Ancient Papyri, Household Codes, Slavery, and non-Western Paul: A Sampling of Current Christian Testament Research

| Past,Present

Last year, we reported on the First (2023) Global Virtual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. And we have also discussed Biblical scholarship that has emerged from other SBL meetings (2017, 2020, and 2021).

SBL, founded in 1880, is “the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines.” The Society’s (in-person) Annual Meeting in North America now draws over 7,000 participants, and an international meeting is held annually in cities throughout the world.

Renowned learned societies such as the SBL are vitally important in our current situation for several reasons:

  • Religion remains important to many people around the world, especially in the US.
  • The Bible – the primary focus of the SBL – underpins much of Western culture and is still being critically examined long after the SBL’s founding.
  • The findings from much of the evidence-based research undertaken by scholar members help combat dangerous prejudice and disinformation promulgated by extremist religious actors and groups.
  • American taxes support much of these research efforts in the form of religion departments at state colleges and universities. These are educational institutions that pay the salaries of many of these researchers and professors.
  • American taxes also support many of the students who enroll at these institutions, in the form of financial aid, and graduate students, younger scholars in these fields, through teaching assistantships.

In this second iteration of SBL’s Global Virtual Meeting, presentations were offered in early April over 83 live sessions, representing more than 100 content hours, in addition to other formats. Several papers in the area of New (Christian) Testament and the early Jesus movement showed once again how the topics being examined are not only varied and of interest to fellow scholars but also speak to us today. This research in turn demonstrates the necessity of supporting the research, the scholars who undertake it, and the students who study it.

“The Egerton Gospel Fragments (P.Egerton 2) and the Materiality of Orthodoxy and Heresy,” Lydia Bremer-McCollum, Oklahoma University

As we have mentioned in the past, we have inherited the Christian Testament via thousands of ancient manuscripts that “live” in museums and other repositories around the world. Among the most significant manuscripts for the history of the Jesus movement are papyri, most surviving in fragments. These fragments, translated by experts in the languages in which they were inscribed such as Greek and Coptic, often contain Christian Testament texts, but many exhibit citations that are not exactly found in the canonical texts.

Bremer-McCollum’s paper examined the so-called Papyrus Egerton 2, which is part of “a collection of three papyrus fragments of a codex of a previously unknown gospel, found in Egypt and sold to the British Museum in 1934; the physical fragments are now dated to the very end of the 2nd century CE. Together they comprise one of the oldest surviving witnesses to any gospel, or any codex.” Because the fragment contains four stories that are similar to several in the Christian Testament, the “differences are minimized because of their canonical proximity.” Traditional Christian Testament scholarship has made assumptions about normative Christianity that may well be incorrect, especially when it comes to defining orthodoxy and heresy. We need “to think about what the material-discourse teaches scholars of ancient Christianity in terms of how our scholarly apparatuses prevent attention to difference and diversity of practices and ideas.”

“1 Peter, Household Codes, and Women in the Korean Church: A Postcolonial Asian Feminist Reading in Light of the Underrepresentation of Korean Women in the Korean Church,” Suse Jo, Emory University

We earlier examined the so-called Household Codes in the context of the authenticity (or not) of St. Paul’s epistles (letters). In this SBL paper, Suse focused on the Codes in 1 Peter (written 80-110 CE) and especially in the context of her native Korea and the Korean Church. She sees parallels between “the socio-political context of the Roman Empire and the persisting imperialistic [agenda that] remains in the present-day Korean church.” The rhetoric and propaganda used by Roman elites to exert their power over their subject peoples follows into a letter such as 1 Peter. This applies especially to women, who are asked by the letter’s author to be submissive – and this stance is still reflected in Korean Christian communities.

Suse maintains that “the author of 1 Peter is a subject under the Roman government playing an active role in empowering the rulers of the Roman empire, an empowerment that persists and permeates until this day.” This may seem shocking compared to other passages in the Christian Testament (and elsewhere in the Bible) that promote liberation. Suse explains that “[p]roblems arise when the biblical texts are read prescriptively and normatively, which are precisely the predominant ways of reading the scripture in Korean conservative faith communities.” The same can be said in other conservative Christian faith communities: the submission of women to authority is viewed not as one possible Biblical or Christian perspective among many but rather the only legitimate perspective. Reading the text critically allows – even compels – us to question this imperial ideology that oppresses women in the church context.

“Postcolonial Reading of Philemon,” Kumaran Mohan, Emory University

Philemon is one of the shortest letters in the Christian Testament and the shortest of the authentic letters of Paul. Philemon is a co-worker of Paul and Timothy, and Paul writes to him to say that he has returned his slave, Onesimus, to him. As readers of the letter, we only know one side of the story and, as Mohan points out, traditional interpretations “have extensively quoted and exploited [it] as weapons in the arsenal of slaveholders” because of the wording in verse 18: “If [Onesimus] has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” Onesimus, according to Mohan, “is misrepresented [by the scholarship] as a slave who wronged his master or stole something from his master and ran away.”

Mohan reads the letter through a postcolonial lens and argues the following: “(a) that Onesimus was neither a fraud nor lacking agency, as dominant and majority interpretations insist, but he was a run-away slave with agency who resisted the oppressive system of slavery to liberate himself; (b) that both the epistle and its author correspond to Roman imperial interest, particularly in terms of using binary divisions against Onesimus as useful and useless, the binary employed in the Roman slavery system; (c) that the trilateral relationship between Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus makes the epistle more ambivalent.“ Mohan further argues that, while Paul’s freedom unfortunately perpetuates slavery, there is liberation in Philemon’s resistance (i.e., running away) against an oppressive system.

We can well use this kind of interpretation of Biblical texts in a similar light: fight for freedom and celebrate resistance against oppressive systems.

“Non-Western Paul,” Xiaxia (Esther) Xue, China Graduate School of Theology

Ms. Xue points out what should be obvious but often is not: “the study of the Pauline letters has primarily been conducted through the lens of Western worldviews.” She “asserts that every interpretation of the Scriptures, including the Pauline letters, is context-dependent.” Thus taking a non-Western (especially Asian) approach to Paul’s letters can broaden our understanding by considering different social, cultural and political factors with which we might be less familiar. Xue points out that Asia, as the birthplace of major religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, exhibits some parallels with the Graeco-Roman context. One parallel might well be that of relationships and community – love of neighbor, at base. Asian readings of Paul address issues of social justice, poverty and oppression – extremely important perspectives and counter to hyperindividualistic interpretations of our culture that put undue (and, one can argue, unbiblical) emphasis on individual sin and ego.

Conclusion

While scholarly papers presented in most professional settings may seem arcane and unrelated to the average person, we can see that some of the research currently being undertaken in the field of Christian Testament studies can actually have resonance with and relevance to today. New interpretations of ancient – even sacred – texts can not only make us think but also confront us with hopeful themes of liberation. Should this not be among the major reasons to support the study of these texts, allow ourselves to be informed by evidence-based scholarship, and ensure that our schools and colleges are not hampered by wrong-headed and prejudicial political actions that aim to stifle such exploration?

Resources

Bremer-McCollum, Lydia abstract

Mohan, Kumaran abstract

Suse, Jo abstract

Xue, Xiaxia (Esther) abstract