New College, University of Edinburgh

New in the Oxford Handbook of Pauline Studies: Emma Wasserman on Paul and Religion

“A number of recent critiques construe the category of religion as an essentializing tool of Western domination that leads to misleading formulations of its supposed object of study (Fitzgerald 2000; Dubuisson 2003; Nongbri 2013). Among other problems, critics blame scholarly conceptions of religion for tendencies to overplay characteristics of certain traditions (typical Western ones) as universal and for overstating the roles of specialists and ideologues relative to the interests and habits of everyday persons. As others have stressed, however, interpretation cannot get off the ground without generalization, classification, and comparison of some kind. Sensitive to such concerns, I have argued that taking Paul’s letters as evidence for certain practices relating to gods and non-obvious beings proves helpful for understanding the roles, powers, and relationships the letters ascribe to such beings. The scheme of generalization, classification, and comparison advanced here especially illuminates assumptions about the human-like character and political relationships among certain gods or sets of gods. In spite of much special pleading about the unique, incomparable powers of ruling deities in Jewish and Christian traditions, comparisons bring out a distinctive rhetoric about divine power that modifies—but does not radically diverge from—similar schemes of divine rule. Often associated with language about ‘idolatry’, such rhetoric tends to focus on a supreme deity and to imagine highly asymmetrical relationships of power with the lower ranks of beings, whether conceived of as councils, hosts, spirits, mere statues, or favoured and disfavoured peoples. Such discussions offer an illuminating context for Paul’s claims about others gods, idols, demons, stoicheia, and the principalities and powers as gentile gods that Christ will destroy in battle.”

–Emma Wasserman, “Paul and Religion,” in Oxford Handbook of Pauline Studies

  • CSCO Team,
  • 20th July 2020


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