Gentile Dogs and Hallucinating Exegetes

I want to call attention to Mark Nanos’ important essay, “Paul’s Reversal of Jews Calling Gentiles ‘Dogs’ (Philippians 3:2): 1600 Years of an Ideological Tale Wagging an Exegetical Dog?”, just put up on his website. Nanos opposes the common idea that Paul is reversing a supposed Judean invective against Gentiles in Philip 3:2 by calling his opponents “dogs”. Furthermore, Nanos doesn’t think Paul’s opponents are Judean in any case. They represent, rather, “some kind of pagan entity or threat” (p 8).

The first part of the argument is so strong it can be deemed conclusive. Nanos points out that the only place we can find a Judean equating Gentiles with dogs is in Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28 — the case of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (or Canaanite woman in Matthew) — and the gospels postdate Paul. But even if historical, this is a single text on which many commentators have rested an incredibly strong assumption, that Judeans often equated pagans with dogs. Going through the Hebrew Bible, Nanos shows that there are in fact no texts — none at all — which denounce Gentiles as dogs for being Gentile. “Dog” was a general insult used to put down rivals, sinners, and fools — and in most cases against other Israelites (see p 12). In the few cases where an Israelite calls a pagan a dog (I Sam 17:43; II Kings 8:7-13), it’s not for being a pagan, but for being typically hostile, foolish, servile, or whatever (pp 12-13). There is no literary evidence predating Paul that points to the apostle using a “reversal of invective” in Philip 3:2. Even the later rabbinical texts have been overblown regarding “dog” insults (see pp 14-18).

The second part isn’t quite as convincing. Nanos argues that in warning the Philippians to “beware dogs” Paul was expressing opposition to “pagan alternatives” rather than Judean circumcision. I think we need to look at Philip 3:2-11 comprehensively:

“Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh — even though I too have reason for confidence in the flesh.

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews… [etc]

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as a loss because of Christ. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as shit, in order that I may gain Christ… [etc]”

This is Nanos’ commentary on the first part:

“Note that Paul does not write what commentators universally read, that is, he does not write that ‘we are the true circumcision’, ‘the circumcision of the heart’, ‘the spiritual circumcision’, or some such thing [as he does in Rom 2:28-29]. By writing ‘we are the circumcision’, he emphasizes the contrast between circumcision identity and identity associated with other kinds of the flesh… The contrast is with the uncircumcised, the pagan world of the addressees, about which Paul is expressing a specifically Jewish — i.e. circumcision-oriented — point of view. Rather than warning his audience to beware of Jews or the values of Judaism, the opposite is the case: Paul is warning his audience to eschew the pagan options to which they might be expected to be drawn, or from which they are encountering opposition.” (pp 29-30)

Nanos is right that Paul doesn’t explicitly qualify “circumcision” with the word “true” or “spiritual” in Philip 3:2. Many bible translations do supply the qualifier “true” and they are wrong to do so. But the qualifier is implied just the same. Paul’s point is much like in Rom 2:28-29 (where the qualifier is made explicit). Otherwise the rest of Philip 3:2-11 makes no sense. If Nanos were right, Paul would essentially be saying as follows:

“(A) Beware of those pagan mutilators. For it is we circumcised Judeans who are righteous (B) and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I have every reason to be to confident in the flesh. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel. But I have come to regard this as shit for the sake of Christ.”

But that’s a non-sequitur. (B) doesn’t follow from (A). Paul can only be saying:

“Beware of the Judean mutilators (circumcisers). For it is we spiritually circumcised Judeans and Gentiles who are righteous and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I have every reason to be confident in the flesh. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel. But I have come to regard this as shit for the sake of Christ.”

That makes perfect sense and squares with Paul’s explicit remarks about “spiritual circumcision” elsewhere.

So I think Nanos if half right. Judeans were not in the habit of equating Gentiles with dogs, and so Paul could not have been reversing a standard invective in Philip 3. But he was insulting Judeans just the same. He was using a common insult (“dogs”) that wasn’t usually associated with any particular group of people, and doing so quite offensively in a polemical passage against Judean advocates for circumcision.

By the same token, I think Nanos is half right about the “shameless hussy” text of Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28. It’s not just the only possible place where a Judean (Galilean) equates Gentiles with dogs — it’s a definite place where it happens. Nanos suggests that Jesus’ insult could be an interpolitical one which doesn’t target Gentiles per se (pp 19-24), but I don’t see it. I think Jesus is clearly scorning the woman as a Gentile dog, to which the woman embraces the insult and bests Jesus at his own game. If the account is historical, it shows that Jesus was offensive on his own right. Neither he nor Paul needed precedent for their insults.

Be sure to read the paper. Nanos is one of the best Pauline scholars for thinking outside the box in important ways.

Paul and Empire

With thanks to Jeffrey Gibson on Corpus Paulinum, the recording of the recent SBL discussion between John Barclay and Tom Wright on “Paul and Empire” can be downloaded in two parts on Andy Rowell’s blog. Barclay argues that Paul didn’t care much about the Roman Empire, while Wright holds his ground with a political Paul.

Barclay is pretty impressive here, and I have to agree that arguments for a political Paul have been a bit overblown for the sake of modern relevance. But I do wish Barclay had engaged Richard Horsley in addition to Wright, because Horsley’s case for an anti-imperial Paul is probably the best available.

But as I say, I admit that people like Horsley and Wright are pushing political agendas too strongly. Yes, Paul hated the Roman empire, but he certainly wasn’t using hidden transcripts (codes) in his private letters to churches. As Barclay points out, hidden transcripts are used more by underdogs like Jesus and when speaking publicly, especially when in earshot of landlords, elites, and other authorities.

I have argued, for instance, that Jesus’ “Render to Caesar” statement was a hidden transcript: a veiled way of saying that Caesar’s taxes were unlawful, but should be payed “with contempt” since God was about to deal with Rome himself. But Paul’s statements about taxation are more straightforward. He encourages counter-cultural behavior (Rom 12:1-21) except when it jeopardizes the Christian movement (Rom 13:1-7). In the latter case (tax evasion) he counsels obedience to Rome — promising that God’s kingdom is “nearer than ever before” (Rom 13:11) and Christians won’t have to wait long for the beast to be crushed. Paul was no friend of the empire, but there is no code or hidden transcript here. Like a good Pharisee he tells people to be subject to Caesar’s taxes, to respect and honor the emperor on this point. Jesus, in his shaming strategy with the denarius coin, was underscoring the illegitimacy of Caesar’s taxes. Both Jesus and Paul were apocalyptics who counted on God to wipe out the kingdoms of men, but Paul had less political bite than his savior. He advised paying taxes not with contempt, but with the respect due authorities.

Be sure to listen to the lively interchange between Barclay and Wright. I didn’t attend the SBL meeting, but this must have been one of the best discussions.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre says that Barclay and Wright were indeed the “academic highlight of the conference”. Mark is completely on Barclay’s side and not impressed with Wright’s rejoinder. I too liked Barclay’s quip about the naked emperor, but even more the jibe that Wright has been hallucinating.

UPDATE (II): Michael Pahl thinks that “Barclay has overstated his case by undervaluing the evidence, while Wright has overstated his case by overvaluing the significance of the evidence”.

Rating the Popes: Inferno

The vicars of Christ are a colorful bunch. Some were scoundrels, others unfairly maligned, and a few even earned their sainthood. In a trio of posts I’m going to do my own Divine Comedy: the seven worst popes (Inferno), the seven most maligned (Purgatorio), and the seven best (Paradiso).

We’ll start with the Inferno. As in Dante’s classic, it’s the most fun and prolific part. There are a lot of “bad popes” lists on the web and in print, and we’ll consider a few here.

A recent list I enjoyed was Ryan Moore’s Five Biggest Badass Popes though it includes a couple of peculiar choices. Moore rightly puts Alexander VI (1492-1503) at the top. (What wasn’t offensive about this guy?) But Pius II (1458-1464) is a curious choice (awarded a slot on account of his association with the historical Dracula, Vlad III Tepes). And Honorious III (1216-1227) actually makes the cut for being too pious (summoning demons to challenge himself and keep himself free of temptation, don’t you love it). I applaud the inclusion of Stephen VI (896-897) (so zealously self-righteous that he dug up the corpse of his predecessor and set it on a throne to face trial for perjury and coveting the papacy — the infamous Cadaver Synod). Finally, Sergius III (897,904-911) caps off the list as the only pope to be removed from office then later take it back (and for murdering many, including his predecessor).

Isabella Snow offers her own opinion of the Five Worst Popes Ever, but on the basis of the single criterion of sexual immorality. It’s hard to take this list too seriously, though it’s entertaining. The offending shaggers are John XII (955-964) (who was admittedly pretty bad), John XIII (965-972) (a lot like his father), Benedict IX (1032-1045) (became pope at the age of 12 and developed an affinity for animals), Clement VI (1342-1352) (so obsessed with sex he talked about it in his sermons), and Paul III (1534-1549) (habitually violated his daughter).

Russell Chamberlin, in The Bad Popes, singles out eight vicars for special indictment: Stephen VI (896-897) (on Moore’s list above), John XII (955-964) (on Snow’s list above), Benedict IX (1032-1045) (also on Snow’s list), Boniface VIII (1294-1303) (the notorious pope consigned to Dante’s Inferno, who pushed papal supremacy to an extreme and commissioned countless statues of himself), Urban VI (1378-1389) (who tortured his rival cardinals, and complained that he couldn’t hear them screaming loudly enough), Alexander VI (1492-1503) (of course), Leo X (1513-1521) (a spendthrift), and Clement VII (1523-1534) (whose incompetence got Rome sacked).

The most comprehensive ratings of the popes can be found in the appendix of Richard McBrien’s Lives of the Popes. McBrien lists 24 baddies, many of whom are included on the above lists, but a lot more post-Reformation popes. I was glad to see the modern Pius X (1903-1914) indicted (despite being canonized a saint) for his crusade against biblical scholars. Scholarship may not have been much to brag about at the dawn of the twentieth century (Schweitzer saw that better than anyone), but Pius’ anti-intellectual paranoia set the Catholic church back with a vengeance.

These are all good lists, but if I could put only five popes in hell, I’d have to go with the following:

1. Alexander VI (1492-1503) for, well, everything: buying the papacy, taking nepotism to new heights, letting murder and rape go unpunished, arranging mass orgies, and for all practical purposes adopting a greedy secular life, profiting by any means necessary. No suprise the Reformation followed hot on his heels.

2. Pius X (1903-1914) for anti-intellectualism, and his crusade against theologians and biblical scholars. He may have been a spiritual man (and canonized a saint for it), but didn’t deserve it; he opposed freedom of conscience with a vengeance.

3. John XII (955-964) for unbridled hedonism, adultery, rape, and incest. Though I’m usually not one to lambaste someone for sexual immorality, this guy was pretty horrible. He died in the bed of a married woman, no surprise.

4. Urban VI (1378-1389) for abusive rage, sadism and torture (he complained that he couldn’t hear his victims screaming loudly enough), and causing the Great Western Schism. His arrogance knew no bounds — he even turned on those who elected him.

5. Leo XII (1823-1829) for censorship, anti-Semitism, and his crusade against medical progress. Nothing like stifling free thought, confining Jews to ghettos, and denying vaccines to people. Leo had some problems.

That’s my papal Inferno. Next we’ll consider the most unjustly maligned popes (which will have to suffice for “Purgatory”), and then afterwards the best vicars who surely rest in the bosom of the Lord.

Are we Q-less?

Catch the Q-buzz in the blogosphere if you haven’t already. Mark Goodacre gives a roundup, listing contributions from himself, James McGrath, Stephen Carlson, Rick Sumner, and Doug Chaplin. I’m dreaming of a Q-less Christmas, but it won’t happen this year.

The Strange Things That Please God

According to poet and critic Glenn Arbery, The Iliad is the measure of all literature in the Western canon — but God’s favorite too:

“Of all the poems in the history of the West, actual scripture aside, but including The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and all the devotional lyrics ever written, God loves the Iliad the most. I should write this with the deflecting irony that such a statement needs: the poem is after all pagan and violent, full of wrath and terrible pride and mayhem and shameless deception by the gods. But no matter what arguments the lifted eyebrow might muster, I know about the Iliad what the Scottish missionary in Chariots of Fire knew about the fact that he was a great runner. He tells his sister that the same God who made him a missionary also made him fast, ‘and when I run,’ he says, ‘I feel His pleasure’.

“When I even think of the serious, unsparing world of honor and anguish and beauty that the Iliad brings before the imagination, I feel God’s pleasure: not the tepid blessing of the sentimental Smiling Jesus that Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful tattoo-covered prophet O.E. Parker finds in the recent section of the religious catalogue, but the stern approbation of the iconic Byzantine Christ, Son of Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, the God who accepts Abel’s blood sacrifice and the smoke of the flesh burning on the altar, because they signify the righteous and obedient heart.” (Why Literature Matters, p 151)

Arbery’s viewpoint is Christian, but before that poetic; you don’t have to be religious to appreciate it. Homer portrayed the heroic ideal in terms of war, wrath, and bloody savagery, yet the Iliad is ultimately about the restoration of humanity’s civilized values through an act of mercy: Achilles, compelled by the gods, gives the corpse of his enemy Hector to Priam. Ironically, Achilles own death isn’t “for” the gods but “by” the gods, and his death sustains the dignity of life in binding the immortals to the speech of men. As far as I’m concerned, Arbery is right. It’s easier to feel God’s pleasure (assuming his existence) in the pagan Iliad than, say, the horribly stale Pilgrim’s Progress.

Arbery’s feelings for the Iliad were much my own for Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ when I saw it in the theater three and a half years ago, and revisited last night on DVD. Though it leaves you feeling pulverized, Passion takes you into the eye of that same paradox where wrath and mercy, retribution and forgiveness, become as one. As in Homer, so in the gospel drama: savagery tied to an act of mercy, a brutal and shameful death underscoring the dignity of life even more. Many critics think Gibson’s Passion says horrible things about God, and that the medieval Catholic vision amounts to torture porn. But would these critics say the same thing about the Iliad if it were graphically realized on screen? I doubt it. I think modern feelings about Christianity, the Catholic Church — not to mention Gibson himself — get in the way of appreciating Passion for the achievement it is.

Arbery sees no more contradiction in the Iliad being “blessed” by God than Tolkien did his own Lord of the Rings. Both epics are pagan (though Tolkien’s intentionally pre-Christian), presenting “a broken world, fallen, and savage, but capable of noble formality and tender mercies; groaning ceaslessly for redemption but without undue self-pity” (ibid, pp 151-152). Perhaps it’s in the violent chaos of yearning for something better — to which the Passion comes as a climax — that “God’s pleasure” runs through these sagas. For in an unredeemed world, the hopeless struggle against evil allows heroes to attain a virtue unparalleled in later Christianity. They’re doomed to fail and they know it, but carry on anyway. How could God fail to be moved by such noble tragedy? Give me Frodo and Achilles any day. The Passion may have healed a crippled world, but it also put an end to a “beautiful savagery” which demanded more of people.