Paul’s Letters as Collage (Day 19)

A reading of 2 Corinthians 9

In a nutshell: Paul appeals to a cycle of generosity and beneficence to encourage the Corinthians to give liberally to the Jerusalem collection.

The One who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the benefits of your generosity.
—2 Corinthians 9:10

No one can meet the king while naked.
—Gospel of Philip

Paul’s Letters as Collage

Today’s reading is another Jerusalem collection appeal (or perhaps a continuation of yesterday’s). Since this is the last in our rather acrobatic reading 2 Corinthians, I thought today I’d think aloud about Paul’s letters as collage.

The poet Clive James has strong words in his Poetry Notebook about the practice of dashing together “incongruous objects” as a shortcut to meaning. Such juxtaposition, he complains, is “the hope and faith of every crackpot who creates elaborate wall charts with fragments of evidence joined together by a string” (25). While this may at first seem appealing, “you eventually realize that if even the bigger assemblages of bits and pieces were not being carried forward in the sluggish flood, they would look, separately, pretty much like flotsam and jetsam, not to say junk.”

The target of James’ ire was none other than Ezra Pound, but juxtaposition makes for dangerous ground in biblical studies, too. Many biblical texts are actually carefully stitched patchworks of earlier sources, cleaned up and brushed off for new communities to read and use. Likewise, in biblical studies today one has to remain on the alert. I think of the comment—maybe from a mentor, maybe a quote from a book, I can’t remember anymore—that in the heyday of source criticism most people went overboard in detecting reliance of one writer on the others. Conspiracy theories about Christian origins thrive on this very practice even today. The likelier explanation for most resonance across early Christian texts is simply their shared backdrop, the Roman Empire.

Still, Clive James wasn’t saying we should never employ juxtaposition ever but rather that when employed in isolation and to excess, juxtaposition lacks power. In our lives we carry an instinct for bringing together incongruous parts in search of meaning. How often do we read chance as fate, coincidence as meant-to-be? “Everything is collage, even genetics,” writes Michael Ondaatje in Divisedero. “There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border we cross.”

Lennard Kok, illustrator from Utrecht, The Netherlands.

There’s a somewhat new and in vogue term floating around biblical studies these days: intertextuality. As usual, it’s a term that started in the study of literature more generally and then trickled into biblical studies as a crossover discipline. There is a rather dense but still helpful explanation of it by Daniel Chandler.

Although [Ferdinand de] Saussure stressed the importance of the relationship of signs to each other, one of the weaknesses of structuralist semiotics is the tendency to treat individual texts as discrete, closed-off entities and to focus exclusively on internal structures. Even where texts are studied as a ‘corpus’ (a unified collection), the overall generic structures tend themselves to be treated as strictly bounded. The structuralist’s first analytical task is often described as being to delimit the boundaries of the system (what is to be included and what excluded), which is logistically understandable but ontologically problematic. Even remaining within the structuralist paradigm, we may note that codes transcend structures. The semiotic notion of intertextuality introduced by Julia Kristeva is associated primarily with poststructuralist theorists. Kristeva referred to texts in terms of two axes: a horizontal axis connecting the author and reader of a text, and a vertical axis, which connects the text to other texts (Kristeva 1980, 69). Uniting these two axes are shared codes: every text and every reading depends on prior codes. Kristeva declared that ‘every text is from the outset under the jurisdiction of other discourses which impose a universe on it’ (cited in Culler 1981, 105). She argued that rather than confining our attention to the structure of a text we should study its ‘structuration’ (how the structure came into being). This involved siting it ‘within the totality of previous or synchronic texts’ of which it was a ‘transformation’ (Le texte du roman, cited by Coward & Ellis 1977, 52).

In plain speech, we should not simply treat texts as independent, “original” units. They belong to a community of texts and should be read with a sense of their participation in a community. This isn’t just a matter of saying, “Here’s how this text influenced that one. Here’s how that text borrowed from that one over there.” We express a curiosity about the community itself, the interaction that is happening, the way that people go about talking with one another. In doing so, for instance, we notice that Paul’s letters belong not only to the world of letter-writing in the Roman Empire, but also to later worlds of people who carried his letters around in bundles for authority, wrote new letters in his name, and came up with elaborate stories and even cosmologies based on comments he made offhand in his letters.

In today’s reading, we easily see Julia Kristeva’s “horizontal axis”—Paul is giving instructions about how to handle a collection and how to receive the people he has sent. It reminds us that Paul was participating in a community, and that by reading his letters today we are also participating somewhat. I am always interested when I read commentaries and devotionals on Paul’s letters to see whether the person identifies with Paul or with the community. Most people identify with the community and allow themselves to feel advised by (or chastised by) Paul. That’s fine, but it helps to know you’re doing it. “Yes, I am choosing to be a student of Paul in how I read this text.” You could have chosen to be a critic of Paul, an inquisitive historian, Paul’s peer or fellow prophet, or any number of other roles.

So here’s an example of Kristeva’s “vertical axis.” I’ve mentioned several times Paul’s offhand comment in 1 Cor 6:3 that those who belong to the Anointed will even judge the angels (messengers) of God. “Don’t you know that we are going to judge heaven’s messengers, never mind everyday matters?” Working backward in time, you need to know that Paul’s letter is part of a community of texts that understood angels to be fallible beings somewhere in the middle of the human-divine spectrum. It’s as easy as jumping back to the opening lines of Genesis 6:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. (NRSV)

Another easy jump, this time to the epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI. Gilgamesh, who is one of the “heroes that were of old, warriors of renown,” referred to by the writer of the Noah story, and was himself half-man and half-god, embarks on a quest for immortality. After witnessing the death of his closest companion, Enkidu, Gilgamesh realizes he isn’t immune to death himself, and he wants to escape his fate. He finds Utanapishtim, a man who was granted immortality from the gods after surviving a catastrophic flood meant to wipe out all humankind. (He got a warning from the god Shamash, who didn’t agree with his fellow gods and goddesses that all human beings were pests that ought to die.) Utanapishtim describes the scene then ensued:

The gods were cowering like dogs, crouched by the outer wall.
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth…
The gods—those of the Anunnaki—were weeping with her,
the gods humbly sat weeping, sobbing with grief(?),
their lips burning, parched with thirst.
Six days and seven nights
cae the wind and flood, the storm flattening the land.
When the seventh day arrived, the storm was pounding,
the flood was a war—struggling with itself like a woman writhing (in labor)
The sea calmed, fell still, the whirlwind (and) flood stopped up.
I looked around all day long—quiet had set in
and all the human beings had turned to clay! (Kovacs trans.)

The writer of the Noah story gave a place for stories about men like Gilgamesh and Utanapishtim who in some way walked with gods, gods who were capable of feeling fear and who were not immune to catastrophic events like the flood. Setting aside the question “Is this true?”, we may also enjoy the inventiveness with with the writer of the Noah story keeps alive the Gilgamesh story by telling us another version of the flood story with that coy reference to its predecessor. Fast forward to Paul’s own era and you will find an enormous obsession with angelology and demonology. The popular book of 1 Enoch riffs on the opening of the Noah story above to blame fallen angels:

And again I looked with my eyes as I was sleeping, and I saw heaven above, and behold, a star [the angel Asael] fell from heaven, and it arose and ate and pastured amongst those bulls [earthy beings, humans]. … And again I saw in a vision and looked at heaven, and behold, I saw many stars, how they came down and were thrown down from heaven to that first star, and amongst those heifers and bulls; they were there with them, pasturing amongst them. And I looked at them and saw, and behold, all of them let out their private parts like horses and began to mount the cows of the bulls, and they all became pregnant and bore elephants and camels and asses. (86:1, 3–4)

Interestingly, in stories like this men like Noah and Abraham undergo an opposite process of putting on divine garments, more or less replacing the angels in their place in the heavens (Orlov, Divine Scapegoats, 69). So when Paul claimed we’d judge the angels, he was participating in this wider conversation.

Questions for the Road:

  • How do people borrow from Paul today, not just intellectually but culturally? Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” has become an iconic letter in American culture. Perhaps we can see how Paul’s voice shapes the role of minister, missionary, and prophet in other contexts, too.
  • What texts form a collage of meaning in your life? Which stories have stuck with you over the years and why?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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