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Awkward questions for Pauline scholars

26 October 2012

John Court considers current approaches

Studying Paul's Letters: Contemporary perspectives and methods
Joseph A. Marchal, editor
Fortress Press £21.99
Church Times Bookshop £19.80 (Use code CT895 )

WHAT do new readers or students of Paul's letters need to know or do when beginning to study his writings? (This is a real question, not rhetorical or one with a simple answer that the author already has in mind.) What effect does the choice of study method have on our understanding?

This volume offers 11 chapters on a variety of critical methods or selective approaches to the texts. They originated in a Society of Biblical Literature conference in Atlanta in November 2010 on "Paul and the Politics of Introduction", and have been honed by use in seminars and group-teaching to become a course textbook on intro­ductory methods.

"Paul's words have been used for various modern social purposes such as telling slaves to obey their masters, Jews that they are no longer God's chosen people, women that they should be subordinate to men, and homosexuals that their rela­tionships are unnatural."

In contrast, contributors here advise on:

• Asking historical questions of Paul in relation to our own historical understanding, using archaeological evidence and sociological and economic theories to clarify Paul's world.
• Seeing Paul's letters as rhetorical exercises in the art of persuasion.
• Adjusting the priorities between word and image in studying the art of communication in a society that is only partially literate.
• Taking seriously the cultural and ideological perspectives of feminism, Judaism, and African-American, Asian-American, and "Queer" approaches, in order to reinterpret the text appropriately in these ways.

Many of these contributions advise radical methods of approach which are subversive of the post-Enlighten­ment traditions of academic biblical scholarship. But such awkward questions deserve serious attention in today's society, although the American orientation of these chapters (rhetorically trans­cendental and transatlantic?) may present some obstacles for the British reader.

Dr Court is Hon. Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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