Description and Redescription – the classic interrelated activities that animate critical scholarship on religion. This roundtable affords the chance to examine two books that push the descriptive and redescriptive envelopes in their sectors of biblical studies. Matthew Thiessen’s Paul and the Gentile Problem rigorously describes Paul’s discourses about the Jewish law and Gentiles, while David Kaden’s Matthew, Paul, and the Anthropology of Law innovatively redescribes Paul and Matthew’s discourses about the Jewish law with theoretical resources from Jonathan Z. Smith, Michel Foucault, and the anthropology of law. I will briefly comment about productive interventions that Kaden and Thiessen make in the field, though with an eye on ways they intervene to align conversations in New Testament Studies with others taking place in the broader study of religion. And I will also take this opportunity to reimagine how their projects could potentially be sharpened by following through with some of their own interventions more consistently.
Thiessen situates his book in an important, growing minority of Pauline scholars commonly labeled the “Radical New Perspective” or, more recently, “Paul within Judaism.” Rather than ceasing to identify as a Jew or rejecting the Jewish law, Paul remained a Jew. He observed his understanding of Jewish ancestral customs and expected other Jews to do the same. Furthermore, in his writings and as a self-proclaimed apostle, Paul was a Jew oriented towards Gentiles. His discourse on topics such as the law, righteousness, and faith thus pertain specifically to Gentiles and not to humanity as a whole or to Jews. This approach already boasts signature monographs by Pamela Eisenbaum, John Gager, Caroline Johnson Hodge, Stanley Stowers, and Runar Thorsteinsson, plus a collection of influential articles by Paula Fredriksen. Thiessen’s Paul and the Gentile Problem advances this trajectory of scholarship. He systematically illustrates its fruitfulness for understanding Paul’s claims about the law and for navigating longstanding problems in the history of interpretation. Thiessen pursues his detailed readings of Pauline passages through exhaustive comparison with other ancient Jewish writings on parallel topics. But the effect is not a tedious catalogue of parallels. Rather, Thiessen problematizes Christianizing readings of Paul that, functionally, sever him from a Jewish matrix. In Thiessen’s hands, Paul’s discourse about the law and Gentiles emerges as one contour of a varied Jewish textual landscape about these topics. Thiessen also amplifies the ethnic and philosophical textures of Paul’s discourse. He shows that Paul’s positions about the Jewish law, how Gentiles access the Jewish god, and the afterlife blessings available to Gentiles creatively reflect cultural resources for conceptualizing genealogy, foreign customs, and cosmology seen throughout other (not simply Jewish) Greco-Roman writings. And in the latter half of the book, Thiessen pushes beyond groundbreaking work in these areas by Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Fredriksen, Johnson Hodge, Dale Martin, and Stowers. He positively offers his own explanation of how such ethnic and philosophical-cosmological cultural logics animate Paul’s discourse about Abraham, pneuma, and the Jewish god’s blessings. Along the way Thiessen thus continues the important demolition of the Judaism versus Hellenism paradigm that still structures much of New Testament Studies, even though it is almost universally decried.
As someone whose own educational genealogy went through Stowers, I am unsurprisingly enthusiastic about the contribution of Thiessen’s Paul and the Gentile Problem. Its descriptive project embodies a series of productive combinations – detailed comparative reading combined with attention to ethnic and philosophical rhetorics combined with critical awareness of location in the historiography of scholarship. And the result of these combinations is a fruitful intervention in the field of Pauline studies. It advances the important “Paul within Judaism” approach while also motioning toward aligning it with the focus on ethnicity and culturally specific cosmologies that characterize scholarly conversations in the academic study of religion outside of New Testament Studies.
But might Thiessen have made his intervention more effective? I will zoom in on a particularly picky point that can direct our attention toward more synthetic questions. Thiessen's chapter on Gal 4:21–31 offers a characteristically detailed textual analysis. He argues that the famous “allegory” of Sarah and Hagar further reveals Paul’s ethnically differentiated discourse about the Jewish law – in other words, that Paul thought Gentiles and Jews relate differently to the Jewish law and, in particular, that Paul’s directives against keeping the law concern only Gentile followers of Christ. Thiessen offers a subtle rereading of the Abraham narrative in Genesis 16–21 to argue that Paul has not “tendentious[ly]” “distorted” or “misused” the Genesis materials (Thiessen, 74–75). Rather, “Genesis 17 actually supports Paul’s argument against gentile circumcision” (Thiessen, 88). This is because, as attested by Genesis 17 and Thiessen’s explanation of how Jubilees 15 picks up on his understanding of Gen 17:14 (Thiessen, 65, 80–82), Paul holds that legitimate circumcision can only happen on the eighth day after birth. Gentile Christ followers, therefore, necessarily break the law if they seek circumcision. This is an ingenious and suggestive textual argument. But I wonder if Thiessen’s drive to demonstrate that Gal 4:21–31 really aligns with Genesis problematically diverted his attention from more explicit content in the passage; the type of issue on which his characteristically detailed readings tend to dwell elsewhere? For example, Paul nowhere in Galatians appeals to the eight-day logic about valid circumcision. But more significantly, he does align the other Jewish teachers advocating Gentile circumcision in Galatia (or the Galatian Gentiles who adopt circumcision?) with “Hagar, Mount Sinai, is in Arabia and it stands for the present Jerusalem. For she is enslaved with her children” (Gal 4:25). As someone who largely agrees with Thiessen’s “Paul within Judaism” approach, I looked forward to his treatment of this passage. It would seem to cry out for attention since Paul classifies “the present Jerusalem” as “enslaved.” And at first glance, this seems to imply that Paul directs his discourse about the law in Galatians also toward Jews.
I devote so much attention to this picky example since it also illuminates a broader way Paul and the Gentile Problem could have more consistently executed its scholarly intervention. Thiessen’s primary method of analyzing Gal 4:21–31 is arguing that it aligns with his reading of Genesis and certain other Second Temple Jewish writings. And Thiessen frequently buttresses his argument by noting ways that his reading detects possible allusions to the relevant Jewish writings (e.g., Genesis) and to subtle details in the broader contexts of those writings (Thiessen, 96–99). The cumulative effect of this approach is to “provid[e] an interpretation of both Genesis 16–21 and Paul’s argument that could plausibly convince Paul’s readers” (Thiessen, 75).
But this particular method of investigating Paul in relation to his “use of Jewish scripture” represents a fissure in Thiessen’s fruitful intervention that otherwise pushes beyond traditional conventions in New Testament Studies. As exemplified, albeit differently, by Richard Hays and Francis Watson, a dominant paradigm in New Testament studies seeks to demonstrate that a writer (such as Paul) has subtly (re)read Jewish writings in ways that reflect deep, “intertextual” scriptural architecture. These demonstrations often concentrate on un-marked allusions to scriptural texts that supposedly invoke details in the broader contexts of the passages supposedly alluded to. This paradigm also commonly stresses that Paul’s persuasiveness turns on his audience knowing the relevant Jewish texts and even recognizing the subtle, broader-contextual allusions. Thiessen often critiques notable exponents of this paradigm (e.g., Richard Hays – Thiessen, 74) while advancing a reading of Paul that is diametrically opposed to those of most New Testament scholars who follow paradigms similar to Hays and Watson. And yet, as Thiessen’s chapter about Gal 4:21–31 illustrates, he often operates with what I would term inherited conventions from this paradigm – so much so that they sometimes eclipse his usual, rigorously detailed investigation of Paul’s textual logic. These conventions surface throughout Paul and the Gentile Problem. For example, Thiessen creatively traces subtle Jewish textual activity that connects promises about Abraham’s star-like descendants, ideas about astral-divinization, and God’s spirit (Thiessen, 134–47). He then moves from the more modest use of such materials as a sketch of Paul’s own potential discursive reservoir to the more conventional New Testament Studies claim that Paul “assumes that his readers would think of these passages when he talks about God’s promise of the pneuma and equates it with the blessing of Abraham” (Thiessen, 147; see also 159).
I suggest, instead, that a sensitivity to the practices associated with wielding Jewish sacred writings would offer Thiessen an escape from these conventions while retaining the crucial interventions he offers. Attention to practice would permit disaggregating issues that are often unhelpfully bundled together in New Testament Studies. It is one thing for us modern scholars to persuade ourselves about what is going on in Paul’s letters by investigating how he (as a literate intellectual) may have accessed his ancestral writings and how his interpretive activity may have significantly shaped his writings to Gentiles. In this case, our experiments with excavating possible textual allusions and Paul’s potential transmission and transformation of “traditions” may be crucial. But it is another thing to presume that Paul’s persuasiveness to his (largely illiterate) ancient consumers necessarily turned on their ability to recognize these finely-grained, textual-interpretive steps that we modern scholars devote journal articles and academic monographs to elucidating. Thiessen could more precisely combine his exhaustive comparative readings with an exploration of Paul’s persuasiveness through a sensitivity to practices themselves; practices associated with sacred writings in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. For example, the dynamics of persuasion may involve some audience awareness of Paul’s allusive reinterpretations of Jewish textual resources. This conventional focus, however, often neglects other contours of how Paul’s textual practices may persuade his Gentile consumers and link with his broader religious practices. To wield a sacred book and perform what looks like learned and even divinatory interpretations was itself a prestigious activity. And, as recent scholarship by Jennifer Eyl, Stowers, Daniel Ullucci, Heidi Wendt, and myself argues, such textual practices were among the limited repertoire of options that self-authorized specialists (such as Paul) could draw upon to promote their cultic services. Such sensitivity – even if it is not the overriding focus – to practices would enhance Thiessen’s intervention. It would permit him to shed some of the remaining conventions of the field that his work masterfully bypasses while further aligning his bold descriptive project with other theoretical conversations in the field of religious studies.
Whereas we can conceive of Thiessen’s project as a challenging descriptive contribution to New Testament studies, Kaden frames his Matthew, Paul, and the Anthropology of Law as a redescriptive intervention in the field. He positions the book as a critical extension of J.Z. Smith’s orientation. Rather than offering another exegesis of what Matthew and Paul write about the Jewish law, Kaden fruitfully shifts to another optic. He analyzes the conditions of possibility for their discourses about law. And for this redescriptive exploration Kaden opts for the theoretical resources of Michel Foucault’s relational interrogations of power, discourse, and knowledge. Just as Thiessen’s Paul and the Gentile Problem productively combines often dissociated paths of inquiry, so too Kaden combines investigation of Matthew and Paul with critical-theoretical resources about power, studies in the anthropology of law, and ethnographies of “law-like customs” in disparate cultural settings. In other words, Kaden offers a strikingly innovative approach within the traditional webs of scholarship on Matthew and Paul. And he capitalizes on these innovative combinations to shift attention away from the question of what Matthew and Paul wrote about the law to critical-theoretical questions of how and why they wrote about law. And from there he then re-assesses the question of what they wrote.
Kaden’s orientation also positions him to intervene in the currently fashionable “Matthew and Paul against Empire” wave of scholarship. Arguing that the question of whether Matthew and Paul were “for” or “against” Empire is too undertheorized, Kaden instead urges attention to how Matthew and Paul both “presume and reinscribe elements of the broader discursive setting of late Augustan Rome” (Kaden, 149; see also 149–70) – and notably for this roundtable, he thus aligns with J. Albert Harrill’s recent work. Similarly, Kaden’s theorization of comparison and redescription emphasizes the importance of bypassing questions of “influence” (e.g., Kaden, 4) – the kinds of questions that bedevil most publications in our field and thus occlude more textured avenues for investigating how our sources participate in various regimes of knowledge. Like Thiessen, his work thus exemplifies the fruitful possibilities of advancing beyond the Judaism versus Hellenism divide. Eschewing a treatment that makes Matthew’s and Paul’s discourses about law uniquely Jewish (e.g., Kaden, 70), Kaden repeatedly engages broader Greco-Roman materials (e.g., Kaden, 102–7, 108–44, 148–58, 170–73). But given Kaden’s redescriptive orientation, the effect is not a catalogue of parallels for positing “influence by” or the “origins of” Paul and Matthew’s claims about the law “from” Roman sources. Rather, he explores models for how legal discourses emerge, intersect with other domains of knowledge (e.g., ethnicity), operate in various distributions of power, and construct certain peoples as groups that exist in specific relationships to other constructed groups. And Kaden, accordingly, offers innovative treatments of passages about law and their intersections with constructions of ethnicity and authority in Matthew and Paul (e.g., Kaden, 159–69). This discursive orientation coordinates with Kaden’s discussions of the anthropology of law and ethnographic studies earlier in the book (Kaden, 28–65), which explain his attention to “law-like practices” and how they often serve as “mechanism[s] for the regulation of social behavior” (e.g., Kaden, 31–32).
Especially because of these innovative strengths of Kaden’s work, I offer a few picky suggestions for how he could have sharpened his intervention. Kaden’s discussion of Foucault clarifies, repeatedly, that his goal is not simply to “apply” Foucault to a reading of Matthew and Paul, but to theorize with Foucault about their legal discourses. This is a productive orientation for critical-theoretical work in our field. And yet, the overall feel (please forgive the use of this strategically nebulous word) of Matthew, Paul, and the Anthropology of Law sometimes cuts against Kaden’s goal. For example, at times he follows fruitful observations about the social or discursive significance of ancient law with citations of Foucault or comments that the sources thus support or illustrate Foucault’s theories (e.g., Kaden, 110–11 n. 6, 111 n. 7, 175–76). I suspect Kaden’s purpose was repeated reminder to the reader of his Foucauldian goals for studying Matthew and Paul. And yet the effect of this habit is sometimes making his book look like the kind of “application” that he laudably aims to avoid. Furthermore, Kaden’s energetic explication of Foucault and other theoretical resources eclipses one of the key stated goals of the project – detailed analysis of Matthew’s and Paul’s discourses about law. To think about this spatially, Kaden clarifies that one of his two main discussions of Matthew and Paul will probe the intersections of law, power, and legal-fiction. And yet he only devotes about four pages (Kaden, 180–81, 192–94) to direct textual analysis of Matthew and Paul’s letters in this discussion. In those pages Kaden advances innovative suggestions for re-understanding Matthew, Paul, and the Jewish law in relation to longterm debates in New Testament studies. And while Kaden’s spatial marginalization of Matthew and Paul reflects his desire to de-center the traditional New Testament studies obsession with exegeting Matthew and Paul for what they wrote, his brief suggestions in a book devoted to the Matthew, Paul, and discourses about law leave the reader (or at least this reader) wishing for more.
On a different note, I resonate with Kaden’s focus on probing the conditions of possibility for the emergence of Matthew’s and Paul’s discourses about law. But I wonder if Kaden overlooked aspects of their legal discourses that would deepen his project’s impact. Kaden’s chapter on the anthropology of law, and the first three of his four ethnographic studies, attends in general to legal discourses, “law-like practices,” and social situations in which group identification indexes or redirects relations of power. But in Matthew and Paul’s letters we encounter neither general legal discourses, nor observable “law-like” interactions on the ground (if you will), nor social-situations with clearly identifiable (to us, modern scholars) groups. Their discourses about law are textual discourses available within textual practices. And to state the obvious, the conditions of possibility for the emergence of on-the-ground (if you will) general “law-like practices” in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean can differ significantly from the conditions of possibility for legal discourses that are textual. The production of complex, literary texts (such as Matthew and Paul’s letters) required skills, interests, resources, and social conditions only available to a small handful of people in the ancient Mediterranean. The different ways of consuming these textual practices similarly involved specific interests and skills. Textual practices also had varying relationships to other practices or potential “groups.” For example, textual discourse (or any discourse, for that matter) about law may not be a reflection of corresponding, extra-textual legal practices. Texts also may not simply reflect the practices or commitments of an identifiable “group.” Conversely, textual practices were bound up with different forms of capital, depending upon the social positions of their participants – and this is a matter directly related to Kaden’s interests in how Matthew’s and Paul’s legal discourses relate to power. Kaden’s study of Matthew’s and Paul’s “law-like practices” thus invites attention to their textual nature, which in turn invites theorization of how his ethnographic comparanda relate to or involve textual practices.
Many thanks to Thiessen and Kaden for offering their descriptive and redescriptive interventions in New Testament studies…and for being willing to tolerate our critical descriptions and redescriptions of their projects!
Stephen Young is a Lecturer in Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University.
 On this movement in Pauline studies, see Magnus Zetterholm, Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 127–63. For a recent volume of essays that pursue this approach, see Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm, ed., Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context of the Apostle (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).
 Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not A Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: HarperOne, 2010); John Gager, Reinventing Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Caroline Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Stanley Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994); Runar Thorsteinsson, Paul’s Interlocutor in Romans 2: Function and Identity in the Context of Ancient Epistolography (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiskell, 2003). See also Paula Fredriksen, “Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1 and 2,” JTS 42 (1991): 532–64; idem., “Judaizing the Nations: The Ritual Demands of Paul’s Gospel,” NTS 56 (2010): 232–52; idem., “Why Should a ‘Law-Free’ Mission Mean a ‘Law-Free’ Apostle?” JBL 134 (2015): 637–50.
 Troels Engberg–Pedersen, Cosmology and the Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Fredriksen, “Judaizing the Nations” and “Why Should a ‘Law-Free’ Mission;” Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs; Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995); Stowers, Rereading of Romans; idem., “What is ‘Pauline Participation in Christ’?” in Redefining First-Century Jewish and Christian Identities: Essays in Honor of Ed Parish Sanders (ed. F. Udoh et. al.; South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 352–71.
 For example, Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989); Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith (New York: T&T Clark, 2004).
 Christopher Stanley motions towards this distinction while critiquing the conventional NT Studies move of assuming that audiences would recognize the subtle interpretive actions that NT scholars like to excavate (for example: Arguing with Scripture: The Rhetoric of Quotations in the Letters of Paul [New York: T&T Clark, 2004]; “Paul’s ‘Use’ of Scripture: Why the Audience Matters,” in S.E. Porter and C.D. Stanley, ed., As It is Written: Studying Paul’s Use of Scripture [Atlanta: SBL, 2008], 125–55).
 For example, Jennifer Eyl, “‘By the Power of Signs and Wonders’: Paul, Divinatory Practices, and Symbolic Capital.” (PhD diss., Brown University, 2012); Stanley Stowers, “Kinds of Myth, Meals, and Power: Paul and the Corinthians,” in M.P. Miller and R. Cameron, ed., Redescribing Paul and the Corinthians (Atlanta: SBL, 2011), 105–49; idem., “The Religion of Plant and Animal Offerings Versus the Religion of Meanings, Essences, and Textual Mysteries,” in J.W. Knust and Z. Várhelyi, ed., Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 35–56; Daniel Ullucci, “Toward a Typology of Religious Experts in the Ancient Mediterranean,” in C. Johnson Hodge, S.M. Olyan, D. Ullucci, and E. Wasserman, ed., “The One Who Sows Bountifully”: Essays in Honor of Stanley K. Stowers (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2013), 89–103; Heidi Wendt, At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Stephen Young, “Paul the Mythmaker.” (PhD diss., Brown University, 2016).
 J. Albert Harrill, “Paul and Empire: Studying Roman Identity after the Cultural Turn,” EC 2 (2011): 281–311. One can access a trimmed-down version of this excellent article in Harrill’s recent book, Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in their Roman Context (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 76–94.
 For examples of recent scholarship on ancient Mediterranean religion that probes such issues, see Stanley Stowers, “The Concept of ‘Community’ and the History of Early Christianity,” MTSR 23 (2011): 238–56; Robyn Faith Walsh, “The Influence of the Romantic Genius in Early Christian Studies,” Relegere 5 (2015): 31–60.