Posted by: Dan | June 4, 2011

May Books

I promise that I’ll write at least two other posts before I get to my next set of book reviews… although they’re not really proper reviews… and not everything mentioned is a proper “book.”  Regardless, here’s what I got for May. [Proof-reading to follow later… sorry… can’t be bothered right now.]

1.  Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Graeco-Roman World by Bruce W. Longenecker.

One of the areas of New Testament that is developing strongly, and in some exciting ways, is the study of the socio-economic status of the members of the early assemblies of Jesus.  About until the last ten or fifteen years, that area of study seemed to be a bit stagnant — those let Theissen, Meeks, and Malherbe had done a fair amount of work that turned into a fairly unquestioned dominant paradigm.  THe resurgence of counter-imperial readings of the New Testament began to question this consensus and then in the last decade a number of important works have appeared — Meggitt’s somewhat reductionistic but still significant study, the thoughtful articles of Friesen, Oakes’ study of class and status at Pompeii during the NT period, and then this book by Bruce Longenecker appears and, in my opinion, delivers the final blow to the dominant position these matters.  I think that Remember the Poor deserves to be just as paradigm-setting as The First Urban Christians (Meeks) or The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Theissen).

In this book, Longenecker establishes that concern for the poor was one of the primary actions associated with the Pauline Gospel (and with the spread of the Jesus Movement more generally), that the poor were prominent within the early Pauline assemblies, and that this concern for the poor was one of the more attractive elements in the spread of the Jesus Movement, given that Graeco-Roman society tended not to exhibit the same depth of charity (or, more properly, economic mutuality).

Like Oakes (in Reading Romans in Pompeii), Longenecker demonstrates the importance of the differences that exist between various populations of poor and less-poor people.  Thus, he continues to further the nuancing of earlier descriptions of social status in the Roman Empire that tended to lump large groups of people together in a manner that was less conducive to the study of specific communities at specific times (cf. Meggitt’s Paul, Poverty, and Survival).  As he does this, Longenecker relies upon the “Poverty Scale” crafted by Friesen (and then updated by Friesen and Scheidel), although he provides it with the more appropriate name of an “Economy Scale.”  However, Longenecker is more optimistic than Friesen and, given that the scale provides a spectrum of percentages that may compose any given population, Longenecker places a higher percentage of people towards the upper ends of the scale.  I remain unconvinced by this move (it is largely undefended, as Longenecker acknowledges) and prefer Friesen’s numbers, which place more of the population toward the bottom of the scale.

That said, this is really an exceptional book and one that should be recommended reading for all who are interested in the study of Paul.  It’s definitely in the running for my “book of the year.”

2.  Selected Lives by Plutarch.

I’ve really come to enjoy reading the various Roman histories.  Although some of the same material is covered by a number of authors, I appreciate the diversity of perspectives and the different voices employed.  Thus, to me, Suetonius reads more like an official record.  Virgil reads like Scripture.  Tacitus is particular good at adding subaltern voices into his histories, and Plutarch is great for providing multiple perspectives on the same story within a single text.  Thus, for example, he recounts the famous story of how Romulus and Remus were said to have survived by suckling from a wolf.  However, he also mentions that the word for a female wolf was also a term applied to women who “gave their bodies to men” indiscriminately.  Plutarch further notes the the wife of the slave who carried Romulus and Remus away to abandon them was known as one such woman.  Thus, he posits that the twins were possibly saved, not by a wolf, but by the slave family that took them in and disobeyed the orders they had received to kill the children.

Another reason I’ve enjoyed these histories are some of the little gems one discovers within them.  For example, I learned the origins of the tradition of a newly married man carrying his bride over the threshold of their home.  Back when Rome was first founded, it was mostly populated my male misfits, outcasts, and outlaws.  In need of increasing their numbers, the Romans went to the Sabines and carried away( and raped), a number of women, thereby gaining families for themselves.  Thus, began the Roman tradition of carrying a bride over a threshold — this act commemorated the initial abduction (and rape) of the Sabine women.

Anyway, all that to say that I enjoyed reading Plutarch and would recommend him to any NT folks, or others who are interested in this era.  Another point of interest in reading him was the way in which Augustus was portrayed in the biographies of folks like Antony or Brutus.  It’s a good counter-representation to the image of Augustus circulated by most others.  Often, in Plutarch’s account, Augustus doesn’t come off looking much better than any other despot.  Furthermore, Plutarch reminds the reader that Brutus actually defeated the army of Augustus (then Octavian) at Philippi, and Augustus was only saved because he fled his camp and because Antony overthrew Cassius (and later overthrew Brutus).  No wonder this battle is not mentioned much in the Augustan ideology!

3-4.  Agricola and Germany by Tacitus.

Having completed the Annals, I figured I would continue to chip at Tacitus.  I’m glad I did as I both enjoyed these texts and found them to be useful for my own research.  As I mentioned above, one of the things I enjoy about Tacitus is the way in which he permits subalterns to speak — and to speak in the ways in which I imagine subalterns would speak — within his texts.  Thus, for example, in Agricola (a biography Tacitus wrote about his father-in-law, primarily focused upon his time governing Britain), one reads of rebels giving voice to the observation that Romans simply employ the rhetoric of peace and justice in order to engage in a rapacious task of robbing and enslaving others.  Essentially, a good number of these folks (and it is surprising how many of them exist in Tacitus’ texts) are engaging in a counter-imperial or post-colonial deconstructive reading of the Roman ideology.  Furthermore, in Germany, Tacitus provides an example of the more democratic form of rule that existed amongst peoples who were considered, by Rome, to be uncivilized barbarians.  Thus, Tacitus writes that minor decisions are made by the chiefs while major decisions are made by the whole tribe.  Furthermore, Tacitus observes how the chiefs have authority, not because they possess an unquestioned power, but because of the respect they have gained in the community.  Even with this respect, the people are still able to disagree with their chief, and the chief would be required to listen to the voice of the people.  Thus, Tacitus notes how the task of bringing “civilization” to others, was little more than a trap sprung to enslave them.  Here, he is worth quoting at length, as the tactics he mentions are employed just as much today (say, for example, with the First Nations peoples in Canada).

For, to accustom to rest and repose through the charms of luxury a population scattered and barbarous and therefore inclined to war, Agricola gave private encouragement and public aid to the building of temples, courts of justice and dwelling-houses, praising the energetic, and reproving the indolent. Thus, an honourable rivalry took the place of compulsion. He likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the “toga” became fashionable. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude (Agricola, 21).

I suppose that this would be a fine example of the “hidden transcripts” of the elite mentioned by James C. Scott.  Texts written that lower the guard, cut through the ideology, and speak a little more honestly as they are not intended for non-elite ears.

5-6.  On Mercy and Octavia by Seneca.

Two short texts by Seneca, the first an essay written early during Nero’s reign when Seneca was optimistic about the possible peace, justice, and Golden Age, Nero might bring to earth; the second a play written after that optimism had shattered and Nero’s tyrannical impiety had begun to unveil itself (in the elaborate murder of his mother, for example).

The essay on mercy is a pretty important text, given the role that mercy (or clemency) played within the ideo-theology of Rome.  It provides an important insight in subjects like mercy, the law, and mercy as a form of “justice beyond the law.”  Thus, the practice of mercy creates a “state of exception” but should also only be practiced by the emperor who is akin to the gods and who, therefore, is best suited to be the giver of life to others.

The play about Nero’s first wife, Octavia (whom he murdered so that he could marry his lover, Poppaea… whom he later kicked to death while she was pregnant… and then made her divine after she was dead), is interesting because it is a text quite critical of Nero, written by a person who had been closer to Nero than most others (Seneca was Nero’s tutor and was one of two or three people closest to him at the beginning of his reign).  Thus, although it is written as a play, one can imagine Nero speaking or acting in the ways in which Seneca presents him (although, given their subsequent alienation, leading ultimately to Seneca’s death, one might wonder if Seneca sometimes overplays his hand).  One of the quotes I found interesting was when Nero asserts that he has no need to fear the gods, as it is he who determines who the gods are (by making Claudius divine, for example).  This got me thinking about Brigitte Kahl’s argument in Galatians Re-Imagined, wherein she suggests that the imperial cult essentially made Augustus the greatest of the gods, thereby theoretically maintaining a form of polytheism while, for all intents and purposes, functioning as monotheism.  Food for thought.

7.  Sodom and Gomorrah (In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV) by Marcel Proust.

Well, I finally returned to Proust.  I’m glad I did.  I find his reading to be… soothing.  Maybe that’s an odd word choice, but it’s true.  It makes me feel calm to lose myself in his sentences, tangents, and stories.  That said, I found this volume to be a little bit disappointing when compared to the previous three.  The reflections upon homosexuality (a prominent theme… hence the title) weren’t all that great, some of what was interesting in earlier volumes began to feel repetitive here, plus the protagonist got a little less attractive in his relationships (particularly with his mother and his lover).  Regardless, he still has a great way with words and some good insights.  For example, I’ve been thinking about the following quite in relation to contemporary practices of charity:

I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority of those towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that inferiority… “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the nicest way imaginable, in order to be loved and admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

There’s so much in that text, that I should probably write another post about it.  Until then, I’m looking forward to Volume V.



  1. That last quote by Proust seems to shed light on an elitist practice that is quite markedly… French.

    Seriously, as an undergrad I was rubbing shoulders with a French girl from a very privileged background who was forever going on and on about how the woman who worked at the bakery was wonderful, and so much better than us. I found that strange and oddly distasteful but couldn’t quite pinpoint why.

    A few years later in Britain, I came across their various clubs and societies who accept members on the basis of their achievements, professional, voluntary or otherwise. I found them absolutely appalling. Surely, you value people because they are created in the image of God, not because they’re interesting enough to make great conversation at the dinner table. We certainly wouldn’t do this in France…

    So then, maybe in France the snubbery and sense of superiority of some towards others is “erased” in the way Proust describes. I’m not sure the Brits are all that much better, because they flaunt it to a quite unebelievable extent. North Americans who visit can’t believe the obvious markers of class that are so prevalent around here.

    As for me, I find both sets incredibly boring. If I’m being fully honest, I’m sometimes a bit miffed that I don’t fit with them, but then I can’t help but sabotage any possibility of belonging to either. (This is why I forced myself to read the detailed biograhy of William Wilberforce in order to explore whether there is anything redeemable in this eltist cr**).

    Meanwhile, I know that both of those posh sets would barely give the time of day to the not-so-rare living saints who walk our local streets. I don’t fit in with them either, but it is my pleasure to know that they are here. IMO everybody should read C.S. Lewis’ The Inner Ring twice a year.

    P.S. there are some really cheesy “Ads by Google” that pop up on your blog just above the comment box. Is that deliberate?

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