Interview with E. P. Sanders
“Paul, Context, & Interpretation”
Barnes Norton, Journal of Philosophy and Scripture
At the occasion of
Syracuse University’s Postmodernism, Religion, and Culture conference,
titled “Saint Paul among the Philosophers”, Michael Barnes Norton
sat down with religious scholar and historian E. P. Sanders to discuss
the issues at stake in philosophical interpretations of the enigmatic
writings of Paul, and in general the contemporary use of ancient
E. P. Sanders: I think
context is the crucial issue. In light of what are we reading this?
I’m a person of very limited brain, and I’m going to read Paul in
light of what I have studied and what I know—i.e., Palestine in
the first century and especially first century Judaism. You could
ask, “Can he be lifted out of that context?” and I would start stumbling.
I do not want to say that what I do is the end all and be all and
that everyone who wants to read Paul must do it the way I do it.
On the other hand, when I see a sentence that had a perfectly clear
meaning in its original context taken out of that context and used
some other way in a later context, then I kind of shudder.
With the modern appropriation
of Paul, I feel like I’m stuck. Readers have been appropriating
him into their own contexts since at least the Epistle of James
(which misunderstood him!). The epistle says [in argument with Paul],
“Faith without works is dead.” But Paul was entirely in favor of
good works. The works he had in mind, against which he was polemicizing
in Galatians and Romans, were those works that make you Jewish and
distinguished you from Gentiles. So, the author of James takes it
that Paul is against works, i.e., good deeds. Paul loved good deeds!
He recommends them to people all the time. But if you take his statement,
“righteousness by faith, not by works,” out of its context—the question
whether or not Gentile converts need to be circumcised—if you take
it out of that context and put it in another context, I always kind
of shudder at this. But it makes me go through life shuddering!
I shudder when James does it, I shudder when Luther does it, I shudder
when a more modern person than Luther does it. But I take these
to be my own limits rather than the fault of everybody else.
JPS: Isn’t there
a certain limitation wrapped up with the original context, or even
with the task of interpretation in general? For instance, the way
Alain Badiou interprets Paul as a kind of prophet of universalism,
while possibly valid, is valid only in a limited sense. We’re in
a very different situation today. What we think of as a universal
incorporation of different cultures under a kind of liberal umbrella
is very different than the universalism that Paul preached under
the umbrella of Christianity.
EPS: I think Paul basically
felt what most of us think: that the whole world ought to be like
we are. Then everything would be fine. He thought the whole world
should be like he was. He recommends himself as the model to his
churches in letter after letter. If you go through his letters looking
for the first-person (“I do it this way”), you always find the implied
imperative (“this is the way you ought to do it”). So, his universalism
is patterned on his own conversion experience: “Of course you’re
suffering. Suffering is good, Christians suffer. Christ suffered.
Prophets suffer. Look at me, I suffer. So, you should suffer. What’s
your problem?” His view of what people should be is highly autobiographical.
I don’t know how that actually plays—this autobiographical side
of Paul, this “Do things the way I do!”—in a multicultural situation.
JPS: Also, Paul is
often read against the background of an assumed Greek-Jew distinction,
i.e., the idea that there are Greek people and there are Jewish
people, and that Paul is trying to find a space for them to co-exist.
In the actual situation of the first century, however, it was much
more complex than that. There were mutual influences and interconnections
between cultures, and in a certain sense this milieu was already
EPS: The Greco-Roman
world was highly universalized, and it had a kind of universalist
vision. But you don’t actually detect this precisely articulated,
as far as I know, by Gentile thinkers as early as Paul. I think
you first begin to see a notion within Rome that Romans have a universal
mandate (“everyone should be like us”) with the emperor Hadrian.
He wanted the Jews to stop being circumcised. He wanted everyone
to have temples of the sort he liked. He toured the empire and tried
to stitch it together into a kind of unity, and he wanted to build
a fence around it and keep other people out. So, this sort of unified
empire wouldn’t actually take on the entire world. He built a wall
across the narrow part of England to keep the barbarians to the
north out of his civilized world.
But to your average
thoughtful Gentile, the people who appeared to be opposed to universalism
were (a) the Jews and (b) the Christians, because
they would not fit in. The Jews retained their autonomy and their
national characteristics; they wouldn’t just surrender them to Greco-Roman
sameness. Josephus, the great Jewish historian, points this out.
He wrote, “No people hold on to their customs the way we do. Even
the Spartans gave them up! They did not cling to their constitution
the way that the Jews cling to their constitution.” It was the Jews
who held out against the merger of Greco-Roman identities, and the
Christians followed them. Christians wouldn’t merge either, and
so they got persecuted for a while—until they took over the empire.
Then they started persecuting everybody else. They were not at all
concerned with getting along with everyone or having something into
which everyone fits. Christians started persecuting people who were
not Christians, and then they started persecuting one another for
being the wrong kind of Christian. So, I would say there’s a kind
of anti-universalism in the Biblical tradition. It accepts universalism,
but only if everyone would be like the dominant group.
JPS: Some would want
to defend certain inceptual figures, like Paul or the historical
Jesus or the apostles, saying that that wasn’t really their message,
that that was the message of an institution, a church that grew
up after them.
EPS: Well, this is true.
Paul doesn’t ever say anything in favor of persecuting non-Christians.
Of course not! I wouldn’t mean to attribute this later movement
to him. On the other hand, I think his view of the world is that
he’s going to find a space, as you put it, between Jew and Gentile
by making them all part of a new third entity. This is an old debate
among scholars: did Paul actually have a conception of a third race,
which is what it came to be called in the second century—Christians
as the third race, neither Jew nor Greek but a new nation? I think
the answer to this question is, “Yes, but he didn’t articulate it
precisely.” It’s quite clear that he is constructing new social
circumstances, that his church members did not go to synagogues
on the Sabbath, and that they also did not go to pagan temples.
They’re definitely a third creation—neither Jew nor pagan—and he
thought everyone should join it. That was his form of universalism,
his social form of universalism.
JPS: In your work,
you emphasize the non-systematicity of Paul’s thought. It’s undeniable
that he’s not trying to construct a philosophy or a theology that
would be doctrinal. He’s addressing specific concerns, and sometimes
his answers seem to contradict each other. I wonder if that non-systematicity
will always end up being a tough spot for those who do want to appropriate
a Pauline message or a Pauline program into a philosophical or even
a theological system.
EPS: It doesn’t slow
them up at all, because they just take parts! The great thing about
saying that you accept a figure or that you accept a text—for example,
the modern fundamentalists who say that they accept the entire Bible—is
that you can choose which bits and pieces you will make use of and
ignore the bits and pieces that you don’t want to make use of. So,
that’s the way it is with appropriating Paul: I can say that I accept
the entire Paul, while only taking bits of Paul. I’m sure that the
Lutheran theologians of the post-Reformation period thought that
they were doing justice to the whole Paul, but they were leaving
out such important things as sacramentalism and mysticism and so
on, which are part of the whole Paul. So, you can pretend to do
it and yet not actually do it.
JPS: In Luther’s
own use of Paul, you can see certain historical circumstances; the
uses are appropriate to a certain situation. Whereas in Lutheranism,
what becomes orthodox Lutheranism...
EPS: It goes downhill.
Lutheranism is much farther away from the historical Paul than Luther
himself, who actually was somewhat sympathetic to the mystical parts
of Paul. I always hate to criticize Luther himself. He did give
certain biases to his reading of Paul, but what happened was that
they became solidified into dogma in later years, as you were just
JPS: Would you say
there’s a similarity between Paul’s (and Luther’s) attention to
specific, historical circumstances and what Daniel Boyarin sees
operative in the ancient sophists, viz. the recognition that human
knowledge stands at an impassable distance from absolute or universal
EPS: Yes, and I’d be
inclined personally to sympathize with the sophists as well. It’s
very hard for me to think that the human mind actually can comprehend
absolute, ultimate truth that can somehow be true through all circumstances
over thousands of years. I think our minds are simply too strongly
conditioned by who we are, where we live, what we do and what we
know, and I don’t see how we’re ever going to be able to transcend
all that. People, as far as I know, who believe in transcendence—true
transcendence—believe in revelation. And that somehow the revelation
that gets into the human mind is not corrupted by it, that it stays
over and above. But I think that’s impossible. I think that whatever
one makes of revelation, it’s still apprehended by people, and people
all have their limitations. I love reading Plato, but I’m not a
Platonist. I think if there is an absolute Truth, an absolute Good,
or an absolute Beauty out there somewhere, we would never know it.
What we have to do is do the best we can with the resources we have
from time to time.
I wouldn’t wish to say
that there are no principles. I think there are principles, but
the problem with principles is knowing which principle to apply
when. God loves all humans, he wants us to do good to all humans—let’s
say we have this as a principle. How do you apply it, say, faced
with Nazism? The devil is in the details; the devil is in the application
of ideas. And I don’t think anything helps us with it. I don’t think
there’s some sort of truth that helps us with these things, that
helps us know how to apply things.
JPS: You would have
to apply this same sort of outlook methodologically when you’re
reading texts, when you read scripture, to say that you can’t assume
any kind of unilateral system or ideology behind an author. Especially
in the case of biblical studies, when you’re dealing with multiple
authors from multiple times and multiple traditions, but even in
the case of one author—Paul for instance—in every case of interpretation,
one has to proceed case by case.
EPS: I either am, or
wish very badly to be, a historian. In my own case I always start
“back there” and focus on what case Paul was arguing in what context.
Who were his opponents? What other issues were at stake in the debates?
Because Paul’s letters are partially debates, and we can reconstruct
another side, or two or three other sides, behind the letters. For
instance, there are actually five main actors—either individuals
or groups of people—in Galatians, and all we know about them is
what Paul wrote in Galatians. But it does appear that there were
these five bunches of people. There were people who were persecuting
Paul, and those who were persecuting because they feared being persecuted
by someone else, and the persecutors of the persecutors, etc. So,
there are lots of groups, and we can reconstruct this situation.
Then we’ve at least understood why he said what he said when he
said it, and after that you might try to think how you could make
use of this. I think that my view is that the use of the Bible is
long, slow, and tedious, and it would never work if you had to give
a sermon every Sunday. You can’t analyze a biblical passage from
the ground up every week.
JPS: But even in
cases of more laborious study, there arise tendencies in certain
scholars to interpret things in one way or another.
EPS: There are tendencies,
of course, yes.
JPS: It seems to
me that in fundamentalists’ use of scriptures—in the way that they
give themselves license, as you said, to pick and choose—there’s
a sort of tacit realization of the way that different problems need
to be addressed particularly and not in a systematic way. While
there may be on the surface of their preaching a sort of systematic
table of the ideas they’re going to believe, their use of the text
betrays a recognition of the value of a case-by-case approach, although
a less careful or modest one.
EPS: I think that’s
right: a case by case approach where you generally resolve a case
by referring to a proof text, the origin of which you never analyze.
You just use the words on the page.
JPS: So is this maybe
a symmetrical reverse of the model for scholarly study?
Protestant Christian fundamentalism, is of course a definite social
phenomenon. It has a point of origin: the late nineteenth or early
twentieth century, in the Midwestern U.S. And it was deliberately
and consciously opposed to biblical criticism, by people who had
heard of the four-source hypothesis—J, E, D, and P—and hated it.
They formulated fundamentalism against this sort of thing, i.e.,
the sort of analysis that exposes disagreements and discrepancies
and so on. Because these four sources (J, E, D, and P) don’t entirely
agree with each other. For instance, there are two tables of ten
commandments, and they’re not precisely the same. And there are
all kinds of other little rubs. They hated it, so they formulated
against that the specific idea that the entire Bible agrees with
itself, which will get you into this horrible problem of making
Paul and the author of James agree with each other when the author
of James says, “No, I’m opposing him.” How is this at all coherent?
It’s a dogma—that all the parts of the Bible agree with each other—that
simply kills study. The mind studies by comparison and contrast,
and if you eliminate contrast from its tools, you’re sunk. So you
can’t study it; you can just learn the passages you want to use.
It’s too bad. Biblical criticism has its weaknesses, but this is
not a good corrective to them.
JPS: I think that
often philosophers who draw from scripture tend to do a similar
thing, though. They say, “Here’s this complex from this book, and
this complex from this other book. They don’t really have that much
to do with each other, but they both seem to me to be making the
same point, so I’m going to use them as examples together.”
EPS: I think all users
of the Bible or any other ancient text do basically the same thing,
except historians who try not to (but who doubtless nevertheless
sometimes do it too)—viz., read a text as what it seems to them
to mean rather than what it would have seemed to someone at the
time to mean. The question I always have is whether or not I think
anyone except a historian should deal with an ancient text. Can
you read it for what it means for me today? Of course, I have to
admit that millions of Christians and Jews throughout the ages have
read the Bible “for what it means for me today” and have derived
enormous benefit from it. I think it can be only salutary for individuals
to do this, but when they start using bits and pieces from it out
of context in order to build a system, that’s where they go astray.
So I think the difference is between, on the one hand, an individual
reading that asks, “What does this say to me?”—which seems to me
perfectly natural and wholesome—and, on the other hand, using bits
from the Bible deliberately to build a system that is basically
contrary to some of the principles of the Bible.
JPS: Do you think,
then, that there is a necessary gap between what you do as a historical
or textual critic of a text and what someone does who extracts out
of it a normative meaning for today?
EPS: I think there’s
a gap, and I think there’s a tension. And since I’m going through
life with this gap very strongly in my mind, it becomes difficult
for me to listen to sermons because I keep thinking of what this
meant at its time. And the proper business of the clergyman is to
make sense of what this could mean for us today. That’s his job,
and as I said, he doesn’t have time to work the issue out from the
ground up, to go back to its origin and march forward. So, we all
end up lifting bits from the Bible or other ancient sources and
using them as it seems best to us, and I don’t think that this is
evil. I think it sometimes has unfortunate results, but I don’t
think Luther was evil to read Paul and be inspired by it, although
his Paul is not quite the Paul of the first century. I don’t think
Calvin was evil to read the Bible and derive from it the majesty
of God, which led him from point to point so that he built up this
enormous and wonderful structure (with somewhat biblical roots).
But this sometimes ends up departing quite widely from what’s in
the Bible. I think it’s a question of the quality of the person
who does this. Luther and Calvin were great men, something I can’t
say about the fundamentalist system-builders.
JPS: Could one say
that to the degree to which someone who does devote the time and
energy to looking at the sources and going back to the historical
circumstances in order to fully explicate what was going on at that
time that produced these texts, the degree to which she is able
to separate herself from a certain philosophy or theology or any
imposed interpretation, the degree to which all that is successful—to
that degree will more or better possibilities be opened up for philosophical
and theological interpretations that are applicable today? In other
words, if the preacher who doesn’t have the time to do the historical
work can read someone who has had the time...
EPS: Yes, that’s the
way it ought to work. I think historians and exegetes all toil at
their task thinking, “Someone’s going to be able to use this.” It
isn’t just of antiquarian interest. The truth is that for pros who
spend their lives doing this, they have a lot of antiquarian interest.
They want to know the nitty-gritty of what things really were back
then, and that becomes a goal in and of itself. But I think in the
back of most people’s minds who write a commentary on Galatians,
a commentary on Romans, a commentary on Genesis, or a book about
one of these subjects, is the idea that someone will be able to
use their historical work for some good end. I wouldn’t know how
to apply this, but I think that’s the hope of historians. Whether
or not it’s ever the outcome, I don’t know.
I don’t know what information
was available to Kierkegaard, for instance, when he wrote Fear
and Trembling, but I have the impression he could have written
it without any information at all about the historical origin of
the Abraham story. But again, it’s the question of the quality of
the individual who’s employing it. I don’t have a principle that
says what Luther did with Paul is good and what someone else did
is bad, or what Kierkegaard did was good and what someone else did
was bad. This is entirely a humanistic assessment. What are the
consequences? How profoundly was it done? What are the points that
are made? And so on. One of the things I wish I could live long
enough to write a book on (but I won’t) could be called the “humanistic
evaluation of religion.” It has a history: it comes out of Greece
and follows the theory of a guy named Euhemerus, who thought that
the Greek gods were all humans who had simply become glamorized
and glorified with the passing of years. Therefore [according to
Euhemerism], the study of Greek religion is something that should
be entirely humanistic, because the gods were anthropomorphically
conceived. So, you would be evaluating what the benefits are to
Then there’s Philo of
Alexandria, who asks why Judaism is better than paganism. And of
course in part it’s because it’s revealed by the only true God.
He’s got a theological view, but his most telling arguments are
humanistic. Judaism produces better human beings. “We are sincere,”
he argues; “in our purification rituals we are really purifying
ourselves, whereas in pagan purification rituals they’re not really
purifying themselves.” It’s entirely based around things like sincerity,
avoiding hypocrisy, the love of humanity instead of the hatred of
humanity, etc. The entire evaluative process is humanistic; it is
the notion that human values are those that really count. Philo
used that to evaluate his own religion, and found it to be excellent!
I think that is very interesting, and I like it. I believe in it.
So, I will now confess to you what I think, which is that some people
use the Bible out of context and the results are wonderful, and
some people use it out of context and the results are awful. My
criterion is humanism; the question is whether or not interpretations
JPS: It’s interesting
that you bring up that question in connection with the ancient world,
because I think we in our contemporary world tend to think that
this is the age of humanism...
EPS: Like we discovered
JPS: Exactly, that
we’re shaking off religious ideologies and really starting
to concentrate on the human. But this is precisely the same age
when we ask “Is this correct?” rather than “Is this beneficial?”
Whereas in the ancient world, people wanted to know, “What does
this do for me? How does this make the world better?”
EPS: There was the anti-humane
move toward dogma, which got Christianity into all sorts of difficulties,
I think. You stop worrying about the welfare of humans, because
all you’re worried about is their souls. So, if they suffer in this
life, that’s fine. And if they have the wrong idea, and you have
to torture or kill them, that’s fine because their souls will then
be saved—or there’s a chance, if they would only confess! Dogma
turned out to justify extremely anti-humane treatment of people.
I think that’s a very bad point in Christianity. I much prefer the
ancient (and modern) humane evaluation of religion.