Friday, December 20, 2013

Review of Ehrensperger's Paul at the Crossroads of Cultures

Ehrensperger, Kathy. Paul at the Crossroads of Cultures: Theologizing in the Space-Between. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. xiv + 224 pp. £65.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-0567046369.

Kathy Ehrensperger, Reader in New Testament Studies at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, provides a new paradigm for understanding Paul’s theologizing, one that builds on the emerging fields of bilingualism and biculturalism. She concludes that these frameworks provide a better understanding for the way Paul engages the diverse contexts evident in his mission among the nations. Thus, she calls into question key aspects of standard scholarly constructs and provides a more convincing way forward, one that sees Paul as a cultural negotiator in the space between Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultural discourses.
The introduction (chapter 1) highlights the focus of the study, which is to look at Paul’s role as an intercultural communicator, one who is a mediator between Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultural and ethnic traditions. However, Ehrensperger rejects any claim of fusion or assimilation with regard to these processes. This last point is a crucial and most convincing insight from her work as she builds on the findings of bilingualism and biculturalism to understand more clearly Paul’s approach to communication (e.g. as one embedded in Judaism but conversant in multiple universes of discourse). Chapter 2 interrogates the concepts of Hellenism and hybridity. The former is rejected as a useful way of describing the interaction between Greek and Jewish culture. The source of the problem relates to Johann Gustav Droysen’s original development of the concept and Martin Hengel’s later appropriation of Droysen’s work. The aspect of Hellenism that is most problematic for Ehrensperger is the idea of cultural fusion. Her rejection of that naturally leads her to critique the use of the postcolonial concept of hybridity. Within Pauline studies, Ehrensperger notes two tendencies: (1) a lack of clarity with regard to what is being implied and (2) an expectation of blending in the intercultural encounter. Both concepts are found to be less than useful for Pauline studies specifically. Hybridity contributes to an assumption that the Christ-movement resulted in a third race while Hellenism, with its problematic ideological roots, often posits Hellenistic Judaism as that which paved the way for the universal and higher religious ideals of Christianity.
Having questioned the continuing validity of two crucial concepts in NT studies, chapter 3 outlines Ehrensperger’s suggested way forward, namely the use of bilingualism and biculturalism in an alternative paradigm for understanding Paul’s intercultural interaction.  This chapter convincingly connects language, culture, and identity via the resources of sociolinguistics. The contribution of Pierre Bourdieu is clearly evident, especially his concept of habitus. Ehrensperger navigates the challenges associated with defining culture and ethnicity and concludes that Farzad Sharifian’s idea of cultural conceptualizations connects well with Bourdieu’s work while Floya Anthias’ distinction between ethnic and cultural groups is probative. Of particular interest with regard to Paul is the idea of relational ethnicity; this properly recontextualizes Jewish particularity within wider on-going cultural discourse during the first century CE. The chapter continues by outlining the research into bilingualism and biculturalism especially as it relates to ethnic diversity. It is evident in this section just how pervasively the monolinguistic context of NT scholars has contributed to the premature closing off of certain interpretive options. The chapter concludes with a nuanced discussion of the way a lingua franca does not necessarily lead to cultural blending; rather, localized diversity is more often evident in such a cultural context.
Chapter 4 highlights linguistic, ethnic, and cultural diversity within the Roman Empire. This wide-ranging survey further substantiates Ehrensperger’s claim that blending and fusion of collective identities was not the norm. The preponderance of literary and inscriptional artifacts in Greek and the comparative lack of vernacular languages for these is a challenge to the thesis put forth in this monograph. Thus, this chapter seeks to deconstruct the standard view for the significance of this evidence. Particularly problematic for the standard view are the elite fallacy and the power dynamics associated with provincial collaborators and Rome. Here Ehrensperger’s feminist hermeneutic proves quite useful in discerning problematic interpretive trajectories. A few highlights from this chapter include: (1) a reminder that the use of Greek language does not necessarily imply the acceptance of Greek culture; (2) Jewish literature of the period, identified as barbaric literature, provides an important interpretive lens for understanding ways to respond to Roman and Greek hegemony; (3) since there was no blended ‘Graeco-Roman’ cultural construct during the Early Principate this term should only be use cautiously and with ‘definitional clarity’ (p. 77 n. 72); and (4) bicultural mediators (e.g. Manetho, Lucian, Josephus, and Philo) perform vital functions in any situation of cultural contact and the Early Principate was no exception. These combine to support Ehrensperger’s developing thesis, that ‘Paul and his co-workers…embarked on a mission which included the mediation/translation of an alternative to the dominating imperial discourse rooted in the Jewish alternative tradition that had developed over centuries of interaction with others’ (p. 101).
Chapter 5 places Paul on the first century map with regard to cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Ehrensperger cleverly weaves in and out of existing debates within Pauline studies as they impinge on Paul’s identity and practices as an intercultural meditator. She begins by discussing the way Paul would have been viewed from the perspective of Roman imperial discourse. She then moves into an important review of ethnē from a Roman perspective and provides an overview of the important work done on this topic from the research of Davina Lopez and Brigitte Kahl. Ehrensperger concludes that Paul would have been viewed as a member of a subjugated ethnē; however, he does not describe himself or his own people with the same term –for that he uses the term genos. Thus, Paul’s ‘us and them’ categorization is different than that practiced by the Romans. In the discussion of genos, Ehrensperger see Paul as one who continues to identify with his ‘descent group’, values his Jewishness, and maintains full Torah observance (p. 130). Next Ehrensperger discusses the Jewish perspective on ta ethnē and rejects the idea that such universalizing discourse suggests that Paul thought existing identities were obliterated. The collective identity of members of the nations is not problematic for Paul in the main but only when it results in idolatrous practices. One of the fascinating interpretive moves that Ehrensperger makes is that Paul’s view of Jews and the people from the nations may have not developed in a significant way. Thus for Paul, there was no ‘third kind’ within the Christ-movement; there were ‘those of the peritomē and those of the akrobustia in Christ, but no mixture between them’ (p. 131). This chapter concludes with a profile of Paul’s Jewish identity: he was at least bilingual, received a Greek Jewish education, and would have continued to be identified as one of the peritomē, one embedded ‘in the alternative Greek discourse of his people (genos)’ (p. 137).
Chapter 6 focuses on the role of Israel’s scriptural tradition and its interpretation as it moves between cultural contexts. The development of the LXX serves as an exemplar of the way ideas written within the Hebrew symbolic universe are transformed when translated into Greek. This model serves as a helpful comparison for the challenges Paul, as part of the polyglot Jewish interpretive tradition, dealt with when communicating his gospel since it is sourced in a similar symbolic universe. The influence of Israel’s apocalyptic tradition is also seen in Paul’s writings, especially as it interacts with Roman threats of violence and totalitarianism. Thus, Ehrensperger rightly places the Christ-movement as part of an ‘existing Jewish resistance tradition’ (p. 151). However, this resistance did not lead Paul to conclude that all aspects of one’s former life had been obliterated in Christ. One of the important contributions of Ehrensperger’s work is the recognition of aspects of life among the nations that continue in Christ. The chapter concludes with two examples of the way paying attention to various cultural scripts results in interpretive clarity; these include the unity of Israel and the nations, and the understanding of the social implications of pist- related words. The former reveals Paul as one seeking to achieve unity among the nations in ways that challenged the approach of the Romans, while the latter, emphasizing faithfulness, trust, and loyalty, reveals a stark difference between pist- discourse and Roman fides discourse. Taken together, these two examples show the interpretive value of Ehrensperger’s new paradigm.
Chapter 7 provides an analysis of the challenges associated with everyday ritual life within the Roman Empire. Ehrensperger offers a convincing reading of 1 Corinthians 8-10, one that reveals the difficulty of negotiating the existing ritual experiences of those from the nations. This chapter brings to the fore the significance of the bicultural paradigm and shows Paul to be open to aspects of the cultural life of the nations, as long as these align with God’s glory (1 Cor. 10.31). Also, in her discussion of the table of the Lord, she makes a compelling argument that Paul was not critiquing the Jerusalem Temple but still viewed it as the centre of the cult for the God of Israel, with differing implications for Christ-followers from the nations and from Israel both of whom Christ links in ‘peace’ and ‘mutual empowerment’ (pp. 211, 213). 
Chapter 8 highlights the key components of bilingualism and biculturalism that were relevant to Ehrensperger’s study and synthesizes many of the arguments developed in the preceding chapters. She reminds her readers that, in light of her new paradigm, ‘any attempt to emphasize one dimension involved in this translation process, Jewish, “Greek or barbarian”, at the expense of the other, is inadequate’. Ehrensperger is calling for clear attention to all the narratives of belonging and cultural encyclopedias in existence in the first century CE as a way to better understand the ‘loss and gain’ evident in Paul’s mission as an intercultural mediator (p. 219). For Paul, his gospel discourse remains ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek’ (Rom. 1.16b) and this paradigmatic statement takes on seminal significance in Ehrensperger’s approach. This is not merely a salvation historical statement but one of embeddedness and belonging. Paul’s message required cross-cultural communication which necessitated some familiarity with non-Jewish cult practices, though there is also a distinct lack of integration of existing philosophical or mythic traditions because his ‘narrative framework is entirely Jewish’ (p. 221). The book concludes with an important call to contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue as a direct implication of Paul’s theologizing at the crossroads of cultures.
I found very little to disagree with in this monograph, though one wonders if we can discern with any level of specificity the presence of former God-fearers within Paul’s addressees or the extent to which non-Christ-following Jews are part of Paul’s theologizing. These each deserve further investigation, especially since the latter is crucial for this approach to Paul. What Ehrensperger has presented in Paul at the Crossroads of Cultures is nothing short of a paradigm shift. Her approach, which I see as completely on target, will – in due time – change the way Pauline scholars engage Paul and his diverse contexts. The lenses of bilingualism and biculturalism genuinely move the interpretive discussion forward – a rare achievement in an era of ever-increasing monographs dealing with the apostle Paul. This work is highly recommended and one that Pauline scholars will have to respond to since the implications of her work touch almost every current debate within the field.