Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Authorial Intent and Community Understanding

My thanks to both to all those offering very helpful questions and comments. I think this topic is one that has the capacity to really open up further understanding of both Paul and his epistles. I want to respond to the questions and comments, and so will begin with Nijay’s comments on my post.

It seems reasonable that our understanding of each of the communities to which Paul writes, can only be re-constructed from the details and evidence in Paul’s writings. For example, we may know much about Thessalonica from other sources, but save Paul’s letters and perhaps Acts, we know nothing of the community of believers in Thessalonica. This means that we must engage in what scholars have called “mirror-reading.”[1] However, utilising Chris Stanley’s categories noted before, I think it is a safe assumption that each of Paul’s communities would at least be a minimal audience.

(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).

If Paul’s usual modus operandi included studying and arguing from the Scriptures - with the Jews and perhaps others (Acts), and the LXX was the Bible of the first Church (1 Tim, public reading of Scripture), then I’m confident that Paul would have instructed his communities to read and learn Israel’s scriptures, with the teachings (letters? 2 Pet 3:16?) of the Apostles, and perhaps Jesus tradition (gospels?). Perhaps Hays has overstated the case of re-constructing the audience’s Scriptural understanding as merely guesswork. It seems that we can have certain parameters within which to construct our understanding, these premises seem likely candidates as boundaries to any hypothesis.

But we must also think historically. Is it plausible that the Thessalonian community, given its age, situation, and circumstance held anything more than a minimal understanding? Amidst the persecution, daily life, eschatological confusion of these believers, is it likely that they were competent with the LXX? To me this seems to be a stretch of the imagination. A minimal audience, yes. A competent audience, no.
Nijay poses the most fascinating question, which is what generated my thoughts in this area. Is Paul competent enough to use arguments that his audiences would understand? This is the question which must guide our thinking. With Nijay I agree that it seems clear that Paul was competent. But this does not solve our initial question. Since Paul was competent to use arguments that the audience would understand, what would suggest that Paul is using an argument which is determined by a Scriptural or Hebrew context, or whether Paul was using a Roman context? According to Tom Wright, Paul moved in three worlds: The world of Judaism, The world of Rome, and the New world inaugurated with Jesus.[2] Each of these play a role in our exegesis of the Pauline letters. But does one of them govern a text, idea or praxis, and if so, how do we determine which one governs and at what times?

So back to my original example: 1 Thess 4:3-7

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.

Does an allusion to 1 Sam 21:5 appear more likely? Or is there another background that suits the context better? Is it plausible that these young Christians in Thessalonica would pick up on an allusion to such an obscure text is Samuel? Thus, determining the translation of “organ” and thus the interpretation that this refers to sexual activity. Or, does the word mean “wife” which thus changes the interpretation to ethics in courtship.
What factors persuade us in either direction? The lack of scriptural quotations in Thessalonians as a whole, could be indicative of an audience unfamiliar with Scripture, and that's why Paul builds no technical argument for any of his positions from the Hebrew scriptures. He reasons rather, from "the word of the Lord." [It would be interesting to see what Michael Pahl says about this....] In fact, based on the text of Thessalonians, it seems more likely that "the Gospel" functioned as the authority that determined life, faith and obedience. The Hebrew text features little in Thessalonica, even if Paul was an informed author. He used arguments his audience could understand, and technical arguments based on the Hebrew scriptures would possibly be misunderstood, and would be unnecessary for Paul's purposes... Perhaps?
There is another meta question that looms in our discussion, the question of authorial intent, and modern reconstruction. In the words of J. A. Fitzmyer in his comments on Acts 5 and the possible backgrounds being alluded to, he asks the pregnant question, “Who is seeing the connection between them, Luke or the modern commentator?”[3]
More thinking is required on my part before wading further into that intellectual arena...

[1] J. M G. Barclay, “Mirror-Reading a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case,” JSNT 31 (1987) 73-93.
[2] N. T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective (Fortress, 2005) pgs. 3-13
[3] Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, pg. 319

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