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Reading someone else’s mail: conflicting methods

Without endless citations and in shorthand, I want to lay out two conflicting methodologies that together drive my thinking about the New Testament’s content and relevance. I suspect that, in enough time, they will merge into a more balanced and comprehensive approach.

First, the “within Judaism” approach. I will take as an extreme example something that Jason BeDuhn said in this lecture. He claims that the earliest reception of Paul outside the New Testament are authors operating in a radically different context than Paul himself. Paul wrote in the 50s-60s CE. The Romans destroyed the temple in 70 CE. This inherently led to the abolition of the priesthood and the near-total reconstitution of Jewish religion and practice in the following years. The emperor Domitian oversaw persecution of Jews across the empire throughout the 80s and 90s CE. During the Kittos War in 115 CE, the Romans killed Jews widely and indiscriminately enough that it can be characterized as a genocide. Two decades later in 134-136 CE, the Bar Kochba Revolt led to further mass killings of Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem, and a ban on Jews entering the old city. Some historians call the period from 70-136 CE “the Jewish-Romans Wars,” plural, because of the continuous bloodshed.

Paul lived and wrote before the Jewish-Roman Wars, and his first substantial non-canonical reception occurs after them, in Tertullian, Marcion, and the Valentinians. Each of these streams may have retained some interpretive traditions about Paul from the earlier times, but what they all misunderstand is that the Jewish-Gentile balance has shifted from when Paul wrote. The early Jesus movement began as a 90%-10% Jewish-Gentile movement, but after the wars, and the increasing separation between the Jesus movement and the synagogues, the numbers were more like 10%-90%. Beduhn argues that the earliest interpreters of Paul read his comments in light of their own context, thus skewing his comments about the ongoing practice of Jewish law and proselytization, and Messiah’s role in creating one united community between Jews and Gentile.

The goal of historical New Testament studies, BeDuhn would say, is to try to get back before Tertullian and proto-catholic theology and see Paul “within Judaism,” as a wholly Jewish thinker who did not see himself in a competitive relationship with Jewish religion or Jewish institutions at all. We need to peel back the layers of accretion left behind by the interpretive tradition to read Paul afresh.

Second, the “theological interpretation of scripture” (abbreviated TIS) movement tries to read Scripture using the categories of the successive interpretive tradition. These scholars are interested in the ways that texts have an openness to expansive readings, for later settings. Even if the original authors did not mean them to mean so much, these texts may have enduring flexibility in meaning because the Spirit also wrote these texts. TIS seeks to avoid reinventing the wheel, so to speak, because earlier interpreters were wise and careful. The interpretive tradition can be a “democracy of the dead” just like the theological tradition in general. TIS also recognizes the scholars’ own social situation as readers of Scripture for the church. Why pretend not to have a bias that you absolutely do have? And anyways, there are millions of Christians who read the New Testament as Scripture, so the scholar recognizes they have an influential voice in the continuing conversation about these authoritative texts. Scholarship becomes a form of activism, however subtle.

Two examples of TIS, from two of my New Testament professors. Wesley Hill argues in his book Paul and the Trinity (2015) that the “High Christology / Low Christology” debate imposes an artificial construct onto Paul’s letters. Instead, the categories of persons and relations better help readers of Paul see that speaking about Christ and speaking about God cannot really be disentangled in Paul’s letters. This, notably, is the same approach that the third and fourth century Fathers took when constructing their more elaborate Nicene Christology. Madison Pierce argues in her book Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews (2020) that the quotations in Hebrews reveal a consciously Trinitarian pattern: the Father and the Son speak to one another, and the Spirit speaks to the recipients/Church. She also argues that this early, possibly “proto,” Trinitarian theology is consistent with the developments that occurred later in the tradition.

Both Hill and Pierce, then, are reading New Testament texts through the categories of the later tradition, not as a subversive anachronism, but as earnest presentation of the original meaning of these texts in light of their later theological significance.

Can these two methods come together? What fellowship hath Durham with Yale? My own research question this year, while not strictly methodological, fits within this uncomfortable middle ground. I am asking whether reinterpreting Paul “within Judaism” would allow us to resolve the (imo unresolved and stagnant) debate over same-sex relationships in the New Testament. But I am doing this through a theological interpretation of select sections in Romans, particularly chapters 1:18-2:29, 4, 7:7-25, 8:1-17, and 11. My historical critical reconstruction will dominate what the text “meant,” and my theological interpretation will dominate what the text “means.” But I want a better synthesis between the two methods than that. I also want a better understanding of how this synthesis could impact the interpretation of the entire New Testament: for early texts like Paul, and texts from the middle of the Jewish-Roman wars like John or possibly Hebrews, and texts from the aftermath, like (arguably) Acts, as well as the Marcionite texts and Valentinian texts.

That is enough for today. Sorry I can’t provide more historical details or citations. Hopefully I can clarify some of these method questions as my Thesis deadline draws near next summer.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

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