Review of Brigitte Kahl, Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished

Review of Biblical Literature has just posted a review by Vernon K. Robbins of

Kahl, Brigitte. Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished. (Paul in Critical Contexts) Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009. 0800638646, 9780800638641.

I’ll let you read the review and decide whether Robbins is right when he concludes: “This is a book every New
Testament interpreter should digest as soon as possible.” That’s quite an endorsement! But does it say more about the book or Robbins?

10 responses to “Review of Brigitte Kahl, Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished

  1. I recently completed Kahl’s book and actually agree with Robbins. I’m currently working on a book related to counter-imperial readings of Paul and, out of everything I’ve read on the subject (which is a lot), Kahl’s volume on Galatians is amongst the best.

    Some (like Horsley and Elliott) have hinted or guessed at what Kahl proposes. Others have made similar arguments in ways unacceptable to the guild of biblical scholars (cf. Jennings argument about Paul’s writings on the law in relation to Derrida’s reflections on that theme). Ultimately, however, I think Kahl is the one who ends up making her points in a compelling and detailed way, and in a way that needs to be recognized or (just as compellingly) challenged by biblical scholars.

    • Thanks for the feedback and confirmation of Kahl’s ability to provide a very good argument for her position. I’ll have to take a look at her book when I get the chance. Unfortunately, I am currently away from the library, so to speak. Amazon has a preview but it’s not quite the same as sitting down with it and really digesting the book.

  2. Also, did we attend Regent at the same time??

  3. I started in 2004. Just thought that there might be some crossover since you mentioned Fee’s retirement in your bio (I think it was there, anyway).

    • Technically it’s possible but I only took one class after 2001 so we probably never saw one another. Thanks for your recommendation on Kahl.

  4. In my previous post, I mentioned that Brigitte Kahl recommends Mark Nanos’ book, The Irony of Galatians (Augsburg Fortress 2002), especially at pp. 257-71.

    Nanos write that the Apostle Paul’s addressees in Galatia were not Jews, although adherents of Messiah Jesus (“Paul’s Gentiles”). As non-Jews, they were compromising the security of the synagogue(s) by claiming the privilege – as Jews – to no longer be required to show honor to the Emperor by way of mandated participation in the imperial cult. Nanos then argues that the Jewish community (communities?) responded to this threat by pressuring Paul’s Messiah Jesus converts to become proselytes and submit to circumcision.

    Paul’s Galatians letter is ambiguous as to the identities of both the community (communities) addressed and the opponents Paul is confronting. This ambiguity explains the existence of both Nanos’ book and Kahl’s, to say nothing of most other commentaries: biblical scholars want to have their say and also want to say something fresh, if not novel. (The faddish nature of New Testament scholarship is a subject for another day.)

    About the identities of the parties mentioned in the Galatians letter, decisions have to be made by those who write commentaries. Nanos has made his calls, and Kahl’s introductory remarks indicate she has adopted a similar position in her book. (You will recall, I am reviewing her book as I work through it.)

    I leave it to the readers of Mark Nanos to decide if he is persuasive that synagogue representatives (Nanos, unfortunately, calls them “control agents”) would demand circumcision of non-Jews, whose adherence was not to Judaism per se, but to a Jewish itinerant preacher, executed under Roman authority in Roman-occupied Jerusalem.

    My own take on these identity questions is that Paul, in Galatians, is having to defend himself from allegations that he is a man of extreme violence and therefore, lacking in credibility as a reliable counselor in religious matters. This bitter criticism of Paul was made, I believe, in Galatia by survivors of his earlier persecution of Diaspora Christian Jews, whom he had run out of Jerusalem and who had returned to their homes in Galatia, there to denounce Paul to their co-communicants, some of whom were Gentile.

    (See my article, “Paul and the Victims of His Persecution: The Opponents in Galatia” 32 Biblical Theology Bulletin No 4 (Winter 2002) pages 182-191.)

    Kahl’s first reference to Nanos, appearing here in the Introduction, may yet be qualified in her more detailed explication in the book.

    To Galatians Re-imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished (Fortress 2010) by Brigitte Kahl
    Law As Power Construct (Nietzsche)
    The material under these brief sub-heads (pp. 8-9), do not appear to be cumulative so much as different slants on the same fundamental idea, that Paul in Galatians is mounting an attack on Roman Nomos rather than Jewish Torah.
    In the paragraphs under this heading, Professor Kahl enlists Nietzsche as a forerunner of her re-imagining of Paul’s Galatians. How is Nietzsche a forerunner to the new re-imagining? It is because Nietzsche asserted that the natural order places the powerful over the weak and Paul, writing under the banner of a crucified (lawfully executed) Messiah, is aligned with the weak.
    Kahl views Nietzsche as an astute historian (“profoundly knowledgeable about ancient history and the Roman empire”), but Nietzsche’s various statements can be assessed with greater nuance. For one thing, Nietzsche can be seen as sarcastic, ironic, contradictory or provocative.
    Nietzsche’s assertion, cited by Kahl, that Paul intended to undermine the Roman empire by uniting “all who lay at the bottom . . . into a tremendous power” is unlikely to be taken as an historically precise view of the writer of the letter to the Galatians.
    Nietzsche’s take on Paul may find purchase as a description of the Cosmic Saint, of the much later church universal, a figure and a worldly institution never contemplated by the Apostle himself.
    I think Nietzsche gets ink here because he can be presented as a (cynical?) admirer of power and a (bitter?) critic of Paul, apostle to the weak.

  6. RESPONSE NUMBER TWELVE To Galatians Re-imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished (Fortress 2010) by Brigitte Kahl

    Galatians and the Occidental Semiotics of Combat is the title of the next section of Professor Kahl’s introduction.

    Kahl argue that the traditional understanding of Paul in Galatians by the Western church, is grounded in the imperial Roman world view.

    The official, Roman world view, had in its turn, adopted the Greek perspective, which viewed all of creation as a pattern of opposites. Greek though first identified the fundamental components of creation – air, earth, fire and water – to which other opposites were added – superior, inferior; right left; good, evil, male, female; rest, motion, etc.

    The imperial view, naturally, allied “self” with elements associated with power and orthodoxy and identified its defeated adversaries, as “other” and allied with elements associated with weakness and heresy.

    Kahl states that she will demonstrate her thesis by way of a close examination of the Great Alter of Pergamon, described by Kahl as “the visual focus and anchor of this investigation.”

    Kahl intends to demonstrate that the traditional understanding of Paul in Galatians is a continuance of the Greek and then Roman notion of the ordering of the cosmos into oppositional elements.

    This may be why Kahl does not address herself to any other than Protestant and specifically Lutheran prospective readers.

    All the rest, i.e., Roman Catholic interpretations of Galatians, merely perpetuate, in Kahl’s view, a theology of polarities and dominance, and have done so for two thousand years.

    Kahl acknowledges that some commentators are in the role of precursors, having already reached the same conclusion regarding Paul’s declaration that the polarities built into the created order have been smashed by the “subversion” of the old, binary order by “a non-binary ‘new creation’. ”

    Kahl acknowledges J. Louis Martyn’s Galatians commentary (Doubleday, Anchor Bible, 1997) at this point, stating that Martyn had made “a groundbreaking insight” (Kahl, p. 20.) into Paul seeing the crucified Messiah in opposition to all negative, cosmic polarities.

    The new insight Kahl expects to establish beyond Martyn, is a delineation of the actual motives of Paul’s opponents in Galatia.

    Kahl intends to show that Paul’s perspective, properly understood and free from distortions engineered by a philosophy of dominance, threatened the security of the occupied populations in Galatia.

    Kahl will maintain that the occupied of Galatia, including some among those who would follow the crucified Jewish Messiah, had concluded that Paul’s announcement of the “invasion” of the old order would likely be deemed a form of treason by the Romans.

    For Kahl, Paul’s theology necessarily threatened the “compromise” which had been made with the Roman forces of occupation. Kahl (p. 21): “As we shall see, the Paul-opposing circumcision party in Galatia was driven much more by concrete sociopolitical concerns than by purely religious anxieties.”

    Establishing the true motives of Paul’s opponents in Galatia, Kahl hopes then to show that Paul and his Messiah-believing adherents and recruits “were still part of Judaism” (p. 20).
    This point, which can be established already on first century (CE) historical evidence, appears to be important for Kahl, who is at pains to separate the correctly understood Paul from the anti-Semitism which has pervaded Western Christian theology.

    Kahl has already alluded to her personal connections to this dark and unsavory theme by reference to her mother’s reconciliation with a childhood classmate. It is therefore not beside the point to observe, as Kahl has done, that Western anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust, engineered by the government of Kahl’s native Germany and from within the natal ground of her Lutheranism. I suspect this book is, in part, about self-identify, whatever else it might be about. But come to think of it, this can be said about many books, can’t it?

    I expect it will not be difficult to show that features observed at the Great Alter of Pergamon express elements of the traditional Greco-Roman world view of an ordered universe composed of oppositional elements.

    However, I retain my doubts that an awareness of oppositional cosmic elements can be seen reflected in the primary dynamics at play between Paul and his addressees in Galatians letter.

    Surely it ought to be acknowledged that the Roman occupation adopted and co-opted an older philosophy of oppositional elements, with Rome itself in the positive role as embodiment of the positive and powerful elements. But this is background, part of the context of any and all, who lived under Roman occupation. The annual announcement of “the law” by Roman authorities would function in the same way and ought not to be taken as reflected in any particular debate or dispute among or between occupied peoples “on the ground” in some specific region of the Empire.

    Can the Galatians letter itself be described as Paul’s answer to concerns about Paul subverting the Roman world view in a way that threatened the existence of his addressees or opponents in Galatia?

    I expect only a close exegesis of the letter can answer this question.


    A progressive review of Galatians Re-imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished (Fortress 2010) by Brigitte Kahl


    [. . . ]

    If Kahl’s assertion is correct, that the Galatians letter is lacking in contextual indicators, would this not explain why many later readers of Paul’s letter, looking over the shoulders of the intended recipients, are left to speculate about much of the original setting?

    [. . .]

    Kahl wishes to make something decisive of scholarship, which is inconclusive as to whether Paul’s Galatia is the Roman province of that name or the likely more ethnically uniform region to the north of the province.

    Enough already about the inherently inconclusive north-south debate!

    Kahl brings up the debate, yet again, in order to make the point that “self-congratulatory” scholarship, by not finding a conclusive answer to the location question has itself “decontextualized” the letter.

    This cannot be the case. The letter itself does not provide enough information for clarity as to where the letter’s recipients resided. Scholars who point this out are not congratulating themselves.

    [. . .]

    Kahl is correct also to remind us that the letter’s likely recipients probably (Kahl insists they did) walked Roman roads, paid taxes, were present at events at Roman temples, fought in Roman legions, attended Roman meals and games, fulfilled their civic obligations.

    But if the Romans are to be seen as players and not as background to the letter, the letter must be cited for this. But it is not.

    [. . .]

    Before sweeping all modern Pauline scholarship into a murmuring devotional circle, willing to see Paul disengaged from “the social and political realities of conquest,” Professor Kahl might engage Ernst Käsemann, with whom she has much in common as a tenacious and thoughtful Pauline investigator from within the Lutheran tradition.

    Käsemann is the most searching Pauline scholar we have. Perhaps his fundamental gift is his thoughtful dissent from the notion that ecclesiology is the determinant for theology.

    [. . .]

    Käsemann once described Paul as “a possessed man in pursuit of a feverish dream” and also asserted, “Historical research has perhaps its final and deepest value in the fact that it disillusions.” (Both statements may be found in “Paul and Nascent Catholicism,” Distinctive Protestant and Catholic Themes Reconsidered (Harper Torchbooks, 1967, pp. 19, 17, translated by Wilfred F. Bunge).

    A gift from Lou Martyn to this shy M. Div. student at Union Seminary in the ‘60’s was Martyn’s drumbeat for Ernst Käsemann. Even if you decide that a Käsemann nugget (rarely an entire sentence) is fool’s gold, you have had to turn it over in your hand three or four times. And it is so pretty!

    Through the centuries, many official, i.e., self-declared, orthodox interpretations of Paul, have dutifully domesticated him as the Cosmic Apostle, bravely fighting to preserve space for the development of a magisterium, which would then invoke Paul for its own secular ends, while pretending never to avert its gaze from the heavens.

    [. . .]

    One best not try to re-imagine Paul as a resistance operative against Roman occupation, who sent a cryptic message to sleeper cells somewhere in Galatia.

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