Saturday, March 08, 2008

6. The Apostle Paul and Modern Scholarship

I am trying hard to post regularly. If you are going to the trouble to read my posts, the least I can do is to write them on a regular basis! I am sorry when I fail: the spirit is willing but the flesh ...

Which is the subject of tomorrow's sermon. It is one of those instances when I really do think it matters how you translate the Greek. I have become more and more suspicious of preachers who base their sermons on one (disputed) interpretation of the text! If experts in the language (which I certainly am not) argue over the meaning of the text then we as preachers should not base our sermon on one particular reading.

Just to reassure you, I won't be doing that tomorrow. However, I do think that the some translations miss the point! I will explain later in this series!!

Have a good Sunday!

6. The Apostle Paul and Modern Scholarship

In interpreting Paul, scholarship is getting increasingly specialized as, indeed, it is in other areas of Biblical studies. Interpretation of Paul is made in the light of very detailed studies of second temple Judaism. There’s nothing wrong with that as such. Paul was a Jew and spent at least part of his childhood in Jerusalem. Understanding the Judaism of his day can add to our understanding of Paul. It makes sense then to try to understand how, for example, a phrase such as ‘the righteousness of God’ would have been understood by Paul’s Jewish contemporaries.

What I am a bit concerned about is the way it is assumed that the meaning of what Paul writes is not in any way obvious, but can only be arrived at after detailed and laborious research. Interestingly, those carrying out this detailed research cannot agree amongst themselves how Paul should be interpreted even then. For example, a scholar whose work is credited with starting the New Perspective on Paul, E P Sanders, provided an account of Judaism at the time of Paul that overturned much previous scholarship. Nothing wrong with that except that many other scholars have disagreed with him and one, C VanLandingham, has recently claimed that Jews at the time of Paul believed the precise opposite of what Sanders said they believed.

All this would not matter much, after all it is a scholarly game to agree and disagree with each other that’s how you get PhDs, except that the interpretation of Paul is made to depend on such scholarly reconstructions. I am not for one moment arguing that research into Paul’s background should stop or that historical context does not matter, I would question, however, whether it is being taken too far and whether too much is being demanded of us for understanding what Paul writes in his letters.

This is not a theological point I am making. I am not arguing that the Holy Spirit will make the meaning clear to us or that Paul’s letters are inspired so we don’t have to worry about historical research. I am arguing on purely historical grounds that perhaps the type of background research that is being demanded of us in interpreting Paul is not, in fact, necessary. I am asking the question whether we are missing the wood for the trees. By examining in minute detail the composition of the paint, are we failing to see the picture?

What grounds do I have for asking this question? Simply this: who were Paul’s letters written to in the first place? Take the two letters most relevant to the issues that I have been discussing in this series. Galatians was written to Gentiles in Asia whom Paul had spent only a limited amount of time with. Romans was written to predominantly Gentile converts in Rome whom he had never met. In both cases, Paul seems to think that they would understand what he writes. He doesn’t seem to think that they need to study for a doctorate in Judaism first. If we today can only understand Paul after very detailed academic study of second temple Judaism, how on earth were these Gentiles supposed to understand him?

Again, please do not misunderstand me, I am not arguing that we should ignore the historical context of what Paul writes or that academic research is unimportant, I am simply saying that taking seriously the historical context of Paul’s letters may require a different method of interpreting what Paul writes than the one being pursued by many scholars. By all means study Paul’s context, but do not make understanding Paul dependent on knowledge that Paul himself did not expect his original readers to have.

The meaning of what Paul writes about faith, the Law, righteousness, etc in Galatians and Romans must be what it would have meant for the Galatians and Romans. How would they have heard it? What would it have meant for them? Of course, we must ask questions about Paul himself and what made him write this way, but we should pay more attention to the letter itself and less attention to interpretations based on obscure research that would have meant nothing to those who originally heard the letters being read. The Galatiansand Romans presumably got Paul’s point without having studied E P Sanders - maybe we can as well!

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