Contemporary Perspectives by Ben Witherington, III

In his essay, “Contemporary perspectives on Paul”, Ben Witherington, III exposes the reader to some various recent perspectives on Paul and his letters.  The author starts the article with “Fresh winds are blowing through the corridors of Pauline studies…” and although some might be really new perspectives, I am not convinced they are really valuable perspectives.   “New and contemporary” immediately strikes me as suspect, as Jesus is the same yesterday, today… and tomorrow.  Since Witherington offered a discussion in four parts, I will approach each in that order as well.

Jewish perspectives on Paul

Witherington makes a statement about close scrutiny by Jewish scholars is really about what makes a Jew a Jew and “Paul appears to address issues of contemporary relevance” in modern Judaism.  He further asserts the study of Paul by Jewish scholars since the Holocaust in the 1940’s with regard to concerns about Paul’s writings as used for anti-Semitic ways, some even blaming Paul for inventing Christian hostility towards Judaism.  Ultimately the author describes Segal as purporting Paul as bringing Judaism to its proper climax or completion, while other “traditional Christian interpreters” simply describe Pauls’ defection or apostasy from true Judaism.

Although the idea of looking at Paul’s letters in the context of “current” events (the Holocaust in the 1940’s), it is obvious that Paul did not write in the context of specific future events in mind.  Much like any human author, Paul wrote within his current knowledge and cultural context; the fact that we, today, can apply his writings and make them relevant to our current situations is a grace and the work of God, who is the true author of sacred scripture.

The author does not firmly establish what it means to be Jewish.  We might say Paul was, in fact a good Jew If we identify the following as a minimum for good Jew: Monotheism, Election and Expectation.  Before and after his “conversion”, Paul held onto the concept of monotheism.  Paul encountered Christ, learned about Christ.  In fact, in acknowledging Christ as God and maintaining monotheistic concepts, Paul took the hard route to explain who and what Christ truly is to the Jewish people.  For Election, again Paul keeps the basic concepts the same, but does so in the context of Christ and an intimate God.  Paul does not throw out the Tora or the Pentateuch; he does not propose there is no temple, but he turns these around a bit to a challenging but ultimately truthful perspective: the law, the book, the land is still what God promised, just not exactly as Jews might have though.  Which leads to Expectation, that is the waiting for the Messiah.  Paul is declaring He has come!

Witherington or the scholars he notes do not acknowledge that we simply do not have enough information on Paul and his entire life.  Furthermore, the author does not put into context the scripture he refers to in Romans 10:12-13 (For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him. 13For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”) and the final conclusion that “‘we’ are no longer under the law.”  In fact, Paul writes earlier in that same letter “For Christ is the end of the law for the justification of everyone who has faith.” (Rom 10:4).  This is final part of the Expectation: the law and justification.

Feminist and liberationist perspectives on Paul

Witherington recognizes “Feminist biblical interpretations is a species of liberationist hermeneutics” and so entertains them here.  While Fiorenza claims Paul inherited an egalitarian movement already in progress, she starts to bend the equality narrative to her own personal, feminist perspectives.  Additionally, Wire introduces some radical ideas on feminism through hermeneutics of suspicion, stating Paul is “trying to curtail” women.  Witherington rightly counters those claims with references to Paul’s letters to Corinthians 11 & 14. Witherington suggests Paul was targeting decent, good and orderly behavior really on the Gentile males from “certain practices.” 

Finally, Witherington shares Castelli’s interpretation that is not viable about Paul being coercive. Castelli takes partial verses like “be imitators of me” to be forcible and self-centered, as if Paul is only talking about himself and how to act.  Witherington cites 1 Cor 4:9-13 – it is Paul who is imitating Christ; Paul is asking us to imitate Christ with him.  Castelli completely misses the meaning by being myopic and selective in her scripture reading.

In this section, I see the dangerous propensity for using Paul as a source of inspiration for those fighting oppression and injustice; using scripture to support their own personal agenda or view of the world without looking at the larger picture.

Rhetorical studies of Paul’s letters

Witherington suggests that widespread lack of studying classics has led to less than adequate understanding of Paul’s letters.  Support for better study and theology (which requires studying the classics) is found in Divino Afflante Spritu (Encyclical of Pope Pius XII), which implores better exegetical study (mostly among the clergy at the time). 

Witherington claims Paul to be a master of rhetoric, to the point that most contemporary commentators fail to recognize Paul’s use of rhetoric and thus draw wrong conclusions.  But his is not new, as the encyclical cited was published in 1943.

Examination of Paul’s letters as scripture

Witherington introduces two authors who make suggestions on how to approach Paul’s letters as scripture.  In the last section of the article, I agree with Child’s premise that Letters do not have theology, people do (definition of theology is: the study of the nature of God and religious belief).

I do take exception at Witherington’s questioning of the normative form of the text in canonical work when the words are “not from the putative inspired author whose authority lies behind the text.”  I would counter that Witherington has not clearly established the author of sacred text: God himself, not Paul, is the author.  We believe this to be the writings of Paul (or his proxy), but the true author is considered to be God himself using Paul as a human mouthpiece.

In the end, Childs suggests the canonical nature of Paul’s writings can be used to hermeneutically “triumph” over perceived historical differences because they contain both Pauline and post-Pauline elements.  This is in line with the premise that we must interpret Sacred Scripture from a holistic approach.

Witherington did review some new perspectives, but those that were new, are likely old rehashes of similar misinterpretations for sacred scripture; the same kind that get us into trouble today.