Monday, April 30, 2012

Towards a Re-Reading of Romans 1-3

Last week I spent a good amount of time working on a re-reading of Romans 1-3. I've been reading Douglas Campbell's critique of the standard interpretation of Romans 1-4 and with those criticisms in mind I decided to tackle the first three chapters of Romans afresh. I came out of the time with a significantly different approach to these opening chapters than I had in the past. I was debating whether or not I should post some of my insights here, but after continuing to read Campbell's book and noticing some key affinities between my new view and that of Stanley Stowers I decided I'd go ahead and post them. These are not final thoughts on the text, I will certainly revisit it further this summer after I read Campbell's analysis, but I do feel that I have made a definite shift in my understanding of Romans has happened so I thought I'd share it here. This is a start towards a re-reading of Romans 1-3.

The key, in my opinion, to Romans 1-3, comes from one observation and two methodological decisions. The key observation is that we have more voices than just Paul's present in these chapters. This is undisputed, but it's still the interpretive key. The question is, when are we hearing Paul and when are we hearing an opponent?

The key methodological decisions are, first, let Paul's definition of the gospel in 1:1-6 and further discussion in 1:16-17 control our analysis. Anything attributed to Paul in the rest of these chapters must not contradict or be in major tension with these key sections. Second, in all likelihood, there will be some coherence between Paul's thought in Romans and Galatians, as he's probably dealing with the same problem. Ultimately, when contrasting views are present, we should assign to Paul the one that sounds most like him elsewhere. I don't think that anything I've said is not obvious, but I'm not sure that many interpreters are intentional about applying these rules as they work through their interpretation of these chapters.

Probably the best place to start our discussion is in Romans 2:6-16. Before I give you the link to read the text (and please do read it), I want to ask a question. If someone were to ask you to summarize what you think the false teachers in Galatia taught, what would you say? Now read Romans 2:6-16. How close are the two? It certainly doesn't sound like Paul to me. Now let's skip ahead to Romans 3:1-8. Who's asking the questions and who's answering? The traditional view has had Paul as the one answering the questions, but if Romans 2:6-16 represents Paul's opponent, then I would argue that Paul is the one asking the questions. The one answering sounds like Romans 2:6-16, with a preoccupation with the judgment of God. All of Romans 1-3 actually falls out fairly neatly then (though there are a couple of places where it's difficult to determine who is who). You have one person focused on judgment and righteousness by works of the law, and also marginalizes Jesus role to that of eschatological judge only. The other (Paul) focuses on God's benevolence and has a gospel infused with an emphasis on Christ (see esp. Rom. 3:21-31 - the Christological focus has strong affinities to Rom. 1:1-6 in particular).

Why would Paul do this? Why would he intersperse his argument with that of the false teachers? Paul had never been to Rome. He wanted to get the Roman Christians behind him in his mission to Spain. They had probably heard mixed reviews, so he wanted to set the record straight. What better way than a debate between him and his opponents? That's what I believe we have in Romans 1-3 (and possibly Romans 4, I haven't gotten that far yet). There are, in my opinion, clear markers in the text that signal shifts (e.g., nuni de at the start of 3:21 and the very different style of Rom 1:19-31, which I also assign to the teachers) in addition to differences in content. Also, we must remember that Romans was delivered orally, so Phoebe could have made it clear who was speaking when very easily. Additionally, if, as I think, Galatians is better dated later rather than earlier, then the controversy was still fresh and very relevant.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Song of Songs 1:2-4: Desire

2Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, 3your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore the maidens love you. 4Draw me after you, let us make haste. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you. (NRSV)
This is the first of my posts on specific passages of the Song. What you will primarily find is a discussion of metaphor and other literary elements. My goal is to bring out the force of the poetry (much like my posts on Galatians were attempting to bring out the force of Paul's arguments), to help it evoke in us the feeling that I believe the author intended, and in the process form our imagination (in my case reform) and the way we think about sex. I hope that we can replace our culture's dominant dialogue with the Scriptural dialogue.

After that initial discussion, each post will conclude with a reflection on the nature of the relationship, especially the power dynamics at play (I will justify why I am looking at this, particularly, in a later post).

The first section of the song (or first poem) is about desire, a desire so intense that it cannot be contained. It's a desire bred out of knowledge. The woman has experienced the lovemaking of the man and nothing compares.[1] It's experience intoxicates her, it overpowers her, engaging all of her senses. All she wants is to bring him quickly and become lost in him.[2] The effect on her is strong and it lingers like beautiful perfume.

The woman completely adores her beloved. Her descriptions of him are extravagant and exulted. She honors him and worships him as if he were a king, even Solomon. No one compares with him. Is she right to feel this way? She believes she is. Everyone must love her man.[3] She is lucky that she alone possesses him.

It's easy to see after reading this why both Jews and Christians resorted to allegory. It utilizes the language of worship. But (contra Davis), I don't believe that this type of language is inappropriate applied to ones lover. It's part of the royal metaphor that she utilizes. If only every married person felt this way about their spouse. There would be no need for divorce.

This portion of the Song challenges and at times conforms to our preconceived understanding of ancient Jewish culture. The woman has strong desire and it is permissible for her to express it. While we want to avoid generalizing too quickly, this may not be an exceptional case either. We have ancient Egyptian love poems expressing similar sentiments.[4] It may not have been a culture of complete male domination, even after it urbanized. Passion can run both ways and how beautiful it is when it does. Not only can she express her desire, but she does it in a way that initiates. She is not passive. However, it is still up to the man to make the decisive move. He is still in the ultimate position of power. She hopes the he will use it in a way that pleases her.

[1] The translation 'love' in all of the major translations is too ambiguous (so all of the commentaries I used). It is more literally caresses, and thus probably better translated lovemaking (an option only recognized by the HCSB, and then only in the footnotes).

[2] According to Exum, the shift from third person to second person in verse two may be an attempt to conjure up her lover through speech.

[3] I (following Murphy) take the shift from first person singular to first person plural to represent her assumption of how everyone feels. She's speaking for everyone.

[4]  See Fox for helpful and detailed comparisons between the Song and the ancient Egyptian love songs.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Deliverance of God: Skipping a Few and the Road Ahead

I decided that I am going to skip blogging on chapters four through ten. It's certainly not because they're not interesting or important. Several chapters, like the discussion of sociological research on religious conversion, were absolutely fascinating. I'm making the decision purely on the basis of limited time. The issues I've already discussed on this blog are adequate for having serious concerns about the justification theory of salvation. The chapters I'm skipping either develop further concerns, seek to map out how we got this theory, or discuss methodology. I want to deal from this point on with his interaction with the Pauline texts.

Now that I have a good feel for his methodology and have read a little of his critique of the tradition exegesis of Romans 1-4, I think that I will attempt an independent interpretation of Romans 1-4 - actually I did 1-3 at the library today. Look for that soon (as well as a post on the first section of Song of Songs). After that I'll keep rolling along with the Deliverance of God. I will review his critique of the traditional reading of Romans 1-4 (chapter 11) and then his critique of other non-traditional interpreters (like those who are associated with the NPP) (chapter 12). Starting in chapter 13 Campbell will lay out his interpretation, first of Romans 1-4 and then of the rest of Paul. I will thoroughly dissect those sections posing my own readings of Paul alongside when I disagree, and we will see where we come out at the end.