Interview with Craig Keener on Romans Continued (Part II)

Interview with Craig Keener on Romans Continued (Part II) January 14, 2010

In a previous post, I shared the beginning of a conversation that I was privileged to have with NT professor Craig Keener.  Here is the second and final portion.

NKG: Based on your work on this commentary, can you give us a one-sentence summary of Paul’s message in Romans?

CK: How about something like: “The good news is God’s power to save everyone who believes, whether Jews or Gentiles, for God’s righteousness is revealed in it …” (Rom 1:16-17)… Oops, that doesn’t sound very original.  How about: God’s way of righteousness is the same for both Jew and Gentile: depend on God for transforming righteousness.

The problem for an exegete is that every word I just said is loaded and debated, and I can’t say it without remembering that!  There is a heavy emphasis on “believe” (I can’t type Greek letters in this email program), but I think modern western Christians have a terrible time with that word because of its subjective connotations for us since Kant and Kierkegaard.  We try to work up a feeling of faith or suppress doubt, and miss the point.  Faith is not its own object.  When Jesus talks about a mustard seed of faith (sorry, remember I am still transitioning from my work in Gospels), his point is that it’s not how much faith you have, but in whom your faith is.  The faith may be tiny but if it is in a very big God, God is more than big enough to make up for it.  The point is not to have some subjective experience of undirected faith, but to put our trust in the One who is ultimately trustworthy.

NKG: What commentators on Romans did you find yourself returning to again and again?  Or, put another way, which Romans commentary in your personal library has the most underlinings, scribblings, and marginal exclamation points?

CK: It’s hard to single one out, because Romans is blessed with a lot of significant recent commentators.  I will some that immediately come to mind: Jewett, Fitzmyer, Dunn, Moo, Schreiner … (on a shorter level also Talbert and others—where does one stop?)  I have heard that Beverly Gaventa is working on a Romans commentary and I expect that one to be very significant also.  I enjoy most of all working through Paul and seeing how he employs his words, where he echoes the LXX, and so forth.  Nevertheless, there are many insights one gets only by engaging with a broader range of interpreters, and Romans has quite a lot of them.

NKG: Now, you are known to be a New Testament generalist, comfortable in Paul, Jesus, and the rest of it (I particularly learned from your Revelation commentary!).  But you have spent a concentrated amount of time in recent years in the Gospels (correct me if I am off here).  What does someone who is well-versed in the Gospels, its background, and its history of interpretation have to offer to the often myopic world of Pauline exegesis and research?  How did you find that recent Gospels work useful or stimulating in your Romans research?  Here is a good chance to plug the generalist mentality!

CK: Paul is actually where I started (e.g., Paul, Women & Wives), but Duke’s NT faculty was particularly heavy in Gospels when I studied there (Ed Sanders did both, but I had Moody Smith and Dan Via particularly for Gospels; I was too early, unfortunately, to get a course with Richard Hays) and it was inevitable that my graduate work influenced me.  But Pauline studies has changed a lot since I was working in Gospels!

Pauline studies actually is less myopic in a sense than Gospels studies.  With Paul, you have hard evidence of contact among a variety of Christian congregations in the Mediterranean world, and you take seriously the voice of the undisputed letters as a firsthand voice in early Christianity.  There is a lot of loosely anchored speculation about communities in some sectors of Gospels studies that could profit from the concrete discipline of Paulinists.  But perhaps my positive experiences have left me overly optimistic about Paulinists.

Narrative criticism, emphasized in some Gospels study as well as in Paul, does help one to approach Paul’s letters as cohesive wholes, reading them in dialogue with their situation and not fixating so much on details that one misses the forest for the trees.  Theologically, moving from the Gospels (and questions about Jesus) to Paul also invites disciplined thinking about how Paul draws not only from the Septuagint but also from the early movement that had so recently sprung from Jesus of Nazareth.  The language is often very different, but I am finding that some common concepts are there on the experiential level (e.g., Jesus’ teaching and practice of faith, of dependence on God, noted above).

When addressing historical issues, Gospels studies can get very polarized into camps, with some members of each camp reading only the work of their fellow campers.  Coming from that background into Pauline studies, I am happy to shed that polarization over historical issues.  There are other camps, such as divisions over the meaning of pistis Christou (sorry again about my lack of Greek font here), but it appears to me that most Paul scholars are not going to suppress or ignore other scholars just because of such disagreements.  Again, I might be too optimistic, but it looks as though even if there is some polarization and stereotyping, it is less than in some historical Jesus studies.  That seems a refreshing change.

NKG: I know that you just came out with a book on the Jesus of history (which just arrived at my doorstep today!) and you have a three-volume commentary on Acts coming in the not-too-distant future.  From the Romans commentary, I got the impression that you plan to do more work on Romans.  Is that correct?  What other major and minor writing projects are on your horizon – would you be willing to share with us?

CK: Thank you for noticing these other works.  The Historical Jesus of the Gospels drew especially on my work in Matthew, and some in my work on Luke-Acts for the Acts commentary.  Its sequel, which required a separate volume, is a work on the plausibility of miracle reports in early Christian historical narratives; perhaps that will be out in 2011 (with Hendrickson).  I finished the Acts commentary a couple years ago, after six years of writing (not including prior research), and it is still not out because it is taking awhile to edit (and then typeset and index).  (Hint: Don’t write long commentaries.  They cost more, also.)  I love Acts and love every bit of the commentary, but next time I am going for a shorter NT book to write commentary on!  It has felt so relaxing to write a couple books (since completing Acts) that could be measured in months rather than years.

As for what is next but not yet started: I would love to write in greater detail on Romans and 1 Corinthians, as I implied above and in my shorter commentaries on each of those books.  I do not intend to supplant what others have done on those works, but my file of research is bursting with many thousands of unused tidbits from ancient sources ready to be applied here.  Over the years, as I have read through ancient material, I have filed most of the materials under the NT references where it could be useful.  At my current rate, I would be 100 by the time I finish publishing it all, so I am having to narrow my focus on what to publish.  I have so much material useful for Romans and 1 Corinthians that those seem obvious targets, although Ihave a glut of material for some other books as well.  At the very least, having all that material on hand made writing the short commentary on Romans very quick.  My greatest difficulty was screening out the vast majority of material for which I lacked space.  The publisher and my coeditor were generous in allowing me a bit of extra space; I joked that if they didn’t I would end my commentary at Romans 14, like some early manuscripts of the letter!  (Smile)

Speaking of generous coeditors, if I may add this: Michael Bird has been such a joy to work with.  He actually initiated the idea for the series, but brought me in quite early, and we have gotten along wonderfully.  I asked him why he was so laid back and he responded that it was part of Australian culture to be laid back.  Wipf & Stock/Cascade have also been very supportive and they publish their works very quickly.

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