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date: 01 December 2021


Abstract and Keywords

‘Reading Paul’ is not, and never has been, just one thing. It has always been a matter of the particular questions and interests that the reader brings to the corpus of ancient texts written by, about, or in the name of the apostle. En route to this conclusion, this introduction kicks off the volume by performing several essential tasks. It offers a justification for the contents of the volume, explaining what is meant by the label ‘Pauline studies’ and exploring why it constitutes a (sub-)field of study at all. It gives a brief sketch of the recent history and the current state of Pauline studies as of the early twenty-first century, and furthermore outlines the editor’s reasons for hope for the future of the field. Finally, it summarizes the contents of the volume according to their several main sections.

Keywords: apostle, saint, Paul, letters, epistles, Pauline studies

The letters of the apostle Paul comprise a tiny corpus, even if we include the many pseudonymous ones (White 2014; Hart 2020; Petroelje forthcoming). The canonical ones make up not even half of the New Testament, itself a very small literary canon. It might seem strange, then, to compile a major reference work such as this, an entire Oxford Handbook, just on Pauline studies. So tremendously, inordinately influential, however, have the letters of Paul been—and continue to be—that it would take a book far bigger than this one to trace the lines of that influence (compare, for instance, the colossal Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception [Allison et al. 2009–]). The more modest goal of this book is to give an early twenty-first-century snapshot of what we collectively know about the figure of Paul, his historical contexts, his literary output, his major ideas, and his relevance to other fields of human knowledge. That will be enough.

1. Circumscribing ‘Pauline Studies’

It matters that this is a handbook of Pauline studies. It could conceivably have been either narrower (e.g., a handbook of Paul) or broader (e.g., a handbook of New Testament studies). But ‘Pauline studies’—meaning, for our present purposes, the whole field of research around the apostle Paul, the authentic texts (more or less) from his own hand, other ancients texts falsely attributed to him, the numerous early Christian legends about him, and the many meanings that have been and still are made of these texts—is a fitting subject matter for a volume of this size and shape, as in the similar case, for instance, of the excellent Oxford Handbook of Johannine Studies (Lieu and De Boer 2018). Pauline studies as a field is just broad enough and narrow enough to warrant the amount and the kind of analytical attention given to it here.

For better or worse—in fact, I think, for better and worse, in particular respects—an immense and complex field of research has grown up around this very small corpus of texts. Paul has a reception-historical afterlife out of all proportion to his modest extant oeuvre. In antiquity, this influence was related to Paul’s early date, the literary footprint of his letters in Christian canons, his popularity among diverse sects of Christians, and the importance of his ideas to Marcionism, anti-Marcionism, and other early Christian theologies (see Wiles 1967; Pagels 1975; Lindemann 1979; White 2014; Strawbridge 2015). In the modern period, Paul’s outsize influence has been closely related to the historical vicissitudes of the European churches, in particular the rise of global Protestantism downstream from Martin Luther, who adopted Paul as his apostolic muse (Allen and Linebaugh 2015; Chester 2017; Lincicum 2017; Novenson forthcoming). The institutional Protestantism of many modern European and colonial universities then paved the way for the embrace of Paul as a kind of secular saint (or sinner, depending on who is telling the story) in the humanities beyond theology and religion. So it came to pass that modern Pauline studies includes the work not only, as we might expect, of eminent theologians like Schleiermacher, Harnack, and King, but also towering philosophers and social scientists like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud (Blanton 2007; Gray 2016; Tofighi 2017).

The approach of this handbook is to take the field of Pauline studies as it is, in all its bewildering variety, and to orient the reader to it. This volume is not a manifesto for what I (the editor) or we (the contributors) think the field should be, although the individual contributors sometimes signal their respective views on that question. There is a long history of, and still today a vogue for, manifesto-writing in Pauline studies; indeed, that is no small part of the history of the field. (Nor am I completely innocent of it myself.) But a reference work such as this should, at the very least, do the reader the courtesy of orienting her to all corners of the field. And your editor is enough of a hermeneutical relativist to think that all those corners are there for a reason, that they represent the many different questions and interests that readers bring to the letters of Paul (Stout 1982; Stout 1986; Novenson forthcoming). There will always be some interpreters who judge some of those questions and interests to be too pious, or too impious, or too antiquarian, or too anachronistic, and so on. But most such complaints, in my view, come down to a failure to understand why another group of readers (historians, or theologians, or Catholics, or Pentecostals, or Jews, or women, or Black readers, or LGBTQ readers, etc.) might reasonably have the questions they do. My editorial approach, then, is to embrace the big tent of Pauline studies and to supply you, the reader, with expert tour guides to its many corners.

2. Whence, Where, and Whither

Any volume such as this will necessarily be a product of its own time, and this is a particularly interesting moment at which to take stock of Pauline studies. The field has always been pluriform, but there have been times when one could easily point to a single hypothesis or movement dominating discussion. As things stand presently, however, there arguably is no one centre to the field, but rather a number of important conversations happening simultaneously, sometimes engaging with one another, sometimes not. Indeed, this state of affairs is in no small part a result of recent reckoning with earlier, more hegemonic movements in the field, e.g., interwar German theological interpretation, the late twentieth-century British ‘New Perspective’, and other such (see the century-old but still fascinating Schweitzer 1912). One might lament, and some have lamented, the current situation as an unfortunate balkanization of the field, but there are equally good or better reasons to welcome it as an expanding of horizons. It just means that one must read a bit more widely in order to keep up (see Zetterholm 2009; Marchal 2012; Wright 2015).

In a sense, there have been ‘Pauline studies’, of a sort, almost as far back as the lifetime of the apostle himself. As Margaret Mitchell, in particular, has shown (Mitchell 2010), the hermeneutical struggle to make sense of Paul’s words is a feature already of Paul’s correspondence with the Christ-assembly in Corinth, in which we find multiple instances of understanding, misunderstanding, restatement, clarification, etc. This struggle continues and accelerates in first- and second-century Pauline pseudepigrapha and Acta, and it takes an exegetical form in ecclesiastical writers like Valentinus, Marcion, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and their many successors. In a sense, modern Pauline studies continues this very ancient conversation. Modern Christian theological interpreters, in particular, often express a strong affinity with (some of) these ancient Christian readers (Steinmetz 1980; Rowe 2016), even if they are separated—as in fact they are—by many centuries of cultural, philosophical, scientific, and other developments.

Because the letters of Paul are a prominent part of Christian Scripture, the study of Paul has for centuries been an especially Christian undertaking (but see Langton 2010; Gager 2015; Gray 2016; Akhtar 2018). And in the last five centuries, not just Christian, but specifically Protestant. As I have written elsewhere, ‘Because Protestants have done a great deal of their theology by reading Paul, the modern critical study of Paul has tended to happen especially (though by no means exclusively) in Protestant institutional spaces: Tübingen, Marburg, Cambridge, Durham, Princeton, New Haven, etc. Not so much Rome, Leuven, South Bend, or Jerusalem—until relatively recently, that is, much to the benefit of the discipline’ (Novenson forthcoming). The eighteenth-century rise of historical criticism of the Bible and the twentieth-century establishment of many non-sectarian departments of religious studies have nudged the study of Paul in a more diverse, less pious direction (McCutcheon 2001; Legaspi 2010; Moore and Sherwood 2011), but only nudged (he writes from his office in a historically Calvinist theological faculty in northern Europe).

It was in these European (especially German) Protestant universities that the modern critical study of Paul got up and running over the course of the nineteenth century. It was part of the project of the critical study of the Bible more generally (Purvis 2016; Kurtz 2018), but Paul always enjoyed a certain pride of place. F. C. Baur and his Tübingen school deserve no little credit, or blame, for this development (Bauspiess et al. 2017). Baur’s younger contemporary J. B. Lightfoot was a leading British counterpart to, and critic of, Baur (Neill and Wright 1988). And it is no accident that German and English are still, far and away, the most used language mediums in Pauline studies today (exhibit A: this handbook). Over the course of the twentieth century, the centre of gravity in the field shifted, and is still shifting, in fits and starts, from Europe to the former European colonies abroad (Segovia 2000; Stiebert and Dube 2018).

Like languages, however, theological ideas are remarkably durable, so that even as Pauline studies has migrated to North America, Oceania, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, much of the discussion has continued to run in the grooves carved out by Luther, Baur, and a few influential others. Indeed, it is still often said—not entirely inaccurately—that up until 1977 Pauline studies was dominated by a single, more or less homogeneous ‘Old Perspective’. That is a gross overstatement, but, again, not entirely inaccurate (Westerholm 2004). That 1977 watershed, which only attained watershed status in revisionist histories of the field from the 1980s (beginning with Dunn 1983), was E. P. Sanders’s remarkable book Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Sanders 1977), in which Sanders immodestly laid the axe to the root of the whole Luther- and Baur-inflected field of Pauline studies. Sanders rightly perceived that the field had long had a perverse fixation with Paul’s ostensible difference from and superiority to Judaism, and he exposed and deconstructed this fixation with devastating effectiveness.

If any twentieth-century work has a claim to have resounded throughout all of Pauline studies, it is surely Sanders’s, and yet even he does not speak for the field in toto. Very nearly contemporaneously with Sanders, there was epoch-making work happening in feminist criticism of Paul, represented in particular by the work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1983 and 1984). Her research was arguably just as paradigm-changing as Sanders’s, and with the passage of time it is having just as seismic an impact on the field (Levine 2003; Levine 2004; Ehrensperger 2004; Sherwood 2017). But wait, there’s more. Lisa Bowens (2020) has recently documented how, right through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, there was a vast, complicated tradition of African-American interpretation of Paul that only occasionally intersected with the better-known, university-based mainstream (cf. also Blount 2001). So even back in the old days when there was supposedly one dominant perspective, there was not just one dominant perspective.

In this sense, we might say that Pauline studies today is not actually more pluriform than it was in the past, just much more self-aware about its pluriformity. This is all for the good, but it makes the question what to do next more difficult. One cannot just take for granted what the questions are and then write the next response to Baur, or Bultmann, or Sanders, or whomever. One must—if one is to be responsible about it—think hard about which questions to ask, which reading strategies to use, which interlocutors to engage, which audiences to address, which projects to undertake. This can admittedly feel like an overwhelming prospect, but that way lies moral responsibility and interesting scholarship (Schüssler Fiorenza 1988; Bockmuehl 2006; Dinkler 2019). This handbook is, in a sense, a guide to the many different questions, reading strategies, interlocutors, audiences, and projects of which all readers should be aware and from which any reader might choose, depending on her particular goals. Such a guide, it seems to me, is something eminently worth having.

Far be it from me to prognosticate on the future of Pauline studies, but I am, at least, in favour of there being such a thing (cf. Matlock 1998; Concannon 2016; Concannon 2021). Because the field has grown so large and so densely populated while the corpus of source texts remains so very small, Pauline studies is one of those fields about which one hears occasional cries of ‘No more!’ And there is very good reason, indeed, to question the value added by ever more niche readings of ever smaller portions of text. But there is also some of the biggest, boldest new research in a generation or two happening at the very same time. Therefore I, for one, am chastened but optimistic. A moratorium on the study of Paul would be self-defeating, and not practicable in any case, like forbidding everyone from studying Plato, or Spanish, or violin. Pauline studies can, should, and almost certainly will continue. It is overwhelmingly likely to be a great deal more demographically diverse (in terms of race, gender, religious affiliation, and more) than in generations past, and the particular topics of conversation will change accordingly. Onward, then.

3. The Handbook in Outline

This handbook is subdivided into five main sections. Parts I and II together cover the waterfront of issues related to Paul as a historical actor. Part I: Paul the Person is largely biographical, sketching a life of the man himself to the (limited) extent that it is possible to do so. Calvin Roetzel and Julia Snyder discuss, from different angles, the historical challenges posed by the often quite fabulous early Christian accounts of Paul, while Paula Fredriksen, Eckhard Schnabel, Ann Jervis, and Loveday Alexander consider some key categories in which Paul can plausibly be said to fit. Part II: Paul in Context takes a wider-angle perspective on numerous aspects of Paul’s ancient Mediterranean context: archaeological (Cavan Concannon), imperial (Paul Trebilco), ethnic (Magnus Zetterholm), economic (Bruce Longenecker), philosophical (Troels Engberg-Pedersen), and religious (Emma Wasserman).

Part III: Pauline Literature takes a turn to the literary, looking in detail at the letters, manuscripts, and canons that constitute most of our extant evidence for the apostle. Laura Dingeldein discusses epistolography and Lauri Thurén rhetoric. Harry Gamble traces the formation of the Pauline corpus and Michael Holmes the text of that corpus. Andrew Das surveys recent scholarship on the authentic letters of Paul and Margaret MacDonald the Deutero-Pauline letters. Part IV: Pauline Theology examines a number of classic motifs in what moderns have called ‘Pauline theology’. Some of these essays take their lead from traditional theological loci: Richard Bauckham on Christology, T. J. Lang on cosmology and eschatology, Simon Gathercole on justification by faith, and David Horrell on ethics. Others take their lead from some of Paul’s own key words: Francis Watson on Scripture, Michael Thompson on Jesus, and Matthew Thiessen and Paula Fredriksen on Israel. Still others take up themes that are famously, specifically Pauline: Nijay Gupta on pistis Christou (‘trust of Christ’), John Barclay on grace or gift, and Susan Eastman on participation in Christ.

Finally, Part V: Approaches to Paul considers the many productive reading strategies with which recent interpreters have made meaning of the letters of Paul. These include time-honoured approaches like theological interpretation (Stephen Fowl) and reception history (John Riches), other humanistic disciplines like social sciences (Todd Still) and philosophy (Ward Blanton), and a number of rubrics drawn in particular from literary theory: ethnicity (Caroline Johnson Hodge), spatiality (Jorunn Økland), politics (Davina Lopez and Todd Penner), colonialism (Joseph Marchal), feminism (Kathy Ehrensperger), and sexuality (Dale Martin). The lesson of Part V—which makes a fitting conclusion to the volume—is that ‘reading Paul’ is not, and never has been, just one thing. It has always been a matter of the particular questions and interests that the reader brings to these very generative texts.


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