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Dr Patrick McMurray on his new book, Sacrifice, Brotherhood, and the Body: Abraham and the Nations in Romans

Today we are featuring a short interview with Dr Patrick McMurray, who recently published his University of Edinburgh PhD thesis with Fortress Academic.

Dr McMurray, tell us about how you came up with the idea for this project.  

The basic framing of the project owed a great deal to my supervisor Dr Matthew Novenson. Before the Masters (which I also pursued here at Edinburgh), I had completed a degree in Ancient and Modern History (at Queen’s University Belfast, subsequent to earlier studies at Oxford). I have always been interested in religion, and when studying ancient religion I had of course encountered sacrifice. During the Masters Dr Novenson suggested that I investigate hilasterion in Romans 3:25 for my Masters dissertation, and he helped me to analyse this. The broader idea was that this study of hilasterion might lead onto a reconsideration of Paul’s sacrificial language more generally as part of a PhD. Dr Novenson drew my attention to authors including Nancy Jay, Stanley Stowers, Pamela Eisenbaum, and Caroline Johnson Hodge, who had all discussed new understandings of sacrifice, and in particular the idea of sacrifice being used to construct familial and ethnic membership. As the PhD proceeded, it became clear that the main substance of my analysis was focused on Paul’s letter to the Romans. I started to realise how these new developments in our understanding of sacrifice might connect powerfully with authors such as Paula Fredriksen and William Campbell, who emphasised ethnic distinction within Paul’s writings, and whose analyses I had always found plausible. I also started to realise that Paul’s pairing of sacrifice with brotherhood in 12:1 could fit very well with this, and Paul might be using sacrifice to construct gentile familial membership (within Abraham’s lineage) but yet to retain distinction (by conceptualising this relationship in terms of brotherhood i.e. alongside Israel). Towards the latter stages of the PhD, I was running out of time somewhat, and so in the third year of the project it was slimmed down to focus solely on Romans.

 

More broadly, how would you characterise the key arguments that you make within this project?

I argue that by pairing sacrifice and brotherhood in (Romans 12:1) Paul is using sacrifice to ratify the gentiles’ brotherhood with Christ (8:29) and membership of the Abraham’s lineage (4:16-18), alongside Israel (9:4; 15:10). Here Paul is constructing brotherhood and familial membership in line with the ancient familial function of sacrifice as used to construct kinship. To proceed with the sacrifice invoked in 12:1 is to confirm and accept the linked familial designation. The promise explicitly requires ongoing ethnic plurality, and so is being brought to fruition. In 12:1 bodily ascetic practice is eschatologically and familially instrumental for Paul (cf 8:13-14). The gentiles’ new familial membership is also transformative (12:2), bringing reciprocal gifts (12:6) and spiritually empowering the lives of love (12:9-11) that will also fulfil the law (13:8-10). The ethne’s lives become coherent with the law which is spiritual (cf vitally 7:14). I further suggest that this constitutes the gentiles’ circumcision of the heart (with Christ as servant of circumcision as linked to the promise in 15:8 implementing Abraham as the gentiles’ father of circumcision 4:12, the role of the Messiah being ethnic cf Galatians 3:29). As I see it, Paul’s fundamental struggle in Romans is against gentile physical circumcision, which would undermine the required ethnic distinction and hence fulfilment of the promise. The ethne’s fraternal and spiritual union with the resurrected Christ also brings theosis (13:11; cf 2 Corinthians 4:14). Preceding all this, I additionally put forward a new analysis of hilasterion (3:25) as referring to a conciliatory gift on the occasion of a truce (cf anoche 3:25; ransom 3:24; gift 3:24), meaning that the ethne do not need to get circumcised. Generally, then, I suggest that Paul’s central invocation of sacrifice in Romans is the explicit thusia of the gentiles in 12:1 (cf 15:16; Isaiah 66:20), which is familiarly, ethnically, and eschatologically instrumental. The transformation it brings constitutes the culmination of the dynamic within Paul’s letter to the Romans. Christ frees the gentiles and then becomes their brother and brings them into the Abrahamic lineage, reconciling them with God. Contrast the misguided latreia and consequent handing over to Impurity and the Passions in 1:24-28 (cf slavery to Sin 6:6), these being problems with which Paul had framed the letter, and which are now thereby resolved.

 

How did you find the experience of pursuing graduate studies at New College?

It was an extremely positive experience, for which I am very grateful, and particularly to my supervisors Dr Matthew Novenson and Dr Philippa Townsend. Dr Townsend is an expert in sacrifice in early Christianity, and it was valuable to be able to discuss these issues with her. The quality of supervision and teaching at New College is extremely high, and the academics working there provided examples of commitment and excellence that were an inspiration to me. The environment at New College is also very collegiate and supportive. The regular meetings of the Novenson cohort to discuss our work and interesting secondary literature really helped my academic development and were very enjoyable. The opportunity to tutor on a number of courses for both Dr Novenson and for Professor Helen Bond was a great experience. There are many wonderful events at New College, such as the Burns Supper every January – even just thinking about this puts a smile on my face as it is a magical evening. The physical setting is of course beautiful, and New College has a magnificent view over the city of Edinburgh, as well as being centrally located. I received a Chancellor’s Career Development Scholarship from the University of Edinburgh, without which I would not have pursued these studies. Perhaps most fundamentally, at New College I had the academic freedom to pursue the evidence without constraint.

 

What advice do you have for anyone doing graduate level biblical studies?

In my opinion, it is extremely important to get high quality academic input right at the very beginning of any project as its initial framing and conceptualisation is so important to the outcome. Additionally, it is really important to take a lot of time to engage deeply and imaginatively with the primary sources. The time I took to try to enter into Paul’s world and logic was what really allowed me to make progress. The secondary literature is in flux at the moment, and a great deal of it is seriously outdated. Spending time directly with Paul’s texts and trusting your engagement with them will allow the development of more genuinely historical readings. Finally, it is really worth pushing hard at the end of the PhD, as this is when you have it all in your head and so can make important connections. The core of my PhD developed over the final 14 months, and I developed some new ideas in the last 3 months.

Many thanks to Dr McMurray for his insightful interview. 

Be sure to be on the lookout for a forthcoming review of Sacrifice, Brotherhood, and the Body by Paula Fredriksen in the Expository Times.

To learn more about the book, you can head over to the publisher’s website: Sacrifice, Brotherhood, and the Body.

For readers who have access to the University of Edinburgh library, you can read Dr McMurray’s book online via DiscoverEd: Sacrifice, Brotherhood, and the Body.

 

Dr McMurray holding a copy of his book, Sacrifice, Brotherhood, and the Body: Abraham and the Nations in Romans. The cover has an image of airplanes flying in formation, which is symbol or metaphor to represent the nations and Israel being brought into the correct alignment or formation.

Dr McMurray with a copy of his new book, Sacrifice, Brotherhood, and the Body: Abraham and the Nations in Romans. The cover is a symbol or metaphor to represent the nations and Israel being brought into the correct alignment or formation.

  • CSCO Team,
  • 15th November 2021

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