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The Political Paul. Justice, Democracy and Kingship in a Hellenistic Framework.
London-New York: T & T Clark (Continuum) 2003. 507 S. gr.8° = Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Supplement Series, 210. Kart. £ 35,00. ISBN 0-567-08081-1.
This book forms part of an important trend of studies that ask about the political dimension of Paul’s thought. In an American context, the trend was inaugurated with a series of volumes edited by Richard A. Horsley: Paul and Empire (1997), Paul and Politics (2000), Paul and the Roman Imperial Order (2004) and more. In a European context, one should mention a number of thinkers from outside the scholarly guild: Jacob Taubes (Die Politische Theologie des Paulus, 1993), Alain Badiou (Saint Paul. La fondation de l’universalisme, 1997), Giorgio Agamben (Il tempo che resta. Un commento alla Lettera ai Romani, 2000). Within this in itself quite diversified group of works, B. takes up an independent position with a profile that is entirely his own.
B. himself produces the following summary of his thesis, which focuses on a reading of Romans: »[In Romans,] Paul develops a theory that displays the influence of Hellenistic Pythagorean political philosophy. On the one hand, Paul stresses the human polis-type organizational pattern of the communities he establishes; on the other, he focuses on the divine basileia, the blueprint and goal of the ekklesia. The pivotal concept in each of the two configurations is dikaiosyne. The eminently political charge that dikaiosyne carries is given a unique sweep by having it qualified by pistis in the case of the polis and by theos in the case of basileia. Christ – the equivalent of the nomos empsuchos of the Hellenistic authors, the law that is the end of the law – operates the connection and makes possible the exchange between the two realms. The Christian ekklesia, just like the Hellenistic polis that inspired it, retains a considerable degree of autonomy even as it submits to a central, higher authority. At the same time, Paul’s Christian polis is not only not in opposition to Rome, it is actually supportive of Rome, the empire that makes the Christian polis feasible and that Paul’s Christian ekklesiai will convert. In the end, the fates of the Christ-polis and of Rome overlap and become identified, just as, at the very end, the human polis collapses into the divine basileia« (411–412). B. at one point states that »like Rome itself, he [Paul] works in large sweeps« (307). In reaction to the thesis as just stated, one may perhaps be allowed to return the compliment: B. himself works in large sweeps, too.
After an introduction, which also comments on method, B. discusses in his Part I (36–274) the classical sources for political thought (chapter 1 on Plato and chapter 2 on Aristotle), the political dimension in general of the Pauline letters (chapter 3) and then engages in a detailed discussion – the book’s great novelty – of the Hellenistic Pythagorean Corpus of political writings, which he divides into a »polis group« (chapter 4) and a »basileia group« (chapter 5). In his Part II (276–450), he deals with the philosophical understanding of the early Roman empire in contemporary sources, and with Paul’s understanding, too (chapter 6), with Pauline politics in Philippians (a brief chapter 7) and then delivers an extensive reading of Romans (chapter 8), which is followed by a discussion (chapter 9) of four more or less exemplary scholars who have had pronounced views on either dikaiosyne in Paul, the Letter to the Romans or the idea of »partnership«: Käsemann, Dunn, Stowers and Sampley.
I will present my view of the book under five headings. Politics and religion. A major problem lies in B.’s use of the term »politics«. Everything is political. And although B. is fully aware of other, more traditional readings of Paul, which are »theological«, he does not allow that there might be a central perspective in Paul that is not political, but, for instance, religious.
An example of this problem is B.’s claim about the monarchic dimension of Paul’s Christian polis. He derives this from the group of Hellenistic Pythagorean writings that elaborate on kingship and, in particular, on the divine character of the proper king. (These are the writings On Kingship by Ps.-Ecphantus, Diotogenes and Sthenidas.) The reasoning seems to be this: These writings describe the king as a god. Paul describes God (and sometimes also Christ) as a king. Hence, if the Pythagoreans writings are exercises in political thought in the straightforward way that they are about how to understand the earthly kings of this world, then the Pauline letters, too, must be the same kind of exercise in political thought. But of course this does not in the least follow. Instead, if one allows that political thought, as defined, e. g., by what Aristotle took it to be, differs from the kind of thought we find in Paul, which takes as its starting-point ideas about God and Christ, then what one should say about Paul is that he employs concepts and categories derived from the realm of politics proper (in the Aristotelian sense) in order to say something important about God and Christ – but without thereby turning what he says about them into politics proper.
This argument, of course, hangs on the possibility of distinguishing between politics proper and religious discourse. B. would reject this possibility, probably not for Aristotle himself, but both for the Hellenistic Pythagoreans and, even more, for Paul. To B., what one finds in Paul is genuine politics – even if it is a »political eschatology« that B. takes to be »the Hellenistic mood gone wild« (151). Thus the Pauline »state« is a real state, namely, a »political-transcendental state« (421). However, even though it is certainly true to say that »religion and politics cannot be separated«, neither in the ancient world (and certainly not within Judaism) nor presumably in the modern world, we need the distinction (along the lines already suggested by Aristotle) in order to be able to analyse just how religion and politics hang together. To jump across this vital distinction is a major flaw.
Apocalypticism. Closely connected with that problem is B.’s handling of Paul’s apocalypticism. He does not like it at all. He thinks that 1Thessalonians – with its massive and quite concretely apocalyptical cosmology – is »Paul’s uniquely eschatological document« (390, n. 269). He spends a single paragraph (397–398) on Paul’s repetition in Rom 13:11–14 from 1Thessalonians 5 of his fundamental, apocalyptic outlook. And he speaks of »Paul’s disinterest, or let us say his mild interest, in eschatology« (428). Surely, however, apocalypticism is pervasively present in Paul (denied on 449, n. 74). And it is to be understood in quite concrete, cosmological terms as a story about being transported into the air (cf. 1Thess 4:17) and being transformed into the pneumatic stuff of the heavenly bodies of the sun, the moon and the stars (cf. 1Cor 15:35–55). Statements such as these are not directly political ones.
Politics and ethics or the social. Another side of B.’s blowing »the political« up to cover almost everything is his downplaying of the ethical and paraenetic dimension of Paul’s thought. »Good and bad are as much/principles of politics as of ethics. Their definitions arise from considerations of civic order. What is good for the state is good; what is bad is what makes the state falter« (400–401). Again, one must distinguish. It is certainly true that Paul may describe the life that takes place within his congregations by means of genuinely political terms like politeuesthai in Phil 1:27. It is also true that he may address his readers by drawing on ideas that also had a place in ordinary political rhetoric, like the idea of homonoia (unity of mind). Moreover, Paul probably did see his congregations in quasi-political terms as a kind of alternative ekklesia (assembly). Still, it does not follow that he does not also see his injunctions as what they palpably are: ethical injunctions (to judge, again, from an Aristotelian conception of ethics). After all, even Aristotle, who had a clear grasp of both ethics and politics, discussed the virtue of justice (dikaiosyne) in his Ethics.
In short, we need to keep in place both the apocalyptic character of the politeuma of Paul’s visions and the broader ethical and social connotations of his accounts of the ekklesia here and now.
Paul and Rome. In this light we can see why B.’s immediately counter-intuitive thesis about Paul’s relationship with Rome is in fact false. The conciliatory tone in Rom 13:1–7 should certainly not be explained away. But neither should one forget the complexity of Paul’s relationship with the present world, as is evidenced, for instance, by his instructions in 1Corinthians 7 about the way to handle the world in the light of the fact that »the shape of the present world is disappearing« (1Cor 7:31). The task here for a political reading of Paul is both to acknowledge Paul’s position on Rome as expressed in Rom 13:1–7 and also to acknowledge his genuinely apocalyptic stance vis-à-vis the present world. In this respect, B. signally fails.
Too large sweeps. How should one explain the various failures I have identified? The basic reason, as I see it, is that instead of starting, as one should, from below – from the painstaking analysis of Paul’s individual arguments, claims and points and the functions they may have within each individual letter – B. always starts from above and never really gives himself the time to analyse what the texts themselves are actually saying. A few examples of his procedure must suffice.
Throughout the book B. argues that the dikaiosyne theou that is operative in the Pauline Christian polis viewed as a monarchy is »distributive justice« of the kind found in Aristotle’s analysis of justice. The idea is that God’s justice is distributed to people »in proportion to one’s pistis« (337). For this idea B. refers (e. g. 433) to Paul’s talk of analogia in Rom 12:3. But there is no real analysis anywhere in the book of the actual meaning of what Paul says in those last few words of 12:3, in spite of the fact that the verse is referred to and commented upon a great many times. In fact, it seems impossible to me to get B.’s preferred sense out of Paul’s own words.
In his section-for-section discussion of Romans, B. divides up 7:1–8:39 into two sections: »7.1–11 (continued in 9.1–18), a theory of type; and 7.12–8.39, Pauline psychology« (350). This is very counter-intuitive. But B. never allows himself to argue his case, nor even to raise the question of its textual basis. Similarly, his renderings on p. 364 of Rom 8:27, 8:33–34, 8:34 and 8:35–36 are in themselves deeply problematic. What is worse, however, is that they are both unargued and undefended.
On p. 322 B. suggests – albeit in a parenthesis – that 1Thess 2:2 should be understood as saying that when Paul was hybristheis (in the plural: hybristhentes) »in Philippi«, what is meant is that the Philippians themselves »revolted against him in an act tantamount to political disobedience« – which is then taken to »explain the political focus of the Letter to the Philippians«. However, this quite special and counter-intuitive reading of 1Thess 2:2 is neither argued for nor at all discussed.
On p. 138 B. claims that »Paul, like Aristotle, makes charis and autarkeia near-synonyms«: »For Aristotle, the telos of the state is the good life (eu zen), and the end of such life is charis and autarkeia«. The reference for the latter, quite startling claim is to Aristotle’s Politics 3.1280b35, which B. quotes as follows: zoes teleias charin kai autarkous. A check of the original lifts the fog. B. has not seen that charin is here a preposition with the genitive, meaning »for the sake of (a life that is perfect and self-sufficient)«.
I have already indicated that I consider B.’s book – a published version of his 1997 PhD thesis from Columbia University – a failure. But it is failure from which one can learn a substantial amount about how not to address the thorny issue of Paul and politics. It seems to me that there are at least four lessons to be learned.
First, one must be very careful to define exactly how one understands the term of »politics« itself. Here one should presumably take as one’s starting-point both the best ancient definition that one can find (e. g. Aristotle’s) and also some precise modern definition. Second, one should be exceedingly careful not to import an unreflected modern notion according to which »everything is politics«. In some sense that claim is probably true. But one must specify that sense and allow the required differentiations to be made within such a view. Third, in spite of the fact that it is notoriously exceedingly difficult to define the concept of »religion«, one should not give up using it altogether. Fourth, any claim about the political meaning of Paul’s thought should be developed out of a painstaking analysis of his individual arguments, claims and points and their various functions within the letters, that is, from the bottom up. Of large-sweep claims about Paul and politics there are far too many on the market.