Sunday, June 26, 2011

Romans textbooks and the craft of scholarly writing

The last couple times I taught Romans, I assigned as textbooks Leander Keck's commentary and Stephen Westerholm's accessible introduction to the worldview of Romans. I think Keck is great, but realized last time that it is still a little too technical for a third year undergraduate course. On a quest for up-to-date alternatives to both books, I ordered in several evaluation copies, all published within the last couple years:

Oakes, Peter. Reading Romans In Pompeii: Paulʼs Letter At Ground Level. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.
Gombis, Timothy G. Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, 2010.
Hultgren, Arland J. Paulʼs Letter to the Romans: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.
Matera, Frank J. Romans. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul's Letter at Ground LevelI thought Reading Romans in Pompeii might substitute for Westerholm as an engaging secondary text on the social context of Romans. While I found it fascinating as a thought experiment about how the letter may have been heard by Gentile readers of Paul's letter, the book does little to welcome modern readers who are not already interested. After a 2.5 pp. preface, chapter one begins:
"We are standing in a street in Pompeii, looking into the doorway of Region I, Block 10, House 6 . . . flanked by the narrower entrances to Houses 5 and 7 (Figure 1.1)." 
How can I assign undergraduates a book that opens with a data dump? ...Next please.

Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides For The Perplexed)Introductions to Paul are a dime a dozen. I ordered in Timothy Gombis's Guide for the Perplexed because it is recent, because it received positive online kudos from J.R.D. Kirk and Scot McKnight, and because I was pretty sure T&T Clark would send me a free evaluation copy. There's lots to like here. Gombis does a fine job compiling verses on both sides of selected debates, there are helpful charts, and I love his articulation of Paul's mission:
"Paul is a herald of the Kingdom of God and of the victory and Cosmic Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is an intensely political vocation, since Paul is proclaiming the emergent reality of a radically new political order--the Kingdom of God--along with an alternative ruler; the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus. This calling as a herald inevitably involved a pastoral task, since Paul's aim was to see the creation and establishment of Kingdom of God communities throughout the world." (23)    
Unfortunately, Gombis's evaluation of debated issues sometimes struck me as simplistic and one-sided. No doubt this is partly because I sometimes disagreed with Gombis's conclusions, but--as will be clear below--I have no trouble assigning readings that I disagree with. My concern is that in a guide that aims to introduce debated issues, opposing views should be presented in such a way that critics will agree with the way they are portrayed. The upshot is that I've decided to stick with Westerholm.

Paul's Letter to the Romans: A CommentaryOne look at Arland Hultgren's large commentary on Romans convinced me that it wouldn't do as an undergraduate textbook. Compare the short paragraph in Keck's succinct commentary to the three pages Hultgren spends discussing the first line of Paul's letter. Still, it looks to be an important contribution--Scot McKnight thinks so too--and I hope to read it during the fall semester.

Romans (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament)
Frank Matera's contribution to the Paideia series is short enough to work as a textbook, and it looks like an insightful, up-to-date contribution by a first-rate Pauline scholar. I look forward to reading it. Unfortunately, I fear my students would not, after reading the first paragraph:
"Romans is the first of the Pauline Letters in the NT. Although it enjoys this pride of place because it is the longest of the letters, its placement is well deserved since it is the most detailed presentation of Paul's gospel, and since it has influenced the course of Christian theology more than any other writing of the NT."
Thud. Commentaries don't have to be written this way. Here is how Keck begins his:
"Like widely differing siblings raised by the same parents, each letter produced by Paul has its own distinguishing character. For the historically minded critic, each letter's unique traits provide important clues for detecting the circumstances in which Paul wrote it as well as what he hoped to achieve with it." 
N.T. Wright prefers an extended metaphor:
"Romans is neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul's lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages." (395)
Wright's contribution to the New Interpreter Bible Vol 10 is a very good, readable commentary on Romans. I've decided to assign it as a textbook this fall as a replacement for Keck.

Wright and Westerholm make unusual bedfellows, to be sure, since Westerholm is usually cast as an opponent of the "New Perspective" on Paul, and Wright one of its champions--but that (and the fact that I disagree with Wright here and there) is half the point. More important, Wright and Westerholm share the two qualities I'm most looking for in authors that I make my students read. (1) In different ways, both model exemplary scholarship; students will learn the craft by reading. (2) They are also fine, engaging writers. If, as John Trimble says, "good writing is good manners," they are both scholars and gentlemen to boot.

The bottom line: I want textbooks that students want to keep reading, that will help me teach by making my students more rather than less interested in the subject matter. I'm betting Wright and Westerholm will do the trick.

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