BMCR 2002.12.39

Paul and the Power of Sin. Redefining ‘Beyond the Pale’. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 115

, Paul and the power of sin : redefining 'Beyond the pale'. Society for New Testament Studies monograph series ; 115. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xiv, 241 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 0511018991 $60.00.

In the last two decades, insights derived from the Social Sciences have fundamentally transformed the manner in which biblical studies are undertaken. One of its most fruitful applications has been the adaptation of anthropological and sociological categories to decipher the social situation of the biblical texts. Here the work of Mary Douglas has proved to be particularly influential: not only have her insights often been adapted by others to biblical problems, she herself has grappled with these questions as well. Her fascination with issues raised by Mosaic legislation, for example, is at least as old as Purity and Danger (1966), and she has returned to these questions in two more recent works, one devoted entirely to Numbers and the other to Leviticus.1 Since her work has largely been confined to the Hebrew scriptures, it has been left to others to explore its ramifications for the New Testament. Carter’s (hereafter C.) book is one such attempt. He applies the anthropological insights of Mary Douglas to the epistles of Paul in order to interpret Paul’s understanding of sin in terms of the social and cultural context of the day. That is to say, C. examines sin as a social symbol rather than as a theological construct. By means of Douglas’ influential group/grid dichotomy, C. sets out to establish where Paul and his communities should be situated in terms of Douglas’ categories and what this situation suggests about the way in which Paul constructs his understanding of sin.

C. begins by furnishing an overview of the group/grid matrix derived from Douglas’ Natural Symbols.2 As he points out, this enterprise is more complicated than at first appears: Douglas’ work has gone through three separate editions (1970, 1973, 1982 [U.S.]/1996 [U.K.]), with each edition presenting a version of the matrix that is incompatible with the others.3 As a consequence, appeals to Douglas’ framework have elicited very different results from Pauline scholars, depending in part on which of the three matrices they have adopted. C.’s initial concern, therefore, is to establish a justification for his own version. Part of this justification emerges from consultation with Douglas herself: C. remarks that “Despite her reservations about applying the model to New Testament communities, she has been most supportive and helpful and her comments led me to make a serious reassessment of my approach” (xii). In the end, C. opts for an earlier version of Douglas’ model because of its greater pertinence to traditional, non-western social units. He outlines his framework as follows: ‘Group’ is “defined in terms of the extent to which an individual is incorporated within a bounded social unit. ‘Grid’…[is] measured in terms of the extent to which that individual, or the group of which he is a part, accepts or rejects the social norms of the surrounding culture” (43).

C. then turns to 1 Corinthians, which is Paul’s most revealing letter both in terms of its description of the social situation of its recipients and also in terms of Paul’s response to it. The Corinthians’ positive evaluation of the larger world, as indicated by their fixation on status, power and noble birth, and their willingness to frequent ‘pagan’ temples and the law-courts, suggest that they should be accounted “high grid”. Alternately, the Corinthians’ lack of concern about church unity and their unrepentant factionalism betray a “low group” mindset. Paul, by contrast, in the attitudes he wishes to convey is the opposite: low grid/high group. In this context, Paul represents sin as an external evil that threatens the integrity of the social and physical body.

The situation of the Galatians is somewhat different. Here both Paul and the Galatians can be classified as low grid/high group. The Galatians had rejected the dominant symbolic system of the culture surrounding them, and preserved a strong group identity. Nevertheless, in Paul’s view the Galatians were at risk from Judaizers who threatened the community. His response is to resort to the same accusations of ‘witchcraft’, typical of low grid/high group contexts, that the Judaizers had used of him.4 When Paul asks the Galatians τίς ὑμᾶς ἐβάσκανεν (Gal 3:1), he means “Who has subjected you to the evil eye?” (Cf. the NRSV’s translation, “Who has bewitched you?”)—clearly a charge leveled at the Judaizers. Paul and the Judaizers both resort to vituperation in order to redraw the boundaries of the group in a way that validates their own leadership and excludes their adversaries. Where Paul’s opponents condemn Paul as a “gentile sinner”, Paul’s gambit is to exclude the Judaizers from the eschatological community of believers: he declares that the ethnic categories promulgated by the Judaizers no longer have any relevance for the new age. What is more, Paul maintains that eschatological life is only open to those who have been justified by faith; those who appeal to the law are accursed. Paul recasts the law in such a way that instead of constituting “a boundary that keeps the outside evil at bay, the law functions as a prison, confining transgressors within the present evil age” (122). This reformulation means that the picture of sin that emerges from Galatians is of a cosmic wickedness that dominates the present world, including those who adhere to the Jewish law. Sin remains, however, external to Paul’s group of believers, and, by urging them to walk according to the Spirit rather than the flesh, Paul aims to keep it external and prevent sin from infiltrating their ranks.

C. assumes that Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses a controversy amongst the various Christian groups in Rome, notably the disagreement between the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’, which C. takes as a dispute between those who observe the Jewish law (the ‘weak’) and those who do not (the ‘strong’). These groups were based in house churches, and C. classes them all as high group/low grid. Paul’s own situation is best taken as the same: he, too, is high group/low grid.

Paul’s understanding of sin in Romans reveals affinities with that outlined in Galatians: sin is the mark of the old aeon, a cosmic power that dominates even Torah-observant Jews. Entry to the eschatological community of believers is through baptism (the symbolic death with Christ to sin) and through the impetus of the eschatological Spirit. Those who possess the Spirit are righteous insiders; those who do not are sinful outsiders under the dominion of sin.

C. concludes that his analysis prompts a reconsideration of the notion of sinfulness that has prevailed since the time of Augustine, who developed an anthropology that stressed the individual’s sinfulness. When Paul’s language of sin is resituated in its social context, it emerges that sin is something quite different. Paul’s construction of sin arises from his need to situate boundaries around the ‘body’ of believers; his focus is on the community rather than the individual, and, in his view, the community is good; evil exists beyond the pale of the community. Paul’s focus, therefore, is, pace Augustine, neither on the individual nor on the individual’s innate sinfulness.

C.’s argument is, on the whole, lucid and convincing and should certainly prompt a re-evaluation of Paul’s conception of sin as well as of the social dynamics involved in his construction of community. Most notable, perhaps, is C.’s restraint in applying the grid/group model to Paul’s letters; he only appeals to it when it seems likely to elucidate Paul’s meaning. The result is a valuable hybrid that mixes social theory and theology. Where some earlier attempts to apply Douglas’ model to Paul’s letters have occasionally obscured Paul’s theology beneath a welter of social theory, C. is more circumspect As a consequence, his argument is all the more weighty.

That said, there are some problems with his reconstructions of the Pauline communities, most notably with those at Rome. The complex question of the letter’s recipients requires C. to weave such a tissue of suppositions that one can see why Mary Douglas would have reservations about applying the model to New Testament communities. First, C. assumes that the weak and strong are largely equivalent to the Jews and the Gentiles. He then adds inference to supposition: “If, like the synagogues in Rome, these house groups lacked any central organization, it would be natural for these different groups to develop along party lines, quite possibly in accordance with the four different groupings suggested by Brown” (134-35).5 Raymond Brown’s groups range from those Christians who are highly observant of the Jewish laws to those who disregard them entirely. C. then concludes that these four groups would all fall into the “high group/low grid” category. Yet even granting these suppositions—at which many Pauline scholars would baulk—C.’s conclusions are suspect. The house churches are high group because C. effectively presupposes they are at the outset. Nor does it follow that they should all be low grid. The group that is dismissive of Jewish practice could, in reflecting an attitude commonplace in the larger Greco-Roman world, just as readily be accounted high grid. While this objection does not really undercut C.’s larger argument, it does reveal some of the limitations involved in applying a model designed for living cultures to cultural artifacts.

In conclusion, C. has produced a valuable and largely convincing application of Douglas’ grid/group theory to Paul’s key letters. His recognition that cosmology is often a product of social dynamics is a fruitful one, and points to promising new directions in Pauline studies.


1. In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers, (JSOTSS 158; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993); Leviticus as Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). Cf., in addition, John F.A. Sawyer (ed.), Reading Leviticus: A Conversation with Mary Douglas (JSOTSS 227; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).

2. Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols. Explorations in Cosmology (Barrie & Rockliff, 1970).

3. Note too the further permutation of the model found in In the Wilderness, 45. For discussion of the relations of these models to each other, see James V. Spickard, “A Guide to Mary Douglas’s Three Versions of Grid/Group Theory,” Sociological Analysis 1989 (50:2) 151-70.

4. For Douglas’ understanding of witchcraft, cf. Mary Douglas (ed.), Witchcraft Accusations and Confessions (London: Tavistock, 1970) xiii-xxxviii.

5. Unfortunately, C. fails to cite the pages of this reference, and the book’s inexplicable failure to include an index of authors hampers cross-referencing. The reference is from Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meier, Antioch & Rome (New York/Ramsey: Paulist, 1983) 2-8. It should be noted that Brown is referring to the spectrum of belief witnessed in the New Testament as a whole and not, as C.’s passage seems to imply, to believers at Rome.