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Joseph Marchal: Studying Paul’s Letters


Joseph A. Marchal, ed., Studying Paul’s Letters: Contemporary Perspectives and Methods (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 248 pages, ISBN 9780800698188.

Introduction: Asking the Right Questions by Joseph A. Marchal.

This provocative book has been formatted by Joseph Marchal to make available the latest and most relevant critical perspectives on Paul to students in seminaries, small liberal-arts colleges, and universities. To achieve this goal, he has put together a remarkable group of outstanding Pauline scholars, and begins by posing and addressing the question of why anyone would study Paul. Traditionally, people have sought answers from Paul to questions about widespread issues such as women in leadership, slavery, gays, Jews, foreigners, pagans, the poor, children, and even the government. Marchal proposes to challenge readers to think in different ways about how to approach Paul, not only within the context of his own time, but in relation to our own world. According to Marchal, these critical perspectives can make us more savvy about the dynamics of our world and our application of Paul’s letters to it (2).

Marchal limits his study of Paul to what he calls the “authentic” letters of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon (3). Thus, he does not address why these are authentic and the others are not. He also accepts these letters as reflecting the linguistic influences of Hellenization with its widespread cultural practices, rhetorical presentations, and argumentation (4). Also assumed is that Paul’s letters were written at specific times, in response to particular situations, rather than being theological treatises or historical records (4-5).

Marchal’s goal is not simply to pass along information, but “to encourage a more critical and creative formation and even a transformation in how people negotiate their contexts” (8). This book certainly includes the latest trends in Pauline studies (9). Some approaches overlap, resonating and conversing with one another. Taken together, they clearly present the relevant issues, concepts, and practices for the various methods, and at the end of each chapter, include a demonstration of the application of amethod to a particular Pauline passage. Each chapter concludes with annotated selections for further reading.

Each chapter is written by a scholar who is both an expert in a selected method and an excellent teacher.

The individual essays begin with Melanie Johnson-Debaufre’s Historical Approaches: Which Past? Whose Past? She considers the nature of current biblical studies as characterized by “multiplicity and possibility,” and frames three basic principles which help to “reorient how we might approach history in relation to the letters of Paul” (15):

  1. “Language does not describe or reflect reality, it creates and shapes reality” (15).
  2. “What we see depends on where we stand” (16).
  3. “History is an interpretation of the past, not the past itself” (17).

Johnson-Debaufre also suggests three corrective trends in Pauline studies which should be taken into account:

  1. Paul should be de-Christianized, that is, he should be considered as a Jew within Judaism (18) rather than a convert to Christianity.
  2. Paul should be politicized, that is, he should be read in terms of politics and economics rather than religion (20).
  3. Paul should be de-centered, that is, he should be seen as only one part of the history of the early church rather than as the center of the movement (22-3).

In Chapter 2, Rhetorical Approaches: Introducing the Art of Persuasion in Paul and Pauline Studies, Todd Penner and Davina C. Lopez show the significance of understanding rhetorical strategies of ancient times when reading Paul: rhetoric pervades every aspect of our lives as well as those of ancient times. Arguments are persuasive depending on their relationships within the contexts and world-views of the times in which they were written. Hence, only by understanding how Paul’s arguments operated in the broader philosophical, social, and cultural environments of his time can the reader hope similarly to engage and apply these arguments to our world (49). Studying Paul is ultimately not about recovering a theology or an ideology, rather it is about “studying ourselves”, about using rhetorical analyses to better understand our world, not his. (50).

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2014

About the Author: Rebecca Skaggs, Ph.D. (Drew University), is professor of New Testament and Greek at Patten University in Oakland, California. She also holds an M.A. in philosophy from the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, Berkeley. Her commentary on 1, 2 Peter & Jude (2003) is published by The Pentecostal Commentary Series (Continuum).

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