- Paul and the Politics of Diaspora by Ronald Charles
Paul is not a Christian and Paul is not exceptional. The field of New Testament and Early Christian studies can’t learn that lesson well or often enough, it seems, susceptible as it is to increasingly subtle claims about Paul’s innovations. Deepening our sense of both Paul’s ordinariness and his Judean belonging, Ronald Charles’s Paul and the Politics of Diaspora provides a valuable primer on diaspora studies and, more to the point, a crucial set of tools for the fields of Pauline studies and New Testament / Early Christian studies for moving away from Paul as not-yet Christian to a Paul whose only telos is negotiating the implications of Roman and Judean belongings. Following the leads of Fernando Segovia, William Arnal, and Sze-kar Wan, Charles urges that Paul’s self-understanding as a diaspora Jew is not just the context in which his theology or politics unfolds. It is the very substance and central preoccupation of Paul’s letters, the heart of Paul’s relational manoeuvring.
Integrating scholarship in postcolonial and diaspora studies, Charles seeks to restore texture and tension to Paul’s letters, lending Paul a political and social dynamism that, against empire-critical readings and more ideological readings in general, emphasizes unromantic compromise, fraught relationships, and uncomfortable middle spaces. Charles elaborates a diasporic context for Paul through the Letter to Aristeas and Josephus’s reading of the letter in Antiquities of the Jews, surfacing a kind of diasporic apologetics in which Jewish/Judean distinctiveness is relativized and/or managed within the dominant cultural language. The author impressively accommodates the grit and mess of social life without losing an important broader coherence: addressing Paul’s collection, the Antioch incident, and Paul’s mission to the nations/gentiles, he filters Paul’s gendered self-presentation and his claims to authenticity and authority through questions of colonial subjectivity and diasporic jockeying. While Charles periodically takes the category of [End Page 278] nations/gentiles for granted, he rightly sees ‘‘the gentiles’’ less as an issue in and of themselves and more as an alibi and interlocutor for discourses of what it means to be Judean. Most evocative perhaps is Charles’s periodic recourse to ‘‘homing’’ and desires for home, in which home operates both implicitly and explicitly in all of the ancient texts he addresses as an imagination at least as much as referent.
What the author ends up offering us in the end is a transition from traditional understandings of diaspora that cast it as a mixed condition to an ‘‘authentically’’ Judean one—authenticity is always a moving target, and a fully rhetorical claim. He moves the field from naturalized distinctions between inside/outside (or centre/periphery) to reconceptualizations of diaspora that focus on the ways colonial conditions put pressure on and produce anew the very boundaries of inside/outside. But perhaps because Charles’s language for theorizing diasporic belonging are almost entirely spatial (for instance, colonial identity is described, à la Homi Bhabha, as ‘‘in-between’’), he fluctuates between reading Paul’s negotiation of Judean belonging as a function of Paul’s geographical outsideness, and understanding that such negotiation is at the heart of what belonging always is and does, no matter where one seems to originate. That is to also to say, a consequence of Charles’s strong loyalty and accountability to the field means that he occasionally hedges on the radical implications of diasporic studies for reading Paul (or, for that matter, for recasting the entire landscape of Jewish/Judean belonging in the ancient Mediterranean). My hunch is that if we press diaspora studies forward, Paul, as one diasporic voice among many, could get both messier and more coherent yet. It is still abundantly clear, however, that Charles’s own reading and the compatible scholarly insights from across the field that he pulls together demand nothing less than a turn on the order of the New Perspective. Whether the crowded field of Pauline studies can heed this fresh call for more social...