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Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul

Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul

by Theodore Jennings Jr.

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This book offers a close reading of Romans that treats Paul as a radical political thinker by showing the relationship between Paul's perspective and that of secular political theorists. Turning to both ancient political philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero) and contemporary post-Marxists (Agamben, Badiou, Derrida, and Žižek), Jennings presents


This book offers a close reading of Romans that treats Paul as a radical political thinker by showing the relationship between Paul's perspective and that of secular political theorists. Turning to both ancient political philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero) and contemporary post-Marxists (Agamben, Badiou, Derrida, and Žižek), Jennings presents Romans as a sustained argument for a new sort of political thinking concerned with the possibility and constitution of just socialities.

Reading Romans as an essay on messianic politics in conversation with ancient and postmodern political theory challenges the stereotype of Paul as a reactionary theologian who "invented" Christianity and demonstrates his importance for all, regardless of religious affiliation or academic guild, who dream and work for a society based on respect, rather than domination, division, and death. In the current context of unjust global empires constituted by avarice, arrogance, and violence, Jennings finds in Paul a stunning vision for creating just societies outside the law.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Jennings presents a bold and important commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans. It emerges at a time when philosophical discussions of biblical texts have become both remarkably common and remarkably significant bearers of pressing contemporary intellectual problems. This book is timely, provocative, and original."—Ward Blanton, University of Kent

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Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Cultural Memory in the Present Series
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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The Messianic Politics of Paul

By Theodore W. Jennings Jr.


Copyright © 2013Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8516-7



First Part of Romans

1. Making Connections (1:1–17)

We are going to read a letter written nearly two thousand years ago, from someone of whom we know very little, to people of whom we know even less. It is not addressed to us. We are, in a sense, accidental readers. Jacques Derrida has pointed out, in his work The Postcard, ways in which texts generally have this character, one that he identifies as a certain destinerrance, that is, a certain straying (errance) from its (intended?) destination. Like a postcard, it permits itself to be read by those to whom it was not sent and thus escapes from its presumed author's control or intention, from the direction in which it had been sent. The straying of this particular postcard from author and (intended) reader is largely the history of Christianity itself. The writer knew nothing of us and our circumstances, our culture, our language. He wrote to people of whom he presumably knew something, but we don't know much of what he knew. Like any letter writer, he could suppose that they knew some of the same things and had certain common perceptions of their world and of the ways that world was changing. Despite the often fruitful labors of scholars, we know far less than we would like to know about the emergence of early Christianity in the complex Greco-Roman cultural, religious, and political world within which Paul was writing. We have very little in common either with the writer or the readers. We are not only reading someone else's mail; we are almost unimaginably far from a shared culture or worldview, let alone community. Any interpretation, therefore, is going to be severely limited. Readers of biblical texts routinely forget how little we know or can know. This paucity of knowledge will prevent any reading, including this one, from being definitive, from putting an end to the possibilities of reading. Nevertheless, we will forge ahead in an attempt to glean what we can from this ancient document that has been so important to the shaping of the history of Western Christianity and culture.

It is a letter. It has a sender and an addressee, and the writer is seeking to convey something to the readers that bears upon their situation. It is not a treatise that can be divorced from its particular occasion or circumstance. Still less is it a summary of Paul's theology. But it does have a certain coherence, an argumentative "flow" that will require that we see the parts in relation to the whole rather than treat the parts as stand-alone reflections on particular themes.

As we shall see, the basic themes of the text as a whole are prefigured in the way the writer introduces himself and his intentions to the readers at the very beginning. In his Time That Remains, the radical political thinker Giorgio Agamben attempted to clarify the letter by focusing attention upon its first ten words. While such a procedure may be somewhat exaggerated (and Agamben himself deals with far more of this text and of Pauline texts generally than such a restriction might suggest), it is basically correct in sensing that much of what is essential to the text as a whole is already prefigured at the beginning. Accordingly, we will have to linger over the first few words—the introductory section—if we are to make sense of the letter as a connected argument.

Paul, slave of messiah Joshua

Already, before we begin, we are thrown into hidden perplexities. Who is Paul? Why does he call himself a slave? What sort of messianic liberator could even have slaves? What sort of slave could be attached to a messiah? What is happening here?

First, the name "Paul." Since the writing of the Acts of the Apostles some decades after Paul's death, everyone knows that the writer who calls himself Paul had also been known as Saul. (This information is not, however, found in the writings ascribed to Paul.) What does it mean that one who had been called Saul calls himself Paul? Some have suggested that this is a name change that reflects the conversion of one who had been a Jew (Saul) to one who has now become a Christian. Others suggest that he had had both a Jewish name (Saul) and a gentile or Roman name (Paul), for he was not only a Jew (and indeed a Pharisee, as he himself claims in Philippians 3:5) but also a citizen of Rome (as Acts suggests). In addressing gentile Romans, he would naturally use his Roman name.

Agamben points to another possibility that actually makes more sense of the messianic politics that we will be exploring: the name Paul means "small" "or insignificant." It thus corresponds to the self-designation of Paul as a slave, here and in other letters as well. Agamben writes: "The substitution of ITLσITL by ITLπITL signifies no less than the passage from the regal to the insignificant, from grandeur to smallness—paulus in Latin means "small, of little significance," and in 1 Corinthians Paul defines himself as "the least [elachistos] of the apostles" (Agamben, Time 9).

The notion that the writer would call himself insignificant seems to be in considerable tension with his apparent assertiveness, especially in such texts as the letters to the Corinthians and Galatians where he seems to make much of his own authority. Since Nietzsche, it has been commonplace to notice the sometimes irritating self-assertion of this writer. Indeed, Nietzsche could say of Paul that "his lust was for power; Paul is the priest striving for power—he only had use for ideas, teaching, and symbols with which to tyrannize over the masses and to organize mobs" (Antichrist § 42). But is this view justified by the texts themselves?

We may recall that Saul is a noble name, the name of the first king of Israel, the kingly name of Saul's own tribe of Benjamin. If the writer has exchanged a noble and even kingly name for one that emphasizes insignificance and even slavehood, what would this mean?

It would mean that he is, in this at least, profoundly consistent with what he himself describes as the pattern of a certain messianic politics. In Philippians, writing to a community that he seems to have known well and with which he was on very good terms, he encourages them to adopt a policy, a common perspective, and approach to one another that Paul attributes to the messiah: "Have this perspective that also characterized the messiah Joshua, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (Philippians 2:6–7a).

Notice that this messianic policy is one that renounces privilege and power and goes so far as to take the form of a slave. Why slave? There is nothing in what we know of Jesus/Joshua that suggests that he had the legal status of a slave. The nearest that he approaches the status of a slave is in his being executed by means of crucifixion at the hands of the military government of the empire, for this was a form of execution often imposed upon rebellious slaves. It is perhaps no accident, then, that Paul mentions both slave and cross together in speaking of the messianic policy he enjoins upon his readers in Philippi in the passage just quoted. In that letter also, he had introduced himself as "slave of the messiah."

Has the writer, in taking to himself the name or nickname of Paul taken to heart this messianic polity and politics? This seems to be the likeliest explanation. The messianic policy that Paul had recommended in Philippians and that he seems to have adopted for himself is one that is otherwise attested in the later depictions of the policy of the one called the messiah in the narrative that came to be called Gospels. For there he is recalled as saying that those who woul

Excerpted from OUTLAW JUSTICE by Theodore W. Jennings Jr.. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. is Professor of Biblical and Philosophical Theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary. His previous books include Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul: On Justice (Stanford, 2006) and Transforming Atonement: A Political Theology of the Cross (2009).

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