Monday, September 13, 2010

Critical Assessment of Rosner's "Paul and the Law", Part 2

Before I discuss the essay in any of its details, which I'll do, I want to address a few of the key assumptions Rosner brings to the essay. Now I write this well aware that Brian is reading these posts. So I hope to be irenic in my evaluation and that the points I raise will spur on the conversation. Moreover, I trust that Brian will feel comfortable pointing out errors, when there are such, in my representation of his perspective. I think it is good to write with the awareness that the person along with whom you are thinking is present. And I want to thank Brian for an interesting and thought provoking essay. So here we go.

First, there is an assumption that one can create affirmations of Paul’s thought from non-assertions. Rosner refers to this kind of evidence as “implicit” and treats it on the same level with Paul’s, one might say, “explicit” evidence. However, whatever the “implicit” evidence might offer it is in no way equal in weight to the explicit. The whole essay is an argument from silence. Perhaps in no other situation does ones larger construct of Paul come into play than when one seeks to create a “compelling story” (p. 417) from silence. And for this reason it is just as well that implicit evidence is “largely overlooked in treatments of Paul” (p. 417).

Second, to refer to the implicit evidence as “omissions” is to interpret the evidence, non-evidence really, before actually reading it. To label the so-called silences as “omissions” reveals a position on the question before setting out to answer it. It assumes at least in part that Paul decided to leave out something he might have on other occasions or times included. Anyone who has preached the same message to different audiences will understand that one may “omit” information in one setting that was appropriate in another. However, why should we characterize the non-evidence as omissions? By the way, I’m even having trouble knowing what terms to use to refer to Rosner’s evidence.

One other assumption, although this bleeds over into point of view, is the categories with which this essay functions. Rosner seems boil the groups down to either Jew or Christian and concludes that Paul says one thing about Jews and another about Chrsitians. This bipolar perspective on the constituency of Paul’s communities and early Christianity is in need of critical evaluation. Paul himself stands as one who is BOTH a Jew and a believer in Jesus. Paul’s language about himself in the context of Romans 2, which is the focus of Rosner’s essay, moves easily between Jew (notice the first person references – e.g. 2:5) and Christ believer. These then are not airtight categories of identity. Thus, the bottom line is Rosner’s assessment at the end of the day falls down primarily because of its lack of sophistication with respect to Paul’s understanding, and indeed the situation on the ground in the first century, of Christian identity.


Mr Veale said...

I'm not so sure. To take a contemporary example - Many journalists commented on Amanda Knox's oral defence at her trial for the murder of Meredith Kerchner. It was a passionate defence. But never once did Knox say "I did not kill her. I did not participate in her murder." The jury may have found this omission highly significant.

A little more mundane - in preaching my views on certain topics have been discerned in the past by what I failed to say. For example, I've failed to stress the imminence of the Parousia, which betrayed to one irritated congregant that I was not a Dispensationalist! (Which reveals quite a lot of information about my theology, if I'm preaching in an Irish Baptist Church).

Closer to home - and probably a little more relevant - many commentators have closely scrutinised what Paul left out of his discussion of the Resurrection.

It also feels like Paul is putting some distance between himself and "the Jews" at this stage of the argument. When it comes to certain issues, he may feel a degree of alienation from his heritage, and at other times he can feel close to it.
We all compartmentalise like this at the end of the day.

Mr Veale said...

To clarify the last point - I'm not sure that Paul moves between identities all that *easily*

Joel Willitts said...

My point is that this highly speculative and is not reliable evidence for historical reconstruction. Furthermore ones wider view of paul shouts in the silence.

Mr Veale said...

My point is that it is not *obviously* highly speculative. What we fail to say can be highly revealing, and I think that I've given three examples of occasions where other people have, quite justifiably, found significance in what was omitted.

I'm also not sure that "historical reconstruction" is the only issue here. The meaning of the text is a different (but related) issue to reconstructing the mind of the apostle, or the state of the Churches in 1st century Rome.

Nevertheless, what is omitted can be significant in reconstructing an authors' intentions. Eg. what Josephus *doesn't* say about the Jewish aristocracy; what he *doesn't* say about the Romans.

I think that this is very interesting, by the way, and I'm interested to see where this discussion goes....(and I would like to see some criteria laid down as to when and how we can use omissions. Sometimes absence of evidence is evidence of absence, sometimes it isn't. But I think that absence of evidence can confirm one hypothesis over another. And wouldn't we expect to see some of this language used by Paul for Christians and the Torah?)


Joel Willitts said...

Thanks for your comments. I hear you agreeing with me that it could only really be corroborative evidence, this "implicit evidence". And I'll agree with you on that point. However, I don't think it can have anything more than a complementary role. Furthermore, in view of the fact that with Paul's letters we only have historically contingent documents focused on very specific issues, I don't see how we can make assumptions from silence. And Rosner has chosen what is arguably one of Paul's most rhetorical section in Romans which means it must be handled with the greatest of care.

One last point, I am not sure using "Christian" and "Jew" as categories of identity for Paul is even appropriate. I think it clouds the issue. Or better it makes a cloudy issue (Jewish-Chrisitan identity) seemingly clear and more cut and dried. If Paul distanced himself from some Jews of his day--which he certainly did, it was in fact as a Jew not as a Christian. And he apparently viewed the Messiah as the very extension of the Torah (Rm 10:4-5). So one could argue, from silence that Paul believed a Jew who relied on the Messianic Torah to the Glory of God was in the right. Can we assume that this would be his view of Jewish believers in Jesus? Or, and I'll focus on this in a later post, would a Jewish believer in Jesus have had to conform with this implicit Paul? Or would they follow the explicit Paul? I think that Rosner is indeed on to something when he notes that Paul makes distinctions between a Jews relationship to Torah and another group's, however in my view it is not a difference between Jew and Christian.