2016 SBL Pauline Epistles Panel Book Review Session
Matthew, Paul, and the Anthropology of Law, by David A. Kaden
Paul and the Gentile Problem, by Matthew Thiessen
We have an opportunity to discuss two new Paul books in tandem. So, departing from common practice of our SBL Program Unit on the Pauline Epistles, which examines each book separately, I propose taking them as a pairing. It would be fruitful to have both books and their authors––who are together for the first time on one stage––engage one another. While both authors tackle the same problem of “Paul and the Law” and both authors frame the issue as a question of discourse, each goes in a different direction to find a solution––one global and the other local. These books offer an instructive contrast in opposing methodologies.
David Kaden’s Matthew, Paul, and the Anthropology of Law generalizes “law” as a universal discursive strategy of human power relations whose regularities are said to appear throughout the world and unchanging over time. In contrast, Matthew Thiessen’s Paul and the Gentile Problem localizes Paul’s discourse in the epistolary particularity of its address––the ancient rhetorical and literary technique of prosopopoiea, the production of speech in the character of another type of person, typical of native Greek speakers. Reading these two books in tandem thus reveals real differences in method––globalizing versus localizing––and so raises an important debate in our field over comparison at the expense of contextualization.
To be sure, these two books share much in common. After all, Thiessen frames his argument around a literary conceit about globalization. That conceit plays upon the surprising plot twist in Gautam Malkani’s novel Londonstani, the scenes of which depict the urban landscape changes in such global cities as London throughout the 1980s and 1990s. While the narrator’s voice introduced in the first chapter of Londonstani swirls the slang of blinged-out, hip-hop gangsta, txt-msg talk in a patois of Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu typical of ghettoized South Asians (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) living in London’s Hounslow area, the speaker turns out to be, in fact, a Caucasian teenager, Jason Bartholomew-Cliveden, trying to “pass” as subaltern. The globalization that Thiessen deploys as a methodological conceit dovetails nicely with Kaden’s methodological turn to the developing world––Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, and colonial Hawaii. Kaden and Thiessen each aims to place Paul in a new(er) perspective, what we might call a global optic. Reading Thiessen and Kaden synoptically thus fosters debate over how best to relate globalization studies and biblical studies.
But a conceit differs from a method. Therein lies the rub. This rub suggests that the two books are more fruitfully juxtaposed than intertwined. To this end, I shall make three central juxtapositions, in the hopes of encouraging a critical discussion about method: (1) the “starter” question; (2) the contextualization; and (3) the role of parallels and comparison.
First point. Each book begins with framing. They share the same quest to find that single, “right” question offering a new approach that promises to succeed where so many others have failed––how to crack the old chestnut of Paul and the Law. Kaden’s starter question is broadly abstract, even philosophical––“Why law?” Kaden tells the story of its conception––a tough, overarching “so what” question posed by his doctoral supervisor that gives what all researchers hope to receive––a moment of conceptual clarity. Kaden thus begins with “the forest” before examining individual trees. In contrast, Thiessen’s question is narrowly focused. It zeroes on one individual tree––indeed, the oddest one in the whole Pauline forest––a singular text in which Paul declares, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision (lit. foreskin) is nothing” (1 Cor. 7:19), which E. P. Sanders famously dubbed as “one of the most amazing sentences (Paul) ever wrote.” Thiessen’s overarching exegetical project seeks to understand why this odd tree grows at all. Convinced that the tree belongs in its place, Thiessen then asks how to see the overall coherence in Paul’s statements on the Jewish law. In short, each book’s “starter” question moves the inquiry differently: Kaden goes wide, Thiessen narrow.
Contextualization marks a second way our authors can be juxtaposed. Eschewing historical specificity, Kaden turns to ethnography and theory. Foucauldian theorizing about “discursive operations” and “power mechanisms” provides the analytical grid on which to map the ancient data. A value of this theory-forward approach is a sharpening of the research question to cut through any data. The initial question thus changes to how law becomes an object of dispute in any human culture. This approach examines the reification of law. “My main argument,” writes Kaden, “is that intergroup––or, macro––forces of power in each of the cultural situation that I study have begun to engage and even clash with intragroup––or, micro––relations of power within social groups; and in the space of this interaction, discourses on law have begun to multiply” (p. 2). The interaction of the macro (outsider) and the micro (insider) relations of power, on this view, explains the discourses on law in both Paul and Matthew. The evidence for this interaction is cross-cultural ethnography, and especially that of nonliterate modern indigenous peoples in developing countries. Such nonliterate cultures are good case studies for earliest Christianity, on this view, because groups in these indigenous societies practice law as set of practices rather than as formal written codes, a situation analogous to classical antiquity. In this regard, Kaden states the importance of his contextualization clearly: he is “less interested in what Paul and Matthew say about law but where such talk situates them vis-à-vis their contemporaries in Judaism” (p. 7). Kaden this invokes conflicting group interests as the single most important agent of historical causation.
Contextualization in Thiessen’s analysis is not “law” but “the law.” Thiessen looks at exactly what Kaden does not: what Paul says about the Jewish law (Torah observance) and to whom it is said. Paying attention to Paul’s specific diction, Thiessen parses the noun ioudaismos and its verbal form ioudaïzein (“to judaize”), building on the groundbreaking study of Shaye Cohen. The close reading convincingly argues that the linguistic valences of such -izein verbs characterize a poseur, a figure familiar to ancient audiences as a stock character in ancient comedy. Thiessen’s exegesis of Rom. 1:18––2:29 zeroes in on what Paul says (and does not say): “Paul does not actually state that the person addressed in Rom. 2:17 is a Jew. Rather, he is a person who wants to be called a Jew” (p. 59). The interlocutor thus must be a gentile trying to act like a Jew, because in the logic of the vocabulary Jews cannot “judaize,” only non-Jews can. Paul’s use of the verb “to judaize” refers to gentiles “being like” Jews. The importance of reading Paul in his historical linguistic context finds further confirmation in the very Abraham narrative upon which Paul’s words draw. Genesis 17:25 states that “Abraham circumcised Ishmael at the age of thirteen” (p. 79). The issue of “the law” in Paul is not circumcision per se but its timing: Isaac received it at the age of eight-days, as per Torah command. And “the narrative makes clear that Ismael, although circumcised, falls outside the covenant that God makes with Abraham” (Ibid.). Paul’s argument in Romans thus reflects his rebuke over the Teachers in Galatia, who were judaizing Gentiles encouraging Paul’s congregations to accept circumcision regardless of its late timing in their lives. Unless done on an eight-day old boy, Paul holds, circumcision becomes nothing more than “cosmetic surgery” (a nice phrase!). Gentiles-in-Christ become the “seed of Abraham” by receiving the “spirit” (Gk. pneuma) pneumatically rather than conceptually. These ways were analogous to those posited in ancient medical and Stoic theories of the role of Pneuma in mixtures, on the human body, and on inheritance. This close reading seeks confirmation in a further contextualization––its appearance in patristic commentaries, which is a good guide to reconstruct how native speakers would have construed meaning out of Paul’s ancient Greek vocabulary, syntax, and grammar––down to the level of verbal aspect. The result is an exegetical study, though narrowly focused on two Pauline texts––Rom. 2:17–29 and Gal. 4:21–31––which offers a compelling thesis. This is an important study! I only wish it were available in paperback, and less expensive, so I could assign it as a required textbook for my undergraduate and graduate courses.
Kaden’s book is also impressive and a valuable resource for students. This brings us to comparison, my third juxtaposition. Kaden offers an ambitious and extraordinary example of a complete project of comparison. It aims to sum up the state of scholarship in a number of academic fields not normally combined. Comparison in this book is no “parallelomania” that seeks similarities between disparate legal systems only for the purpose of finding “influence” (kudos to Kaden on this point!). Instead, Kaden’s comparative work on law examines “law-like” practices situationally. To do this, Kaden finds inspiration from Jonathan Z. Smith’s rule that a statement of comparison always involves a third term, and that the scholar must make that third term explicit and historically defensible. Kaden’s third term of comparison is Foucault. This theory-comes-first method practices what John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History, identifies as a generalized particularization. In Kaden’s analysis, early Christian people disappear into “relations of power,” to form a simple causation of an “independent” variable. In Kaden’s modelling, the set of external pressures (such as “Empire”) forces a group to apply legal customs on its members who ordinarily would not fall under this legal system’s jurisdiction, resulting in the reification (objectification, multiplication) of law (p. 193). Kaden’s project of comparison generalizes human culture as behaving in the same Foucauldian pattern, regardless of any historical particularity. This use of Foucauldian theory as an independent variable advances categorical, rather than contingent, causation in history. Such a generalized particularization even claims the power to forecast the future whenever such variables are at play.
To be sure, all professional historians must do generalization at some level if they are to succeed in their academic craft of writing narratives, to tell a story about the past. And Thiessen, too, practices generalization––but on a limited scale. While he begins his book by comparing the task of interpreting Paul’s letters to reading Malkani’s novel Londonstani, Thiessen avoids generalizations about a so-called “universal human experience.” Such grand comparison is not his game. Instead, Thiessen challenges the very master narratives about Paul and the Law that Western culture has created since Augustine to tell a story about “us.” He narrows the project of comparison to Paul’s ancient epistolary context alone, to Paul’s singular target audience. Thiessen generalizes a particular device in ancient Greek rhetoric, speech-in-character (prosopopoeial), to cover Paul’s use of the “law” for gentiles––not to cover all Jews or “all humanity.” Thiessen’s analysis thus practices a particular generalization, not the generalized particularization we find in Kaden. The difference between our two books is, therefore, the difference between these two kinds of generalizations for doing exegesis and history.
I conclude by posing a few friendly questions in the spirit of furthering a critical inquiry on method. For David Kaden: You make a very intriguing analogy between “the accommodation of Judean law to the missionized ethne” and the practice of ‘legal fiction’ deployed by Roman jurists” (p. 194). Are you bringing this analogy “together solely within the space of the scholar’s mind,” as Jonathan Z. Smith would caution? Or, do you claim that this analogy was made in the minds of Paul and the author of Matthew? The one place in which Paul gives an example from the daily practice of ancient law (Gal. 3:15) is not discussed in your book. There, Paul’s reference to a diathēkē as a last will and testament, although too unspecific to label exclusively “Roman” or “Greek,” is clearly not a legal fiction. Does this matter for your thesis?
And, speaking of knowing the minds of other people, I would like to ask Matthew Thiessen a similar question. Your argument often relies on claims about knowing the mind of Paul (p. 96), even as you admit that “all of this thinking lies beneath the surface of Paul’s argument” (p. 147). How can the historian know authorial intention? Does this problem matter for your thesis?
Finally, I would like to ask both authors to engage each other. Do you agree that you two take opposing methodologies? Again, echoing J. Z. Smith, what difference does this difference make? What do each of you think about the relative value of comparison vs. contextualization in biblical studies? Let me end by saying thank you, David and Matthew, for your books.
J. Albert Harrill is Professor of History and Classics at the Ohio State University.
 Gautam Malkani, Londonstani: A Novel (New York: Penguin, 2006).
 Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1983), 103; cited in Theissen, p. 8.
 See David Cohen and Richard Saller, “Foucault on Sexuality in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” in Jan Ellen Goldstein, ed., Foucault and the Writing of History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 35–59, who challenge this view.
 John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 63.
 For criticism of the use of “independent” variables in history, see Gaddis, Landscape of History, 53–89.
 Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 115.