Monday, September 12, 2011


Margaret M. Mitchell, Paul, the Corinthians and the Birth of Christian Hermeneutics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 178. ISBN 9780521197953. $85.00.

Reviewed by Catherine Conybeare, Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site


The charm of this book—the text of the Speaker's Lectures in Biblical Studies, delivered at Oxford in 2008—lies in the sense of freshness and urgency which it imparts. Through Margaret Mitchell's perspicacious eyes, we seem to see a foundational text of Christianity and Christian interpretation in the very moment of its creation. Mitchell argues that Paul's letters to the Corinthians are of special importance in the history of biblical hermeneutics because of the vivid way in which we see the hermeneutic enterprise played out between the correspondents in repeated attempts at interpretation and re-interpretation. She reads these letters not as a lapidary set of precepts and admonitions, but as a collection of specific responses, grounded in the competitive mores of ancient rhetoric, to specific circumstances and misunderstandings.

The consequences of this reading are both vertiginous and delightfully subversive, for they show how the mightiest of interpretive structures may be built on moments of minor antagonism. Mitchell steadily sets the specificity of Paul's expostulations against their legacy in the early development of Christian biblical interpretation, with its twin and contrary pressures simultaneously to produce general hermeneutic principles and to address contemporary particularities of church or doctrine. By the time she turns her attention, in a sort of coda to her final chapter, to a couple of our own contemporaries and their wrangling over the legitimacy of contrasting modes of biblical criticism, they seem on slippery ground indeed.1

Chapter One, "The Corinthian diolkos", lays down the fundamental notions of the enquiry: above all, that Paul's letters to the Corinthians are occasional in nature, forming "a kind of epistolary novel" (6), and that they "do not and never did have a single, unambiguous meaning" (10). (Mitchell reads 1 Cor. as a single letter, 2 Cor. as a composite of five; she says that following the "composite" notion is not necessary for her argument, but it certainly makes some of her points more cogent if we imagine a multiple, fractured, somewhat irritable exchange.) "Hermeneutics is born in misunderstanding" (11); its characteristic traits are dynamism, expediency, and a sliding scale from clarity to opacity (later called by Mitchell, without euphony, the "veil scale"). These are the terms elucidated in the remainder of the work, with early Christian readings—especially those of Origen, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa—counterposed against Mitchell's own close readings of Paul.

Chapter Two demonstrates, with help from Cicero's De Inventione and Kathy Eden's book on ancient hermeneutics,2 that Paul's hermeneutic practices were grounded in the agonistic conventions of antiquity. "Strategic variablility in the use of textual evidence is built into ancient training on literacy" (27); Paul, as latter-day epistolary orator, naturally used a piecemeal strategy of (self)interpretation - even, at times, resorting to "resurrecting" his own earlier authorial identity as a guarantee of current meaning.

The next chapter, "Anthropological hermeneutics", leads us into the morass of ambiguity in Paul's language of the spirit and the flesh—often characterized, not as a dyad, but as the triad of pneuma, psuche, and sarx—and its subsequent freewheeling use by Pauline interpreters, notably Ignatius and Origen. Mitchell shows us, once again, how the demands of the rhetorical moment may trump a philosophical concept; she shows us how wilfully unsystematic the results can be. She also traces the extension of the notions of spirit, soul, and flesh (in Origen's Peri Archon, drawing on 1 Cor. 2) outwards from the divisions within a single being to describe instead both different types of reader and different types—or hermeneutic levels—of scripture.

This sets up Chapter Four, on the "hermeneutics of occlusion", showing how Paul set up a hermeneutics that played simultaneously with clarity and obscurity: "Paul continually and strategically adjusted the focus between clarity and obscurity ... depending upon the hermeneutical, rhetorical and theological needs of the case at hand" (77, Mitchell's emphasis). Mitchell traces the contradictory claims that Paul makes about his own knowledge, and suggests that he is in fact caught between "agonistic and apocalyptic" paradigms (63) —in other words, between clarity and veiling. She even refers to the "reusable veil of 2 Corinthians 3" (73), and makes its afterlife a cardinal example of how ancient authors commented with, not just on a text. (James Zetzel's wonderful study of this very phenomenon could have provided context for this argument.3)

This and the following chapter, "Visible signs, multiple witnesses", are at the thematic heart of the book. With the constantly shifting hermeneutic poles mapped in Chapter Four, the basic question arises: how does Paul get, and hold on to, his spiritual authority? (As Mitchell points out, "This is ... the fundamental problem of religious authority and authorization: from where can attestation come?" 82) Mitchell focuses on a close reading of 2 Corinthians 10-13, in which Paul defends his hikanotes, his adequacy to the task at hand, on three grounds: his status as a sort of holy fool (which obviates the charge of self-aggrandizement), his observed weakness as a proof of his apostolic status, and his status as God's own witness. Further, she shows how texts, rather than people, come to be adduced as legitimate witnesses.

The final chapter is aptly entitled "Hermeneutical exhaustion and the end(s) of interpretation". I have already mentioned its coda, a reproof to simplistic self-positioning in contemporary biblical scholarship. The ground is laid by emphasizing (through Gregory of Nyssa) the difficulty of preparing scripture for "digestion" and by noting Paul's ultimate displacement of meaning into an eschatological frame—deferring ultimate interpretation into an unknowable future. On the way, Mitchell points out the irony of 2 Cor. 1:13, which seems to contradict the entire history of the Corinthian correspondence—certainly as mapped out in these pages: "we do not write to you [the Corinthians] anything but what you read and understand". Both the second person plural verbs are in the present indicative.

In the end, Mitchell leaves us in a hermeneutical hall of mirrors. It is not that individual utterances are meaningless, but that each act of reading-and-writing is so specific to its context that the recovery of meaning is a fraught, indeed a near-impossible, endeavour.4 In any case, as she shows us, early readers of Paul were not invested in recovering meaning but in manufacturing their own—and they found in Paul a wealth of strategies (even strategems) for doing so. Mitchell illuminates a complex process not unique to Christianity: the process by which occasional pieces acquire authoritative status; by which ad hoc texts become "scripture".

I loved reading this book, and it has refreshed and enlivened the way I read Paul: I kept reaching for my Greek New Testament to pore over the passages that Mitchell was discussing. At the same time, the book mimetically enacts the "both-and" hermeneutic that Mitchell is describing in Paul and his first interpreters, which makes it fiendishly difficult to summarize. As befits its subject, nothing will replace a close reading of the book itself.


1.   The wrangling is contained in Wayne Meeks, Christ is the Question (Louisville KY, 2006), and John Barton, The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Louisville KY, 2007).
2.   Kathy Eden, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition: Chapters in the Ancient Legacy and its Humanist Reception (New Haven, 1997); I mention this because, in a book that concentrates firmly on the ancient sources as a guide to reading, the frequent citation of Eden's work makes a rare exception.
3.   James E. G. Zetzel, "Religion, rhetoric, and editorial technique: reconstructing the classics", in G. Bornstein and R. Williams (edd.), Palimpsest: editorial theory in the humanities (Ann Arbor, 1993), 99-120.
4.   Mitchell's focus is almost uniquely confined to the Greek patristic tradition; but by using the phrase "reading-and- writing", I specifically invoke Mark Vessey's sophisticated work on the development of textual hermeneutics in the Latin tradition—which is, if anything, even more cautious and nuanced in tracing the construction of meaning.

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