My Beautiful Wickedness

I don’t know Thom Stark…
June 28, 2007, 12:24 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

but I appreciate guys who think, who know what they think, and who can articulate why they think what they think. I found this entry on his blog today and…I don’t know…I found it heartening to find a young serious-minded peace theologian-in-training, even if the whole Pauline trip is not one that I’ll be taking with him.


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I confess my thanks for your generous introduction, and I confess my curiosity about your comment on my “Pauline trip.” Have you read any of the following: Liberating Paul, by Neil Elliott, Paul and Empire, and/or Paul and Politics, and/or Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, and/or Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance, all edited by Richard Horsley? It would be worth your time to at least read a couple of these.

Thanks again for the link, and for dropping by my blog.

Grace and peace.

Comment by thomstark

Thom, thanks for stopping by. I’m not a theologian; I’m a historian who just likes to think a lot about big ideas like “what is justice?” and “what does God require of us?” and so forth, so I certainly can’t claim anything more than a passing knowledge of the brief for Paul. I know plenty about the misuses of Paul, particularly in the justifications for excluding women from the pulpit. You note the practice at your current school and I agree with you that God is not with this particular practice. So, coming from this position of limited knowledge, I concluded that I was not so much a fan of Paul as you were.

But I am a colonial historian too and my dominant concern is resistance to empire. The “hidden transcripts/arts of resistance” title comes from the work of James Scott, a sociologist who wrote Domination and the Arts of Resistance — a key text in my subfield. So if there is a good case to be made for Paul as an anti-imperialist, I’d certainly be willing to add that into my mix and see what it changes for me.

I can see, for example, where Paul’s exhortation to invest Christian marriage with bodily mutuality might have been intended as a rejection of or challenge to the Roman familia, their diverse practices of marriage (including the chattelage of the bride under manus, and the paterfamilial law. However, there was considerable turmoil in Roman society around that time over the practice of marriage (raising taxes on the unmarried as a means of compelling marriage) and some upper-class families were angered at what they saw as state interference in marriage. I guess I’d be more inclined to read Paul’s pronouncements as a greater piece of that debate. Recall that it was Augustus who wrote “If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance; but since nature has so decreed that we cannot live comfortably with them, nor live in any way without them, we must plan for our lasting preservation rather than for our contemporary pleasure.” To me that sounds a lot like Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5. Likewise, Paul’s stress on the production of children is wholly Roman Empire (pardon the pun).

But as I said, I’ll need to read and think. Thanks for the citations and the opportunity to learn something new.

Comment by bridgett

Heh. Now at least I’ve had a brief asynchronous conversation with Thom Stark. Maybe I should change the blog post title.

Comment by bridgett

Ha. Maybe.

Yes, I’m reading Domination and the Arts of Resistance currently, and I’ve got Weapons of the Weak, Seeing Like a State, and The Moral Economy of the Peasant sitting on my shelf, in line. The full title of Hidden Transcripts is Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance: Applying the Work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul. It’s very good. But Paul and Empire is probably the most important of the four books, and it deals with a lot of the questions you’ve raised here.

While there certainly are sometimes some similarities between Paul and the established imperial morality, I think it is important to ask whether Paul is being Roman or Jewish, and if the latter, whether his moralism is really as convergent with the Roman order as it appears prima facie. Moreover, I think there are several instances where Paul takes the imperial morality and changes it ever-so-slightly in such a way that the whole thing is subverted. The relationship between a husband and wife is one instance.

As an aside, are you sure you got the 1 Thess 4:3-5 citation right? Because that doesn’t sound much at all like the Augustus quote.

Thanks for the good discussion.

Comment by thomstark

Maybe not…I always get this one mixed up with 1 Corinthians 7: 25-31, which on further thought is actually the set of verses I meant (being married as a source of distress which one would be better off without). When I’ve read it in conjunction with the 1 Thess 4 verse (where Paul again insists that one should eschew sexual immorality, not like the pagans do (his audience would have understood this as a rejection of everything but the manus form of Roman marriage)), I guess I walk away with the idea that he is not wild about marriage (and would prefer, like any other right-thinking guy, to be free of the nuisance of familial obligations) but that he understands that it is a human necessity. In that, I hear an echo of Augustus. Likewise, his idea that you should marry whoever you wish was congruent with Augustus’s policies on allowing every man except Senators to marry any free woman they wanted and still have legitimate issue.

Isn’t Paul both Roman *and* Jewish? Or is hermeneutics out of fashion now?

Comment by bridgett

What’s that supposed to mean? 🙂 First, no Paul wasn’t Roman from Paul’s perspective. The only time he ever mentioned his citizenship was when he was about to be whipped. But he never spoke of himself as a Roman in any way that suggests his citzenship affected his theology or ethics. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t necessarily have some Roman or Greek influences, but my point was that we ought first to look to see if Paul’s position can be fitted within Judaism, and whether that better explains Paul than a reference to Roman moralism. You can have something that looks the same but is really very different in a different context.

While I think the parallel between Augustus’s quote and Paul’s discussion of marriage in Romans 7 is interesting, I do not think it is at all helpful for explaining Paul. The reasons Paul gives for his position are quite different than those of Augustus, even antithetical in some respects. Augustus sees marriage as a nuisance in general. Paul’s reasons are eschatological, not general. Augustus’s reasons for finally commending marriage are purely utilitarian–to keep the race going. Paul did not share that motivation, because he believed the end of the world was immanent, and because he believed that the preservation of humanity was more dependent upon conversion than procreation. Paul’s reason for commending marriage to some is to avoid sexual immorality, not to preserve the race. Plus, Paul’s reason for commending celibacy is not that women are a nuisance but that preparation for the impending kingdom of God is more important. It is entirely based in his apocalypticism, thus in his Jewishness.

So while there are some similarities between the two views, I think in the end they end up being very different indeed.

Peace to you.

Comment by Thom Stark

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