Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.05.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.05.23

Karin B. Neutel, A Cosmopolitan Ideal: Paul’s Declaration ‘Neither Jew Nor Greek, Neither Slave Nor Free, Nor Male and Female’ in the Context of First Century Thought. Library of New Testament Studies, 513.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015.  Pp. xi, 266.  ISBN 9780567656834.  $112.00.  

Reviewed by Timothy A. Brookins, Houston Baptist University (


Writing to the church in Galatia in the middle of the first century CE, the apostle Paul declared, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28, NRSV). This formula, which for Paul succinctly summed up the social consequences of Jesus Christ’s resurrection and, therewith, the inauguration of the eschatological age, has played a key role in modern reconstructions of Paul’s views on race, class, and gender. Karin Neutel’s A Cosmopolitan Ideal (a slightly revised version of her doctoral dissertation) undertakes a fresh examination of this formula. Recent treatments of this text, says Neutel, have decontextualized it from the first century and read it instead as speaking directly to modern concerns about inclusion (James Dunn, John Kloppenborg, John Elliot) or equality (Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Hans Dieter Betz, John Dominic Crossan). Thus, the purpose of this book is to resituate Gal 3:28 within the wider conversations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, that were taking place in Paul’s own day, conversations, Neutel says, that pertained to the nature of the “ideal community.”

The book’s main chapters are structured around Gal 3:28, beginning in chapter 1 with the end of the verse, “one in Christ.” This chapter explores antecedents to the series of social pairs seen in this verse. Neutel demonstrates that the formula finds close parallel in other early Christian texts (1 Cor 12:31; Col 3:11) and may therefore have been a “pre-Pauline formula.” Neutel, however, maintains that the formula was integral to Paul’s own thought, and that he taught it directly to the communities that he founded. Further parallels to the series in Gal 3:28, found in ancient discussions of household management and in prayers of thanksgiving, in both Jewish and non-Jewish texts, are not exact, and are applied differently than is Paul’s formula. Neutel proposes therefore that ancient discussions about utopian society or ideal society furnish the best background for understanding Gal 3:28. Contemporary writers often reflected on the shape of the ideal society. Their central concern was unity among diverse groups, not necessarily the abolishment of hierarchy. Yet there was a greater drive toward equality during the Hellenistic era and early Imperial period, under the influence of Stoic and Cynic cosmopolitanism. Neutel’s overview of the sources at this point, featuring discussion about the absence of ethnic distinctions or of slaves or of marriage in the ideal community, anticipates the remainder of the book.

Chapters 2–4 cover the three pairs contained in the Pauline formula, beginning in chapter 2 with “neither Jew nor Greek.” Neutel proposes that with this first pair Paul merges Jewish beliefs (although not without some innovation) about the incorporation of the Gentiles into Israel’s eschatological blessings with contemporary Greco-Roman ideas about the unity of Greeks and barbarians as children of God, joined as co-citizens under a single universal law. She wisely avoids the old “either-Jew-or-Greek” error: Paul’s thought is “no less Jewish for being cosmopolitan,” and “no less cosmopolitan for being Jewish” (141). In her analysis of Paul’s views on the law, Neutel opposes not only the “radical new perspective” of Eisenbaum and Hodge, but also certain aspects of the more mainstream “new perspective” on Paul. Here the influence of the “apocalyptic” perspective in the stream of Martin de Boer (VU University of Amsterdam) and John Barclay (Durham University), two of the readers on her dissertation, is evident: Paul did not just critique the law as irrelevant to Gentiles but critiqued the law tout court. Neutel sees the “radical” nature of Paul’s statements about the Jewish law, however, “not as a consequence of a perceived problem in the law or in ‘Judaism,’” but as a consequence of the fact that God had “taken a new step in sending Christ” (239). While this comment is in keeping with the apocalyptic (two-age) interpretation of Paul’s thought, Neutel appears not to have embraced the full implications of Paul’s critique of the law. For Paul the law was indeed “good” (Rom 7:12), but he also identified a problem in it, namely that there was something that it “could not do,” in that it was “weak through the flesh” (Rom 8:3). That is, the law was inadequate to empower people to actually perform it, as he says the Spirit was able to do (Rom 8:1-17).

Chapter 3 treats the second pair of Gal 3:28, “neither slave nor free.” Here Neutel demonstrates that the possibility of society without slavery, in the past, present, or future, was raised perhaps more often in antiquity than is usually recognized. At the festival of Saturnalia the roles of master and slave were reversed, commemorating a time before slavery existed. Seneca advocated for better relations between masters and slaves in his own day, and the Jewish sects of the Essenes and Therapeutae, according to Philo and Josephus, rejected slavery as contrary to nature. There was also an “eschatologization” of the Golden Age myth, as seen in Vergil and others, which looked ahead to a time when slaves would be unnecessary because all worked together.

Chapter 4 treats the final pair, “nor male and female.” Neutel rejects the commonly held view that this amounts to Paul’s rejection of social differences between genders or to a disregard for biological distinction. She sees this statement rather as an allusion to Gen 1:27-28, understood in terms of marriage between man and woman, as the Gospels suggest Jesus (Matt 19:3-6; 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-38) and other contemporaries understood it (e.g., the Damascus Document). As Neutel suggests, this interpretation dovetails well with Paul’s personal preference for celibacy (1 Cor 7): if no one will marry in the eschaton, ideally no one will marry now either. Marriage is a distraction and is useful only as a protective against porneia. Paul does not even seem to value marriage as a means of procreation, as many of his contemporaries did, for he sees the present world as imminently passing away (1 Cor 7:29-31). If Neutel’s interpretation is correct, then “nor male and female” breaks with the pattern of the series: the categories of Jew and Greek and of slave and free remain, but the pertinent groups are unified; but here, the categories of husband and wife are entirely obliterated.

Neutel’s work as a whole is impressively researched, admirably presented, and faultlessly edited. One of the great strengths of her argument is its reliance on sources that date to within a century of Paul. The depth of her research into Paul’s milieu yields a goldmine of data related to contemporary reflections on utopian society or the “ideal community,” and mounts a convincing case that Gal 3:28 should be understood within such conversations. (Yet she seems to interchange the terms “utopia,” “ideal community,” and “cosmopolitanism,” without defining these clearly against each other.)

One much contested issue related to her use of sources deserves comment. Which of the thirteen letters traditionally attributed to Paul are “authentic” is of course widely disputed. On this point Neutel says, “[T]his study is limited to the letters which can be taken as the work of Paul” (14). That, no doubt, is a reasonable approach to take. Yet at no point after this comment are we told which letters are meant. Many scholars of course regard only seven of Paul’s letters as authentic, the so-called “undisputed letters,” but never has this issue been so regarded as settled that one can refer to “the work of Paul” without further qualification. Of particular relevance is the letter to the Colossians. While contemporary scholarship has traditionally been evenly divided on the issue of authorship, more recently a majority has favored its authenticity. Passing comments later reveal that Neutel means to exclude this letter (among others), which is unfortunate, because it contains one of only two parallels in the Pauline corpus to the formula of Gal 3:28 (“there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all,” Col 3:11). This text she refers to nonchalantly as representative of “later Pauline tradition” (27).

Additionally, Neutel could have presented a couple of points in the book’s argument with sharper clarity. As the discussion progressed, I became increasingly confused as to why she set up her case in opposition to those who argue that Gal 3:28 addresses either “inclusion” or “equality,” since she draws attention throughout to ancient texts that focus on both of these as features of the ideal community. For this reader, the answer came into clear focus only at the conclusion: neither of these things, as they are understood by interpreters today, “digs down deep enough in Paul, or in the thought of his time, adequately to describe first-century concerns… While both inclusiveness and a lack of difference in hierarchy play a role in conceptions of the ideal, they do so in terms that are not immediately recognizable from, or transferable to, a modern context” (237). So, while Plutarch could idealize the unity of Greek and barbarian, he continued to associate Greeks with what was good and barbarians with what was bad; while the Essenes and the Therapeutae advocated egalitarian living, they also excluded women from their communities; and while Diogenes of Oenoanda could imagine a future without slaves, he never claimed that slavery was wrong but only that in the future slaves would not be necessary. In sum, then, there is much evidence to suggest that in most cases the more driving concern toward “unity” did entail a certain degree of leveling and also greater openness to inclusion. One simply has to take into account the necessary qualifications and restrictions. Accordingly, Neutel’s analysis of texts where Paul addresses these issues directly leans toward the side of equality (1 Cor 7:21-22; Gal 3:28; and Phlm 15 all emphasize the believer’s new status in Christ and the priority of the domain of the church over the domain of the world), only to pull back in the end in appeal to Paul’s eschatological reserve. Thus, what Neutel has demonstrated, successfully, is that in Paul’s day “inclusion” and “equality” were not ideals to be applied absolutely across all social divides, even as they were, for many people, goals to be pursued farther than the institutional order at present had carried them.

This slight overcorrection against “modern” readings of Gal 3:28 extends also to the issue of scope. While Neutel makes a plausible case that “nor male and female” referred primarily to “husband and wife,” it seems too restrictive to refuse (as she seems inclined to do) to extend Paul’s threefold formula beyond the pairs named to other domains such as4 greater gender equality. In fact, such an extension seems requisite by the very definition of “unity.” If, in terms of Paul’s ideal, the institution of marriage and therefore the social roles of husband and wife no longer exist as such, then “male” and “female” relate as—what? In what relation toward each other are they united? Is it not now in the capacity of male and female more generically? Or do we finally reject Neutel’s conclusion, and take Paul to mean that marriage remains but the hierarchical “male” role over the subordinate “female” role in marriage do not? Again, the drive in many of the sources toward the ideal of more equal (or less unequal) relations would seem to apply here also. This means that perhaps Neutel’s analysis does not in the end circumvent the charges of “contradiction” that have been leveled at Paul by those who have read Gal 3:28 as addressing equality (as against other Pauline texts that indicate ongoing hierarchy). It is arguable that she has lessened the tension (few if anyone called for absolute equality), but it remains nonetheless.

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