Reviews of

The New Testament in Comparison

In B. G. White, Bloomsbury, Comparison, Graeco-Roman Backgrounds, John BARCLAY, Joshua W. Jipp, New Testament, Stoicism on July 17, 2020 at 3:00 pm

the-new-testament-in-comparison

2020.07.13 | John M. G. Barclay and B. G. White (editors). The New Testament in Comparison: Validity, Method, and Purpose in Comparing Traditions. Library of New Testament Studies 600. London: T&T Clark, 2020.

Review by Joshua W. Jipp, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 

The publication of Karl Barth’s Römerbrief in 1919 elicited the statement from a Catholic theologian that the commentary fell like a bomb on the playground of the theologians. Respected New Testament scholars referred to Barth as a gnostic and an enemy of historical critical interpretation (Adolf Jülicher), a Biblicist (Paul Wernle), and as using the commentary as a pretense for theological autobiography (Adolf Schlatter). For reasons that need not concern us here, Barth’s commentary on Romans simultaneously set forth a biting critique of historical criticism, at least insofar as it could penetrate the subject matter of the NT texts, and offered a radically different way of approaching exegesis. As such, Barth’s book appeared as something that was virtually incomprehensible to his fellow colleagues.

One hundred years later, C. Kavin Rowe has presented a similar challenge to the guild with his One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (Yale University Press, 2016). Rowe’s book is similarly a serious challenge to many of his fellow NT scholars and, as such, has elicited a passionate response – a response, in fact, which may demonstrate that more work needs to be done by some of his critics in order to understand his argument.

Rowe engages in a comparison between Christianity and Stoicism and argues that, at every point of significance, Stoicism and Christianity are rival traditions that offer visions of life that are ultimately incompatible and, in fact, incommensurable. Rowe is emphatic that both traditions are about patterns of life that demand devotion to their vision of what is “true life.” One cannot, then, be both a Stoic and a Christian, for these traditions require two entirely different kinds of lives and, as Rowe has said, we only have a single life to live. New Testament historians and exegetes have failed, says Rowe, to understand that Stoicism and Christianity are traditions of inquiry meaning that one’s knowledge and is interconnected with the habits, beliefs, and commitments in the knower. In other words, for Rowe, there is no external stance from which one could compare and thereby judge the truth claims of Stoicism and/or Christianity. But historians and biblical scholars have, instead, wrongly approached the texts according to an encyclopedic way of knowing, an epistemology which operates with a single form of unitary knowledge and, through the accumulation of religious/philosophical parallels, advances to explain everything. Operant within the encyclopedic form of knowing is the belief that all texts and traditions can be intelligibly translated into different frameworks.

Finally, to the book under review. This edited volume takes Rowe’s One True Life as its point of departure with nine essays responding specifically to the question of how to engage in responsible comparison of ancient texts. (Two essays are penned by Rowe himself.) John Barclay argues that there are three necessary components to any good work of comparison: (1) selection (i.e., finding the appropriate and illuminating part of a text/tradition to compare), (2) generalization (i.e., categorize the data according to general classifications), and (3) redescription (i.e., find a different description or category which illuminates both comparanda).

The four essays that are the most critical of Rowe are those by Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Dale Martin, Margaret Mitchell, and Matthew Novenson. Engberg-Pedersen finds the notion that a human being can live in accordance with a single tradition, whether it be Christianity, Stoicism, or something else, to be patently false. Even more problematic for Engberg-Pedersen is Rowe’s move from claiming that Stoicism and Christianity are incommensurable to his (supposed) claim that their forms of life are actually unintelligible to one another. Dale Martin’s essay begins by appealing to Jonathan Z. Smith’s classic work on comparison (Drudgery Divine) and culls forth four points. First, scholars are the ones who construct comparisons. Second, comparison can only take place between parts that are then re-described by the scholar. Third, the scholar doing the comparative work sets the purposes and goals for the comparison. Fourth, a comparison needs a third entity by which the comparanda can be illuminated. Martin scolds Rowe for not knowing his J. Z. Smith well enough, as he sees Rowe failing to understand each of these four points. Like Engberg-Pedersen, Martin is perplexed that Rowe thinks one can only live one life at a time. Martin finds this to be patently false. Martin argues that Rowe fails to understand the meaning of such terms as “incommensurate” and “understanding.” Novenson, too, thinks that Rowe is claiming that “Stoicism and Christianity are, as human minds are concerned, incomparable” (p. 87). One True Life, Novenson suggests, should be understood as religious ideology and apologetic, that is as “a straight-up invitation to live a Christian life” (p. 90). And this can explain why the book is ultimately a principled argument for not engaging in comparison since “Christianity is literally incomparable[, and] it does not admit of comparison by human minds” (p. 94).

Margaret Mitchell’s essay is both the longest and the most entertaining. She engages in a lengthy examination of Clement of Alexandria’s protreptic essay “An Exhortation to the Greeks,” from which she derives twelve principles on how to engage in comparison. Like Clement’s essay, she argues that Rowe’s book is ultimately a piece of protreptic rhetoric designed to invite its readers to become a Christian given the superiority of its way of life (p. 111). I think it’s safe to say that Mitchell does not like One True Life. The book is an attack on the humanities; it is unfair to scholars such as Abraham Malherbe (and ignores others like Hans Dieter Betz); it adopts a “missionary strategy” (p. 118); and it operates with a faulty notion that Christianity and Stoicism are fixed pure traditions. In fact, Mitchell suggest that “One True Lifeshould not be taken as a contribution to method in comparison in the study of New Testament and ancient Christianity, but as a rhetorical tour de force meant to bring the enterprise to a close with the sweeping and tautologically formulated claim that Christianity and Stoicism are simply incomparable and incommensurable” (p. 122).

The editors were both wise and gracious to allow Rowe the opportunity to write a response to his frenemies. Rowe says that his argument has been misunderstood, and sometimes in a bizarre and egregious manner. The claim that he eschews comparison is entirely wrong; rather, one’s epistemology needs to fit the nature of what is being compared. Rowe takes great umbrage to the claim that his work is protreptic discourse fit for missionaries but not scholars; rather, he says that two different traditions of life “both insist on living the philosophia to know what true knowledge is…and that there is no way rationally to resolve the rivalry” (p. 127).

The volume concludes with three excellent essays by Jonathan Linebaugh, Francis Watson, and Simon Gathercole which continue the conversation over the nature of comparison (but do not engage Rowe directly).

The obvious (and not entirely wrong) way to conclude this review is to note that the task of comparison is fraught with difficulties but is one worth learning how to do well and carefully. Reading Rowe’s One True Life and then these essays will certainly help the student/scholar grow in their ability to think through what constitutes good comparison. But I suppose that just as important is the way in which this book reveals some of the fault lines that are involved in the New Testament guild and the difficulty of understanding those working within different schools and traditions. The sociology of knowledge is real.

Joshua W. Jipp
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
jjipp [at] tiu.edu

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