Thursday, December 20, 2007

Nanos on Hagner

Mark Nanos prepared a paper entitled "Have Paul and His Communities Left Judaism for Christianity?" A Review of the Paul-Related Chapters in Jewish Believers in Jesus and Jewish Christianity Revisited" for an SBL session called "Jewish Christianity Consultation," which took place on November 19, 2007. I will only interact with the section in which he critiques the work of Donald Hagner (3-16). If you would like to view the entire document, it is available at his website in pdf format.

I have re-written this sentence several times because I cannot, for the life, of me decide where to begin. I guess I'll start by giving my overall impression of Nanos' critique. First, the tone in the paper is highly polemical, and that is putting it nicely. At every turn he fails to give Hagner the benefit of the doubt and when Nanos finally does attempt to read Hagner faithfully, he resorts to saying that Hagner is reading his own ideology into the text (e.g., "Hagner's Saul turned into Hagner's Paul" [4]). Second, Nanos appears to have a basic misunderstanding of Hagner's choice of terminology regarding Judaism and Christianity (we will explore this in more detail below). And third, Nanos strikes a low blow toward the end of his critique by implying that what Hagner cannot do he (Nanos) requires of his students (15-16).

Now before I continue I should be completely honest for the sake of full disclosure. First, I am a proponent, generally, of the traditional perspective on Paul. While my understanding of Judaism on the whole may be influenced by Sanders, his research (and that of others) has not convinced me to abandon what appears to be the plain meaning of Paul's letters. Second, Dr. Hagner is my mentor at Fuller; thus, my opinion of Nanos' attack on his essay will be, obviously, biased. Those two disclaimers aside, I will try to offer an honest assessment of Nanos' paper.

Beginning with the unnecessary polemic. If this paper felt as pointed as it did when I read it, I can only imagine how it must have sounded as Nanos read it with Hagner sitting in the room. I am reminded of the impression I was left with after the pistis christou session on the Friday of SBL; why is civility so hard to come by these days? Here's a good example of what I am talking about: when is it ever appropriate to assume you have access to the private thoughts and motivations of others? Nanos writes:

I submit that the frame for viewing Paul is already constrained to viewing him only from the perspective, concerns, and answers of a later time, and that the essay has been written to confirm the views of those who already share Hagner's point of view on Paul. (4)

Not only has Nanos attempted to think Hagner's thoughts after him, he has accused him of eisegesis! Nanos might as well call Karl Barth a Pelagian or Stevie Ray Vaughan a hack! Nanos continues: "this essay is not so much an historical as an ideological exercise" (4). I find this to be amazing. I am tempted to assume why Nanos felt compelled to characterize Hagner in this manner, but to do so would not be civil.

Perhaps a little fairness could have helped Nanos' critique come across much better. For example, he chastises Hagner's use of "clear(ly) and obvious(ly)" (5), while a quick word search in the pdf reveals that Nanos uses this same sort of terminology himself ("certainly not" [8-9]; Nanos claims that "Hagner's arguments continue to make clear" the presumption that "Christ-believing Judaism" is a new religion [7]; "it is clear" that offering a counter-reading to Hagner is pointless [11]; and the list grows longer if you consider the material not dealing with Hagner in the paper)! I wonder how many usages of "certainly," "clearly," and the like one would find in other works by Nanos? Also, since when has using confident language as a rhetorical device not been utilized? If Nanos has a problem with this in general then he should have stated his case generally, but since he has a problem with Hagner using this sort of language, perhaps he should have avoided it himself!

Other examples of the unnecessary polemics in this paper could be given but I must move on to Nanos' largest misunderstanding of Hagner which colors the entire paper. A quote from the last paragraph of the section critiquing Hagner will illustrate this beautifully:

While Paul got by without using the term Christian, Hagner does not do so. He probably should not. Based on what Hagner communicates about Paul, it would not be useful to avoid such terminology, or deny that his Paul has moved from one religion to another. (16)

I find this fascinating. Hagner explains his usage of the anachronistic terms "Christianity" and "Judaism" in the third footnote of his essay:

The use of the terms "Judaism" and "Christianity" in reference to the first century is nowadays regarded as problematic. Neither term means what it will come to mean in the centuries following the time of Paul. Judaism is in a highly formative stage in the first two centuries (especially before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70). Similarly, first-century Christianity is not what it will become in the second century. But this terminological debate anticipates the discussion that follows. We will continue to use the terms for the sake of convenience. (n.3 97)

Thus, it appears that Nanos makes a false assumption about Hagner's usage of this terminology. By "Judaism" Hagner does not have in mind rabbinic Judaism and by "Christianity" Hagner does not have in mind the more organized and separated Church of the second century and beyond. Instead, it appears to me that Hagner uses the terms to discuss Paul's pre-Christ religious experience and thought, "Judaism," and his post-Christ religious experience and thought, "Christianity." Had Hagner not clearly stated what he meant by these terms, then Nanos' misunderstanding would have been valid and his critique would have hit home with me. However, since Hagner did explain his usage, Nanos' critique comes across as stretching for anything about which to complain.

Perhaps behind both scholars on this point is their understanding of Paul's conversion/call. Using the terms highlights the discontinuity between Paul's past and present, while not using them (or using "Judaisms" instead) highlights the continuity. However, unfairly assuming that Hagner meant something that he clearly did not and then basing most of his critiques against the essay on this assumption was simply bad methodology on Nanos' part.

Lastly, in a moment that was at least underhanded and at most holier-than-thou, Nanos writes the following:

This essay exemplifies why I do not permit my students to use the terms Christian or Christianity when discussing Paul and his communities: much more than terminology is at issue; rather, it is the way that terminology reveals and limits our conceptualization of reality. Regardless of any new information that will be introduced to them, the way that they have learned from childhood to perceive and thus describe the world into which to fit this new information will inhibit them from thinking about these new things in new ways, including ways that just might challenge and alter what they think they know to be absolute, un-interpreted, non-negotiable truth, instead of being merely one among the many interpretations available for conceptualizing the meaning of this information. In my view, we should seek to limit neither the answers, nor the questions to be posed. As important as terminology is, it is less important than how it either limits or advances the ability to conceptualize and describe the maps upon which we plot the information at issue.

Wow. Nanos overtly states here that Hagner does what he does not allow his students to do! Again, had Nanos had a problem with Hagner's usage of this language perhaps he should have read footnote three more closely! Even if Hagner had not included the footnote, comparing an established scholar who is internationally respected to one's students is both uncalled for and insulting.

There is so much more that I could say in regard to Nanos' paper, and perhaps I will when I return from Christmas vacation, but for now this will have to do.

Paul as a Jewish Believer
Hagner on Nanos on Hagner


Anonymous said...

Hey Matt, I just got around to reading both of your posts on this. Nice job. I haven't received the book in the mail yet, but I look forward to engaging the same issues myself. Even though I'm swinging from the other side the tree (leaning more on the New Perspective side), I really appreciate your review of Hagner and some of your observations about Nanos.

Indeed, at San Diego, the room was tense. Nanos gave a brutal review.

I look forward to hearing more on Nanos from you, since you've mostly covered his faults. I'd like to see where you might appreciate any of his points, if you can make it past the polemic. Honestly, I think that he has a point about using the terminology of "Christianity," even if he's wrong about Hagner's motivations. I don't think that convenience is reason enough to use "Christianity." At bare minimum, I think it is too confusing.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

I agree with you Pat; I'm going to have to do some more work on Nanos. I guess his polemic was so strong that I had to deal with it first.

I do look forward to dealing with other issues that he raises, especialy his interesting interpretation of Phil 3!