International SBL in Vienna, part 2 — also Paul and anti-imperialism

Well, I’m back from Vienna now and adjusting to real life (real life isn’t too bad either). There were a couple of other papers I thought I’d mention here as a follow through to my other post on the SBL conference. (I’ll soon have other posts on the Ephesos museum at Vienna).

Universitat WienGerd Theissen’s paper on “The Historical Jesus and the Continuum between Judaism and Christianity” was quite interesting, even though the paper reflected (and did not necessarily defend) particular assumptions regarding what we can know about Jesus through the sources. Theissen argued for a somewhat high degree of continuity between Jesus and subsequent Christianity (including Paul). He did so by focussing on three main points:

1) Theissen pointed to evidence which he interpreted as Jesus’ universalizing tendencies, Jesus’ tendencies to include non-Judeans. These “liberal” (as Theissen calls them) ideas of Jesus are reflected in Jesus’ eschatological views (e.g. Mt 8:11-12), according to Theissen. In other words, Jesus opted for the inclusion, rather than annihilation, of the nations / gentiles (those from East and West, in Theissen’s interpretation) option within Judaism of the time. This reflects continuity with those Jews who likewise imagined the end-time inclusion of the Gentiles, as well as some continuity with Paul’s subsequent focus on including gentiles in God’s end-time community, according to Theissen.

2) Theissen then went on to outline the “radical” (rather than “liberal”) side of Jesus in terms of Jesus’ radicalized Jewish monotheism and restoration eschatology. Here there was an emphasis on Jesus in the context of millenarian movements in the first century. Theissen also proposed that Jesus focussed on love of neighbour and on humility, which radicalized ethics.

3) The combination of universalism and radicalism, which each had precedents in Judaism, were characteristic of the subsequent Jesus movements, in Theissen’s view. Here he brought in ideas from cognitive theory regarding intuitive and counter-intuitives to attempt an explanation of why Christianity was “successful” (here my memory fails me on the details).

This was my first time hearing Theissen speak, and so I enjoyed it despite my disagreements with this or that point and doubts about Theissen’s overall configuration of the materials.

I also managed to see Christopher D. Stanley’s helpful paper on past research into “Postcolonial Perspectives on Paul”. Stanley provided a very clear outline of what has been done (including work on Paul and “hybridity”) and where he plans to head with his own research into analyzing Paul’s letters in terms of post-colonial theory.

Stanley’s talk inspired me to ask him his opinion regarding the ways in which post-colonial theory has already heavily influenced studies by scholars such as Richard Horsley and some others involved in the Paul and Politics group of the SBL. In particular, I find that post-colonial theory has played a major role not in critical analysis but in pre-conceptions of what will be found in Paul’s letters. There is now a very common trend among those who study Paul and imperial issues to assume Paul’s anti-imperial stance rather than establishing it.

To generalize my take on it, there is an assumption (based on post-colonial or liberation theology ideas) that Paul MUST be anti-imperial. There is no need to establish whether he was. Instead, some scholars begin with this idea that he was anti-imperial and then focus on micro-details and terminology in Paul that CAN be interpreted as anti-imperial if one were to assume that he was. In this approach, there is no need to find explicit references to empire in order to assess Paul’s views. On the other hand, there are some interesting interpretive acrobatics with one of the very few explicit references to emperors and imperial matters, Romans 13 (with its seemingly positive statements on the relation between followers of Paul and the empire).

This method might be conducive to producing a good number more articles, books and dissertations on Paul’s supposed anti-imperialism (one needs more topics to study in such a well covered area as Pauline studies), but it is highly problematic in understanding the nuances of Paul’s “political” views, in my view. Stanley agreed with some aspects of my comments. He did agree that post-colonial analysis has indeed influenced the assumptions (rather than self-conscious method) of some scholarly work in this area and that there have been a number of problematic studies of anti-imperialism and Paul. We’ll have to wait for his forthcoming studies to see the details of Stanley’s findings.

As much as I agree with a modern perspective that would want Paul to be anti-imperial (I would characterize myself as anti-imperial now), I do see major problems in allowing our own modern political or theological views be the guiding principle in interpreting ancient documents, such as Paul’s letters. Enough on one of my pet peeves regarding modern scholarship on Paul and politics. (You can read more of my views and critique of such scholarship in my book, if you like.)