Interview: Jamie Davies on Paul, the Apocalypses, and What the Church Stands to Gain from Both

I had the great pleasure recently of reading Jamie Davies’ Paul Among the Apocalypses?: An Evaluation of the “Apocalyptic Paul” in the Context of Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature, his contribution to T&T Clark’s Library of New Testament Studies monograph series. Jamie and I sat down for a conversation about Paul, the meaning of “apocalyptic,” and how the church stands to benefit from recent scholarship on the issue.

We’ve asked a number of other authors as well from the LNTS series to join us for in-depth interviews on their work. You can read Chris Keith’s introductory interview to the overall series here. Look for more interviews in the coming months, including Dorothea Bertschmann and Nijay Gupta, amongst others. Sign up for updates if you haven’t already.

The 29-volume LNTS 2016 Collection is currently on pre-publication; consider adding this exceptional collection to your Logos Digital Library now before the price increases post-publication.

TB: What was the impetus behind writing this book, and how did you land on your central thesis?

JD: Thanks for inviting me to chat. The origin of the thesis, which became the book, was something of a winding journey, and not a path I would recommend to my own students. I had absolutely no intention of wading into the murky world of Pauline scholarship! I initially wanted to write on the political theology of the book of Revelation, and wrote my Masters dissertation, PhD proposal and first chapter draft in that area. Two things happened that changed my direction, though. First, I got a job working as Research Assistant to Tom Wright, with the specific task of helping him bring Paul and the Faithfulness of God to completion, so it seemed wise to capitalise on that by looking more at Paul myself. Second, and more significantly, was a typically penetrating question from my supervisor, Grant Macaskill. Sometime early in my second year, Grant sent me off to look into what the word ‘apocalyptic’ means. As he no doubt expected me to, I emerged from that month of reading thoroughly confused, having seen some wildly differing accounts of the issue across scholarship in the NT and Second Temple Judaism, particularly in Pauline studies. I may not have escaped the gravitational pull of Paul, but not wanting to abandon my first love, I brought him into dialogue with Revelation (and others) on the question of his ‘apocalyptic’ theology — and thus the thesis was born.

TB: What was it like working with Grant? And how did you find the research environment at St Andrews?

From my perspective, the NT department at St Andrews was a great place to be during those years – they had assembled a great faculty of NT scholars and there was a large and vibrant body of research students. Our research seminars were full, interesting, and attracted some excellent visiting scholars, which was particularly great for me because, with two kids and two part‐time jobs alongside my full‐time PhD, I didn’t have much time to go to conferences. I also didn’t have as much time to spend with my peers as I would have liked, but I am still in touch with many of them, and some long‐running conversations continue.

Grant was an excellent supervisor, to whom I owe a great deal. The account I just gave of the genesis of the project is indicative of his patience in letting me wander and encounter my own false starts and blind alleys, but he never let me get totally lost. I’m very much an external processor, so a lot of the time it was me doing the talking, but he possesses an excellent gift for the well‐placed question. It’s hard to quantify the impact he had, not only on the thesis but also (more importantly) on my development as a scholar. I think it’s only in the last few years working as a lecturer that I can see the fruit of seeds Grant planted.

One story illustrates this: in the final stages of the write‐up I must have done around eight drafts of the thesis. Each time I sent it to him I was convinced he would say I was ready to submit, and each time I was sent away to work on it some more. (I later learned he was not going to tell me it was ready: that had to be my call.) I would silently curse him, do the work, and then realise he was right, and the thesis had improved. I think it was somewhere around the third draft that he spoke to me about the importance of engaging my interlocutors with grace and generosity in my writing. This is a lesson I am still learning, and trying to pass on to my own PhD students. I’m naturally the sort of person who overstates my case and who speaks in shrill terms, and Grant’s precision and care was the perfect antidote to that ailment. I hope the book is seen as fair to those with whom I disagree, and if it does Grant should take a lot of the credit.

TB: Before we get into the real meat of your work, could you give us your best definition of what exactly “apocalyptic” means, and how we should be understanding and using the term in the academy and the church?

JD: Well, there’s a long answer to this vexed question, and the book is, I hope, a contribution to that. Let me just offer some brief comments. Some in the academy say we should give up using the word altogether, but I’m not so pessimistic. Essentially I think we should try to maintain a connection between our use of the word ‘apocalyptic’ (e.g. to describe Paul’s theology) with the Jewish and Christian apocalypses. This can help us distil the central features of ‘apocalyptic theology’, such as a commitment to a revelatory epistemology or to eschatological/cosmological dualities. I don’t see this as in necessary antithesis to its use in contemporary systematic theology, and we should remain sensitive to the theological freight the word carries there. Sometimes, regrettably, the two fields are talking past each other, but I don’t think they need to. I’ve seen promising signs that we are working towards greater convergence, and I’m optimistic about what can be done to reconcile differences, and perhaps even cross some of those unhelpful interdisciplinary boundaries along the way.

As far as the church is concerned, I’m less optimistic. Thanks to Apocalypse Now, the ‘zombie apocalypse’ trope, and many other factors, the word is irretrievably connected with the idea of the catastrophic ‘end of the world’ in the popular imagination. Apocalyptic and millenarian movements in Christianity and other religions, fascinating as they are, haven’t helped the case for the word, either. Perhaps for this reason it’s best avoided, at least for a while. The Latin version, ‘revelatory’, might be a better option for saying what we need to say in the church. It opens up at least one (arguably the most) important aspect of apocalyptic theology, its epistemology, and can easily be connected to a number of theologically important statements in Paul, Mark, and elsewhere. As ever, though, it’s the theological content that matters, not the label.

TB: Can you outline for us some of the “false dichotomies” in the discussion of the apocalyptic Paul? Why have these either/or positions dominated the discussion, and has this damaged the legitimacy of the position?

JD:  The shape of the book, which itself came from trying to encapsulate the insights of J. Louis Martyn’s seminal Galatians commentary, is organised around what I see as four dichotomies essential to the “apocalyptic Paul” discussion. One, for example, is what I see as a false antithesis between “salvation history” and “invasion”, the latter taken by many to be the “apocalyptic” option to the exclusion of the former. This, I think, is a false dichotomy; the apocalyptic literature demonstrates a dialectical approach that holds the two themes together. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, of the “forensic” and “cosmological” tracks in apocalyptic soteriology.

As to the reasons for the popularity of the dichotomies, I don’t know for sure. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the theological genealogy that lies behind the discussion of apocalyptic thought in the New Testament, especially in Pauline studies. Many have charted this line from Schweitzer to Martyn and the present day, and I offer my own account in the book. I think it’s quite revealing (no pun intended) to see how this genealogy has shaped the contours of the present debate. I think particularly of the Käsemann‐Bultmann debate, which is acknowledged by many to be at the root of the contemporary discussion. I don’t think the legitimacy of the apocalyptic view on Paul is particularly in danger – if anything it’s in the ascendancy. I consider myself to be a subscriber, to be honest, and I think an apocalyptic approach to Paul (properly understood – and there’s the rub!) offers a great deal in the task of describing a coherent Pauline theology that holds together major themes (the juridical and the cosmological, for instance) that are too often played against each other.

TB: That’s helpful, thanks. What is the value of bringing into the discussion the ‘binary imagery’ that you seem to have found in other Jewish apocalyptic literature (p.23)? Indeed, what is the value at all in comparing Paul with other apocalypses?

JD:  Well, of course Paul didn’t write apocalypses (though 2 Cor. 12 comes close); he is nevertheless, I contend, a thoroughly apocalyptic thinker. This shows up in the numerous “apocalyptic expressions” (Martyn’s phrase) found throughout his letters, such as speaking of “the present evil age”, to name just one. I therefore speak in the book of Paul being a writer not of the “apocalyptic genre” but very much in the “apocalyptic mode” (an idea I borrow from Alastair Fowler, via Eibert Tigchelaar). This establishes the connection between Paul and the apocalypses, and justifies the value of bringing them into dialogue, placing Paul “among them” to see what can be said about his apocalyptic mode of doing Christian theology. Hence the title of the book.

TB: You make a strong case for including the book of Revelation as one of the apocalyptic writings with which to juxtapose Paul (p.37). Why has Revelation been neglected in previous studies, and what justification do you have for including another book from the Christian canon? In other words, why not just limit your evidence to extra‐canonical Jewish sources?

JD:  My selection of these comparator texts is far from fully representative of the whole apocalyptic corpus (I wish I could have included Daniel, for instance, but that was a bridge too far). But 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra were chosen largely because of a desire to engage with my interlocutors on shared ground. When the “apocalyptic Paul” scholarship directs the reader to the ancient literature behind the theological themes they discern in Paul, this is where they send us. It still strikes me as remarkable, though, that discussions of apocalyptic thought in the New Testament are done without very much reference to the NT’s only literary apocalypse. With a couple of exceptions (J. C. Beker, for example), the book of Revelation is hardly ever mentioned in the discussion.

As to the reasons for this, I can only speculate. We do seem to be much quicker to relate Paul to extra‐canonical Jewish sources than we are to relate him to the other NT documents. Maybe this is is a result of hesitancy regarding canonical or biblical theology? Perhaps this is further exacerbated by the oft‐lamented problem of NT scholarship being stuck in sub‐disciplinary “silos”? Or perhaps it’s a legacy of the pre‐Schweitzer prejudice against “apocalyptic” in New Testament studies? I’m not sure. Whatever the cause, for my part I thought it was very important to add Revelation to the list of comparator texts, not least because of its thoroughly christological approach to apocalyptic theology. If it’s “christologically determined apocalyptic eschatology” (M. de Boer) that we want (and I think we do!), Revelation is an important place to go.

TB: You stress the difference between duality and dualism early on in your study. Why is this important to your thesis, and what significance do the terms have in Pauline/Jewish apocalyptic studies?

JD:  I try to reserve the word “dualism” to describe strictly mutually‐exclusive pairings, and prefer to speak of “dualities” when discussing other less antithetical binary relations. I got onto this from reading a brief taxonomy of “dualisms” in Wright’s New Testament and the People of God and ran with it a bit. (There are various kinds of duality, which don’t come as a package deal, as Wright and others such as Loren Stuckenbruck have noted.) I’m not dogmatically wedded to the distinction, since I think the words get used in a variety of ways, but it was important to my argument to have a clarity of language suitable to speak of the “permeable boundaries” I was going to explore in apocalyptic thought, challenging false dichotomies without losing the duality of that logic entirely.

TB: The structure of your work is carefully constructed, with four main chapters individually analysing very specific categories central to any discussion of apocalyptic, not to mention Paul in general. Can you give us a brief outline of those categories, and why presenting a binary image of each is important?

JD:  I’m glad you liked the structure – it took me a while to nail it. The four central chapters of the book cover, in turn, the themes of epistemology, eschatology, cosmology, and soteriology. I take these to be a faithful distillation (as I said before) of Martyn’s analysis of Pauline apocalyptic thought, and I think it is also a helpful taxonomy for examining what I see as the principal features of the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. In each chapter I affirm the presence of these apocalyptic tropes in Paul but argue that the false dichotomies found in this discussion can and should be qualified through consideration of his letters in dialogue with the apocalyptic literature.

To summarise my thoughts briefly: first, I argue that apocalyptic epistemology affirms the role of both revelation and wisdom. Secondly, apocalyptic eschatology uses both the “irruptive” trope of the two ages while also deploying “salvation historical” schemes. Thirdly, apocalyptic cosmology asserts separate realms of heaven and earth, but sees the boundaries between them as abidingly permeable. Fourthly, apocalyptic soteriology interweaves the two “tracks” of the forensic and the martial‐cosmological approaches to salvation. It’s important to maintain these binaries but, as I hope to have shown, they shouldn’t been characterised as radical dichotomies.

TB: So why do you think there is a tendency to flirt with the extremes in Paul’s thoughts rather than drive for a mediating position? I’m thinking here ofKäsemann’s sentiments, which you cite: “It has always been characteristic of Pauline interpretation to fall from one extreme into another and often enough to postulate alternatives which destroy the apostle’s dialectical treatment of the facts.” (p.202; Käsemann, “Justification and Salvation History,” 65‐6). Does splitting the middle, as it were, dull the sharp edge of Paul’s theology, or are there good exegetical and practical reasons to hold fast to the extremes?

JD:  I’m all for going after the extremes; Paul certainly wasn’t a “middle ground” sort of theologian! For my part, I certainly don’t want to set up and challenge dichotomies in order to make a rhetorical move that positions myself as some kind of “via media” – this is an all‐too‐common fallacy and I hope I didn’t fall into it. In any case, I don’t really see myself as “splitting the middle”; rather, I’m trying to hold together in tension two truths that are sometimes treated antithetically, postulated as alternatives, in Käsemann’s words. This is one reason I cite him at this point in the book, when I’m summarising the heart of my argument.

Käsemann was speaking of the German scholarship of his day, but I think he summaries a tendency very characteristic of contemporary anglophone studies too. We too often postulate alternatives when the apostle Paul treats the facts dialectically. However — and this is very important — a dialectic is precisely not a “mediating position”. Salvation history and irruption, for example, are not extremes on a spectrum, with a theological “sweet spot” at the centre. They are, somehow, both true. “Splitting the middle” may well dull the sharp edge of Paul’s theology, but the alternative should not be merely choosing sides, picking whichever sharp edge seems right to us. If you’ll forgive the preacher’s rhetoric, why not go for the double‐edged approach?

TB: One question that constantly comes up in any discussion of apocalyptic is whether such a view of Paul is antithetical to a forensic understanding of the apostle, and thus of salvation itself. How would you respond to that antithetical perspective?

JD:  I think I’ve covered this already, but I don’t think “apocalyptic” and “forensic” are antithetical categories, and the apocalypses attest to this. Actually this is a point recognised by de Boer, who developed the “two tracks” of “forensic apocalyptic eschatology” and “cosmological apocalyptic eschatology” that I engage in the book. As a heuristic device (de Boer’s original intention, I think) these two tracks may be a helpful taxonomy. Where I disagree is when these two are deployed in some kind of strict opposition, as is sometimes the case in Pauline studies. Both are found (variously) in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic, and both, I think, are found in Paul.

In addition, I would want to examine the premise sometimes implied in this sort of question, that to challenge the forensic is thus to challenge “salvation itself”. The apostle had a number of ways of speaking of salvation — apocalyptic, participatory, and juridical to name the classic three — and I think the aim of Pauline theology is, and long has been, to articulate a coherent account of how these can be held together rather than seeing them as some kind of zero‐sum game.

TB: What, then, is the entry point for apocalyptic theology in the church? Should we be preaching an apocalyptic Paul from the pulpit, and can such an understanding better inform both our outreach to the world and our in-reach to the church?

JD:  Since this is a question about preaching, hopefully you’ll permit an answer in a preacher’s voice again. In a word, the answer is Jesus. He is the “apocalyptic entry point”, as Paul makes quite clear on a number of occasions. As I said before, the word “apocalyptic” may be irretrievably compromised and not much use for the pulpit, but that doesn’t mean we can’t preach a Pauline apocalyptic gospel. Far from it: let us preach the radical new creation brought about through the Christ‐event with respect to his revelation of God, his shocking breaking into history, the tearing of the veil between heaven and earth, and the radical nature of his delivering victory.

But let us also be wary of what we may wrongly bracket out: the importance of wisdom, the meaning of redemptive history, the abiding presence of God in his world, and the reality of divine judgement and forgiveness. An apocalyptic Pauline gospel, understood in this way, is a many‐coloured and powerful thing to preach, inside and outside the church.

TB: Amen to that! I recall you mentioning at the British New Testament Conference a desire to expand your research in PAA to a larger study. Is that in the works, or have you moved on to other questions in your research? In other words, what can we expect next from the pen of Jamie Davies?

JD:  Critical responses are in some senses the easier projects, I think, and I would very much like to go beyond critique and do some more constructive work exploring exactly how these “false dichotomies” can be held together in an apocalyptic approach to Pauline theology. The intention would be to do this in as much conversation as possible with those working on Jewish apocalyptic literature as well as those exploring an apocalyptic theology, to continue to try and permeate our own boundary between biblical studies and systematic theology. Is a dialectical approach the right one? Or is there some other way these various themes cohere? That’s the long‐term project, which is not quite “in the works” but is definitely rattling around at the back of my head.

For now, I have a couple of other irons in the fire, including a commentary on Revelation for the Smyth & Helwys Reading the New Testament series, and a couple of essays on apocalyptic in Mark’s gospel. I’m finding that there’s a lot that can be learned from scholarship on Mark and Revelation for a would‐be Pauline apocalyptic theology.

It takes a lot of work to try and be conversant in all these fields, which is why the future for the study of Pauline apocalyptic can’t be in the “solo scholar” approach, but has to be in conversation across sub‐disciplinary boundaries. Working in a theological college, where by necessity this interdisciplinary conversation is a regular feature of our research life, has been a real gift. As I said before, I see signs of this happening across the guild, and I’m excited for what this may bring.

Jamie Davies is Tutor for New Testament at Trinity College Bristol in the UK.

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Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger