“To deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest of its sons is not a deed to be undertaken light-heartedly especially by one belonging to that people.”
Moses and Monotheism
When Studying Paul Used to Be Fun
In the introduction to his recent book Remembering Paul, Ben White gives voice to what I have felt for a long time now: that studying Paul is no longer fun. When I started studying Paul in the late 90s, I remember feeling a deep excitement about what could be unlocked by applying historical analysis and sociological and anthropological theory to Paul’s letters. There was a part of me that was yearning for a way to break out of the shackles of the doctrinal constraints that had framed my first introductions to Paul as a young man. In hindsight, this excitement at how historicism might free the text from theology was not unique to me, but has been around since at least the time when Spinoza dared to imagine that reading the Bible required some historically-situated context. By the time I started down the road of becoming a historian who could discover some heretofore hidden liberal and progressive core to the Pauline corpus, I was embarking on a well-trodden path of theological rebellion, though one that no longer carried the perils of Spinoza’s expulsion from his Amsterdam synagogue or William Robertson Smith’s trial for heresy.
Whatever rebellious spirit led to the critical study of Paul by Deists, Freethinkers and, later, the Hegelians huddled around F.C. Baur in Tübingen has long since been folded into the cyclical melodrama of the field. Here the New Perspective radically tosses out the “Lutheran” Paul, there Paul becomes a feminist overturning the patriarchy, and over there Paul dons his Che Guevara t-shirt and is transformed into an anti-imperial, counter-cultural revolutionary. Though we have had almost two hundred years of a historicized Paul, historicism has not broken free of its original conceit (or heeded Schweitzer’s warning of a century ago). Rather than finding Paul “as he really was,” we keep finding Pauls who are really like us, or at least enough like us that we can deploy them in whatever political or theological battle is most pressing to us. Are you concerned about inter-faith dialogue and multiculturalism? I’ve got a New Perspective Paul for you. Are you troubled by American Empire? Here’s an anti-imperial Paul. Worried about the troubling implications of neo-liberalism and capitalism? No need to fear! Paul was a proto-Marxist revolutionary who theorized a radical, political universalism. For anyone who wasn’t raised, so to speak, in the language of Pauline studies, it wouldn’t be hard to see the field as merely theology by other means. Of course, if you were to say this to a partisan in the struggle over Paul, you’d likely find your conversation running around a hermeneutical hamster wheel in which the partisans declare that they are, in fact, entirely neutral historians drawing conclusions where the evidence leads them.
This, in what has already been too many words, is why I no longer find studying Paul to be fun. It is not that each of these Pauls is not interesting nor that they are somehow mere naive reconstructions built out of a shallow, unselfconscious historicism. Nor is it the case that we just need to work a little harder at pushing aside our theological and political interests so that we can arrive at a truly objective historical position. It is true that too many partisans lack a self-critical awareness of their own positionality and hide behind the facade of disinterested, historical objectivity, but this can also be true of those who contort their readings to fit whatever “theorist” happens to be au courant. In fact, the very label of “theorist,” deployed by both sides of the perennial struggle between (real) history and theory, is a strange misnomer: so-called theorists tend to just be philosophers, sociologists, or English professors whose work has been ported out of one set of conversations and into Pauline studies.
The editors of Ancient Jew Review have asked me to think about the future of Pauline studies. To pronounce the future of a field is a weighty task. To conjure the future is beyond me. What I can do is gesture towards a future, a future in which I think I could have fun studying Paul again. The future that I conjure is not a neutral one. I am a partisan in the battles over Pauline studies. My prescriptions stem from my own roots in feminist biblical criticism, though I also invoke here other pathways toward solidarities that might yet be cobbled together.
When I think of what it would take to make Pauline studies fun, I am drawn to one simple idea: we have to kill Paul. That may seem a bit drastic, maybe a bit crazy for a field named after the person I’ve just asked us to kill. By asking us to kill Paul, I am not trying to incite us to violence in the otherwise quiet conference halls in which Paulinists gather; rather, I am calling for an overthrowing of Paul as the representative of the Platonic One in favor of the creation of a vibrant, polyvalent Pauline archive, to use Peter Sloterdijk’s term, that opens onto new possibilities for assembling heretofore unthought future Paulinisms. In other words, and to paraphrase Marx, let’s stop interpreting Paul and start creating Paulinisms that can change the world.
Why is Paul Always the Hero?
In their brilliant book The Invention of the Biblical Scholar, Stephen Moore and Yvonne Sherwood sketch out the history of how biblical studies became an academic discipline. A key moment in their narrative comes in the early Enlightenment of the 17th century, when the morality of the Bible became a key issue. Taking particular aim at the violence that is justified throughout the biblical narrative, Deist authors suggested that the Bible might not be the ideal guide for forming modern, moral citizens. What kind of role model is a God who endorses genocide and conquest after all? Running hand in hand with this ethical critique of the Bible was a parallel attempt to trim, recast, and excavate down to a deeper moral core behind the “human” accretions to the biblical text. The core that remained after the work of historical dissection would form what Jonathan Sheehan has called the “Enlightenment Bible.” We can see this process at work in the Jefferson Bible in which the gospels are trimmed down to create a Jesus who was like the moral philosophers admired by our third president. As Moore and Sherwood note, this opening onto the possibility of biblical immorality was quickly closed by a turn toward historicism: “[T]he more orthodox form of emergent biblical criticism entailed taking up the programmatic question ‘Could it have happened?’ in its historical sense while closing the question down in its moral or philosophical sense” (58-59). Historicism rendered the unpalatable aspects of the Bible “historical,” by which was meant culturally and historically specific human accretions, while leaving a pure, universal core that could be retained by right-thinking moderns. Historicism was thus deployed to foreclose a line of inquiry into biblical morality and the historical study of the Bible came to cover over and hide the base assumption that the Bible’s morality, properly contextualized, could not be questioned. To let the Bible’s morality be subject to criticism would jeopardize its role as the foundation for ethics and morality in the West.
Moore and Sherwood’s argument is one that can be extended to Pauline studies. While the historical Paul has been subject to a dizzying array of historical reconstructions, what is rarely questioned is the assumption that whatever Paul is historically reconstructed via these operations will serve as a foundational figure for ethics, morality, politics, and theology. Cut away some pseudepigrapha here, contextualize an embarrassing statement over there, build a few analogical links between this context and ours, and we will get a Paul that can ground our ethics. Of course, not everyone in the field is invested in Paul’s continuing relevance, but I think it is fair to say that the majority of Pauline scholars are interested in Paul because they are convinced that a historicized Paul has something to say to their corner of (post)modernity.
But why is Paul’s moral purity so important? Why does he have to be the hero of our historical work? This is, after all, someone who thought that God made people sick and let some die because they weren’t properly celebrating the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:27-32). Feminist biblical scholars have long pressed Pauline scholars to take Paul’s rhetoric, ethics, and theology head-on for over a generation, though much of the field has ignored these calls as insufficiently “historical” and continued looking to Paul as moral exemplar (notice the ways in which the invocation of “history” still functions to cover over ethical critique!).
One of the truly revolutionary interpretive moves that Spinoza made when he turned his attention to how to interpret the Bible was the separation of meaning from truth. Historical analysis, for Spinoza, involved ascertaining the meaning of the Bible, but this was a separate task from then asking whether the meaning derived from the text was true. Practically speaking, Spinoza separated interpretation into two disciplines: history and philosophy; however, I would argue that a promising future for Pauline studies would be to re-fuse this Spinozan split as a way to explore pathways that were never taken. What might it mean to kill the presumption of Paul’s authority over moral and ethical matters and reject our collective moratorium on ethical criticism of the Pauline archive?
This would open the door not just to theology, which, let’s face it, never left the room, but also to other ethical frames. Not only would this be a way of welcoming into the conversation the kinds of feminist, post-colonial, and contextual readings that are so often attacked as being insufficiently historical, but it would also open up new pathways that might fuse the Pauline archive into new political and philosophical assemblages. We can already see something of what this might look like in Ward Blanton’s engagement with modern philosophical attempts to recapture Paul for revolutionary politics. Pauline scholars should stop trying to craft “real” Pauls that can pronounce judgment on our political and theological projects. What do we really need such Pauls for anyway? We should have the courage to confront our world and its problems without having to hide behind some historically-constructed Paul. Let’s not start with the presumption that the Pauline archive will provide us with answers once we have revealed the real Paul; rather, we should allow our work to ask if anything from the Pauline archive (or any early Christian text for that matter) might yet become weaponizable in the struggle for a more just future. Even if we could get to the actual, historical person of Paul through our analysis, why would we need his approval for how we put his work into action?
From the Historical Paul to Paulology
If we stop caring about whether Paul might undergird our ethical, political, or theological projects, I think we should also stop pretending that our historical procedures can get us back to the historical Paul. One of the major breakthroughs of White’s monograph is his dismantling of the rather shoddy arguments used by early Pauline scholars (notably F.C. Baur) to isolate a historical core of the Pauline archive (Romans, Galatians, and 1-2 Corinthians), the so-called Hauptbriefe. White’s critique opens up a problem: if we lack an identifiable core of unquestionably “authentic” Pauline letters, then we have no means of determining what was written by Paul and what was written by later interpolators and pseudepigraphers. We can debate whether or not later scholars have been able to refine Baur’s insights so as to craft better arguments for Pauline authenticity, but White’s broader challenge to Pauline studies is that we need to return to a serious conversation about the prolegomena to the study of Paul.
I have heard and read responses to White’s takedown of Baur as a call to return to treating the “disputed” Pauline letters (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and the Pastoral Epistles) as authentically Pauline. Such conservative fantasies miss what I see as the real subversive challenge of White’s work: no matter what historical procedures we deploy, we can’t use our scant textual evidence to get back to Paul “as he really was” (wie er eigentlich gewesen). As it stands, our evidence for Paul comes from several legendary biographies (the canonical Acts of the Apostles and scattered “apocryphal” lives) and a corpus of thirteen letters of various lengths dealing with practical and logistical matters. Scholars, liberal and conservative alike, have long operated from the presumption that this small and somewhat random data set, which is pared down or taken in its entirety depending on the proclivities of the scholar, is adequate to reconstruct Paul’s life, his dispositions, and the core of his beliefs, genius, or worldview.
But the problem is also worse than I’ve just let on. It is not just that we have a meager data set for Paul or that some of these may have been forged by later authors. We also have to contend with the fact that the very preservation, copying, and collecting of the surviving Pauline texts has shaped the very nature of the data. Historians in other fields that work with archives are regularly attentive to the shape of the archive, the interests that were involved in choosing what to preserve and what to discard. We know that not all of Paul’s letters survived through the work of copyists and scribes (1 Cor 5:9) and that not all of the collections of Paul’s letters in ancient codices and libraries had the same shape (e.g. Marcion’s Apostolikon). And we even know that Paul’s letters were often co-authored and written by secretaries. The field has yet to grapple with the ways in which the Paul that we think we know is the Paul that has been crafted by a selection process to which we have no access.
If we want to take seriously the problem presented by the Pauline archive, I think we ought to reconceptualize our work as “Paulology.” Confronted by the huge variety of constructions of Jesus in the history of Christian literature and theology, scholars have long deployed the concept of Christology to map the ways in which a given author constructs Jesus as a character, whether that be in a gospel or in a theological argument. This might make a good model for thinking about how to study the Paulologies of the Pauline archive, broadly considered. Paulology, a term that was first suggested to me by Brent Nongbri, has been around for a long time (the earliest instance I’ve been able to find is from 1892). It has been used by scholars of Pauline pseudepigrapha and, most recently, by David Fredrickson. While Paulology has offered a way of thinking about how later authors have constructed Paul as a character, the concept can be equally useful in studying letters that may have been written by the historical Paul. Even a letter written in Paul’s own hand wouldn’t give us access to Paul as he really was (think, for example, of the person that we present to others in our emails), but only to Paul as he wanted to be presented. Paulologies direct us back to the work that authors do in presenting and citing Paul, following Foucault’s concept of an “author function.” Rather than blithely assuming that we can use our sharp historical tools to get back to the historical Paul, we should give up on that particular ghost and read all of the Pauline archive as exercises in Pauline (self-)presentation.
So far I have suggested that we don’t have access to the historical Paul, merely a collection of Paulologies, and that we should cease to treat Paul and his letters as an archive of unquestioned moral and ethical virtue. But the project of killing Paul also requires a turn toward de-centering him from the narratives that we tell about early Christianity. That Paul is often the central actor in the narrative of earliest Christianity is less a description of what actually happened and more a testament to how much traditional and scholarly accounts of Christian origins have at stake in Paul’s centrality. As feminist biblical scholars have long pointed out, Paul’s letters show pretty clearly that he was not the unquestioned leader of the earliest Christian communities, but often encountered resistance to his ideas, saw pushback against his claims to authority, and was even accused of duplicity and dishonesty. Not only that, but Paul was not the only, or even the most popular, game in town when it came to wandering apostles of Jesus. Paul was one among many who tried to get Gentiles and Jews in the eastern Mediterranean to follow their messages about Jesus.
If we can’t trust Paul’s letters to give us access to the real Paul, perhaps we might be able to say something about the history of the earliest Christians by taking seriously the many complicated relationships that lay behind the Pauline letters. What I am suggesting is that we pay attention to the forces from which the letters of Paul emerged and to which they were directed. Mentioned on the margins of these letters are numerous named and unnamed agents who made up the social networks that facilitated the spread of the various cults of Christ, sponsored gatherings, hosted visiting travelers, paid for collections and missions, carried letters, and negotiated political disputes. We need look no further than the large number of people that Paul is said to know in Rome (provided that Romans 16 went to Rome with the rest of Romans and not to Ephesus, as some scholars have claimed), even though it seems Paul had never visited the city or played a role in the founding of the groups of Christ devotees there. What kinds of histories of early Christianity might yet be written that try and give an accounting for the rhizomatic conduits that were hollowed out across the landscape of the eastern Mediterranean by otherwise unknown early followers of Jesus, or even their unbelieving slaves, freedmen, or business partners?
In his study of the impact of Louis Pasteur’s scientific research, The Pasteurization of France, Bruno Latour refuses the impulse to examine Pasteur according to the genre of the “Great Man” of history, the singular genius whose brilliant ideas changed the world. We’ve all read these kinds of historical biographies before and it would not be hard to find a bookshelf’s worth of similar biographies (or hagiographies) of Paul. Instead, Latour examines the rhizomatic network of forces operating at different levels of complexity and with often divergent interests that set Pasteur’s science into motion. I’ve found Latour’s larger body of work extremely useful in my own research (so let me shamelessly plug my forthcoming Assembling Early Christianity: Trade, Networks, and the Letters of Dionysios of Corinth [Cambridge University Press, 2017]), but his work on Pasteur offers a model for reconceptualizing how we model our histories of the earliest Christians. A Latourian study of the Pauline archive would de-center Paul and call attention, even to the point of disciplined historical speculation, to the forces (not all of which will be human) that gave rise to a given Pauline text and to the network of forces that each letter added itself to in the act of its creation. In other words, Latour would ask us to make our historiographic frames radically democratic. As Latour rightly points out, “An idea, even an idea of genius, even an idea that is to save millions of people, never moves of its own accord. It requires a force to fetch it, seize upon it for its own motives, move it, and often transform it” (16). Following Latour’s challenge to “replace the singular with the plural everywhere” (29), we should focus our academic energies on diagramming these forces, exploring these motives, and charting transformations in a Pauline archive that is no longer a stable oeuvre but a buzzing swarm. Instead of the, historical, real Paul, let’s conjure a myriad of Paulinisms.
A Paulinism Without Paul
In the preface to Moses and Monotheism, with which I opened this essay, Freud offered a warning about the dangers of denying a group its foundational figure, a danger that is only compounded by those who are in the group. The future that I’ve conjured in this essay is directed toward my fellow Paulinists. If I’ve been overly reductionistic in my evaluations of the field, I have done so to try and bring to the fore what I see as deeply entrenched habits and dispositions, to psychoanalyze our hidden pathologies. I recognize clearly that things in the field are not as bad as I have made them out to be, seeing as how I have relied on the excellent work of other Pauline scholars, particularly the robust tradition of feminist biblical criticism, to imagine alternative routes for how we might study Paul otherwise.
If we kill Paul, and with him the “unknown knowns” that lurk in our collective subconscious, we might yet become what Ward Blanton has recently called “archivists of insurrection.” Archivists of insurrection dwell with the dead, but do so as foragers looking to cobble together new forms of solidarity from the graveyard of history that might be deployed at a chance opportunity (kairos) to cut across the stale certainties of our fossilized politics. It is only by killing Paul and in so doing emptying his archive of the force that it wields in Christianity and the West, that he might paradoxically be fused into an apparatus of struggle and resistance. In a repetition of Paul’s own gesture of rendering the law, in Agamben’s terms, “inoperative,” a Paul who has become inoperative may become “freely available for use” in Paulinisms that have yet to be imagined.
Ultimately, the contours of my hoped-for Pauline future are rooted in the age-old argument about the One and the Many. For too long the study of Paul has been captured by the monotheistic unmoved mover, the Platonic, ontotheological One: the quest for the great man, the hero, the genius, the transcendent God, the eternal plane of ideas, the singular monarchical guarantor of a universally-accessible Truth that can anchor a stable and certain politics and theology. Like Linji’s famous koan about the Buddha, I think that if we find such a Paul along the road, in a book, in our theological imaginary, we should kill him. Rather than pursuing a fantasy of the One, let’s study a Pauline archive that doesn’t get to be the arbiter of our moral and political commitments, that doesn’t invest itself in the false hope of getting to Paul as he really was, and that doesn’t see Paul as the central actor in the early decades of Christian history. Instead, let’s jump into the Heraclitan river and play again with the impossible futures that might emerge out of an infinite number of possible Paulinisms. Paul is dead. Long Live Paulinism!
Dr. Cavan Concannon is an Assistant Professor of Religion
at the University of Southern California