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.

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. 

On Not Doing What Ehrman was Doing

Over the past year I’ve shared my interests and dissertation project with enough folks, and received enough push-back, to feel like maybe it’s time to clarify my aims. This post is intended to clarify what it is I’m doing in my research on early Christian scribes, both for my own thinking and for the (very) few others who are interested in how I’ve been spending my time in Denver.

The impetus for this post goes back at least to SBL last year in Atlanta. At one of the receptions, I struck up a conversation with a prof at one of the schools I’d like to teach at one day. He asked what I was working on and I told him: my project is broadly about reassessing the changes scribes made to the gospel traditions as they reproduced them in manuscript form. His almost instant follow-up question: “Is that like Bart Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture?”

My answer then was pretty fumbling. Kind of ‘yes,’ but mostly ‘no.’ I’ve had some time to reflect on it, hindsight being 20/20 and all, and here’s how I’d answer now: No. I work with the same pool of data (NT traditions, manuscripts, and literature on early Christian scribes) as Ehrman, but I have a totally different set of premises and aims.

Ehrman’s project in Orthodox Corruption was a really important one, and remains so to this day. It’s a watershed monograph in New Testament textual criticism for a reason, and his thesis that Christological controversies are reflected in scribal alterations in the NT manuscripts has stood the test of time. But his goal was to explain a certain kind of scribal change—theologically motivated alterations—whereas mine has been to reassess and redescribe all sorts of scribal changes, theological or otherwise. Furthermore, Ehrman located his contribution within an established paradigm in NT textual criticism that I don’t find particularly useful. My beef is with the language of “corruption” in his title and text.

Ehrman wasn’t the first to use the notion of “textual corruption” to describe the phenomenon of scribal change in the NT manuscript tradition, and he won’t be the last. Ehrman represents a pretty strong consensus when it comes to the use of this term, though, so I use him as my whipping boy. (I am a Christian pacifist, though, so whatever rhetorical whipping I do won’t draw any blood.) For Ehrman, textual “corruption” just means what most other NT text-critics take it to mean: an “alteration of text” (Orthodox Corruption, 31). That is to say: most text-critics assume that early Christianity prized the original text of, say, the Gospel of Mark in its pristine, unedited, unadulterated form and that any scribal change to Mark in its transmission, whether intentional or unintentional, amounts to a “corruption” of the original text. In my view, this says more about how we moderns conceive of the text of the NT than how ancient Christian scribes and audiences understood it.

Certainly we have some flagship examples of an ancient allergy to textual alteration (Rev 22:18–19 comes to mind, as does the scribe of Codex W). These folks certainly appear to have thought that alteration = corruption. But what about the scribe of Codex Bezae, that delightfully singular 5th century codex? What about the scribe who added to Mark’s ending at 16:8? Or the one who first introduced the story of the woman caught in adultery to John 7? Or all the other scribes who introduced all manner of finer-grained changes, like clarifications and synonymous phrasal replacements? Did these scribes think they were “corrupting” the text? Did their audiences? I tend to doubt it.

The language of textual “corruption” has a counterpart that also needs abandoning. In order for us to have a notion of “corruption” in antiquity, we need first to assume that scribes considered themselves to be “copyists.” This term is ubiquitous in the field to describe the work of early Christian scribes and, once again, it’s not just Ehrman that I’d like to put on the ropes. Another scholar that I similarly admire, the venerable St. Bruce Metzger of Princeton, spilled a lot of ink propping up this misguided paradigm.

Commenting on a scribe’s addition of ό Ίησοῦς (“Jesus”) to John 6:14, Metzger suggests that “[t]he addition…was made by copyists in the interest of clarity” (Metzger, Textual Commentary,  181). To belabor the point: in what sense are scribes acting as copyists if they are intentionally introducing changes for the sake of clarity, theological emphasis, or any other editorial aim? In what sense were the interpolators of Mark’s ending or John’s Pericope Adulterae copyists or their alterations corruptive? In what sense did their listening and reading audiences expect them to be? I suggest that maybe we’ve been operating under the wrong premises.

I saw a copyist today. A real, in-the-flesh copyist. She was sitting in the seat in front of me on the bus, balancing two papers on her lap. On her right was a notebook filled with what appeared to me to be very complex algebraic figures that she was working on. On her left was a sheet filled with the very same complex algebraic figures, written in a different hand. She was very clearly copying—line by line, digit by digit—from the exemplar to her own sheet. Any deviation from her exemplar would, I assume, amount to a “corruption.” You transpose one number, one variable, in your mathematical formula and it all falls apart. She appeared to be working with great care to avoid just such a corruption. That’s a copyist.

Is that what we imagine the early Christian scribal enterprise to be like? Does one iota of scribal change amount to a total corruption of the manuscript? Maybe for John of Patmos or the scribe of W. But I don’t think the same holds true for a great many scribes and audiences in early Christianity. We’ve got way too many manuscripts that deviate way too often in way too many interesting ways from the “original text” for that premise to be anything other than terrifically bad.

Part of my point ends up being that early Christians—committed, faithful Christians—simply had a different understanding of the NT traditions than we do. For many of them, certain levels of deviation from an exemplar or the original were OK. For many of us, on the other hand, such alterations are dangerously corruptive to the biblical text. Part of my goal, writing as a Christian scholar, is to reclaim these scribes and audiences as faithfully Christian scribes and audiences who made and accepted certain kinds of lesser and greater alterations to the NT traditions as they were reproduced in writing.

There were, and are, limits to the acceptability of scribal change. Marcion, the guy who edited a bunch of stuff out of Luke, is a parade example of scribal change far beyond the limits of acceptability. The scribes who interpolated endings to Mark or the Pericope Adulterae to John, though, were apparently within those limits. Their changes are now Scripture for Christians. In both cases, it was the listening and reading audience—the Church—who enforced the rules. If I do it well, my work will end up having something constructive, however small, to contribute to the Church’s theology of Scripture. But first we need to move beyond assuming all scribes were copyists and all alterations were corruptions.

So, no. I’m not really doing what Ehrman was doing in Orthodox Corruption. I’m trying to do something else.

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!