Paul’s Hidden Transcript in Rom 13:1-7

Thanks to Richard Fellows for mentioning Thom Stark’s impressive analysis of Rom 13:1-7. The essay can be read in small blog installments here or in pdf format here. Readers may recall own blogpost about Jesus and taxes, in which I followed William Herzog’s approach to hidden transcripts, based on the foundational work of James Scott. “Render to Caesar” was a veiled way of saying that taxes were unlawful but should be paid with contempt since God would be destroying Rome in due time.

Herzog has applied this approach to Paul as well in “Dissembling, A Weapon of the Weak: The Case of Christ and Caesar in Mark 12:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7,” Journal of the NABPR 21: 339-360, arguing that while the apostle advises loyalty, it’s to an empire that doesn’t exist, and so in effect has conceded nothing to Rome. Stark summarizes Herzog:

“Herzog argues that Paul is merely counseling the vulnerable Christian community to display the routine ‘public deference that the oppressed show their masters’. Herzog refers us back to Scott, who observed that ‘the linguistic deference and gestures of subordination’ are not merely ‘abstracted by power’ but ‘serve also as a barrier and a veil that the dominant find difficult or impossible to penetrate’. In many cases subordinated groups rehearse their acts of conformity offstage, and the skills requisite for theatrical duplicity are instilled in the young by instruction and example. This is why ‘conformity is too lame a word for the active manipulation of rituals of subordination,’ manipulation which transforms the rituals of subordination into security measures that sequester an emancipated space for the dominated to inhabit. Thus, it is not mere conformity, but ‘an art form in which one can take some pride at having successfully misrepresented oneself’.

“Certainly one of the things the Jews of the diaspora shared was a long tradition of living under domination. As such, they had grown especially adept in the conforming arts, and Paul, Herzog contends, was no exception. Handing down his expertise, ‘Paul advises the Romans to practice the arts of resistance but in ways that will not threaten the community lodged near the heart of the Roman system of domination. He has managed to sound obedient and loyal,’ but the loyalty Paul offers is to ‘an empire that does not exist.’ Thus Paul has conceded nothing to ‘the actual empire, and his apparent advice about loyalty is coded language for how to survive in an authoritarian environment’.”

Neil Elliott too believes that Paul’s was a survival strategy. Comparing the apostle’s advice about “subjection” to Philo’s calculated remarks in On Dreams, he notes the ambivalency of Rom 13:1-7, and that it’s Paul’s fear of the Roman Empire which comes across most loudly, especially considering how “out of step Paul’s warning would have sounded to ears accustomed to the exultant themes of Roman eschatology”. And T. L. Carter has noted how Rom 13:1-7 is laced with irony and “counterfeit praise”.

Finally, Monya Stubbs reminds us that we can’t consider Rom 13 apart from the unambiguously counter-cultural message of what precedes in Rom 12. Believers shouldn’t conform to the world (Rom 12:2) but instead follow Christ’s other-worldly code of behavior: suffering patiently, blessing persecutors, associating with the lowly, feeding enemies for vengeance’s sake, etc. Stubbs goes further than Herzog, Elliott, and Carter, however, claiming that Paul advises public resistance in Rom 13 as much as in Rom 12. “Herein lies Paul’s resistance language, where the hidden transcript [Rom 13:1-7] imposes itself upon the public transcript [Rom 13:8-10]”. Paul counsels the Roman Christians to “owe no one any debt, except the debt to love.”

Stark follows the lead of all four — Herzog, Elliott, Carter, and Stubbs — but like Stubbs concludes too strongly: Paul was “calling for strategic, grassroots political activism”. I think this is wrong. The hidden transcript of Rom 13:1-7 (like Mk 12:13-17) has to do with leaving Caesar to God’s wrath on the day of the apocalypse, which was “nearer than ever before” (Rom 13:11-12). Paul, like Jesus, thought Caesar’s rule was illegitimate, but also knew that opposing him politically was impossible. With God all things were possible — and God was on the way. So while believers shouldn’t conform to the world for the most part (Rom 12:2), they also shouldn’t jeopardize themselves with political resistance. Temporary resignation to the beast is the message of Rom 13:1-7.

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Back to an Oral Culture (II)

Mark Goodacre believes that contrasts between literate and oral cultures are exaggerated, and April DeConick thinks otherwise. Readers of this blog won’t be surprised that I’m largely sympathetic to April’s position. The fact that western culture has a pervasive oral dimension — Mark mentions TV, radio, conferences, etc. — has little to do with what results collectively from an oral culture mindset. Mark is right to caution against caricatures and the need to take seriously our “secondary orality”, but where in western culture are we going to find the best comparison to ancient orality?

Ironically, in our hypertext subculture. April cites Walter Ong against Mark’s suggestion, but Robert Fowler has used Ong to show — at least from one angle — just the opposite: that our hypertext/internet subculture shares remarkable similarities with oral biblical culture. Over a year ago I blogged about this in Back to an Oral Culture, listing Fowler’s seven-point comparison study drawn from Ong’s Orality and Literacy:

1. Orality is evanescent, not permanent. “Hypertext returns us to fluid, shifting, open-ended, evanescent communication of an oral culture.”

2. Orality is additive rather than subordinative; aggregative rather than analytic. “Hypertext resurrects the associative, non-linear, non-hierarchical organization of information of orality.”

3. Orality is close to the human lifeworld. “Hypertext returns us to an immediate, hands-on approach to communication and to other dealings with the world around us… and to a classical, rhetorical model of education and social existence generally.”

4. Orality is agonistically toned. “On the Internet, the phenomenon of ‘flaming’ — heaping bitter invective upon one’s interlocutors — is wide-spread.” (See also here.)

5. Orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced. “In hypertext, as in orality, the distinction between author and reader once again melts away in the midst of the collaborative effort of navigating the hypertextual network.”

6. Orality knits persons together into community. “Hypertext, like the spoken word, knits people together into community.”

7. Orality is homeostatic. “With the resurgence of ephemeral communication, hypertext culture begins to undergo a constant, slow, and unconscious metamorphosis, like oral culture.”

I’ve been increasingly convinced of the validity of these comparisons. It’s no accident that people’s online personas often differ radically from how they behave in the flesh. People who are shy (or even anti-social) in person can be communal and group-oriented online. Those who are normally reserved and diplomatic can turn combative at the slightest provocation when sitting in front of a keyboard. We often assimilate knowledge, process information, and communicate differently in the internet world. This isn’t to say that the hypertext/internet subculture puts us completely in touch with an oral mentality (it doesn’t and can’t), but I’d wager it does so more than even our secondary orality.

So while I agree mostly with April that oral cultures are markedly different from ours in the west, I appreciate what Mark is getting at: we can look to ourselves and light on certain subcultural dynamics which put us in touch with those distant cultures.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre continues, emphasizing that he’s “not issuing any kind of challenge to the essential contrast between our literate culture and the oral culture of antiquity”, only looking at how some conceptualizations of the former fall a bit short. Also see his comment below.

UPDATE (II): More from April DeConick too.

UPDATE (III): Goodacre’s on a roll: see here and here.

Piles or Penises?

I’ve often wondered why Spielberg couldn’t have been more true to the bible about the way the Ark of the Covenant supposedly punished people. Bums bursting out in hemorrhoids (I Sam 5:6,9,12) would have been more amusing than melting faces, though I suppose demanding an R-rating to appreciate. But now it looks like God’s judgment may have been more risque than even that. In a recent BAR article, Did the Captured Ark Inflict the Philistines with E.D.?, Aren Maeir suggests that the Ark zapped people with erectile dysfunction, not hemorrhoids. From the article:

“I’ve always been troubled by the Philistine hemorrhoids. The Hebrew word is ‘opalim (Mylpe). That was supposedly their affliction when they captured the Ark of the Covenant and placed it before a statue of their god Dagon… These ‘opalim have caused scholars lots of problems. The root of the word is ‘pl (lpe, or Ophel, as in the acropolis [upper city] of ancient Jerusalem), which means ‘high’ or ‘rise,’ hence a swelling. But there is something strange, even a bit peculiar about ‘opalim. Is it a vulgarity? Is it simply too intimate for use in a holy text? Or does it perhaps mean something entirely different?”

Like Maeir I’ve always had a hard time getting my head around the business with the golden hemorrhoids (I Sam 6:4-5). How would hemorrhoids be crafted to distinguish them as such? (Maybe I should snip one of my own sometime and examine it carefully.)

Based on recently recovered archaeological evidence (of which there is admittedly plenty), Maeir suggests that ‘opalim refers neither to hemorrhoids or tumors — nor even the bubonic plague — but to penises:

“I suggest that the ‘opalim with which the Philistines were afflicted after they captured the Ark of the Covenant and placed it in the temple of Dagon involved penises rather than hemorrhoids. It is unclear precisely what the nature of the affliction of the Philistine membra virile was. Perhaps it was the failure to attain erection, the condition referred to today as E.D., or erectile dysfunction. Or perhaps it was some malady causing penile pain.

“The root of ‘opalim, which means ‘a rise,’ suits the penile context as well as it does a hemorrhoid swelling. But it is far easier to visualize the Philistine offering, apparently to placate the Israelite God, as golden penises than golden hemorrhoids. Although we have much Philistine cultic material, nothing in it suggests the possibility of a visual reproduction of a hemorrhoid. Understanding ‘opalim as penises, on the other hand, has excellent parallels in the archaeological record.

“The word ‘opalim is still very much a dirty word, inappropriate for use in the synagogue. But it would be quite appropriate (for reading), given the fact that the Biblical text is clearly making fun of the Philistines and their penile malady.”

I suppose the melting faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark were more dramatically effective than either hemorrhoids or erectile dysfunction. But a fun article in any case, and interesting enough suggestion from Maeir. And speaking of Spielberg, the fourth Indiana Jones film is just around the corner.

UPDATE: On his blog Maeir says that the specific point about E.D. was not his idea and incorporated into the article for sake of popularization (sensationalism?). I guess nothing about BAR suprises me anymore. Thanks to Chris Heard for pointing this out in comments.

The Elusive Son of Man

Does the “one like a son of man” in Dan 7:13 refer to a an individual or a corporate body of righteous ones — the “saints of the Most High” in Dan 7:18, as Maurice Casey claims? How did Jesus and/or the gospel evangelists use the term “Son of Man”?

First Daniel. I don’t agree with Casey that the “one like a son of man” is a corporate figure. I was convinced years ago by John Collins that it’s an individual, probably the archangel Michael. The same holds for the Similitudes and IV Ezra: the Son of Man is an angelic individual, and this time the messiah. As Collins notes, a collective interpretation isn’t clearly attested in Jewish sources until the time of Ibn Ezra (The Scepter and the Star, p 187). In Daniel, the Similitudes and IV Ezra, the Son of Man figure is a heavenly counterpart to the righteous on earth, yet distinct from them. In my view, it relies on incredibly strained readings to identify one with the other.

What about the gospel traditions? In some places Jesus is portrayed as in Daniel — an angelic Son of Man who will come in glory on the clouds leading more angels (Mk 8:38/Mt 16:27/Lk 9:26, Mk 14:62/Mt 26:64/Lk 22:67b-69; Mt 13:41,25:31). But in other places the usage is less heavenly, more murky, and refers to a generic/corporate entity, no doubt under the influence of traditions like Ps 8:4 and 144:3 (cf. Job 25:6). Jesus and his followers were itinerant human beings in need of food and shelter (Mt 8:20/Lk 9:58). As Scot McKnight sees it, Jesus found in Psalms 8/144 and Daniel 7 equally important scripts for his mission: a prototype for humiliation and opposition after which God, as the Ancient of Days, would vindicate those who suffered in the tribulation (Jesus and His Death, pp 191-194). The result is a collective spin on Daniel’s individual figure.

Dale Allison lists strong arguments in support of this idea — that Jesus thought he and his disciples in equal measure fulfilled what was expected of Daniel’s Son of Man figure (Millenarian Prophet, pp 65-66; though note that Allison, like McKnight, also seems to think the collective understanding traces back to Daniel itself). They include:

* The collective understanding helps explain why the term Son of Man never became a Christological title outside the Jesus tradition.

* The collective interpretation explains the Son of Man passages which are used in a generic sense, even when lacking apocalyptic context, like Mt 8:20/Lk 9:58 (as seen above). In such passages, as in the psalms, “Son of Man” means “human beings”.

* If Jesus interpreted the Son of Man as the saints of the latter days, then we can understand why he is closely associated with the Son of Man and yet the two don’t seem quite identical in places like Lk 12:8-9.

* I Thess 4:15-17 is closely related to Mk 8:38-9:1/Mt 16:27-28/Lk 9:2627 and Mk 13:24-27/Mt 24:29-31/Lk 21:25-28. In the synoptics the Son of Man comes on the clouds; in I Thessalonians the Lord Jesus and the saints do, but the saints don’t wait for Jesus to come to earth — they join him on the clouds. This makes sense if Jesus and/or the early tradition envisaged the coming of the Son of Man as equivalent to the coming of the saints.

* Mt 19:28/Lk 22:28-30 probably alludes to Dan 7:9, and puts a collectivity on the thrones, meaning the disciples will have the role of the “one like a son of man” ruling in the kingdom. (Others would argue that Dan 7:18,27 do the same thing, but I don’t think the conclusion is warranted. However much the “holy ones of the Most High” were to share in the rule of God’s kingdom, they were still firmly distinct from the “one like a son of man”. Simply put, there’s no generic use of the term attested in Daniel that allows us to assume a collective understanding.)

* There’s a pervasive correspondence between the Son of Man predictions and Jesus’ demands of his disciples. Discipleship is basically synonymous with sacrifice and suffering on the cross (argued at length by T.W. Manson).

Many (if not all) of the above texts stand a good chance of being authentic, and I suspect that the historical Jesus identified “the Son of Man” with the faithful remnant who would save through humiliation, suffering, and sacrifice in the tribulation period, and in the end be vindicated by God. It was a short step for the evangelists to conflate this usage with Christ the heavenly redeemer who would come again in judgment, returning to an angelic emphasis. So we’re stuck with a gospel tradition in which Daniel’s individual usage (the angelic) is almost inseparable from Jesus’ collective usage (the saintly).

UPDATE: Also see Michael Bird’s review of Casey’s The Solution to the ‘Son of Man’ Problem, as well as Casey’s response to the review. As others (James Crossley, Antonio Jerez) have pointed out below in comments, Casey’s Aramaic approach deserves full attention and may the subject of a sequel blogpost.

Outsider and Insider Language Both Appropriate

Phil Harland, who had months ago called attention to Steve Mason’s article about Judeans, has finally gotten around to reading Jack Elliott’s article about Jesus the Israelite. I’ve blogged this subject to death, so will simply reaffirm a point I already made against Elliott: that from an historical point of view, outsider language can be just as appropriate as insider language — all the more so since we’re outsiders. As Phil says,

“We scholars are outsiders too. We need not always (and sometimes shouldn’t) adopt specific insider (emic) language to designate the groups we are studying, even though we always need to be attentive to, and descriptive of, what that insider language is. ‘Holy ones’, ‘brothers’, ‘the righteous’ and such are examples of value-loaded insider language that we wouldn’t want to adopt as scholars as general designations of the early followers of Jesus (or Paul). We want to avoid value-loaded language whether it is the stereotyping labels of outsiders or the praising self-designations of insiders. Thankfully neither ‘Israelite’ nor ‘Judean’ fall into the value-loaded category. This may be where I differ from Elliott’s more specific point about the need for scholars to use the categories of insiders, but this does not detract from Elliott’s overall contribution here.”

Even if Jesus would have never referred to himself as a Ioudaios, that doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate for us to do so. Context is king.