Margaret M. Mitchell. Paul and the Emergence of Christian Textuality: Early Christian Literary Culture in Context. Volume I. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017.
Margaret M. Mitchell’s Paul and the Emergence of Christian Textuality contains fifteen essays on Paul and Paulinism(s) that read the Corpus Paulinum as an historically situated instance of Greco-Roman epistolography. These previously published essays range from introductory surveys to technical studies of rhetorical formulae. Each chapter brings Mitchell’s expertise in ancient rhetoric and epistolography to bear on Paul’s letters and their reception. Apart from this, however, the essays do not share a thematic or topical through line. As a result, Mitchell’s essays must be treated individually – and here, selectively. Below, I present a representative sample of Mitchell’s studies, dwelling on those I found most interesting.
The first two essays in Mitchell’s volume are drawn from The Cambridge History of Christianity concerning the development of a Christian literary culture and the origins of “Gentile Christianity.” The third is an introduction to 1 and 2 Thessalonians from The Cambridge Companion to St Paul. Appropriately, these are more topical surveys than original arguments and would be helpful introductory readings for a survey course.
The fifth chapter considers the function of the peri de formula in 1 Corinthians. The phrase appears six times in the letter and has long played an important role in analyses of its rhetorical structure and composition. Earlier studies have relied on the phrase to justify source critical partitions or to reconstruct the Corinthian letter to which Paul is responding (66-67). In order to evaluate such claims, Mitchell surveys its use in contemporary literary works, letters, and the rest of the New Testament (71-86). In no genre, Christian or otherwise, is peri de either a sufficient or necessary condition for identifying editorial seems or the concerns of the interlocutor. Rather, Mitchell argues persuasively, the formula marks a shift in topic to a matter “readily known” to author and audience alike (88).
The volume’s eighth essay offers a concise and original treatment of 2 Corinthians’ composition history. Scholars have often resolved perceived internal inconsistencies in 2 Corinthians by partitioning it into several smaller letters. Mitchell schematizes the prevailing partition theories (142-3) and evaluates each by the light of four textual impetus for source critical analysis: 1) the shift in tone and style between chapters nine and ten, 2) the retrospective reference in 2 Corinthians 12:18 to the sending of Titus and a brother which appears to be the present occasion of chapter eight, 3) the description of a painful letter in 2 Cor 2:3-9 that resembles to 2 Cor 10-13, and 4) the redundancy of chapter nine following chapter eight (143-4). Following this, Mitchell proposes her own seven letter reconstruction of the whole Corinthian correspondence. While the location of each partition is consistent with the theories of Günther Bornkamm and Hans Dieter Betz, Mitchell’s innovation is to place 2 Corinthians 8 between 1 Corinthians and the rest of 2 Corinthians (divided into four additional letters). Mitchell offers an extensive argument from lexical and rhetorical parallels for the “original temporal proximity” of 2 Corinthians 8 to 1 Corinthians relative to the rest of the second letter (150-4), but ultimately her historical argument is more compelling. Something must occasion the Corinthians’ change of disposition toward Paul. In 2 Corinthians 8, Mitchell observes, Paul deviates from the plan he laid out in 1 Corinthians: Paul remains in Macedonia rather than visiting Corinth (1 Cor 16:5) and himself selects couriers for the Jerusalem offering (2 Cor 8:22) rather than allowing the Church to select their own delegates (1 Cor 16:3). This, suggests Mitchell, incited Corinthian ill-will which gave to the ensuing letter (2 Cor 10-13) its harsh tone (151, 154-155).
Scholars wary of complex source critical hypotheses may question whether features like redundancy justify conjectural partitions and rearrangement, however elegant. The question, of course, is not whether such epistolary compilations are possible but whether at the remove of two millennia we can confidently detect seams and reconstruct layers based merely on perceived literary and rhetorical amenability. Nevertheless, the proposed partitions are not particular to Mitchell, and this critique belongs to a larger methodological conversation. Mitchell’s eighth essay offers an accessible survey of the debate and a compelling new reconstruction.
In the twelfth essay, Mitchell argues that an “epiphanic logic” runs through early Christian literature (240). Most intriguing is her treatment of Paul’s self-representation as a “place of Christophanic encounter” (243). Mitchell argues that the prepositional phrase en emoi in Galatians 1:16 is intentionally polyvalent, suggesting that Christ not only appeared to Paul but likewise appears through Paul (242). This is corroborated by Paul’s claim elsewhere that through him Christ could be seen (Gal 3:1, 6:17) and even smelled (2 Cor 2:15). Paul manifests both the life and death of Jesus in his body (2 Cor 4:10) (242-245). The essay proceeds to trace the evolution of this idea through Christian literature. In Mark, the preached gospel of Paul becomes a book (246-8). Matthew and Luke expand upon Mark, locating divine encounters in scriptural study, the Eucharist, and care for the poor (249-50). Finally, the term epiphaneia itself appears in the Pastoral epistles with reference to Jesus’ incarnation and parousia – and therein, so Mitchell argues, the preaching of Paul (253-4). So, while the word “epiphany” itself may not appear until some of the latest Pauline works in the New Testament, an “epiphanic logic” – identifying Christian practices with a manifestation of the divine – pervades the earliest Christian texts.
The thirteenth chapter argues that the Epistle of James is a document “from within Paulinism” (261). First, Mitchell contends that the historian cannot sidestep James’ relationship to Paul by claiming to read the former “on his own terms” (257). This justification simply begs the question. Mitchell, therefore, limns proposed accounts of their relationship (258-9) and proceeds to argue for a more intimate connection between James and the Corpus Paulinum than entertained by any of the forgoing interpreters. James, according to Mitchell, engages not only Galatians and Romans but 1 Corinthians as well. It was from 1 Corinthians in particular that the author of James drew their vocabulary and figurative topoi for critiquing factionalism (266-74). James should not, however, be read against Paul or as a simple defense of Paul but as one voice in an intra-Pauline argument (261, 275-7). That is, James seeks to shape the interpretation of Paul for fellow Paulinists. The letter’s attribution to James represents another attempt to reconcile Paul to the Jerusalem leadership. With these arguments, Mitchell builds a compelling case for James’ appropriation of Paul’s arguments for ecclesiastical unity. Her characterization of James, however, places too little weight on the letter’s apparently anti-Pauline sentiments concerning works and faith. That the author of James found useful material in Paul is not inconsistent with the same author simply rejecting Paul’s theory of justification – at least, as this author understood it.
In the fourteenth collected essay, Mitchell critiques the use of an otherwise obscure work as a generic analog for the pastoral epistles. Luke Timothy Johnson, in defense of the authenticity of the pastoral epistles, argued that Tebtunis Papyrus 703 establishes a precedent for a “mandata principiis letter” (295). That is, an epistolary sub-genre relating instruction for personal conduct addressed to an individual while simultaneously intended for wider readership. The existence of such an epistolary convention purports to explain why Paul might address such a general letter, laying out the basics of church structure and ethical behavior, to his close confidants and travelling companion. By way of response, Mitchell demonstrates that this purported analogy is rooted in Timothy Johnson’s misreading of the scholarship. First, PTebt 703 is not a letter but a memorandum (297). Second, earlier scholars coined the designation “mandata principiis” to distinguish this sort of imperial constitution from, in part, those with an epistolary form (296). In referring to a “mandata principiis letter,” Timothy Johnson is coining a neologism rather than relying on earlier scholarship. Finally, New Testament scholars have isolated a small portion of the whole text and for it relied on a misleading English reconstruction (284-288, 298). In sum, this Ptolemaic papyrus bears little resemblance to the Pastoral Epistles.
At the conclusion of her powerful critique, Mitchell questions the very structure of Timothy Johnson’s argument. The existence of a generic precedent, Mitchell notes, would hardly demonstrate the authenticity of the pastoral epistles (299). On this point, however, Timothy Johnson’s reasoning may deserve closer scrutiny. The artificiality of composing a communal constitution in the guise of a personal address to a longtime companion is frequently marshaled against the authenticity of the pastoral letters. If Timothy Johnson could show that this was a conventional practice, he would indeed undermine one important argument against the authenticity of the pastorals. However, as Mitchell has demonstrated, PTebt 703 furnishes no evidence of any such convention.
The thoroughgoing analysis, broad learning, and original theses evinced in this volume are a lodestar for scholars. While the introductory essays (chs. 1-3) and technical studies are evidently geared toward different audiences, this compendium of Mitchell’s substantial contributions to Pauline scholarship can be read with benefit by any student of early Christianity.
Ian N. Mills is a PhD candidate in New Testament Studies at Duke University. He is the co-host of the “New Testament Review” podcast with Laura Robinson (PhD Candidate, Duke University). Contact him at Ian.Nelson@Duke.edu or @IanNelsonMills on Twitter.