Friday, July 1, 2011

The Future of the People of God Review Part I

Many books one reads, especially in the area of biblical studies, are solid and sane, but very few have the potential to shift entire paradigms in the way we think about a figure or text. Andrew Perriman's The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom (Wipf and Stock; 2010; $22.00) has this rare potential. Based on this proclamation, one would think that a) What else can be said regarding Romans? After all, isn't Romans (along with John's Gospel), probably the most researched, written about book within the canon, and indeed, all of Western civilization? and b) Being that this monograph is about Paul's letter to the Romans, and has the potential to shift paradigms, one would think that like Douglas Campbell's The Deliverance of God, that this volume would reach quadruple digits in length. Addressing this latter concern plays a part in the overall strength of this volume. Perriman is to be commended for packing an immense amount of material in a mere 159 pages! Although Perriman, has a relatively short bibliography (31 works by 27 authors), he has chosen his sparing partners wisely (e.g. Dunn, Wright, Kirk, Moo, Gathercole, Campbell, Käsemann, etc.).  Moreover, the author has obviously done his homework, as a myriad of canonical, Second Temple texts, and Greco-Roman literature, has been employed in defense of his thesis.

 So, what is Perriman's thesis exactly? We now return to the uniqueness of his contribution. Perriman sees Romans as an apocalyptic text, that is rooted in history with a "historical frame of reference"(3) and that this historical frame of reference could include both Nero's "great Day of Fire" (AD 64; Tacitus Ann. 15.44; cf. Suetonius Nero 16.2), which led the emperor to blame the Christians for the devastating fire that destroyed much of Rome, and subsequently had them executed, along with the Jewish war (AD 66-73), which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70. Secondly, Perriman reminds the reader of the precarious existence of the early church and the world in which they inhabited, that was "dominated by the pagan gods and subject to the savage and unaccountable foibles of the ruling elite"(3). After making these two observations, Perriman lays before the reader his argument which will pervade all that follows:
What I will suggest is that Paul's argument in Romans in effect presupposes- in a way that is critical for interpretation- a narrative about the concrete existence of the 'people of God,' that runs, roughly speaking, from the exile as a paradigmatic judgment on Israel, through the painful experience of subjugation by foreign powers, including the disastrous war of AD 66-73, through a traumatic bifurcation set in motion by Jesus and his followers, through a period of intense conflict with the paganism of the Greco-Roman oikoumenē to reach a provisional but nonetheless momentous conclusion in a victory over the gods and nations of the old world, represented most clearly by Constantine's deliverance of the churches from persecution and the subsequent elevation of Christianity to the status of imperial religion by Theodosius (3-4).
 With this thesis in hand, it is essential that the reader understand that this volume is not masquerading as a mini-commentary (10), and that the author identifies with the New Perspective on Paul (henceforth, NPP), although not slavishly so. In fact, regarding the latter, the NPP "has not had the courage of its hermeneutical convictions" in identifying the particularity of Paul's Jewish thought (10). Perriman also is skeptical of the helpfulness of empire-critical studies, in that Paul cannot "be coherently recast as an anti-imperial, proto-Marxist theorist," demonstrating once again the struggle to identify what the resurrected "Son of God" would have sounded like to ancient audiences (10). Although, I for one do not share Perriman's skepticism regarding this last point, I can understand the underlying struggle of the interpreter's task in trying to grasp the historical and literary context of Paul's thought, especially in the case of Romans, a letter, perhaps more than any other Pauline document, that has suffered from the abstraction of theologizing at the hands of interpreters.

 Due to the importance of this volume, I have decided to review this volume in multiple posts in order to hopefully do the book adequate justice.

1 comment:

jacob z said...

I absolutely loved this book but was left with many questions and would love to see your continued interaction with it.