatology; in my view, it’s right-on. If we jettison Martyn’s dogged commitment to the forensic-cosmological apocalyptic dichotomy, and read 1:4 more simply as the two-part summary of Paul’s understanding of Christ’s death (see here), there is still much within his commentary to commend it as a valuable resource for reading this fascinating letter.

Featured image: ἀποκαλύψεως (“apocalypse,” “revelation” – Gal 1:12) in P46, our earliest manuscript of Paul’s letters (via CSNTM).

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.

Prodding the Foundations of “Forensic” vs. “Cosmological” Apocalyptic

For both J. Louis Martyn (‘JLM’) and Martinus de Boer (‘MdB’), how we ought to read Galatians hinges upon one’s understanding of Paul’s inherited apocalyptic worldview. For JLM and MdB, there are two basic categories of early Jewish apocalyptic: “forensic” and “cosmological” apocalyptic eschatology. I briefly outlined JLM’s definitions and summarized and critiqued his reading of Gal 1:4 here. Regarding definitions, MdB doesn’t add much: “cosmic” still = that which has to do with two ages and the divine rescue of humanity from evil cosmic forces and “forensic” still = that which has to do with divine judgment/forgiveness of sins at the eschaton.

What MdB does offer, however, is a more robust textual basis for these categories, drawn from some flagship examples from the period. As MdB sees it, “forensic” apocalyptic is especially represented by traditions like 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, while “cosmic” apocalyptic is represented by 1 Enoch 1-36 and As. Mos. 10. These documents are said to illustrate these two “tracks” of Jewish apocalyptic in “nearly ‘pure’ form.”[1] MdB hedges his bets with that qualifier. The problem, as I see it, is that both 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch contain elements of both categories of apocalyptic. MdB’s “nearly ‘pure'” needs some nuancing:

Cosmic-1 Enoch: MdB is right to emphasize the cosmic aspect of 1 Enoch. “The Book of Watchers” (1 Enoch 1-36) is predicated on the view that the world is currently under the dominion of suprahuman powers from whom God will rescue it.

Forensic-1 Enoch: But in the first chapter of 1 Enoch, we see at least a strong hint of “forensic” or courtroom apocalyptic: “And there shall be a judgment upon all, (including) the righteous,” and God “will destroy the wicked ones” (1.7, 9). Although not an extended vision of the divine courtroom, it is difficult to imagine a divine judgment of both righteous and wicked that isn’t in some very important way reflective of a “forensic” apocalyptic worldview.

Forensic-4 Ezra4 Ezra 7:32-44 is a classic example of the eschatological courtroom scene in which the wicked and righteous are judged according to their deeds. MdB is on solid ground to emphasize this topos within early Jewish apocalyptic here.

Cosmic-4 Ezra: But in 4 Ezra‘s fifth vision, “the eagle vision” (11:1-46), we have what certainly appears to be a form of so-called “cosmic” apocalyptic. Here the text details Ezra’s vision of a suprahuman force, the eagle, to whom dominion has been (temporarily) given (cf. 11:39) and will soon be summarily taken away (11:44). This is classic “cosmic” apocalyptic.

While there is much with which to agree in both JLM and MdB, I am beginning to suspect that the categories both scholars deploy are too rigid to account for the Jewish traditions they’re meant to represent. It’s not that there aren’t “cosmic” or “forensic” aspects in early Jewish apocalyptic, it’s that the two cannot be made to represent distinct categories of thought. “Cosmic” and “forensic” apocalyptic existed side-by-side and intertwined in early Jewish texts—including, I hasten to note, Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches.

On this point, MdB is more instructive than JLM. For the former, the two tracks are “christologically appropriated and modified” (emph. original).[2] While MdB still reads Paul as ultimately opting for “cosmic” over “forensic” apocalyptic, JLM presses Paul even more firmly into the “cosmic” mold, pitting him against the “forensic” apocalyptic taught by his opponents (see my previous post).

Still, though, MdB’s 2-track typology, which JLM assumes, is shaky at its foundations. In the first verses of 1 Enoch, MdB’s flagship example of “cosmic” apocalyptic, we have seen important elements of “forensic” track. Similarly, 4 Ezra, MdB’s “nearly ‘pure'” example of the “forensic” track, contains explicit elements of “cosmic” apocalyptic eschatology. MdB’s claim that “there are no cosmological powers present in the apocalypse of 4 Ezra” is quite difficult to sustain when faced with the eagle vision in 4 Ezra 11.[3]

MdB himself avers that “the two tracks can…run side by side, crisscross, or overlap in various ways, even in the same work.”[4] MdB sees the DSS as evincing this sort of overlap; my claim is that the overlap happens also in his ‘purest’ examples. Because the tracks crisscross in even the purest examples, perhaps it is time to rethink the typology. In place of “tracks,” I wonder if we might better describe “cosmic” and “forensic” as complementary leitmotifs in Jewish apocalyptic. This would go a long way in helping us appreciate the best insights of JLM and MdB without deploying their categories too rigidly in our reading of Galatians.

[1] Martinus C. de Boer, “Paul and Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Apocalyptic and the New Testament: Essays in Honor of J. Louis Martyn, ed. Joel Marcus and Marion L. Soards, JSNTSup 24 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 176, 181.

[2] Ibid., 182.

[3] Ibid., 179.

[4] Ibid., 177.

Featured image: Aramaic Fragments of 1 Enoch (4QEna [4Q201]).

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.

J. Louis Martyn, Apocalyptic, and Quotation Marks

In (re-)starting my comprehensive exam prep in earnest, I thought it might be fun to borrow a page from my friend/colleague/dungeon master‘s book and blog through some highlights of my reading. First up is J. Louis Martyn’s fascinating, if a bit mystifying, reading of Galatians.

Martyn (d. 2015) is one of the main architects of the so-called “apocalyptic” reading of Paul. Within the broad sweep of Pauline scholarship, Martyn’s apocalyptic reading fits somewhere between the “old” and “new” perspectives. Inasmuch as Martyn sets up a sharp contrast between Pauline and Sinaitic/Torah-observant theologies, we are right to hear some echoes of Luther. Still, there is much in Martyn to differentiate him from Luther and Luther’s inheritors and, despite some strong disagreements over particular issues, I find much in Martyn with which to agree.

First, our agreements: I happily affirm Martyn’s characterization of Paul’s gospel as God’s “invasion” of the cosmos, resulting in the dawning, the revelation, of a new creation. The death and resurrection of Christ signal the beginning of a new age and this, for Paul, is of central import. Indeed, on this Paul is most emphatic: “a new creation is everything!” (Gal 6:15). In his review and critique of Martyn’s position, N. T. Wright also affirms this crucial foundational  agreement (N. T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, 168). On this count, I’m happy to have a seat at Wright and Martyn’s table.

Martyn’s apocalyptic reading gives me serious pause, though, in the categorical opposition he sets up between “forensic” and “cosmic” apocalyptic. “Forensic” (or judicial) apocalyptic has to do with divine justice and the forgiveness of sins. “Cosmic” apocalyptic has to do with God’s rescuing of humanity from fallen, at times tyrannical suprahuman powers. This schematic, which was heuristic and less strictly determinative in de Boer’s reading (cf. Wright, 167ff), forces Martyn to get creative with the text, as it appears in Gal 1:4 that Paul affirms both “forensic” and “cosmic” aspects of God’s apocalypse-in-Christ. Compare Martyn’s translation with the NRSV:

[Christ] gave up his very life for our sins, so that he might snatch us out of the grasp of the present evil age, thus acting in accordance with the intention of God our Father (1:4, Martyn’s translation; see Martyn, 3).

[Christ] gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (1:4, NRSV).

Note the quotation marks in Martyn. These are, by his own admission, marks of his own interpretation, deployed to suggest that Christ’s self-giving act as atonement for sins (forensic apocalypse) is a pre-Pauline confession and one that “is to a significant degree foreign to Paul’s own theology” (Martyn, 90). Martyn goes so far as to suggest that this forensic gospel coheres more with Paul’s opponents than it does with Paul’s typical confession, which Martyn locates in the latter half of 1:4 (divine rescue from a present evil age – cosmic apocalypse; see Martyn, 89).

While Martyn is on firm ground to remind us that the forensic aspect of this confession is indeed pre-Pauline (Martyn rightly cites 1 Cor 15:3), it remains to be seen how the wedge he drives between the first and second halves of the verse can be exegetically sustained. In 1 Cor 15:1-3, Paul refers to Christ’s atoning death as a chiefly important part of the good news that he himself preached at Corinth:

1Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures…. (1 Cor 15:1-3, NRSV)

If Paul himself elsewhere claims to have preached this forensic aspect of the gospel, how can we say that it is foreign to his thought? For this, Martyn’s reading cannot offer an account. Thus it is exceedingly difficult to agree with Martyn that Paul’s gospel represents any sort of rejection of a “forensic” aspect of God’s apocalypse-in-Christ in favor of only the cosmic.

As Paul himself puts it, without any indication to the contrary, Christ died for our sins so that (ὅπως, hopōs) we might be set free from the present evil age (Gal 1:4). The two aspects of the one event must go hand-in-hand in any reading of Galatians.

“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.


Paul and the Pothetic Love of Christ: A Review of David E. Fredrickson’s “Eros and the Christ”

FREDRICKSON, David E. Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul’s Christology. Paul in Critical Contexts. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.

To begin, a banal truism: biblical exegesis, like all historical inquiry, is an act of cross-cultural exploration. The past is foreign to the contemporary reader, and it is the task of the historian to catch a glimpse of and describe for others what once existed across that “ugly, broad ditch” of history. Things are unimaginably different on the other side of Lessing’s ditch; the people “over there” are profoundly unlike us. History-writing, like understanding between contemporary cultures far removed, is difficult, for it must attain the dual goals of both highlighting the differences of the ancient culture and making the culture and its differences in some way intelligible to a modern reader.

In my view, Fredrickson’s Eros and the Christ is an example of good historical inquiry. It stands out among recent scholarship on Paul’s letter to the Philippians in part for its creative de-familiarization of an incredibly familiar text, the so-called “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2:5-11. First, Fredrickson reminds us that the Christ Hymn and its writer are ancient, and therefore might differ, perhaps even sharply, from the interpretive frames we have placed them in. As the reader progresses through Fredrickson’s argument, though, the de-familiarized text becomes intelligible once again within a new interpretive frame. Even when Fredrickson’s exegesis is not fully convincing, his creative act of textual comparison is still fruitful and provides a theological and hermeneutical seedbed of new questions and ways of approaching one of Paul’s most famous writings.

For Fredrickson, Philippians displays “Paul’s longing for the [Philippian] church and for Christ and Christ’s longing for mortals” (3). As Paul longs for the church (1:8), so Christ longs for communion with humanity. Whereas most Christian interpreters of Philippians 2:5-11 have read it as the obvious account of the condescension of the all-powerful second member of the Trinity, Fredrickson places the text alongside Greco-Roman poetic expressions of pothos, the physically-felt and self-emptying longing of the lover for the beloved. Fredricksen forwards the thesis that the Christ Hymn is comparable to other Greco-Roman poetic traditions of longing and that this might helpfully frame Christian theological reflection on what this text says about the nature of Jesus Christ. Fredrickson thus reads the passage “as if it were a narrative of longing, as if the motivation for the incarnation, life, and death of Jesus had been the Son of God’s impossible desire for communion with humanity” (1). Thus Fredrickson’s project is not a historical-critical denial of Christian theology but, rather, a literary re-contextualization of it. Although focused most intently on Philippians 2:5-11, Fredrickson’s reading supplies insights into the whole of the letter as well as the ancient practice and goals of letter-writing.

Chapter one problematizes the traditional assumption that ancient letters served for the audience as substitutes for the presence and voice of the author (13). While the establishment of authorial presence is indeed the goal of ancient letter writing, Fredrickson cites epistolary evidence to point out how fragile a conduit ancient letters really were, especially when author and recipient longed to actually be in one another’s presence. Fredrickson highlights the longing Paul himself expresses for his audience in the letter (1:3-8) and shows how authorial “absence comes around the corner just as presence and voice seem established” (15). The fragility of authorial presence, such as it is, simply served to make the heart grow fonder. This distance, which is at best only partially mitigated (if not also reinforced) by Paul’s letter, is the hallmark of the Philippian epistle in Fredrickson’s reading.

In chapters two and three, Fredrickson builds on this argument by further contextualizing Philippians as a letter of longing, highlighting the ways in which Paul characterizes himself and his Christ as marked by pothos. Fredrickson translates 1:8 as “For God is our witness how we long for you in the innards of Christ Jesus” (35, emphasis added). Compare his translation to the NRSV rendering: “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” Although the NRSV better translates the first-person singular character of the verb ἐπιποθῶ (epipothō), Fredrickson’s glossing of σπλάγχνοις (splanchnois) as “innards” highlights the bodily compassion Paul and Christ both feel. “Love happens in the innards. That is where pothos [longing] lodges. The innards were also known to melt away in longing for an absent beloved” (36). Such longing melts the innards and the lover empties herself, as she longs for communion with the beloved. Kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ, has traditionally been imaged as having to do with the self-limitation of Christ’s divine power through the act of incarnation. Within Fredrickson’s framing, Christ’s self-emptying is a bodily event (64), a deep sorrow that has lodged itself in the divine “innards.” Alongside Greco-Roman love poetry, 2:6-7 has less to do with the self-limitation of divinity and more to do with “the wasting effects of love” upon the body. Overcome with desire for communion, Christ “emptied himself” and took on the form of a slave—a slave of his beloved humanity (69).

If chapters two and three contextualize the love of Paul and Christ in Philippians as being marked by longing, chapters four, five, and six highlight the non-exploitative character of this love in Paul’s Christology and vision for the Philippians’ lives together. Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” and, therefore, neither are other people in the Philippian community things to be exploited. That “something to be exploited” (ἁρπαγμὸν, harpagmon), Fredrickson contends, can also be rendered within the semantic register of rape in antiquity. “Erotic seizure” was common among both gods and men. As Fredrickson playfully puts it, ancient “gods can do whatever they damn well please,” which places Christ’s refusal of such seizure in starker contrast (90). Erotic seizure, like modern-day rape, is not necessarily about sexual attraction or desire; rather, it is an expression of power and abuse, whether human or divine. Fredrickson contends that Paul calls the Philippians to embody Christ-like, non-exploitative, loving power in their community (105). This non-coercive leadership, like Paul’s longing for Philippi and Christ’s self-emptying pothos for humanity, are all profoundly physical expressions of Christian theology. Longing, and the communion it desires, is mapped onto and felt by physical and social bodies (143).

A good piece of biblical scholarship stands out among its peers not necessarily because its thesis is overwhelmingly persuasive, or because every element of its argument is unassailable to peer review. While interesting, Fredrickson’s “pothetic” reading of Phil 2:6-11 is not fully persuasive. Fredrickson seems to be on surer ground in highlighting Pauline longing in 1:8, but it is less evident to me that traditions of ancient rape stand behind ἁρπαγμὸν in 2:6 (the term can carry connotations of robbery and non-sexual force as well). Within the context of the verse, it is not “Christ’s refusal to abduct mortals” or rape them (94), but rather his refusal to exploit divine equality. Potentially more destructive to Fredrickson’s argument that Christ’s kenosis (2:7) has to do with longing rather than divine self-limitation is the immediately preceding verse, 2:6. Read together, vv. 6-7 are more easily read as Christ’s choice to refuse exploitation of divine equality, which in turn leads directly to his self-emptying, slavery, and obedience to death. Fredrickson’s comparison of this passage to Greco-Roman letters of longing is interesting, but it does not fully overturn the consensus reading of this passage as “Christ’s humble subordination to God’s will” (63).

These criticisms aside, I still reckon Fredrickson’s monograph to be an excellent contribution to biblical scholarship. Good biblical scholarship can stand apart because it attempts to muddy the waters of the biblical text for a reader—querying, problematizing, and even upsetting old interpretive paradigms by offering up a new reading of the relevant data or, better yet, offering up new data that sheds a different shade of light on a very old interpretive problem. A good biblical study will generate new questions instead of simply rehashing old orthodoxies, theological or scholarly. Fredrickson’s monograph is such a book. Inhabiting the kind of humility often read into the Christ Hymn (somewhat ironically, as this is a reading the author ultimately rejects), Fredrickson offers up a reading of the possible, of what might be animating the apostle’s rhetoric in Philippians (e.g., 2; 92). By assuming such a posture, Fredrickson succeeds in not only making an interesting argument but doing so in a winsome way. Biblical studies, as a field, is dominated by the rhetoric of certainty; Fredrickson’s study, on the other hand, is characterized by creative and humble questioning. Even when Fredrickson’s argument can be critiqued, his work still presses fresh questions to the biblical text and, in doing so, creatively opens up new passages for further explorations into the text and its ancient context. 

Review of N.T. Wright’s ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’

I recently had the opportunity to review N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God for The Englewood Review of Books

Here is an excerpt: 

N.T. Wright’s long-awaited treatise on the theology of Paul is a big book. Indeed: although it is one work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG hereafter) is split into two volumes and spans a mammoth 1660 pages. There is a joke about an author attaining true historical significance when the volume of writings about him surpasses the number of things he actually wrote, but Wright’s five-pound book renders it rather obvious. Beyond physical measurements, however, PFG must still be described as a “big book,” in the sense of the impact it has had and will have in New Testament scholarship, theological reflection, and Christian ministry for years to come. Wright is not always persuasive in his arguments in PFG, but his perspective is certainly interesting and, especially in evangelical circles, his voice certainly commands attention. PFG is an important work, if a bit physically unwieldy, and will challenge scholars, pastors, and interested non-specialists alike with its comprehensive vision of Christianity’s most famous apostle and the theological thought he bequeathed to history.

Click through to read the full review over at ERB. Many thanks to Chris Smith and Fortress Press for the opportunity!