Monday, December 24, 2007

Contextual Exegesis

Following on from our previous post on “Contextual Hermeneutics” I have found two posts that also deal with this issue. Nijay Gupta writes on A Couple of Disturbing Trends in Pauline Scholarship. This is followed by Matthew Montonini’s post Were Paul's Audiences Scripturally Illiterate?

Both posts propose issues that I’d like to discuss further. Gupta suggests “What we do know is that the encoded/implied reader was quite savvy with Scripture.” While Matthew outlines the position of Chris Stanley in his book Arguing with Scripture: The Rhetoric of Quotations in the Letters of Paul (T & T Clark, 2004). Stanley offers three different proposed audiences:

(a) The 'informed audience' - 'a person who knows the original context of every one of Paul's quotations and is willing to engage in critical dialogue with Paul about his handling of the biblical text' (68).

(b) The 'competent audience' - the 'hypothetical person who knows just enough of the Jewish Scriptures to grasp the point of Paul's quotations in their current rhetorical context' (68).

(c) The 'minimal audience' - '...people in this category were aware of the high degree of respect given to the Scriptures in Christian circles. As a result, they would have been inclined to take seriously any argument that claimed to be grounded in the biblical text. But their ability to follow the argument of a passage laced with quotations would have been limited' (69).

Both posts deal with the question we raised in our first post on Contextual Hermeneutics. How much background information can we assume in any of Paul’s churches? Views that suggest an “informed” or “competent” audience appear to be more assumption than demonstration. More discussion needs to take place on factors that could determine what the audiences capabilities were.

Instead of discussing the broad outlines of each view, let us take the specific example of the Thessalonian community. How plausible is it, that a congregation established a few months ago would be either an “informed audience” or a “competent audience”? Thus, for a specific example I alluded to, 1 Thess 4:4 and the understanding of skeuos is still relevant. Would Paul have expected his readers to pick up on the supposed allusion to 1 Sam 21:5, as commentators have?[1] Or would Paul be working with a more rabbinic background understanding?[2] Or did Paul simply choose a word that was multifaceted?
In this case, it seems more likely to me, that the Thessalonian church would be classified as a “minimal audience”. It appears a priori implausible to suggest that recent Gentile converts were “savvy with scripture”. I’m quite happy to concede that the Thessalonians were a ‘minimal audience’ with a respect for the Scriptures. I’m even happy to concur with the notion of formal scripture readings in the community, and leaders in the community reading the LXX. But this would definitely not amount to the audience being informed or competent in the Scriptures. Not after such a short time.

Thinking wider therefore, what we probably have reflected before us in the Pauline churches are various stages of these three categories. Perhaps some in the Galatian churches would have been “informed” community members. It seems likely that Rome would have had a competent audience, if not an informed one.
But can we suppose any at Thessalonica? I’m not convinced.

[1] Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, pg. 51 n.59
[2] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, pg. 227


Nijay K. Gupta said...

Thanks for this helpful discussion.
My concern with reconstructing the historical possibility of competence on the part of the original readers is that it is only guesswork. We must say that we know almost nothing of the background and Scriptural education of the audience expect from what we know from Paul's letters- and we seem to have readers who know Scripture (especially if they are supposed to read metaleptically).

Richard Hays has told me (on email) that guessing at the audience's abilities is almost futile. All we can do is know whether the vorlage texts were in existence at the time of the letter writing ('exposure').

A major issue at hand is this: Is Paul competent enough to use arguments that his audiences would understand? I think he was this competent based on the knowledge he had of his readers (names, issues, locations).

Could they have been proselytes and god fearers who had previous interaction with scripture? Did Paul (and his emissaries) educate his readers on the most christologically and ecclesiotelically enlightening portions of the LXX - Isaiah, Psalms, Pentateuch, Minor Prophets, Ezekiel, Daniel...?

As for the Thessalonians, if we look at 1 Thess 1.9-10 Paul uses the language of early Christian polemic against idolatry that also seems to be used in Acts. This supports the idea that the Thessalonians had some knowledge of this teaching from similar discourses in Judaism. Also, David Horrell and Eddie Adams point out that in a very secular city such as Corinth, for instance, Paul names several Jewish-named people in the epistles - what should we make of this?

Methodologically, do we start with Paul's letters and what we infer from his argumentation, or do we do very tenuous guesswork at what the audience may or may not have known based on reconstructed chronologies of letters and information based on where the readers lived?

Just some thoughts.

Matthew D. Montonini said...

Thanks for the post. I think what I have been trying to counteract in some circles is the notion that Paul's audiences were illiterate in the worse sense of the term. The idea that Paul takes advantage of his audiences by appealing to texts they have little or no notion of is not convicing to me. However, Nijay is correct in stating that trying to reconstruct what Paul's audiences did or did not know rest solely with Paul's letters. It is certainly more probable than postulating through historical reconstruction the ability of Paul's respective audiences.

On the other hand, in scholarship historical reconstruction is what we all do. Unfortunately, we do not know as much as we would like about the ancient world, so we draw from resources such as archaelogy and extra-biblical evidence in order to put our best guesses forward. It does not mean we are correct in our assumptions, only that we are trying to understand why Paul wrote what he did.

It seems to me a much more fruitful avenue is to focus more on Paul's use of Scripture in of itself, say then, "Would Paul's audience pick this up?"

Thanks again.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

(I'm not sure if my comment went I'll post a shorter version of it now.)

What about the evidence in Acts 17:1-4 of a synagogue in Thessalonica, Paul's preaching there, and the positive response by some (Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, and prominent women)?

Does this evidence from Luke show that the community in Thessalonica could at least be called "competent" with regard to Scripture?

Or is Luke's history not to be trusted?