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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 3 (Sept. 1992)

Panel Discussion of Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross, by Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly

Paul Brooks Duff (George Washington University), Sacred Violence and Social Order in 1 Corinthians

R. Hamerton-Kelly, in his recent book Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross, suggests that Paul justly condemns the law because it is a instrument of "sacred (i.e. exclusionary) violence." In his analysis of Paul's writings, Hamerton-Kelly suggests that Paul recognized the fact that the same violence which was responsible for the death of Jesus was also culpable for the "violence" of excluding gentiles from its community. It is our suggestion that, if Hamerton-Kelly is correct in his analysis of Paul, then the apostle is guilty of the same sacred violence for which he indicts the torah of Judaism.

One of the most interesting and overlooked passages in the Corinthian correspondence concerns the so-called "incest" incident in chapter 5 of 1 Corinthians. What is especially surprising about this incident is Paul's extraordinarily vehement reaction to the rumor of this kind of sexual activity. Summoning all of his apostolic authority, Paul demands that the Corinthian community condemn this individual to death by means of an execration oath, a practice not unheard of in the ancient world. Hence what is usually described as an excommunication is, in fact, much more than a mere expulsion from the community. It is an execution through the agency of demonic powers. Stranger still is the fact that the perpetrator is not, in actual fact, engaging in incest per se.

Paul's violent reaction to the sexual behavior of the unnamed Corinthian individual only makes sense if we envision the Christian community of Corinth in the throes of mimetic crisis (See R. Hamerton-Kelly, "A Girardian Interpretation of Paul," Semeia 33 [1985]: 65-82), a crisis in which distinctions (especially sexual distinctions) have radically diminished. If 1 Corinthians is read in this light, then Paul's solution to the mimetic crisis includes the violent expulsion of one who appears to symbolize all that is wrong with the community.

It is significant that Paul (here as well as in connection with sexual conduct in 1 Thess 4:3-5) contrasts the morality of Christians with that of the "Gentiles"--although he deliberately distorts the facts in his description of gentile morality--implying the kind of exclusionary move for which he condemns the law. It is also noteworthy that in connection with this situation, Paul uses the metaphor of "leaven," a metaphor which suggests the infectious and hence dangerous character of the perpetrator's activity.

Neil Elliott (College of St. Catherine, St. Paul), Paul and the Lethality of the Law--Issues in Interpretation"

As the panel discussion demonstrated, Robert Hamerton-Kelly's Sacred Violence is a provocative addition to an already controversial field, the study of Paul's view of the Torah. Since a number of other questions, theological, moral, political, are immediately caught up in this discussion, precision in our historical discussion of Paul is imperative. Since the works of Krister Stendahl, Rosemary Ruether, and E. P. Sanders in the mid-1970s, much older doubts about the cogency of Paul's comments on the Torah (what Hans-Joachim Schoeps called the apostle's "fundamental misunderstanding") are increasingly weighty; one regularly finds references in the literature to a "new perspective" or "paradigm shift" in Pauline studies. One might say that Sacred Vio lence arrives at a dancehall already in full swing.

Briefly, Professor Hamerton-Kelly argues that Paul's thinking centers in a profound insight, won through the Cross, into "the sacred violence in his ancestral religion"; in a paraphrase of Sanders, he writes that for Paul "the problem with Judaism was . . . that it was a sacrificial structure of sacred violence" (pp. 6-7).

The "hermeneutic of the Cross" operates in Paul's thinking at three distinct levels. At a personal level, "the Cross showed Paul that he had been the servant of sacred violence" (p. 183). I think this is an insight long overdue, although I incline, with Paula Fredriksen, to locate that sacred violence within the Judaean Temple establishment and its collaboration with imperial Rome, not within "Judaism" or "the Mosaic Torah" as such.

The argument continues: "At the next horizon [the Cross] exposed the Judaism that Paul served as an expression of sacred violence. Along the widest horizon it exposed the generative role of the primitive Sacred in all religion and culture" (p. 183). Except for the substitution of mimetic conflict for the dynamic of self- justification, this interpretation follows the Protestant convention of reading Paul as everywhere in fundamental opposition to Judaism, "the Jew" becoming the example par excellence of sinful humanity. Just here I diverge emphatically from the argument in Sacred Violence, for what I am convinced are good historical reasons.

On the basis of 1 Thess. 2:15-16, Professor Hamerton-Kelly argues that Paul blamed the Jews of Judaea for the death of Jesus; arguments of other scholars to the contrary, that such language is so untypical of Paul's other letters and of the pre-70 Jesus movement generally as to indicate an interpolation, are dismissed. This passage is given weight in the book that it cannot sustain, dominating even the interpretation of Romans (pp. 100-101). In Galatians 2, Hamerton-Kelly sees a link in Paul's thought between the lethal violence of the Cross and the "exclusionary" violence of Torah observance (which "excludes" Gentiles). But despite the conventions of Protestant exegesis, it is clear from the text that the Antioch controversy did not involve the "imposition" of Torah on Gentiles--to the contrary, Cephas and his Jewish companions withdrew themselves from the company of Gentiles; Paul's question in 2:14 is desperately rhetorical--and that the Jerusalem apostles unreservedly endorsed the "Law-free" mission among Gentiles. To characterize keeping kosher as "exclusionary violence" is, in my opinion, as historically untenable as it is theologically tendentious.

Following Johannes Munck, some recent scholars have emphasi zed the rhetorical context of Galatians: it is a letter addressed to Gentiles who are not, in fact, interested in becoming Jews (as Gal. 5:3 makes clear). Gentiles are also the addressees of Romans. If we take rhetorical constraints seriously, these observations ought to make us cautious of reading anything Paul says about the Torah in either letter as a straightforward representation of his views on Judaism. Only in Romans 9-11 is Paul unambiguously addressing the subject of contemporary Jews, and this argument is as unambiguously directed against Gentile "boasting" over Israel. That is, at least one major concern in Romans (several scholars would say, the major concern in Romans) is to oppose mimetic rivalry among Gentile Christians. Much of Hamerton-Kelly's analysis of the dynamics of mimetic rivalry in Paul's thought is brilliant; but to obscure Paul's argumentative goals by reading both letters as indictments of Judaism is, I think, an exegetical error with grave consequences.

In the dancehall of Pauline studies (to return to a metaphor begging to be overworked), not everyone is moving in the same direction. The sweep of Protestant exegesis (Paul vs. "works- righteousness": Luther) and its "sociological" variation (Paul vs. "exclusivism" or "ethnocentrism": Baur) is powerful. By locating the heart of Paul's work and thought in the discovery of his own complicity in sacred violence, Professor Hamerton-Kelly has stopped the music of traditional dogmatics, even if some of the momentum of that tradition continues to carry his book along. The publication of Sacred Violence will mark a turning point in Pauline studies; my remarks are offered as suggestions for our next steps together.

Robert Hamerton-Kelly's (Stanford University) responses

To Paul Duff:

I have argued at some length in the book that Paul is not hoist on his own petard. The Pauline church is not simply an alternative version of Jewish exclusionism (pp. 85-87). Indeed, the heart of Paul's theology is the inclusiveness of the church whose membership is based solely on adherence to Christ in faith without regard to ethnic origin. Paul does, however, distinguish between ritual and ethnic criteria on the one hand, and moral criteria on the other. The former are matters of indifference the latter are matters of grave importance. One can exclude oneself from the community by one's moral acts. The celebrated case in 1 Cor 5 is significant not because of its similarity to the execrations attested in the magical papyri, in which the victim is sent to death, but because of its critical difference. In Corinth the victim is sent out for purgation in order that he might live rather than die. The nearest interpretive analogue is in 1 Cor 3:15, where a person might lose everything in the fire of judgement but still escape with his soul.

To Neil Elliott:

I cannot separate the temple from the rest of Judaism. At the time of Paul the temple was the center of the religion and so I believe that I use the term Judaism responsibly to refer to Paul's religion. Of course, I am not unaware of the factions within Judaism at the time, but I think the temple-centered Pharisaism to which Paul belonged with its fanatic and persecutory propensities is a fair representation of Judaism at the time. I generalize from Paul to Judaism to all religion by the carefully argued right of the theory.

It is a counsel of desperation to excise 1 Thess 2:15-16. It is there in the text and I do not believe I have given it undue weight. Kosher is exclusionary violence specifically in the context of Gal 2. Whether it is always so is another matter. If my interpretation is tendentious Elliott's is fallacious.

The recipients of the letters to the Romans and Galatians are emphatically not communities of gentiles only. The text and common sense attests that they are mixed communities of Jews and gentiles. I find this insistence on the purely gentile nature of the communities especially perverse, and I can only suspect a desperate anti-anti-semitism as the motive for this perversion.

I do not believe I have committed "an exegetical error," although the consequences of my candor may indeed be grave, because I have shaken a hornet's nest of political correctness and guilty prevarication.