Thursday, November 21, 2013

SBL and my question for N.T. Wright

Column Capital in  Saint-Lazare Cathedral Autun, France
I leave tomorrow to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. This year we are meeting in Baltimore. I have a variety of sessions to attend, but am looking forward to two in particular. 

One is a session in which I will give a paper on the death of Cain in art. I will explain how the legend of Cain's death developed from the biblical text and became a favorite topic of medieval artists Here's an abstract of the paper  I am delivering in the Bible and Visual Art section. 

One of the more peculiar oversights in the Genesis narrative is the failure to mention when and how Cain died. We are, of course, told how Abel died and the deaths of Adam and Seth are both recorded in Gen 5:3-8, yet we are never told about Cain’s death. Instead Cain goes on to marry, raise a family and build a city, but his death is never recorded. For some this created a theological problem. If Cain was allowed to live, what kind of judge was the almighty? Ancient exegetes sometimes solved this problem by inserting details about Cain’s death as well as elements of divine retribution for his murder of Abel. The most sophisticated of these interpretive expansions is the legend that Cain was killed by Lamech. By expanding Lamech’s speech in Gen 4:23-24, interpreters were able to fill in the story’s lacuna and thus guarantee Cain was justly punished. While this story is not as well-known today, it was familiar to many in the past. The story of Lamech killing Cain is visible in the architecture of churches, such as Saint-Lazare in Autun, France and the Modena Cathedral in Italy, and in the engravings of Lucas van Leyden, Jacques Legrand and the Egerton Genesis Picture Book. This paper will demonstrate how the theological questions raised by the text were answered not just with pen and parchment, but in the artwork that enhanced the life of the church. In a time when many couldn’t or didn’t read the Bible, illustrations of Cain’s death helped to answer the questions some would have raised about the circumstances surrounding the first recorded murder and the punishment of its perpetrator. 

The other session I will attend is with N.T. Wright to which I was invited by Fortress Press. As many will now know, Tom has published his massive (1700 pages!) Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I have been asked to attend a session with bloggers who will engage with Wright about his new book and other aspects of his scholarship. If there is WiFi in the suite where we are meeting I will attempt to live blog the session. Otherwise, I will post on it later. 

In the meantime, here is my question for N.T. Wright

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) you compare Pliny’s letter to Sabinianus with Paul’s letter to Philemon. As part of your analysis you suggest that the letters demonstrate the different worldviews that existed between the two authors. You suggest that resident in Philemon are echoes of Ex 21 and Dt. 15 that are in Paul’s mind as he requests that Philemon accept Onesimus back and perhaps free him (p. 15). This “echo of Exodus,” you suggest, demonstrates that each letter encapsulates “a completely different worldview” (p.18-19).
 In light of these suggestions, I wonder if you would comment on Paul’s words to slaves in 1 Cor 7:21-22. Here Paul says to those in the audience who are enslaved “were you called as a slave? Don’t worry about it.” While I agree with the majority of modern scholars that the elliptical phrase in 7:21 probably allows for manumission, it does seem that the echoes of Exodus are missing in this passage. I do not see where in PFG you address the issues of 1 Cor 7:21-22 and how that passage may impact your understanding of Paul’s worldview or Exodus shaped prism. Does Paul have one worldview in Philemon and another in 1 Cor 7:21-22? It seems that although freedom may extend to slaves metaphorically, it isn’t always that way practically and Paul’s seemingly contradictory statements could suggest that Paul really isn’t all that different from Pliny.

Perhaps I will see you in Baltimore!


  1. Hi Byron, great question, I think Wright views 1 Cor 7:17-24 as ironic. So, I'd be interested to see how he answers your question. I don't see how that passage can be understood as ironic, esp. since it details his rule in all the churches.

  2. Hi Byron,

    Interesting question. I have begun, but not completed, Wright’s introductory section on Philemon, but suspect that he might respond by pointing to a couple of things. Paul’s message when directed to Onesimus, a slave, might sound different than when directed to Philemon, a slave owner. His statement to slaves not to worry in I Corinthians comes not long after his instructions to wives of unbelieving husbands. It is likely that Paul has in view believing slaves under the authority of unbelieving masters as well. He does, however, turn around and make the case for the equality of slaves and free (which would include masters) when he points out in v 22 that ‘whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ.’ It would seem that v 23, ‘You were bought with a price’ is a kind of echo of the Exodus. It locates the believer in Christ and while the practical implications of that will not be fully realized until the return of the Master, it does seem to describe the kind of worldview shift Wright aims at in his discussion of Philemon. True, Paul does not call for believing slaves to demand manumission and that may mean that he doesn’t look all that different from Pliny. At the same time, by describing both slaves and masters as equal in Christ, Paul’s view is subversive and even corrosive to the Roman worldview that Wright attributes to Pliny.

    It would be interesting to hear how Wright does respond.

  3. My guess is this.

    In Corinthians, Paul was directing commentary to the assembly and for him to have suggested to them that slaves should demand or revolt for freedom could lead them into the "Spartacus" death on a cross fast.

    Whereas in Philemon, Paul is expanding on "love your neighbor as yourself" doctrine and at least it seems to me, Paul is telling Philemon this, "Dude, you can't own another human being and love them as much as you love yourself, give your spiritual brother his physical freedom and let's stay in God's Will here".

    Every slave revolt I've ever read of ended bad for the slaves,including right here with the Nat Turner revolt.

  4. I'm hoping to hear about the results of this meeting! Will you be posting anything further on it?