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Uncovering Paul's Subversive Stories: A Narratological Approach to Counter-Imperial Rhetoric in Galatians


As scholars of early Christianity, we are constantly seeking new ways to illuminate the complex relationship between the New Testament authors and their Roman imperial context. In recent decades, the "Paul and Empire" debate has generated fruitful discussions about the presence of coded counter-imperial rhetoric in Paul's letters. However, the dominant approach, pioneered by N.T. Wright, which seeks to identify "echoes" of Roman ideology in the Pauline corpus, has come under scrutiny.


In a recent article (see here), I propose a fresh perspective on this issue, drawing on insights from narratology. (In doing so, I try to offer some more examples of the kind of interaction with Roman ideology that I draw attention to in my recent Eerdmans monograph: see here) Rather than searching for a "hidden transcript" of anti-imperial resistance in Galatians, I suggest we should pay attention to the subversive potential of Paul's narrative fragments or "counter-stories."


Narratology, with its focus on characters, plot, temporality, and perspective, provides a powerful lens for detecting these counter-stories. By analyzing how Paul frames events and actors, we can uncover implicit contrasts with dominant Roman narratives.


Take, for example, Paul's pervasive use of crucifixion imagery. In Gal 2:19, he speaks of being "crucified with Christ"; in 5:24, he describes believers as having "crucified the flesh"; and in 6:14, he daringly asserts that through Christ's cross, "the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." For Roman-era readers, the cross was not a religious symbol but a brutal instrument of imperial torture. Paul's co-option of this image constitutes a shocking reversal of power dynamics. Suddenly, the victims become agents, the executed are executioners, and the Empire itself hangs helplessly on the cross. Without naming Rome directly, Paul subverts its most potent icon of dominance.


Another intriguing example is the adoption metaphor in Gal 4:1-2. Paul describes an underage heir as being no different from a slave, under guardians until the date set by the father. Adopting a Roman legal framework, he evokes parallels to recent events in the imperial household: Nero's controversial adoption by Claudius and his premature ascension to power. The language of "guardians" and "managers" overseeing a "master of everything" playfully mirrors the image of a precocious princeling still under tutelage. Is this a subtle satirical jab at the Emperor?


Such allusive stories invite speculation but resist definitive proof. Their subversive power lies precisely in their ambiguity, allowing Paul to question imperial pretensions without risking open sedition. Crucially, historical plausibility is not the same as historical certainty. The inherent "gappiness" of ancient texts means we must often supply contextual knowledge to complete the picture.


This is where a narratological approach, combined with historical imagination and a robust probabilistic methodology, proves invaluable. By accumulating numerous "clues" - narrative patterns, rhetorical signals, contextual parallels - we can build a cumulative case for Paul's counter-imperial stance, even if individual examples remain debatable.


Of course, the inherent ambiguity of Paul's letters, coupled with scholarly disagreements over dating and provenance, means that any reconstruction of his counter-imperial rhetoric must be tentative. But this provisionality is a feature, not a bug, of historically engaged reading. As in textual criticism, where even high levels of confidence in individual variants can compound to significant uncertainty, so multiple plausible hypotheses can converge on a compelling overall picture.


In this sense, the search for Paul's subversive stories is not just an academic exercise but a model for critical thinking. It invites us to sift evidence, weigh probabilities, and above all, to keep questioning the "official story" - whether of ancient empires or modern assumptions.


For Paul, as for us, the struggle against the principalities and powers of the age is ultimately a battle of narratives. It challenges us to find our place in a story bigger than any one empire or era - a story still being written, in which every voice matters. Even, perhaps especially, those voices that speak in whispers, riddles, and fragments from the margins of history.


[This blog post was automatically generated by Claude-3-Opus. I merely removed one name and added two links. On the broader topic of how LLMs will input research - and especially the communication of research - in the humanities, see here. The image was created with Midjourney.]

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