- Paul's Letters and Contemporary Greco-Roman Literature: Theorizing a New Taxonomy by Paul M. Robertson
Here we have a fascinating and timely contribution to the study of comparative literature in antiquity. Robertson opens his study by [End Page 369] explaining: "This project is an attempt to re-think Paul's letters by providing a new way to describe their form that facilitates transparent, empirical comparison with texts not typically treated by biblical scholars" (1). By defining literary criteria and collating their frequency in ancient texts, we can discover—it is argued—more suitable and perhaps surprising comparanda to Paul's letters than those usually proposed and discussed in biblical studies. Robertson discovers that the (by no means necessarily conscious) use of similar literary forms, common content, and the overlapping "social purpose" of authors, allows hitherto unearthed comparisons to be drawn. So far, the texts he finds most similar to the letters of Paul are Epictetus's Discourses and Philodemus's On Piety and On Death.
Robertson confesses to a "dissatisfaction with previous attempts to frame and understand Paul and Paul's letters," (2) and thus poses the comprehensive questions: "1) What kind of writer was Paul?, and 2) What kind of writings are his letters?" (ibid.) The idea that Paul invented a new (Christian) literary phenomenon in composing such long "epistles" is just as unsatisfactory as the appeals to locating his letters among works of aristocratic rhetoricians, scientific/technical writings, or texts that are somehow quintessentially Jewish. Rather, there appears to have been "a commonality of society and living across ethnic, geographical, and social boundaries in the ancient Mediterranean" (9).
The title of the first chapter mirrors that of the book. Robertson introduces us to the need for a re-thinking of both the choice of texts we use for comparison and indeed the method of comparison itself. He explains the failings of both a high/low and an ethnic categorization of literature, preferring to see authors themselves as a group united by their common level of literacy. Within this group, which of course comprises everyone who has written, there are "socio-literary spheres," spheres that however define the grouping of texts and not of persons (25, 121). Paul's letters belong to the same sphere (only on p. 21 does Robertson allow that he could equally have spoken of "circles") as the discourses of Epictetus and the two works by Philodemus mentioned above, of all of which it may be said: "The social purpose is to change the behavior of, and construct social groupings among, the addressees, as well as to frame these issues in terms of abstract understandings of the gods, cosmos, and society that are linked to the author's authoritative knowledge and ethical exemplarity" (19). Although there are many differences between the three, "[b]roadly speaking, all three authors explicate and defend their cosmological framework, foreground [End Page 370] their personal authority and exemplarity vis-à-vis their audience, construct groupness in opposition to others, and forward an abstract, ethical program" (26).
Robertson identifies (surely correctly) the weaknesses of previous attempts to define Paul's letters by reference to ethnicity as genre-defining, or by focussing on rhetorical features—such as the diatribe—which by no means play a central role in Paul. The field of Theology is not alone in this regard, with Classics supplying subjective evaluations of style that vary according to scholar. Thus, we need an empirical approach, and this is what Robertson provides with a set of "criteria" for comparing texts. These include: universal claims, appeals to authority, conversation, prosōpopoiia, rhetorical questions, metaphors, anecdotes, imperatives, exhortation, caustic injunctions, pathos, irony/satire, hyperbole, opposition/choices, groupness, plural inclusive address, second-person address, first-person reflection, analysis of questions/objections, and systematic argument (see, e.g., 125). The hope is that such criteria will allow for further research on more—and indeed any—ancient texts; a desideratum that he expresses throughout.
Chapter two provides us with an introduction...