I’ve been working on a book review of Seyoon Kim’s Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. In this book, Kim is arguing against the likes of N. T. Wright who contend that Paul includes coded political messages in his letters in order to subvert the Roman Empire.
In reading through Kim’s work, I am struck by how similar his critiques are to the ones that I made in a recent article for JETS. We raise some of the same methodological questions, but our work is entirely independent of one another.
As I was reading last night, I found one paragraph to be particularly devastating. In it, Kim accuses counter-imperial interpreters of proof-texting:
“This [anti-imperial approach] looks like a new application of the old-fashioned proof-text method that dogmatists employed to construct doctrines, and dispensationalists used to construct elaborate eschatological scenarios. It is rather curious to see how some sophisticated exegetes as well as those who have an avowed interest in so-called postcolonial hermeneutics use the method for their political interpretation, although they would loudly disapprove its use by dogmatists and dispensationalists” (p. 36).
In some circles, being called a dogmatist or a dispensationalist is the worst kind of insult. I don’t think that Kim intends to be insulting, but I do think he uses strong language to show just how flawed this method of interpretation truly is. Kim goes on to criticize the notion of “coded” messages in Paul’s letters (a device that N. T. Wright is particularly fond of):
“This is a rather desperate attempt to obtain anti-imperial messages where there are none. Inevitably this method involves self-contradiction . . . Thus, the anti-imperial interpreters’ appeal to the device of coding amounts to an inadvertent admission of the failure of their whole interpretive scheme” (pp. 36-37).
I think Kim is right, and I am looking forward to the day when such faddish and unhelpful interpretations of Paul go the way of the Dodo. With critiques like this one mounting, that day may not be very far away.