Echoes and Empire Criticism: Christoph Heilig on Hays, Barclay, and Wright/Elliott

This post falls under one of my favorite categories on this blog, namely “German scholars”. The purpose of this category is to introduce German scholars and their research to the English-speaking world. Each post will consist of (I) an excerpt (or several excerpts) from a publication submitted by the German author her/himself and (II) some biographical-bibliographical information about the scholar in question.

Today’s German scholar is Christoph Heilig (cf. here) of the University of Zürich, with whom I have worked closely this year (cf. here) on our co-translations of Michael Wolter’s commentary on Luke for the BMSEC series and Oda Wischmeyer‘s wonderful essay in God and the Faithfulness of Paul: A Critical Examination of the Pauline Theology of N.T. Wright (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, Forthcoming 2015).

I have asked Heilig to send me three excerpts from his 2015 book Hidden Criticism? The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul, which I read with great profit with regard to its content and with great appreciation for the skill with which he translated his original German manuscript.

I. Echoes and Empire Criticism

On Hays

So what can we conclude on this basis? First, the set of criteria invites the uncritical interpreter to overemphasise certain factors since, in part, Hays’s criteria are only sub-factors of other criteria, and they should not be used as separate touchstones since this would yield an unrealistic result. For example, one could get the impression that it is correct to treat “Satisfaction” and “Volume” as two different arguments – although “Satisfaction” cannot be determined without analysing its subordinate aspects. Second, there is the danger of underemphasising the aspect of “Satisfaction.” Most exegetes probably are not aware of the fact that this factor makes up half (!) of the overall plausibility of an echo because it is only one of seven tests in Hays’s list. Third, another danger in using Hays’s criteria is that parts of the relevant data could be overlooked since the criteria are spread out rather chaotically across the two large factors in Bayes’s theorem and defined rather vaguely. To give just one example: How do we know that we have really covered all the relevant ground to determine the crucial factor of the background plausibility? How do we know the criteria Hays suggested do not leave important gaps in the evaluation of the data? Related to this, fourth, is the problem that the consequences of failing and fulfilling a test are unclear. The criteria function cumulatively, and what is missing in one area in terms of plausibility can be counterbalanced by another. Without a control mechanism, this becomes quite an arbitrary way of weighing evidence.

In light of all of this, it does not seem advisable to use Hays’s criteria as a methodologically sound way to identify echoes. To be sure, it is possible to come to well-founded conclusions on their basis (conclusions that agree with an inference in terms of Bayes), but in these cases it is not the set of criteria itself which guarantees the success, but their wise use, which attributes the correct significance to each of them. The danger of such a methodological procedure is that intuitive decisions, which are made in advance, are sanctioned afterwards by “tests” which have the appearance of scientific method.

On Barclay

When Barclay emphasises that for Paul the real frontier is a cosmic battle, this is probably correct. It would be wrong to negate this and to try to attribute this role to the Roman Empire. Instead, the really important question is whether Paul’s perception of everyday reality was multi-layered or not. Just because he would have agreed with Barclay that the most important conflict is the one between sin and the Spirit, does not mean that it does not affect ordinary decisions and behaviour on a lower level. The foundational conflict in Gal 5:17, for example, is followed in 5:19–26 by very concrete expressions of this battle. Similarly, the book of Acts gives us a good impression of the various local complications of Paul’s mission through his contemporaries, and nevertheless, without further explanation, he is able to say in 1 Thess 2:18 that it was Satan who hindered him from visiting the church. Hence, it would be wrong to say that these “ordinary” things were only peripheral to Paul. The concrete, contemporaneous circumstances do not just float around in space without evaluation just because Paul has a cosmic perspective. Rather, he interprets the events and conditions confronting him within such a wider framework.

We thus have to argue, against Barclay, that Paul’s concrete judgements of specific contemporaneous phenomena as expressions of cosmic forces result from his theological interpretation of the world and do not contradict it at all. On the contrary, if we assume the latter, we should also expect the former, wherever contemporary figures claim roles (saviour of the world etc.) that are attributed to other persons in the divine drama.

On Wright/Elliott

The implicit presupposition of Wright and Elliott seems to be: “If Paul had had free hand, he would have formulated his criticism more openly.” This assumes that the subtext is not an effective tool for persuasion. But is the use of subtext really only explicable in terms of restricting the “actual” opinion? My approach challenges the idea that using the subtext is a kind of second class level of communication necessitated by oppressive circumstances.

This claim is demonstrated – of all things – by the method which the proponents of a subtext-hypothesis adduce: Hays’s scriptural “echoes.” It is astonishing that Wright and Elliott refer to Hays’s criteria but do not spend enough time on the question of what this implies for the character of the literary phenomenon itself. An echo – be it scriptural or imperial – evokes a scenery in the imagination of the reader by means of only a very short phrase. … The effect of an “echo” thus can be much bigger than the one of bare juxtaposition. The reason for this effectiveness is that narrative structures are formative for worldviews, and echoes are able to evoke alternative scenarios in the imagination, which can have persuasive power. Stories are able to challenge other stories and the worldviews they represent much more effectively than purely factual criticism.

This can also be applied to our subject. It is by no means clear that Paul’s best option for expressing the Messiah’s superiority over against imperatorial claims would have been the blunt assertion “We trust in Jesus not in Caesar!” The claims of Roman imperial ideology were not indifferent statements which could be judged in a detached manner. Nor would this judgement have been something which could have been simply appropriated by decision. These claims, rather, included assertions concerning the structure and nature of reality as it pertained directly to the individual. To question them meant to question a worldview and thus to imply alternative stories. Conversely, alternative narratives implicitly contested the existing paradigm. Contrary to the simple stating of antitheses, stories also offer a reason for accepting these dichotomies by offering a superior meta-structure whose acceptance is facilitated by appealing to the imagination. If Rom 1:1–17 really is a “parody of the imperial cult,” this poses the question whether Paul’s echo-like, resonance-evoking formulation could not have been the most appropriate means to express this powerful contrast (instead of simply being the “safer” way of communication). Similarly, when Paul tells the story of the exaltation of the Messiah in Phil 2:6–11, which climaxes in the worship of the κύριος Jesus – a “stilisierte Kurzerzählung darüber, wie ein Hochwohlgeborener sich dafür qualifiziert, die universale Herrschaft zu erhalten” – I am under the impression that it would (a) not have done justice to Paul’s primary aim of discourse if he had denied the Lordship of Caesar directly (Section 2.2.1) nor would it (b) have been more effective to choose such a procedure.

II. Biographical-Biographical Information

After studying theology at the Freie Theologische Hochschule Gießen, Christoph Heilig went to the University of St Andrews where he received a Master of Letters in “Biblical Languages and Literature” in 2013. Having done additional studies in Göttingen, he is now working with Prof. Jörg Frey on a research project funded by the SNF at the University of Zurich. It deals with the question of the role of narrative substructures for understanding Paul’s letters (see further here). He has also worked on various philosophical issues, which is reflected in part in the methodological approach of his book Hidden Criticism. Being influenced in particular by the linguistic emphasis of Prof. Heinrich von Siebenthal, he is currently completing an in-depth analysis of the function of the metaphor of the Roman triumph in 2 Cor 2:14. His strong interest in the enhancement of the dialogue between German and English biblical scholarship is reflected in, among other things, a volume on N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which he is editing together with Jay Thomas Hewitt and Michael Bird for WUNT II (see here). Further information about Christoph Heilig can be found here.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne