Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Audience competance and Paul's intentions

How do we determine whether Paul is intentionally alluding to various scriptures (and or Jewish interpretive traditions of these) where some (or many) scholars believe he is?

It is often thought that an awareness of the scripture knowledge of the specific audiences to which Paul writes (including 2nd Temple Jewish literature and interpretive traditions) will assist us in establishing this, but I have some doubts. The general line of thought is as follows: if the recipients of a particular letter are unlikely to detect and/or understand a particular "allusion" to scripture within the letter because they are not sufficiently familiar with the scripture alluded to, then it is unlikely that Paul intended such an "allusion".

Apart from the difficulty in establishing the general amount and nature of scripture knowledge and the amount and nature of scriptural knowledge in specific churches, this line of thought rests on the twin premises that Paul is sensitive to the scripture knowledge of his audiences and so places constraints on his references to them (including "allusions") in his writing. As far as I know these are assumptions lacking explicit evidence in his writings (Could 1 Peter 3.15-16 refer at least in part to scriptural allusions?). Furthermore, what amount of scripture knowledge did Paul feel constrained to, and how would we determine this? Did he know, assume, or expect that there would be those present at readings of his letters with adequate scripture knowledge (perhaps the 'informed' or 'competent audience' in Chris Stanley's terminology) who could point out or explain references to the scriptures?

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Judeans in 1 Thess 2:14?

Phil Harland discusses and recommends Steve Mason’s new article: Steve Mason, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007) 457-512. [I can't get my hands on that article, so am trusting Harland's reading]. According to Harland, “Mason convincingly argues that Ioudaioi (traditionally translated “Jews”) and related terms should be understood in terms of ethnic groupings in antiquity. For the Hellenistic and Roman periods (at least until the third century CE) we should be speaking of “Judeans”, not “Jews”, and of “Judean customs” or practices, not “Judaism”.”
In light of this discussion, can this affect our understanding of 1 Thess 2:14-16?
For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from those Judeans, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.
This surely softens the blow of what many have seen as problematic. But does it capture the essence of what Paul was suggesting? Given the contrast with “Gentiles” it does appear to make more sense of the passage, since Paul is not suggesting that all Gentiles have refused his message, and therefore he is not suggesting that all Judeans were involved in the death of Jesus.
Is this plausible? Any objections?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Contextual Hermeneutics: 1 Thessalonians 4:4 as a Test Case

Scholars often debate the finer points of interpretation based on various backgrounds or nuances to specific words, phrases or ideas. In 1 Thessalonians 4:4 we are presented with a verse that causes much distress to the interpreter for precisely this reason. The background context will determine how one understands this verse. The passage in context reads:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; 4 that each one of you know how to acquire/control your own vessel/organ/wife in holiness and honour, 5 not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.
The key words are that of skeuos (vessell/organ/body/wife) and ktasthai (acquire/control). How one interprets or understands these words depends very much on the probable backgrounds to which interpreters appeal. Given that Paul is writing to a mainly Gentile audience, a roman background is possible. But Paul is a Jew, well versed is the writings and thought-world of Judaism. So interpreting this against a Jewish back-drop seems equally possible. Enter here the problem of “background information of the early Christians.”
How much background information can we assume in any of Paul’s churches? This has to be one of the most perplexing issues in NT scholarship. We have literally no information from them, or about them, to determine their own background understanding. The audience in all of Paul’s letters remains practically anonymous to us.[1] Thus, how is one to determine the concrete meaning of a phrase, such as the one above? For example, J. E. Smith’s article “1 Thessalonians 4:4: Breaking the Impasse” spends forty pages analysing three distinctive interpretations.[2] This study is exhaustive in its attempt to investigate these options thoroughly. But again the problem persists as to whether or not we allow Paul’s understanding to dominate our interpretation, or whether we allow the audiences assumed understanding or limited knowledge to affect the way we interpret scripture. Illustrative of this is Wanamaker’s comment:
The Thessalonians did not know Hebrew and therefore Paul could not rely on them to make the kind of connections made by Maurer and others in arriving at this interpretation.[3]
So my question is: Do we sometimes over interpret scripture? Looking for every possible allusion and echo to the Hebrew narrative [or elsewhere], when it is highly unlikely that the audiences would even be aware of such scriptures and allusions? Is much of the research we acquire, a bit of a waste? Any ideas?
[1] M. Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word (Baker, 2006) pgs. 68ff. considers possible “implied readers” which may offer some assistance to this problem. However, it will not solve the specifics of this problematic feature of our discipline.
[2] Jay E. Smith, “1 Thessalonians 4:4: Breaking the Impasse” Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.1 (2001) 65-105.
[3] C. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, pg. 152