Interview on Romans with Craig Keener

Interview on Romans with Craig Keener January 13, 2010

Craig Keener (Prof. of NT at Palmer Theological Seminary) has recently published a very insightful Romans commentary in the New Covenant Commentary Series. It is as if you have been invited to a party to hear the keynote speaker (Paul), but you don’t really know anyone that will be at the party.  Well, Keener is your party guide who gives you the scoop on everyone in the room.  His knowledge of ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman parallels and backgrounds is astounding and the commentary is busting at the seams with references which will become the student’s treasury.  Craig has so much knowledge of the ancient world and it is a no-brainer that we can all benefit from having some access to some of the connections he is able to make between a host of ancient religious leaders, philosophers, and leaders.  Also, he is very sensitive, in the commentary, to pastoral issues.  Too many scholars focus squarely on “historical” issues and never really address the ethical and theological aspects of the text.  Not so with Craig’s work.  You really get the best of both worlds!  I highly recommend buying it, but at least encourage your library to order it!

Craig was kind enough to answer some questions in an interview as we have a premier exegete of the NT taking on Romans.  This interview will be in two parts. [Update: The second part is HERE.]

NKG: Can you tell us about this New Covenant Commentary Series and why you decided, not only to participate, but also to co-edit the series?

CK: Mike Bird, the other editor, actually conceived the series and proposed it to Cascade/Wipf & Stock, but when he invited me to participate I was excited about the idea.  Several authors were already chosen before I came on board, but for the most part I got to participate close to the beginning.  We wanted to make good scholarship available at an accessible and affordable level.  We also wanted to give the authors the flexibility to play to their strengths—for that reason you will see differences in the approaches even of Michael and myself in our respective commentaries.  One of the most distinctive elements of the series, however, and perhaps the element that most excites me, is the cultural diversity of our authors.  Most commentaries are still being written in the west, but the global church has exploded over the past century, and most theological reflection in the world is therefore taking place outside the west.  We wanted to assemble a team of scholars from various parts of the world, to hear more of the voices of the global church and gain insights that many readers might not otherwise have access to.

NKG:  I presume that you had your pick of which book you might like to do.  Why Romans?  I am sure some scholars would find it too daunting to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to develop a new commentary alongside so many Romans scholars.  What inspired you to take this particular book on?

CK: Hubris (smile).  Actually, I have long planned to write a commentary on Romans, though eventually a much larger one.  In this version I could employ only a very small percentage of my research, especially on primary sources from the ancient world, even though my coeditor kindly let me run over my assigned word limit!  Though I have been working in the Gospels for a number of years, I worked in Paul earlier.  I spent years working through Acts (a commentary that is unfortunately so long that it is taking a long time to appear), and my plans were to return to Paul afterward.  From my work in Greco-Roman sources, I found that 1-2 Corinthians made perfect sense (and had worked on these letters for a short commentary for Cambridge that came out in 2005).

When I got to Romans, though, I realized the difficulty to which you refer.  I thought that leaving the Gospels meant that I was leaving the realm of severe controversies, and was looking forward to the break.  But the “New Perspective” with which I was familiar earlier has become the “new perspectives,” and is a matter of serious debate.  I had to rethink a lot of issues and try to come to the most balanced conclusions that I could.  I guess it is not possible to avoid controversy!  At least in Pauline studies, though, I think that most scholars are willing to read other scholars who disagree with them.

NKG: What did you discover, in the course of your research for this Romans commentary, that surprised you?  Put another way, what presumptions did you have that were disabused?  Were their issues and texts that were seen in a completely new light?

CK: Many of my ideas were changed along the way.  I am glad that a lot of shifts and debates took place before I returned to Pauline studies, often involving ideas I took for granted a decade or two ago.  They serve as a warning to think cautiously about other issues and not to make sweeping claims based on consensus, since consensus is rarely constant.  I’ll give a few examples.

First, we overdo rhetorical criticism when we arrange letters as if they were speeches (and speeches designed like the models in rhetorical handbooks at that!).  On the other hand, Paul’s letters are not by any means typical letters–most of them, most prominently Romans, are full of argumentation.  So what we learn from rhetoric about argumentation, rhetorical devices, and so on is still profitable.  But I don’t think you can outline Romans as a speech.

Second, I excitedly embraced E. P. Sanders’ argument about ancient Judaism in Paul and Palestinian Judaism when I first read it over two decades ago.  Because I studied with him at Duke afterward, I also have an ingrained loyalty to my professor as a scholar and a friend.  But a number of serious criticisms have been raised (Avemarie, Gathercole, etc.), and they have to be taken into account..  I think Ed’s central argument–that Judaism taught grace–is solid and has won the day; even those who argue against aspects of his thesis almost always agree with this point, and we often forget that this was not the case when he wrote.  But the details are still being debated, and we can learn from this discussion.

Third, let me comment on an area where I still think what I thought before but for better reasons: having worked again through Romans, I think that the question of Jewish and Gentile relations is a central issue in the book.  What got my attention in a new way was the first part of chapter 15, to which I hadn’t paid enough attention before.  I do not by any means limit the theological implications of Romans to its original concrete situation (I believe some commentators have lent that impression of their approach), but I do believe that grappling with the concrete contexts that Romans addressed helps us to grapple with the sorts of concrete situations we face today, including some that reflect many analogies with the setting of Romans.

NKG: While reading your book, I was stunned by the level of your knowledge and interaction with ancient Greco-Roman and early Jewish literature and how you interconnected related material.  How does a broad and deep knowledge of ancient extra-biblical texts (from the same time period) contribute to one’s understanding of a New Testament document such as Romans?  (One can certainly see you at work on the relevance issue in the commentary, but what would you say to someone with the mentality that the text’s message is perspicuous as is – or, as I sometimes call it, the ‘just give me Jesus’ approach?)

CK: I have tried to take to heart Martin Hengel’s warning that the NT is a short book, as far as scholarly disciplines go, and NT scholars ought to know its context better.  I actually read a lot of ancient Mediterranean sources—Tacitus, Plato, Homer, Virgil, the Greek tragic and comic dramatists, and so forth—before my conversion to Christianity, as a young atheist.  I hadn’t read more than a chapter of the Bible before I was converted.  As a young Christian, I ditched these other sources and just immersed myself in the Bible—many weeks reading 40 chapters a day.  But as I was immersing myself in the Bible, I realized that I wasn’t taking all of it seriously, despite my stated intention.  If Paul says that he writes this letter to the “set-apart ones in Rome” (Rom 1:7), one has to take into account how they would have heard it.  To ignore that question is to fail to take seriously this passage that explicitly anchors Romans in a concrete historical setting.  It is simply naive to take a document written to a particular ancient setting, written in Greek, using figures of speech and cultural allusions that were shared assumptions by the ancient author and the author’s intended audience, and assume that we can read it without taking any of that into account.  I’m not saying that we can’t get many correct ideas from a translation without additional background, but you will also miss a lot.

That is why I have spent a couple decades collecting data, reading through ancient sources and thinking of connections with the NT documents (and, in time, how what I learned from some ancient Mediterranean sources provides context for other Mediterranean sources).  I enjoy exploring ancient literature, but I want especially to make my work useful for those who want to understand the NT better.

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