How we analyze ancient texts – are we letting the cart pull the horse?

How we analyze ancient texts – are we letting the cart pull the horse? February 8, 2008

Currently I am studying 2 Corinthians and particularly Paul’s temple language in 6.14-7.1.  Scholars have struggled over this ‘fragment’.  It contains an unusual number of hapax, it seems to use language about separation from (Gentile) unbelievers in a way we wouldn’t expect of Paul.  It does not seem to fit neatly into its literary context and further Paul’s argument about reconciliation and the nature of apostolic ministry.  So, many, if not most, scholars feel the need to do something with it.

For some, they see the hand of a Qumranist and somehow this Essenic fragment found its way into Paul’s letter (Fitzmyer; similar to Gnilka).  For others, it belongs to another of Paul’s letters.  Betz suggests that it is actually written by Paul’s opponents and some later redactor stitched it into the text for no clear reason; he labels this an ‘anti-Pauline’ fragment!

What does this say about how biblical scholars analyze ancient texts?  Well, first consider that we have found NO mss of 2 Corinthians that displace or omit 6.14-7.1.  So, decisions to excise this portion are purely ‘internal’.  Consider Bornkamm’s hypothesis that in the canonical 2 Corinthians we have parts of 5 different letters:

(1) Letter of defense – 2.14-6.13; 7.2-4

(2) Letter of tears – 10-13.10

(3) Letter of reconciliation  – 1-2.13; 7.5-16

(4) Letter of commendation for Titus et al – 8.1-24

(5) Letter concerning the collection – 9.1-15

(6) Redactor added 6.14-7.1 to letter # 1

(7) Redactor added 13.11-13 to letter # 3

Such fanciful divisions, hypotheses, and reconstructions are quite popular now, though few tend to go as far as Bornkamm (though some still do).   In an essay I am working on I came across a very important statement made by F.W. Wisse

“redactional theory that steps outside the bounds of textual evidence and minimizes the burden of proof is counter-productive and a hindrance to Pauline studies” ( ‘Textual Limits to Redactional Activity in the Pauline Corpus’ in Gospel Origins [ed. Goehring]: 178).

So, when we teach exegesis to our students, what is driving partition theories – textual proof, or what we think Paul was capable of saying and doing?

Think about it this way.  Is Paul capable of writing in a very complex and unique way that we must take for granted that we may not understand why he wrote in the style or with the particular vocabulary that he did?  When we force partitionary theories, we seem to be precluding this possibility.  Is it not strange that those who want to smooth out ‘letters’ in Paul by separating them into logical bits are actually looking for a rational and completely coherent Paul that always writes in a very intuitive fashion.  Isn’t this a bit lazy?

Is not the best practice to try and come up with a reasonable understanding of the flow of Paul’s thought as the text (based on external evidence) bears no clear signs of later redaction?

Is there the possibility that a redactor stitched together between 2 and 5 bits of different letters (and maybe added a bit in from someone or something else)?  Yes, it is a possibility.  But theories regarding alien insertion when no textual evidence supports them are tentative at best.  It seems to best way to approach this concern is as follows:

(1) Analyze the text as is and try to come up with a rhetorical scenario that can account for the flow of the text

(2) If this seems impossible (as in the transition to chapter 10 of 2 COrinthians), consider historical scenarios that can account for this without assuming redaction: So, Paul may have heard some distressing news between finishing chapter 9 and beginning chapter 10).

(3) Consider, but only tentatively, other options that involve later and non-Pauline redaction.

This seems, to me, like the best way of analyzing ancient texts.  There is a certain arrogance, I think, involved in the promotion of endless partition theories, because we assume that if (as modern westerners) cannot comprehend what Paul is saying and how he is saying it, then something is wrong with the text.  The assumption that we are smarter now than generations before or is called ‘chronological snobbery’ by C.S. Lewis.  I think that applies here.

I  hope that future discussions of passages like 6.14-7.1 will take place and what it is doing in 2 Corinthians.  But, I also hope that theories regarding where it was ‘originally’ or who ‘originally’ wrote it will remain tentative and the primary goal will be trying to understand  how it could be true to its context.  I hope that goal will not be seen as an ‘evangelical agenda’, but as good historical inquiry.

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  • Nijay,

    You should try Old Testament/Hebrew Bible studies then 🙂 There are more partition/redaction/source theories than verses!


  • preach it, brother.

  • Nijay,

    you are absolutely right and you put it very well.

    Concerning 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, I think there is much to be said for the analysis of Michael Goulder (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 as an integral part of 2 Corinthians, Nov Test 36, 1 1994). He shows that the sequence of thought in 2 Cor 5-7:1 is the same as that in 1 Cor 4-5. The parallels between these two passages suggest that there is a common historical background that explains the sequence of thought in both cases. I think this line of thinking would have received more acceptance if critics did not insist (incorrectly) on separating 1 Cor and 2 Cor by 18 months and placing all sorts of invented events in the interim. Anyway, take a look at Goulder’s paper if you have not already done so.

    Actually, I used to partition 2 Corinthians between chapters 9 and 10 and even tentatively advocated partition in print. I changed my mind because there is very little evidence that any other letters were stitched together in the way that is proposed for 2 Corinthians.

    Concerning arrogance, do you get the sense that there is often an arrogance towards Acts? Critics often use their interpretations of Galatians to argue against the historicity of Acts. Perhaps they should consider the possibility that Acts argues against their interpretations of Galatians.

    Richard Fellows

  • Nijay,

    Nice posting. As James said, the problem exists in OT studies. It also exists today in the study of the Book of Revelation, although as a minority view.

    One of my fellow doctoral students at the Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology, dr. Ivar Vegge, wrote about 2 Corinthians. He argued that ancient psychagogics and rhetorics may help to explain 2 Corinthians as a letter of reconciliation.

    Originally, he wrote his thesis in Norwegian – a very easy language (if you are a Dane or a Swede, that is.

    Mohr Siebeck has announced an English translation: 2 Corinthians: A letter about reconciliation: A psychagogical, epistolographical and rhetorical analysis. I cannot find it at their web site, but here is a tinyurl for the info:

    I like your postings.


  • Hi again,

    Forgot to mention that Ivar argues that ancient psychagogics presupposes, but also provides a way to argue for the unity and integrity of 2 Corinthians.


  • Nijay,

    Good stuff. Partition theories concerning 2 Cor is something I once subscribed to (particularly Barclay’s “2 Corinthians,” Eerdmans Commentary on The Bible, eds. James D.G. Dunn, John W. Rogerson, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003] 1355-1356.) However, after a couple of year’s of refelecting back, I realize that the difficulty in partition theories is that (1) They seem almost a “can you top this?”, with one scholar trying to offer a more novel reconstruction than the last, and more importantly, (2) there is absolutely no textual evidence of any kind demonstrating that 2 Cor was stiched together in sundry ways.

    Thanks again for the post–I think it is a must read for those caught up in this less than satisfactory enterprise.


  • Amy Gupta

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Well said.

  • David deSilva

    OK, at the risk of appearing self-promoting… if you’re still pursuing the question of the literary integrity of 2 Corinthians, you may find some useful material in my articles tackling the topic using (in part) rhetorical-critical considerations: JSNT 52 (1993) 41-70; AUSS 31 (1993) 3-16; AUSS 34 (1996) 5-22.

    As you can see, I got kind of obsessed with this for a bit. 🙂

    All the best to you in your studies!