This course focuses on the letters of Paul, the oldest documents within the Christian Testament. Written to diverse audiences in the context of the Roman Empire and diaspora Judaism, they are still used today to debate ethical and political action. We’ll look at 1) the Pauline epistles in their first-century context, and their earliest interpretations; 2) how archaeological finds in cities to which Paul wrote illuminate issues including imperial power, travel and its trials, hunger and eating, and forms of worship; 3) recent interpretations of Paul’s letters, including those that focus on the lives of women and the enslaved and on themes of race, ethnicity, poverty, and sexuality. The letters of Paul reveal issues that are philosophically and theologically deep—unity, diversity, how one knows God or the tongues of angels, ethics and community—and that are entwined with what we might call practical theology: what do you eat, with whom do you sit at table, how do you act toward political power, how religious leadership should and should not be exercised.
Each day will be dedicated to a particular letter and its city or region, including Thessalonikē, Corinth, Ephesus, and Philippi. By the end of this course, we’ll together accomplish the following objectives:
- to closely read and discuss together five or more letters written by Paul and his co-writers or attributed to Paul; we’ll attend to how the letter is organized, its key themes, and how these fit into larger trends in the first century;
- to gain an understanding of key recent interpretations of Paul’s letters, with a focus on the topics of pistis (faith, trust), slavery, and women’s religious leadership;
- to study the letters in ways that account for the Jewish identity of Paul and the desire of those to whom he wrote to affiliate with Judaism; this work will help us to counter anti-Jewish and supersessionist interpretations;
- to understand the archeological contexts of five cities/regions to which Paul and co-writers travelled (images and plans will be made available for students to use after the course).
Most of all, we’ll enjoy participating together in a centuries-long practice: the fascinating work of puzzling out these ancient documents which are still important today in Christian communities and in broader philosophical debates.
Laura Nasrallah’s research and teaching bring together New Testament and early Christian literature with the archaeological remains of the Mediterranean world, and often engage issues of colonialism, gender, race, status, and power.
Her new book in progress, tentatively titled Rethinking Religion and Aesthetics: “Magic,” Materiality, Language, and Ancient Christianity, uses twentieth- and twenty-first century art—particularly the poetry, paintings, and sculpture of contemporary Black artists—as theoretical frameworks for understanding ritual objects and practices from the ancient Mediterranean world. Paying attention to amulets, curse tablets (defixiones), speaking in tongues, and uses of scripture to curse, the book takes seriously these rituals and ritual objects as aesthetic interventions within the theorizing of matter and language in antiquity, and as attempts—no matter how ethically ambiguous in our eyes—to seek justice.