Publication: Theological Studies
Author: Collins, Adela Yarbro
Date published: March 1, 2012
Language: English
PMID: 19626
ISSN: 00405639
Journal code: PTHS

PAUL, THE CORINTHIANS, AND THE BIRTH OF CHRISTIAN HERMENEUTICS. By Margaret M. Mitchell. New York: Cambridge University, 2010. Pp. xiv + 178. $85.

Mitchell's logical starting point is the aspect of ancient rhetorical education at the secondary level focusing on how to use texts in forensic cases. Interpretation was thus to a great extent adversarial. Cicero's De inventione is a valuable witness to the practice of teaching students to employ a set of commonplaces in arguing a variable case for textual meaning. Kathy Eden has shown that this agonistic paradigm of interpretation was the basis of patristic biblical exegesis and that Paul anticipated this development. M.'s aim here is to argue more comprehensively that Paul was the inaugurator of the Christian use of this paradigm. The context in which this innovation occurred was the Corinthian epistolary exchange, which "was and is a correspondence course in practical, indeed tactical, hermeneutics" (16).

A second main argument is that the Corinthian correspondence provided patristic exegetes with not only techniques for agonistic interpretation but also the "key to the keys of the meaning of scripture" (106-7). She continues the work of complicating the standard picture of Alexandrian allegorists and Antiochene literalists by showing that exegetes of both schools used the agonistic paradigm. Like Paul, they were adaptable and employed various means to construct interpretations useful or beneficial to their audiences. M. effectively argues that patristic exegetes should be read to discover not only how they commented on Paul's letters but also how they commented with them.

The most engaging and persuasive discussion concerns Paul's self-defense against the charge that he was not a "legitimate" or "approved" apostle of Christ. Because Paul had no teachers or apostolic coUeagues who could attest to his credentials, he constructed a fool's speech in order to introduce a series of "witnesses" who could provide proof of his apostolic legitimacy. This clever move allowed him to defend himseh without engaging in self-praise, which was not only offensive but also ineffective as forensic proof.

The book ends with an interesting and helpful assessment of the current state of biblical scholarship and a proposal showing how the agonistic paradigm might have a positive impact today. M. proposes that "we focus our attention away from the rhetorical poles and onto the spectrum between them" (113). This spectrum entails recognition that exegesis involves "a hermeneutics of clarity and obscurity" (59).

Author affiliation:


Yale University Divinity School,

New Haven, Conn.

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