The violent disassembly of Paul reassessed

In its modern form, the study of Christian origins has been dominated by the study of the apostle Paul. Take, for instance, Johannes Weiss’s précis of nineteenth-century scholarship on Christian origins, written in 1917: ‘’The history of primitive Christianity is usually written as the history of St. Paul’ (Primitive Christianity, 1). Or, one might say, the history of St. Paul’s letters.

On this way of reading, Paul is a series of discrete letters, to which we have discrete access, and about which we can make discrete critical judgments. With the raw data to hand, scholars then chronologically re-shuffle the Pauline pieces around the board marked ‘early Christian history.’ This is a pregnant way to read the letters and has a long and venerable history. Going all the way back to J. D. Michaelis’s 1788 critical Einleitung, and then more robustly in Leonhard Usteri’s 1824 The Development of the Pauline System of Doctrine, scholars have been hard at work on precisely this project: chronological rearrangement of Paul’s letters for the sake of biographical, theological, and historical narration. A century apart, F. C. Baur’s and Ernst Käsemann’s reconstructions of early Christianity, still influential today, gain a good deal of their leverage by reading the Pauline collection this way.

There is, of course, another possibility. In his 1950 Chapters in a Life of Paul, a book in which he was otherwise at pains to distinguish between Acts and the letters as sources for Paul, John Knox begins with a methodological observation, made more or less in passing, about what they share in common. He writes, ‘We may appropriately begin by noting that, like the Gospels, the documents on which we must depend for our knowledge of Paul [i.e., Acts and the letters] came into being in their present form for the use of the Gentile churches of the late first and early second centuries in response to their interests and needs’ (16). Knox is here acknowledging a simple historical truth: that when it comes to the letters, our only access to Paul is via a letter-collection, with its origins (likely) in the late-first/early-second century, a product of its own editorial design and concerns.

In the end, Knox doesn’t press this insight, and falls back into the fairly traditional way of treating the Pauline data outlined above. Discrete letters, discretely accessed, chronologically rearranged. It’s a perfectly acceptable, not to mention powerfully imaginative, way (not) to read a corpus.

But try as we might, the access to Paul it imagines is precisely the access we don’t have. Nor, as Knox observed, does this modern hermeneutic attend to the textual artefact(s) we do have. Knox’s observation has remained largely untapped amongst Pauline scholars (except for Trobisch [1994] and, somewhat differently, Childs [2008]). But a similar recognition is causing something of a revolution in the study of classical epistolography.

It was, in fact, precisely this chronological obfuscation of ancient hermeneutical concerns in constructing an epistolary corpus that animated Mary Beard’s 2002 call to a ‘radically old-fashioned’ way of reading Cicero’s letters (“Ciceronian Correspondences: Making a Book out of Letters,” in Classics in Progress). That is, it was Beard’s rather simple suggestion that Cicero’s letter-books be read as originally designed—that is, as books—and studied according to their own principle of arrangement, rather than not read and splayed across a chronological edition.

And this project has been taken up. In 2012, acknowledging Beard’s inspiration, Roy Gibson studied eleven ancient letter collections, finding that their dominant principle of arrangement was by addressee or theme, and within this by what he called ‘artful variety’ or ‘significant juxtaposition’ (JRS 102 [2012]: 56-78). Not surprisingly, much of the subsequent work has focused on Cicero’s and Pliny’s collections, but with the publication in late 2016 of Late Antique Letter Collections, we now have a critical introduction to the majority of the epistolary corpora of late antiquity, and one that treats them along the lines envisaged by Beard and Gibson.

This last-named volume does not treat Paul’s letter-collection, which makes a certain degree of sense: Paul neither lived nor wrote in late antiquity. In another sense, however, it is ironic, for with a few exceptions, the earliest collections of Paul that remain are products of late antiquity. Put slightly differently, before they are anything else, scholars of Paul are, formally speaking, scholars of late-antique letter collections.

There are (small) signs that recognition of this may be growing. The last decade has seen renewed interest in the so-called Euthalian edition of Paul (most recently, Blomkvist [2013] and Scherbenske [2013]), and just this year, T.J. Lang and Matthew Crawford have published the first study, in our discipline, of a remarkable edition of Paul’s letters issued by Priscillian of Avila (NTS 63 [2017]: 125-45). Both of these editions are likely late-fourth century, and evince a way of reading Paul in many respects different from that outlined above—driven not by chronology or historical narration, but by the hermeneutical frame of the letter-book.

In the name of history, Pauline scholars, of course, will always remain free to dismember these corpora, to treat the individual letters as discrete entities, and to mine them for historical, biographical, theological, and social (et al.) insights into Paul, his communities, and earliest Christianity. But good history also requires a ready recognition of the nature of the available evidence. And to this end, Knox’s observation serves at least something of a caution: our only access to Paul remains the late-antique collections that attest a hermeneutic very different from our own.

In the end, the study of Christian origins may depend on such a disassembling and reassembling of Paul, but it is surely a violent way to read the material evidence we actually have, and as the late-antique collections attest, not the only fruitful way to read the Pauline book.   

Benj Petroelje is a PhD Candidate in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the hermeneutics of how to read Ephesians vis-à-vis Paul, specifically in light of shifting ways of reading a letter collection in its history of reception. Prior to moving to Scotland, Benj pastored in several different church contexts, and is currently pursuing ordination in the Christian Reformed Church of North America. He is a Fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians.

This article was originally published as “What to do with the Pauline Book?” on the Center for the Study of Christian Origins (Edinburgh University) blog on May 10, 2017.


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  • Hi, a excellent article and argument. Martin Dale has a very interesting and well balanced lecture available regarding the introduction to the New testament. It has led me to path to critically re-read the new testament books to see for myself this progression of theology in the early church. I believe that that I would have performed a “violent disassembly of Paul ” if left to my own devices. I started with 1 Thes as it probably contain the most accurate view on how the early church spoke and thought about God. Further more most scholars agree that this letter was the first letter that Paul wrote and I was immediately taken on how early some of the theological concepts that was adopted in the later orthodoxy is prevalent in this “early” letter. ” . I also came to the conclusion that Pauls theology was well developed by the time he wrote this letter.

    If I understand you correctly, then it is not even possible to make these conclusions unless we get a textual variant that is closer to the 5o’s as we may be looking at redacted versions. Does this not make all critical studies irrelevant?

    In the post modern world we have become so sceptical that we believe that everything is lies or manipulated to a specific purpose and that there is some form of conspiracy behind it all. This helps no-one and ads little to no value in gaining a fuller understanding for the current believer base. It is no wonder that more believers circle the drain of the literal/conservative view of the Bible and others lose their faith become agnostics or even atheists.

    I choose rather frame the discussion in a modernistic way and scientifically talk about thesis’ created based on the assumptions or presupposition made to make it true. If any of these parameters is breeched the impact on the thesis need to be reviewed. e.g. The latest reliable variant can be presumed to be accurate and used to create the hypothesis which is then developed into a thesis. If a newer Textual version is discovered it may or may not contain a textural change. If it does and if the research work was documented properly the thesis must be challenged by an antithesis and the original thesis can be readjusted or even rejected and the anti-thesis becomes the new thesis. It is then something scholars can use in the meantime. This will produce more value. Sceptics will still exist but merely ad pressure on the scholars to improve there thesis. e.g. In science many discoveries were based on incorrect thesis and their related assumptions but added value to the real world. Having this correctly documented and made available to researchers they could be reviewed and updated in accordance with the new assumptions.

    As this is a Logos Blog, I whish to push another agenda. None of the books you refer to is available on Logos even though they may be more than 50 Years old. My hypothesis is that more attention is given to books supporting the orthodox or conservative view due to pressure to conform the Evangelical Agenda. I am a member of an Dutch Reformed Church and are well educated and a lover of the orthodox dogma straight from the books of Calvin and his students. But in spite of this I want to make a plea on behalf of serious scholars that these so called “liberal texts” need to be made available for reading. I recently subscribed to the cloud offering to scholars and apart from the Hermeina series I found little to no benefit to investigate first hand the issues as the above discussed. The monologues reflect merely the opinions of those that comment on these monolog’s. If Logos wants to become the premier tool for biblical studies they need to find ways to be able to provide access to these materials in the form of a scholarly research library even if a “health warning” need to be attached to them. I am sure that such a repository will assist students in all universities and seminaries, Secular or Christian…

    In any case all these books are readily available via Amazon and even in PDF format and available to those who wish to find them.

    • Amen on the usefulness of broadening our corpus critical scholarly works–including up to date journals as much as possible.

    • Agree with everything said above. An excellent blog on the state of play with Paul – very informative. And yes to more critical texts. I want logos to be a good research tool, and it needs to supply me with a wider range of conversation partners. I’m neither near, nor part of, a seminary library and neither do I have any physical library space left. So, it’s Logos to be either help or hindrance. Help, please!

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