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Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Review of "Paul's Triumph" by Christoph Heilig

Christoph Heilig, Paul's Triumph: Reassessing 2 Corinthians 2:14 in its literary and historical context (Biblical Tools and Studies 27; Leuven: Peeters, 2017), 335 pp.

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to win a copy of this book from the author through a draw undertaken on the Zürich New Testament Blog Facebook page. I am writing this review partly as a token of appreciation to Christoph. It cannot be construed as an expert or peer review as I am not an expert or Christoph's peer either in the specific subject matter (exegesis of 2 Cor. 2:14 and the concept of the Roman triumph), the sub-discipline (Pauline studies) or the discipline (biblical studies), though I have an undergraduate qualification relevant to the last.1 My review is more of a reader-response exercise, one that I hope will provide some meaningful insights.

1. Overall impressions and theological contextualisation

The book is a fascinating window into the complexity and richness of contemporary scholarly biblical exegesis. I suspect that many non-scholars, encountering 2 Cor. 2:14ab during public worship or personal Bible study in a modern translation (e.g., NRSV: "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession"), instantaneously form a mental picture of Paul's meaning and move on, confident that this picture accurately represents the apostle's thought. From this perspective, it is remarkable that a 300+ page monograph could be written about the meaning of these few words—the latest contribution to an ongoing academic conversation. It is equally remarkable that a 300+ page monograph could be written on these words and arrive only at probabilities, not certainties, about their meaning. This, however, is the nature of academic biblical studies today: the excesses of modernist hubris have taught us post-moderns that attaining the factually, objectively "correct" interpretation may simply be impossible.

Does this mean the discipline of biblical studies is both esoteric and futile? Mē genoito! Fresh exegetical insights like Christoph's will undoubtedly influence future translators, commentators and preachers and thence lay readers. My point is the opposite: we lay readers should be grateful for the enormous amount of work that scholars put into reconstructing—as far as possible—the authorial intent behind a biblical passage. We should also be aware of the limitations of the exegete. To express it with a qal wachomer, if even a 300-page monograph by an expert cannot uncover the meaning of a passage with certainty, how much less can five minutes of reflection by a lay reader do so?  Recovering authorial intent definitively is often simply impossible; we may have to be content with a set of options to which approximate relative probabilities may be assigned. Christoph appropriately defines exegesis as "the Evaluation of Hypotheses of Meaning" (p. 6). His monograph is a nice illustration of some points I made previously about the complexity of biblical interpretation in a blog post entitled The problem of understanding the Bible: reflections after four years of theological study. To wax theological, it is only faith nurtured by the Spirit and the Bride (Rev. 22:17), and not exegetical acumen, that can move us from hypotheses and probabilities to knowledge of God.


Enough abstracting—let me get to what I liked about the book. Reading the book was a great experience, if tedious at certain points, and what I liked best was the fine methodology and the meticulous way it was executed. Rarely have I seen an exegetical methodology that was nearly so, well, methodical! As a statistician with a still-latent interest in synergies between statistics and biblical studies, I was fascinated by Christoph's invocation of Bayesian theory (founded by a clergyman, appropriately enough) as the logical foundation of his exegetical task. The fundamental idea of Bayesian statistics (and here I am going a little beyond what Christoph explicitly discusses) is that, for a particular unknown quantity (expressed formally as a mathematical parameter),
Posterior probability ∝ (is proportional to) Prior probability × Likelihood
The posterior probability is what we are after. It is expressed as a conditional probability: the probability that the parameter (in our case, the meaning of the text) takes on a certain realisation or option, given the data (in our case, the text itself, as we have it).2 So the aim is to assign probabilities to different hypothetical options of meaning. If we can assign a probability near 100% to a particular option, or at least a relative probability far greater than any other option, we can propose this option as worthy of acceptance.

The posterior probability, as we can see, is (proportional to) the product of two other quantities: the prior probability and the likelihood. The prior probability captures information about the parameter (meaning of text) external to the data (text itself). The prior information includes the set of hypothetical options itself (perhaps generated by a literature review and lexicographical study, in our case), and antecedent probabilities assigned to these options. Christoph paraphrases "prior probability" for his exegetical purposes as "background plausibility," i.e. "which of the suggested meanings of 14b we would expect from Paul both generally and more specifically from the flow of thought in the passage—irrespective of the concrete wording of 14b" (p. 8). Included in the relevant background (prior) information are "external evidence" (e.g., semantic range of the key verb thriambeuō in texts proximate to Paul) and "internal evidence" (consisting of the "Larger Pauline context," the "Transition from 13 to 14a" and the "Relationship between 14b and 14c-15a").

The likelihood is, like the posterior, formally a conditional, but the direction of conditioning is reversed: it is the likelihood of the data (the text as we have it) given the parameter (the meaning the author wished to express). Hence, instead of asking, "Given that Paul wrote X, how probable is it that he meant Y?" (the form of the posterior), here we are asking, "Given that Paul meant Y, how likely is it that he would have written X?" Christoph paraphrases "likelihood" for his exegetical purposes as "explanatory potential," which answers the question, "If the hypothesis were true, would we expect this formulation (that is: the verb, its object and the adjuncts) or is it surprising?" (p. 9).

Christoph's Bayesian exegetical methodology has two great features. First, he correctly construes the objective as an estimated probability distribution assigned to hypothetical meanings rather than "Paul's intended meaning" itself, which is properly unknowable. Second, he rightly gives due attention to all three ingredients necessary to arrive at a sound posterior probability distribution: (1) a full (as far as possible) set of hypothetical options; (2) an evaluation of the prior probability (background plausibility) of the various options; (3) an evaluation of the likelihood (explanatory potential) of the various options. This last is a particular strength of Christoph's study, because my own reading experience suggests that explanatory potential is often neglected in exegetical studies relative to background plausibility. This is a major issue because, according to Bayesian theory, explanatory potential and background plausibility are equally important! For instance, consider a text with two competing interpretative options, A and B. Scholars conduct exegesis of the text focusing exclusively on background plausibility and determine that the background plausibility of A is five times that of B. They conclude, accordingly, that the text is five times as likely to mean A as B. Along comes a new scholar who supplements the previous research with an "explanatory potential analysis" and finds that the explanatory potential of B is five times that of A. The new conclusion (posterior), following the Bayesian multiplicative law above, is that meanings A and B are equally probable! I wonder how many exegetical communes opiniones might be overturned if scholars were to consider explanatory potential as important as background plausibility.

Second only to his Bayesian methodology in my list of "likes" about Christoph's book was his lively and helpful discussion of lexical semantics. His treatment of this subject, and how it applies to his Bayesian methodology, was so useful to me that I would be tempted to cite it as a source on lexical semantics (of course only as a supplement to standard works such as Silva's Biblical Words and their Meaning and Nida and Louw's Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament). He offers some amusing comments about the English word nonplussed, which—when used at all—is often used with the exact opposite of its intended meaning.3 This called to my mind an analogous case where the meaning of an expression is held constant but its form is reversed. The English phrase "I couldn't care less" expresses that one's level of interest is minimal. However, one often hears the phrase "I could care less" used with the same intended meaning, even though it literally only that one's level of interest is not maximal. Probably the double negation ("couldn't...less") in the original phrase has tripped up some people whose level of care about aligning semantics with syntax is not maximal. Anyway, I digress.

2.1. Description of argument

Everything I have said so far pertains only to Christoph's introductory chapter, which was the most captivating part of the book to me only because I am more interested in the broad problem of biblical exegesis than the specific problem of what 2 Cor. 2:14b means. Still, the rest of the book is an impressive instantiation of the proposed methodology. Christoph devotes 91 pages to identifying the hypothetical options—what 2 Cor. 2:14b could possibly mean. This is partly because he identifies a need for a fresh lexicographical study of thriambeuō, which he undertakes with the aid of Thesaurus Linguae Graeca (Oh, how I wish to live to see the day when it enters the public domain!) Besides pointing out some shortcomings in previous lexicographical research on thriambeuō, Christoph discusses specific lexical problems such as the semantic range of the verb (particularly when transitive as in 2 Cor. 2:14b) and whether the verb necessarily stresses the direct object's movement in the procession and the object's exhibition. He finds that 
one could define the (or a) meaning of transitive θριαμβεύειν in a way that includes the following components: 
1. the context of the act: a triumphal procession
2. the act itself: causation of [somebody] or [something] to move
3. the accompanying act: a movement of the agent (behind the object)
4. the result of the act: the display of the object to those watching the procession (p. 101)
He thus proposes the definition, "to cause [somebody or something] to move (before oneself) in a triumphal procession in order to display [somebody or something] to the watching crowd" (p. 101).

Now "equipped with several options for interpreting the use of θριαμβεύειν in 2 Cor 2:14b" (p. 116), Christoph proceeds to Part 2, "Evaluating Background Plausibilities." Here, under "external evidence" he discusses issues such as what Paul and his readers might plausibly have known about Roman triumph processions, whether the source of Paul's allusion is a general Roman practice or a specific occurrence of this practice (e.g., Claudius's triumph in 44 C.E.), and whether pagan processions other than the triumph may have influenced Paul's thought. He then proceeds to "internal evidence," offering a detailed discussion of the flow of argument in the immediate context of 2 Cor. 2:14b.

Next comes Part 3, where Christoph evaluates the explanatory potential of competing interpretative options. This entails again coming up with other hypothetical options, this time other ways Paul might have expressed a meaning equivalent to a hypothetical meaning of the text of 2 Cor. 2:14b. Considering first the verb itself, Christoph is able to virtually rule out that Paul used thriambeuein as a "dead metaphor" that no longer evoked the original context of a Roman triumph (p. 206). Other issues he considers are whether transitive thriambeuein is a likely way for Paul to have expressed the idea of exposure to social shame (p. 208), the idea of Paul "as a victorious general who celebrates together with God" (p. 211), the idea of Paul as an incense bearer within the victorious party (p. 212), the idea of Paul as a defeated foe over whom God is celebrating victory (pp. 216-17) and the idea of Paul as a captive "led by God in his triumphal procession" (p. 217). He concludes that the latter meaning is the most probable for 2 Cor. 2:14b in view of its background plausibility and explanatory potential.

Christoph next turns to the explanatory potential of various interpretations of the direct object (hēmas, "us") and the adjuncts (pantote, "always" and en tō Christō, "in Christ"). He finds that "us" "refers specifically to the team that works towards the realisation of Paul's commission" (p. 223), that "always" emphasises that "God is triumphing continuously" (p. 225), and that "in Christ" locates the procession itself, "strengthening the message of the divine agency behind the activity of Paul and his co-workers at the level of the subject matter" (p. 237). Christoph offers a valuable insight on the contribution of "always" to the explanatory potential of certain interpretations: it "automatically implies that what comes after the procession (imprisonment, execution, Roman citizenship, etc.) is not in view" (p. 225).

Commencing his concluding section, Christoph summarises his findings thus far by pointing out that several exegetical options that had performed well in terms of background plausibility "broke down completely" with respect to explanatory potential (which reinforces the methodological importance of the latter). The only options that perform well under both criteria are "Hafemann's suggestion that 14b expresses Paul's apostolic suffering in terms of the triumphal procession" and "Breytenbach's (and Schröter's) interpretation of the triumph as referring to Paul's ministry since his conversion" without necessarily evoking the "captive" aspect (p. 241). He then argues that Paul's metaphor more likely pertains to spatial movement (i.e. the itinerant nature of his ministry) than suffering: Paul wants to offer "the correct understanding of what might not look like a spirit-driven ministry" (p. 243). Christoph then teases out the finer aspects of the metaphor, such as which negative (captivity, shame, death) and positive (under God's control, bringing glory to God) connotations of the triumph imagery are intended. He is particularly interested in whether Paul "wants to transform the perception of his readers [about his mission or]... simply to reaffirm it" (p. 254); he leans toward the former.

In his final chapter, Christoph considers the implications of his interpretation of 2 Cor. 2:14 for Paul's engagement with Roman imperial ideology. His key finding here is that "Paul's use of the triumph imagery demonstrates that he was actively observing and engaging with his Roman environment" (p. 276). While this part of my review has been more descriptive than evaluative, I have made it a subsection within "Likes" simply because the content is so thoroughly researched, well argued and well written.

3. Dislikes

It should be evident that I enjoyed this book thoroughly. The couple of dislikes I am about to mention are of trifling importance compared with the likes mentioned above. My biggest complaint would be that the book ends too abruptly. The section called "Conclusion," and the chapter within it called "Summary of Exegesis," actually still introduce and discuss new ideas throughout, and do not recapitulate the argument and findings to the extent that one would expect. Thus, if one were to return to the book after some time, wanting to quickly summarise the argument and points within a literature survey for instance, one would find it an arduous task—if one had not made careful notes on the first reading, one would probably have to reread the entire book. Furthermore, what is arguably the climax of the book's exegesis is expressed in a somewhat puzzling way:
Thus, the complex move to encourage the Corinthians to identify themselves with the watching crowd only to find themselves challenged in their simplistic perception of Paul's ministry is not as far-fetched as one might think at first. (p. 259, emphasis original)
By stating only that this reading of Paul's intent is less far-fetched than one might think, Christoph leaves open the implication that it is still somewhat far-fetched. Yet by italicizing the sentence and ending a pivotal chapter with it, he signals that he considers it very important. While one appreciates Christoph's care not to overstate his case, it seems he may have undersold the idea. Perhaps this sentence should have been followed with a more positive, though still not dogmatic, expression of the merits of this interpretation.

Finally, there are a few linguistic and stylistic errors, though not enough to be a significant problem. I did not note down all that I noticed (which I think were fewer than ten), but "vine" on p. 16 should be "wine" (the oversight may, ironically, be related to semantic interplay between languages—the very topic Christoph is discussing at this point). There are also some instances where a period (full stop) is used within quotation marks and the sentence continues outside the quotation marks (e.g., p. 18).4 I have not seen this before, and am not sure it is grammatically correct—I think the period should have been omitted.

Now let me arrive at a closing remark: Christoph's monograph is undoubtedly at the vanguard of biblical scholarship. It is a suitable subject for the verb thriambeuō, though it would be more diplomatic to read it intransitively in this case.


  • 1 I do have some publications in biblical studies journals, with hopefully more on the way. See Thomas J. Farrar and Guy J. Williams, "Diabolical Data: A critical inventory of New Testament Satanology," JSNT 39 (2016): 40-71; Thomas J. Farrar and Guy J. Williams, "Talk of the Devil: Unpacking the language of New Testament Satanology," JSNT 39 (2016): 72-96; Thomas J. Farrar, "New Testament Satanology and leading suprahuman opponents in Second Temple Jewish literature: A religion-historical analysis," JTS (forthcoming). I aspire to do an interdisciplinary doctorate in statistics and biblical studies, which is one reason why Christoph's application of Bayesian probability theory to biblical exegesis is of great interest to me.
  • 2 In the case of biblical exegesis, of course, the data itself may be uncertain, and since the "internal" aspect of textual criticism has interdependence with the prior and the posterior, the logic becomes much more complicated. Fortunately, the text seems secure in 2 Cor. 2:14.
  • 3 Actually, this comes later in the book on p. 196, but it is in keeping with his earlier discussion of lexical semantics.
  • 4 'The statement "The cat is black." uses the same concept of 'blackness' as the sentence "The car is black."'

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