Sunday, October 30, 2011

The (Really) Old Perspective on Paul

Did Paul exist?

Yes, obviously in one sense, although there are some curious characters on the edge of biblical studies who might wonder. I mean something more specific: did the classic Paul taken for granted in much contemporary Christianity, the Jewish convert to Christianity, the architect of Gentile freedom, the "apostle of the free spirit" as one evangelical tome put - did he exist?

Some aspects of this Paul have certainly been put under the microscope in recent biblical scholarship, and the results of this so-called "new perspective" on Paul are still being debated. What I have in mind though is a much older perspective, the picture of Paul current in the earliest Christianity to which we have access after his own time.

Many have observed the relative absence of influence from or interest in that classic Paul in the ancient Church where the canon of scripture was itself assembled. Adolf von Harnack famously observed (citing Franz Overbeck) that the arch-heretic Marcion “was the only Gentile Christian who understood Paul, and he misunderstood him”. 

By contrast Tertullian, the great critic of Marcion, is given an exceptionally negative scorecard for understanding Paul by at least one distinguished scholar.

The late Gilles Quispel suggested that because “Paul never came to Africa and… his letters were never really understood there”, “Tertullian…did not really understand what ‘the rightwising of the ungodly’ or ‘suffering with Christ’ or ‘Christ is the end of the Law’ really meant”.

Both Quispel’s and Harnack’s observations point to the undeniable differences between the theology of Paul’s undisputed writings on the one hand, and other early Christian constructions of truth and salvation - and of Paul himself - including Tertullian’s.

But the notion that Paul was somehow incomprehensible to ancient readers, but is now perfectly accessible to modern ones, should attract some critical scrutiny. Arguably such a Paul as Quispel's, characterized by certain key themes of the Letters to the Romans and Galatians in particular, is uniquely accessible to modernity, and in part its creation.

The modern Paul does have a history. If he flickers into view only briefly and unclearly in Marcion's project, he perhaps has more substance in Augustine, who shapes him and passes him to posterity as the convert par excellence, somewhat entwined with Augustine's own experience and introspection.

Few others in late ancient or medieval Christianity however share the same interest in the apostle as a distinct figure at all, let alone in terms of now-familar themes. The Reformation is required before we see more clearly the Paul to whom Harnack and Quispel referred. Since then, one version or another of a Paul centred on elements of Galatians and Romans has held sway in Protestant theology, but also in other forms of historical and literary discourse, as discomforting for catholic Christianity as (supposedly) for Judaism of his own time.

Since the rise of critical scholarship in the 19th century, the possibility of discerning an authentic Paul within a corpus of mixed origin (where perhaps Colossians and Ephesians, and probably the Pastoral epistles, are not attributed to him personally) has modified the classical Protestant view, but actually increased the emphasis on Paul’s distinctive theology. This helps to explain the appeal of Marcion’s intriguing but idiosyncratic view for Harnack and some subsequent critics; as the one known example of an ancient quester for a particular Paul within the broader tradition, Marcion’s project is structurally comparable to modern ones, however different their specific conclusions.

The recent emergence of the “new perspective” on Paul indicates that what scholars of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries assumed or argued concerning Paul may no longer seem so well-established.

Yet despite influential critiques of now-traditional emphasis on (e.g.) Paul’s own real or alleged introspection, the "new" perspective as well as the old focuses on a Paul neither accessible to ancient readers of the apostle, nor indeed of interest to them.

Tertullian and other ancient interpreters used their reading of Paul synthetically, to construct and defend their Christian systems and cultures in ways that drew various elements of scripture and tradition together, seeing the whole in the parts. This "historic" Paul, far removed from the "historical" one, is not discerned by excavating for some specific idea or genius within a literary corpus; rather he is the persona implied by that corpus as a whole, as well as by the wider reputation of the apostolic hero and martyr, including the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles. 

Of course this Paul is a construct, open to criticism which at times may seem fatal. Yet he must be grappled with, if we are to avoid not just a chauvinism of modernity, but a sort of hermeneutical solipsism. Did Paul leave in the canonical texts some sort of meaning imbedded, hidden even, which meant something only to him before Augustine, Luther, or Bultmann variously revealed it?

The fact that the Pauline canon was preserved, as well as expanded, suggests an ancient appreciation of Paul whose fact and character demand reflection. Our own constructs may seem preferable to these ancient ones, for all sorts of reasons; but our own Paul has not been immaculately conceived either.

Tertullian’s view of Paul is, in broad terms at least, far more typical in ancient Christianity, and not merely the result of some lack peculiar to the African context or to his own disposition. And Harnack’s aphorism about Marcion and Paul contains an unintended hint; perhaps, if no one “understood” Paul in the modern sense, it was because such a Paul did not exist.

For Further reading:

Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (1963): 199-215.
Paula Fredriksen, “Paul and Augustine: Conversion narratives, orthodox traditions, and the retrospective self,” The Journal of Theological Studies 37, no. 1 (1986): 3.
Gilles Quispel, “African Christianity before Minucius Felix and Tertullian,” in Gnostica, Judaica, Catholica: collected essays of Gilles Quispel, ed. Johannes Oort (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2008), 389-460.

[Adapted from part of a chapter I have contributed to a forthcoming book on the reception of Paul in the early Church, specifically in Tertullian. Thanks fo David Wilhite and Todd Still for the stimulus.]

Monday, October 24, 2011

Everything you wanted to know about St Crispin but were afraid to ask...

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, 
From this day to the ending of the world, 
But we in it shall be remembered- 
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; 
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me 
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, 
This day shall gentle his condition; 
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed 
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, 
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks 
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

To begin at the end: we know next to nothing about Crispin, or even whether he existed. How Crispin and Crispinian were remembered, or imagined, so as to be invoked in Shakespeare’s famous speech in Henry V, is the interesting story.

S. Crispin’s day was probably remembered well enough in Shakespeare’s time, and even included in the protestant Book of Common Prayer, because of its association with shoemakers and a holiday alluded to in Westmoreland’s lines in Henry V immediately before the famous speech ("O that we now had here/ But one ten thousand of those men in England/ That do no work to-day!"), as well as because of the popularity of the legend.

The day originally belonged to two saints, brothers, Crispin and Crispinian, as Shakespeare reflects in an abbreviated form: “And Crispin-Crispian shall ne’er go by…”. The first clear references to Ss. Crispin and Crispinian, always commemorated together as brothers, come from the sixth-century , but suggest these two saints had lived long before.

The historian and bishop St Gregory of Tours (538-593/4) refers twice in his History of the Franks to a Basilica of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian in the northern French city of Soissons; if the Church was already well-established at that time, the commemoration of the martyrs was older again. Crispin and Crispinian are also mentioned in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, probably from around the same time as Gregory’s History. The Martyrologium – a list of martyrs commemorated by the Church in the western Roman empire – also confirms the two were being commemorated at Soissons.

From around the same time comes a much more colourful and extensive piece of evidence, the Passion of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian. This is a “ripping yarn” about the saints, but it is of no historical value at all. The Passion tells the story of two noble young men who came from Rome to preach Christian faith in Soissons, and who worked to support themselves as cobblers (a term the unkind might be tempted to apply to the whole story). Their lives of faith and work were interrupted by the persecuting activity of the Emperor Maximian, which places the story between the years 285-305.

The Passion is one of a series of martyr-stories connected with this area in ancient Gaul, all of which feature the same maniacal Roman magistrate, Rictiovarus (also Rictius Varus or Rixius Varus), a kind of late-antique Voldemort. Although Rictiovarus seems to get his come-uppance in the Passion of Crispin and Crispinian, falling in a rage into a vat of boiling oil, he was a resilient character who appears in other stories and was even said to have been converted by S. Lucy (of Santa Lucia fame, and dear to some Scandinavians), and martyred with her.

It seems thus to be a pious fiction, composed to fill the vacuum of curiosity created by the fact of a Church, and of relics of two martyrs commemorated at Soissons, whose real origins had already been forgotten by around 600. This does not mean Crispin and Crispinian were invented altogether (although they may well have been), but given the overlay of mythic and pious imagination, the historical kernel cannot be discerned. This recognition has led to their removal from the Calendar of Saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Passion suggests that the brothers went from Rome to Soissons while living, although the Roman Martyrology records a reverse journey in death; that their relics were at some stage taken to the Church of S. Laurence in Panisperna in Rome. The truth might lie somewhere between the two; perhaps the commemoration of Ss. Crispin and Crispinian began with the taking to Soissons of relics of a real or supposed pair of Roman martyr or martyrs, among many taken from the Catacombs, whose legend then grew.

This idea, and perhaps even a kernel of historical truth, might also be supported by one earlier, although uncertain, appearance of devotion to Crispin: a bronze lamp of the 4th century – considerably earlier than any of the documents connecting the brothers with Soissons – with a votive inscription to Crispin (or a Crispin, at least) was discovered near Pettau (Ptuj in Slovenia), suggesting earlier devotion far from Soissons.

A final element of the development of Crispin's and Crispinian's story, relevant to Shakespeare’s reference, is their eventual travel to England. At some point the story of the two faithful shoemakers was transferred to Faversham in Kent, whence Englishmen like Shakespeare's contemporaries could make it their own.

Another feature of this and similar stories of martyr-brothers is the similarity between these and the Dioscuri or Divine Twins, Castor and Pollux. That pagan pair was enthusiastically venerated in the ancient Mediterranean world, and the Church found it hard to displace or suppress them. They are even depicted, on horses with their distinctive caps and an accompanying star, on (otherwise) unquestionably Christian art works of the late ancient world.

The Christian response to the popularity of the Dioscuri was to co-opt them, and present various pairs of twins, brothers or friends, whose heroic faith could be used to take over the artistic traditions and intuitive spiritual appeal of a pair of closely-connected heroes; Shakespeare himself alludes to a similar idea in his famous “band of brothers”, and with “he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother”.

Whatever their historicity, Crispin and Crispinian evoked powerful ideas, before Shakespeare as well as in Henry V. Like the bard's speech, their cultus had also inherited and reused ideas which people before them had found powerful, about solidarity and courage.

(See further J. R Harris, The Cult of the Heavenly Twins [Cambridge, 1906]; L. Duchesne, Fastes episcopaux de l'ancienne Gaule III [Paris, 1915])