Pauline Paleontology

by Matthew Thiessen in


Matthew Thiessen responds to the SBL 2016 Pauline Epistles review panel.

After reading Bert Harrill’s review, I realized that I needed to read John Lewis Gaddis’s The Landscape of History to help me think again about both the problems and the methodologies of historiography.[1] Gaddis eloquently puts flesh on some of the bare-bone ideas that have shaped the way in which I have proceeded in my own work on early Judaism and Christianity. The methodology of historians, Gaddis demonstrates, parallels that of paleontologists. Just as paleontologists use an incomplete fossil record to reconstruct what various species looked like or to map various evolutionary paths of life, so too historians necessarily fill in the fossil records, so to speak, of different figures and periods of history. In short, our work is “an exercise in historical paleontology.”[2]

The question facing all readers of Paul, then, is this: how can one conduct responsible, meticulous historical paleontology with regard to the literary fossils of Paul? As Harrill perceives, David Kaden and I come at Paul’s remains from two different angles: I contextualize Paul within Second Temple Judaism, while Kaden seeks to look at Paul within broader discourses (perhaps even a universal discourse?) about law. Harrill asks us whether our two approaches represent two opposing methodologies. I am interested in hearing what Kaden has to say, since in reading his book I detect that he has little hope that my contextualizing methodology can move us beyond the stalemate that exists in New Testament scholarship around issues of the Jewish law. My own answer would be that, while they might differ, our methodologies should be seen as potentially complementary, a claim that Christine Hayes’s remarkable synthesis of our two books substantiates. Whereas I busy myself with both excavating the remains of one dinosaur, Paul, and situating him within one geological era, Second Temple Judaism, Kaden’s approach seeks to situate two dinosaurs, Paul and Matthew, in relation to lifeforms in other (but analogous) geological eras. In this regard, Kaden’s book takes a global and theoretical approach to the question of law that aims to ensure work like mine is not done in a vacuum, but relates to broader discourses about law. By considering the question of law in general, he intends to push the specific scholarly conversation on Paul and the law beyond the current impasse that troubles the discipline.[3]

If I read Kaden correctly, he believes that a disciplinary myopia afflicts traditional studies of Paul and the law: we have become too focused on one particular geological era. That may be, after all we certainly have published an unreadable amount of secondary literature on a few short letters, but my own conviction is that our disciplinary problem continues to be either that we have misidentified one specimen of the Second Temple period, Paul, and thereby placed him in a later stratum, the Christian era, or that we have oversimplified the biodiversity within the Second Temple Jewish genus to the point that when we come across the Pauline remains, we wrongly conclude that he must belong to another genus altogether. Our methodologies differ, in part then, because we have rather different answers to the question of what methodological problems plague the discipline of Pauline studies. Nonetheless, we both aim for the same thing: a re-description of Paul’s discourse on the law that will move beyond the major schools of Pauline interpretation. From the overall tenor of the reviews, the panelists appear to share this basic objective.

Harrill’s final and related question asks us what we “think about the relative value of comparison vs. contextualization in biblical studies” (7). My own response is that it depends upon what questions one seeks to answer. If one intends to determine how one dinosaur species fits in relation to other species from the same period, one will need to compare contemporaneous dinosaur remains. Similarly, if one attempts to answer the question of Paul’s Jewishness or to address the parting of the ways paradigm, then one must contextualize Paul precisely within his own time. Thus my work is also comparative, albeit on a more limited scale than the work of Kaden. On the other hand, if one wants to understand what anatomical features are required for animal life to exist, one will compare species from many different eras to identify shared bodily structures and functions. Kaden performs such a wide-ranging comparison, but I would suggest that he also contextualizes, locating Paul and Matthew within a particular historical moment, the geological stratum of imperial Rome. Solid historical work necessitates both comparison and contextualization. Our accounts of Paul, as Hayes emphasizes, are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. Her own work, What’s Divine about Divine Law?,[4] fruitfully situates Paul within yet another data set related to ancient discourses about divine and human law in antiquity. And Stephen Young refers to work being done on the larger phenomenon of religious experts in the Roman world. The more data we excavate and bring to bear on the study of Paul, whether for contextual or comparative purposes, the more likely we are going to read the remains of Paul more accurately. Conversely, one indication of the historical plausibility of our reading of Paul’s remains is the way in which it illuminates other fossil records. I am, therefore, encouraged by Hayes’s remarks that our two books have enabled her to think differently about rabbinic constructions of Jewish identity.

The work of reading the remains of Paul encounters another difficulty: when it comes to the study of Paul, we have very few extant fossils, seven or so short, rhetorically charged letters. Such context-specific communications provide us with tiny glimpses of Paul’s mind, various bones, but not the entire skeleton. This fact leads to Harrill’s specific question to me: how can historians make claims about “knowing the minds of other people” (7). Again like paleontologists, Gaddis avers, “historians too start with surviving structures, whether they be archives, artifacts, or even memories. They then deduce the processes that produced them.”[5] First, we are constrained to a certain degree by the way the words run on the papyrus. Unfortunately, the written word is not particularly constraining. Already in Paul’s own day, we can see that people understood his writings in a multiplicity of ways, leading him to work to clarify previous remarks, whether to those in Rome who heard of his teaching indirectly, or to those in Corinth whose reception of his letters demonstrates quite clearly the difficulty inherent in the task of reading Paul’s remains. As Umberto Eco has put it, “a text is a lazy machinery which forces its possible readers to do a part of its textual work.”[6] Words on the papyrus place constraints on readers, but they are weak constraints. Nonetheless, as divided as the field of Pauline studies is, we all agree that in writing letters to Rome and Galatia, for instance, Paul did not intend his readers to go out and get circumcised. The remains of Paul tell us this much, at least, about his mind and his intentions. But how can we divine more nuanced aspects of Paul’s mind, especially those that he did not put down on papyrus?

This is where I return to my earlier remarks about methodology. To read Paul correctly, one must place contextual constraints on his literary remains. One must not only examine each bone carefully, but one must also labor to locate those bones within a broader web of interconnections amongst other remains from Paul’s geological stratum: the broader Ancient Mediterranean world, Jewish and non-Jewish. When it comes to Paul, gentiles, and the law, Terence Donaldson has mapped the variegated nature of Jewish thinking about gentiles.[7] I think it imperative that we work to situate Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle to the gentiles, within the genus of Second Temple Jewish thought, which was much more diverse then Pauline paleontologists generally recognize. For instance, it is simply wrong to believe that all or even most Second Temple Jews thought that gentiles needed to become Jews. So when Paul vehemently rejects the idea that gentiles can benefit from undergoing circumcision, he may be diverging from the position of some species of Jews who thought that gentiles could and should convert, but he is not breaking away from his genus, Second Temple Jews, and beginning his own evolutionary path to a new genus: Christianity (at least not intentionally!). Nonetheless, Paul’s letters comprise some of the raw materials that led, under the right combination of environmental conditions, to a genetic mutation in the early Christ movement that enabled it to evolve into something known as Christianity.

And, as another example, when one seeks to understand how Paul could interpret a certain ancient sacred text in one way, one must strive to read other contemporaneous readings of that text. Studying other Second Temple species may help us fill in the missing gaps in Paul’s logic, argumentation, or interpretation of sacred scriptures. This, of course, is an imaginative work, but it is not, to my mind, unfettered. Knowing how Jubilees, or Philo, or early rabbis understood the Abraham Narrative can help us read that text as some Jews would have been reading it in Paul’s day. For my argument, then, the book of Jubilees lends ancient support to my thesis about what was going on in Paul’s mind that led him to write down the words in the way that he did. More broadly, my overarching reading of Paul, which insists that Paul thinks that most of the legislation that makes up the Jewish law does not pertain to gentiles fits within a larger stream of Jewish thought that insisted gentiles either did not need to keep the Jewish law or in fact could not keep the Jewish law.[8] And, though I certainly could have and perhaps should have made more of it in my book, this stream of Jewish thought about others fits within the larger Greco-Roman world that understood ethē to pertain to ethnē. Customs and ethnicity were inextricably intertwined in the ancient world, a connection that Paula Fredriksen has documented so well and Kaden’s work in its own way demonstrates.[9] Admittedly, this method risks the danger of taking the bones of one species from the Second Temple Period and wrongly using it for the reconstruction of the Pauline species. But if we fail to use the bones of Paul’s period, I do not think we will leave the Pauline skeleton riddled with holes. Rather, we will, unwittingly or otherwise, succumb to the temptation of supplying bones from different geological eras, most likely our own.

But beyond this contextual work any reading of Paul needs to be situated convincingly within yet another context as well: the historical context and the rhetorical purposes that led Paul to put pen to papyrus. So not only must we ask, “Is it likely that Paul could have argued X?” but we must also ask, “How likely is it that Paul believed that he could convince others of X?” As Christopher Stanley puts it, “it is Paul’s persuasive intent that remains primary at every point, and the modern interpreter must read all that he says in the light of this concern or else risk misunderstanding.”[10] We know that Paul wanted to convince his gentile readers that they stood to gain nothing from undergoing circumcision—his fossils tell us this much about his intentions. So our gap filling necessitates that we find some way to move from this intention to the way that the words run on the papyrus within the context of a period that contains other literary fossils that look the way that they do.

One such place where I fill in a gap within Pauline fossils is in my discussion of the allegory of Galatians 4. As Stephen Young observes, Paul nowhere mentions eighth-day circumcision in his reading of the Abraham Narrative, yet I suggest that this must be lurking in the back of Paul’s mind. Young’s comment, then, is closely related to Harrill’s inquiries about how a historian can claim to know another person’s mind. Am I guilty of stealing a bone from the fossil remains of Jubilees, for instance, and inserting it into Galatians? Perhaps. But I note here, as I do in the book, that in another Pauline fossil, Philippians, Paul explicitly highlights his own eighth-day circumcision. Paul, then, can boast about an essentially inherited aspect of his law observance (after all, it is hardly conceivable to suggest that the eight-day old Paul did the law of circumcision), a rite that his gentile readers who might be tempted to Judaize can never boast about fulfilling. On the basis of Philippians, then, I think it is historically defensible to reconstruct the logic of Paul’s thought in Galatians by positing the existence in this letter of this same supporting argumentative bone. Of course, Paul does not say a whole lot of things in Gal 4:21–31; for instance, he makes no mention of the rite of circumcision. But the general content of Galatians makes clear that circumcision is the key issue that occasioned the letter. What do the fossil remains preserved within Paul’s letter to the Galatians tell us about his thought? How can Paul associate Ishmael with the Mosaic law/covenant and slavery? How can Paul deploy the Abraham Narrative against gentile circumcision? To reconstruct Paul’s thinking and intentions from these fragmentary remains is fraught with difficulty to be sure. It is nonetheless necessary.

As some scholars have concluded, it is conceivable that Paul, taking advantage of the scriptural ignorance of his gentile audience, runs roughshod over the Abraham Narrative. When I read Young’s review, I cannot help but wonder if this suggestion is precisely what he is gesturing toward when he refers to independent religious experts in the ancient Mediterranean who claimed “the ability to wield a notionally foreign, exotic, or sacred book and perform[ed] what look[ed] like learned and even divinatory interpretations” (6). To my ears, this sounds as though Young and other scholars he names think that the performance of something that looked like learned interpretation of sacred texts would, in Paul’s mind, be enough to convince his readers of the cogency of his argument.

Admittedly, this venue does not provide Young with the space to unpack fully how the apparent capacity to perform learned interpretation itself persuades readers. So it is difficult for me to assess such claims apart from acknowledging that certain culturally encoded signs of learning might be enough, at times, to convince others of one’s argument. For instance, earlier I quoted Umberto Eco in order to provide a scholarly veneer to my response that would dazzle its readers with my own intellectual capacities. I did this with the intention of persuading people that I know what I speak of. This in turn would convince them that my reading of Paul must be correct. Similarly, I concede that Paul did think that his stance on gentile circumcision would gain legitimacy through his appeal to Jewish sacred texts. Nevertheless, let me briefly raise two potential problems for this approach. First, to all appearances, Paul’s opponents remain in Galatia. Their very presence, therefore, would make it rather difficult for his readers to be swayed by the sheer performance itself, and not by the persuasiveness of his interaction with Genesis. For instance, I doubt anyone who has read much Eco would be impressed by my breezy quotation of one quite small statement from his writings. The gentile Galatians might not be particularly adept interpreters of these foreign, sacred texts, but the missionaries currently teaching them another gospel purport to be and provide a very different reading of the Abraham Narrative. Wouldn’t Paul take this presence into account and seek to provide the most compelling argument possible in light of the interpretive conventions of his day?

In addition to the problems connected to the presence of other religious specialists in Galatia, though, is the problem of what we can know about the Galatians themselves. It is true that most of Paul’s readers were not actually readers, given the literacy rates in the ancient world. But their inability to read coupled with their gentile identity cannot necessarily be taken as evidence that these people would not have been familiar with some central Jewish texts and stories. Were these gentiles completely unschooled in Jewish lore, or were they, via Paul or connections to synagogues, steeped in some of the major stories of the Jewish world, such as creation, Abraham, and Moses? What can we infer about the cultural literacy of Paul’s gentile audiences, especially their knowledge of Jewish sacred texts, from Paul’s literary remains? The oblique nature of Paul’s references to the Abraham Narrative suggests that his implied readers, in fact, do know the basic contours of that story. Paul’s allusions to Genesis, therefore, must represent his efforts to get them to read or hear the Abraham Narrative very differently than they currently do. For this, the simple fact that Ishmael was circumcised and yet not Abraham’s inheriting seed is all that Paul needs them to get in order to perceive that not all circumcisions have covenantal value.[11] In Gal 4:21, Paul implores his audience to hear the law. He wants to give them ears to hear it rightly. In the words of Susan Eastman, “Paul’s ‘implied reader’ challenges his actual readers to become more knowledgeable about Israel’s Scriptures in order to understand what he says.”[12] This is why I point to Stanley’s work on persuasive intent. These cursory thoughts notwithstanding, I look forward to learning from what Young and other people of what I affectionately call the Brown School do in their future work on this topic.

A few concluding words about dinosaurs, fossil remains, and Paul’s letters. Apparently my research interests have broadened from the study of Paul and circumcision to paleontology and dinosaurs. No doubt I have my five-year-old son to thank, since he has appointed me his unpaid research assistant to aid him in his own burgeoning scholarly endeavors as a paleontologist. I have labored, though, to compare Pauline studies to paleontology because I think it beautifully illustrates the real problems we face in the interpretation of Paul’s letters. We simply have very little evidence upon which to base our work. These gaping holes in the Pauline fossil record make it difficult for us to form a consensus with regard to the entire skeleton or structure of Pauline thought: we have Lutheran camps, new perspective camps, radical new perspective camps, apocalyptic camps, and other camps unnamed or uncharted. Such disagreements are long standing and often heated because for many Pauline interpreters we are excavating no mere dinosaur, but, forgive the mixing of metaphors, a sacred cow. While we are not excavating dinosaurs, the history of paleontology is instructive in one final way. The dinosaur depicted at the beginning of this paragraph is a Stegosaurus. The drawing, published in an 1884 issue of Scientific American, was one of the most popular early portrayals of what scientists thought the Stegosaurus looked like. Given our current knowledge of this genus of dinosaurs, it is clearly a monstrously absurd and inaccurate drawing. It is (or ought to be!) epistemologically humbling. For that reason, I cherish this opportunity to wrestle over the remains of Paul with scholars who have modeled a collegial generosity in reading Kaden’s book and my book. I hope conversations such as this one lead to less and less outlandish representations of the Pauline fossil record.

Matthew Thiessen is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at McMaster University. 

[1] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] Gaddis, The Landscape of History, 42

[3] For instance, David Kaden, Matthew, Paul, and the Anthropology of Law (WUNT 2/424; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 5–7.

[4] Christine Hayes, What’s Divine about Divine Law? Early Perspectives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[5] Gaddis, The Landscape of History, 41.

[6] Umberto Eco, “The Theory of Signs and the Role of the Reader,” Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 14 (1981): 35–45 (36).

[7] Terence L. Donaldson, Judaism and the Gentiles: Jewish Patterns of Universalism (to 135 CE) (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007).

[8] Note I say most, not all. On the Judaizing inherent in Paul’s own gospel proclamation, see Paula Fredriksen, “Judaizing the Nations: The Ritual Demands of Paul’s Gospel,” NTS 56 (2010): 232–52.

[9] See, soon, Paula Fredriksen, Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming).

[10] Christopher D. Stanley, “‘Under a Curse’: A Fresh Reading of Galatians 3.10–14,” NTS 36 (1990): 481–511 (492).

[11] One might also point to the letter carrier as a potential guide to the proper reading of a letter, a possibility that Peter Head explores in, amongst other writings, “Named Letter Carriers among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri,” JSNT 31 (2009): 279–99.

[12] Susan Eastman, Recovering Paul’s Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 21.

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