BMCR 2013.06.28

Transient Apostle: Paul, Travel, and the Rhetoric of Empire. Synkrisis: Comparative approaches to early Christianity in Greco-Roman culture

, Transient Apostle: Paul, Travel, and the Rhetoric of Empire. Synkrisis: Comparative approaches to early Christianity in Greco-Roman culture. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2013. xvi, 196. ISBN 9780300187144. $55.00.

This excellent monograph, a revised Yale dissertation, advances our understanding of the apostle Paul’s self-presentation as a traveler in the Roman world. Unlike authors of previous studies, who tend to rely almost exclusively on the Acts of the Apostles for their reconstructions, Timothy Luckritz Marquis turns to Paul’s own writings, correctly in my view, and focuses on one, a long letter fragment preserved in the canonical 2 Corinthians 1–9. The result offers a close reading of the text, with an informed use of postcritical theory, on how Paul deployed “wandering” as a rhetorical strategy by playing on the trope’s ambiguous meanings and values created by the Augustan age. This book is the one of the first volumes to appear in an exciting new series dedicated to a collaborative venture of comparison in light of early Christianity’s full immersion in the Greco-Roman world. In keeping with the aim of the monograph series, this book compares Greco-Roman authors and Paul to identify common rhetorical projects entailed in each discourse, not to look for similarities in order to posit relations of influence and dependence as in the older “history of religions” approach.

The book’s central thesis borrows an idea from the post-Marxist theory of social change by Ernesto Laclau, on the importance of temporary or “transient” signifiers in the language that successfully constructs new popular identities.1 That idea asks how disparate social actors and parties unite toward a common purpose, as in the case of Paul’s Corinthian congregation, and holds that success depends on a group’s ability to expose the underlying hegemonic concepts of the dominant culture as merely empty – (pp. 18–19). In his rhetoric of travel, Paul styles himself with many traditional signifiers in Greco-Roman culture – the visiting deity (esp. Dionysus), the wandering hero, the foreign social critic, the roaming fraud, the exile, and the dying sage (i.e. death as a return to one’s home) – only to disassociate himself from them. “To borrow from Laclau,” writes Luckritz Marquis, “the attachments Paul makes to wanderers of the past are merely ‘transient,’ severed almost as soon as they are made” (p. 46). The discovery of this rhetorical strategy thus helps Luckritz Marquis to explain why 2 Cor. 1–9 contains an apparent mix of thematic disjunctions and jarring topical interruptions, making an important argument in favor of the literary unity of 2 Cor. 1–9 as a single letter fragment.2

The Introduction helpfully lays out the background material for the chapters that follow. The outdated dichotomy of “Jewish” and “Greco-Roman” as separate cultural contexts (or “worlds”) for Paul is replaced with the dichotomous language in which nearly all ancient authors expressed travel as a rhetorical theme: life and death, virtue and vice, honor and shame, prosperity and poverty, innovation and tradition.3 This cultural ambivalence, the author argues, provides the best interpretative context in which to understand why Paul used travel as the central aspect of his self-fashioning as an apostle. A key theme is “the pervasiveness of travel as a motif of social change, suitable in its ambivalence, connoting both hope and fear, blessing and curse. In his attempts to institute a new age in the midst of Roman dominance and local anxieties, Paul harnessed the power of travel’s semantic excess in order to forge an international community uniting various subject positions around the truth he proclaimed from city to city” (pp. 3–4). To illustrate the pervasiveness of travel as a motif of social change, the author compares Paul’s mission to that of the heralds whom Augustus sent around the empire to declare the advent of a new age on the occasion of the ludi saeculares (14 B.C.E.), as well as to the eschatological lament and wandering of the figure of Ezra in the pseudepigraphic Jewish work known as 4 Ezra (ca. end of the first century C.E.). Luckritz Marquis, therefore, intends “to describe the apocalyptic strand of Judaism in which Paul shared as an integral part of the larger, Roman world” (p. 3).

Chapter 1 (Traveling Leaders of the Ancient Mediterranean) examines paradigmatic travelers of ancient Mediterranean culture to argue that Paul deployed the image of the “Wandering Apostle” as a floating signifier defining the boundaries of his marginalized self-image and communities. Paul receives discussion after Luckritz Marquis has surveyed a series of legendary wayfarers: Dionysus (the traveling god), Odysseus (the wandering hero), the Scythian Anacharis (the foreign social critic), the tragic figure Polyneices (the exile as civically dead), and Socrates (the homeward-bound sage). The comparison finds that Paul’s initial audiences likely understood him in light of itinerant messengers of Eastern deities (such as Dionysus and Cybele) and through the notions of shame and death associated with folkloric wanderers, which explains the Corinthians’ misgivings toward the Apostle. The Corinthians were suspicious of his foreignness, his transient lifestyle, his voluntary poverty, and his apparent lack of strong bodily presence and honorable public speaking. Paul responds to these misgivings by evoking notions of “traveling gods and their proclaimers, epic heroes, foreign moralists, famous exiles, and sages contemplating death as a final journey” in order to clear “new space for his communities through the image of the Wandering Apostle” (p. 24). An objection, however, is whether “wandering” accurately describes Paul’s self-presentation. Though he certainly changes his plans, decides journeys often spontaneously, and vacillates about his itineraries, Paul writes, in the end, that his overall missionary travel has both a direction and a purpose (Rom. 15:19).

In order to discern how Paul constructs his new leadership role, Luckritz Marquis traces in the remaining chapters (2–6) the above-mentioned travel motifs in 2 Cor. 1-9. The detailed exegesis, verse by verse, is a model of clear exposition and close textual reading. In short, Luckritz Marquis argues that 2 Cor. 1–9 is not a tangled jumble of loosely related issues (as many biblical commentaries claim) but, instead, a commonplace epistolary topos of travel. Paul thus crafts “a delicate rhetorical travel strategy framed as an explanation of failed travel plans” (p. 49). Investigating the specific social contexts of the initial motifs, Chapter 2 (Travel, Suicide, and Self-Construction) identifies at least three ancient discourses––(1) epistolary travel apologies, (2) reasoned deliberation and political self-formation in the face of self-killing, and (3) the vacillating and self-sacrificing demagogue––which all served the interest of forming the new leadership role of the Wandering Apostle (p. 69). Readers will likely find this chapter and Chapter 5 (Whether Home or Away), arguing for Paul’s explicit link of travel and death, the most controversial of the book. Although contending that Paul contemplates suicide is not a new idea in Pauline studies (most scholars point to Phil. 1:21–23),4 Luckritz Marquis finds the theme also in 2 Cor. 1:8–11 (Paul on facing potential failure in Corinth) through the novel methodology of using early Latin versions of 2 Cor. 1:8– taederet vivere, when converted to its nominal form taedium vitae (weariness of life) is a “stock Latin phrase for a general motivation of suicide” (p. 61) – to control the meaning of Paul’s original Greek. While suggestive for an interpretation of 2 Cor. 1:8–11, this mode of exegesis is just too speculative for my tastes – even though I agree that Paul likely contemplated suicide in Philippians and am convinced by Luckritz Marquis’s argument (pp. 114–25) that Paul drew heavily on the language of philosophical consolation over death in 2 Cor. 4:16–5:10.

Paul’s adaptation of the parousia of the triumphing god and emperor is the subject of Chapter 3 (The Wandering, Foreign God of Israel). Chapter 4 (Delivering the Spirit) then explains how Paul defuses the volatility of this parousia motif (conquest by a foreign god) with a more quotidian travel metaphor––the letter carrier––in his subsequent passage on letters of recommendation (2 Cor. 3). On this reading, Paul’s contention that his work constitutes a “letter of Christ” (2 Cor. 3:3), an echo of Jeremiah, becomes a form of performance art designed to upset expectations and roles. Using existing cultural hegemonies, Paul thus is said to “subvert” Roman imperial ideology: “Paul’s (almost hidden) promise of the nullification of Rome promises an alter-empire of God fulfilling the aspirations of its subjects” (pp. 110–11). This “anti-imperial” hermeneutical approach to Paul reaches its height in Chapter 6 (Ambassadors of God’s Empire) and in the Conclusion (on Paul’s letter to the Romans), though it is carefully nuanced. Focusing on Paul’s fund-raising campaign among his Gentile congregations, Luckritz Marquis contends that Paul used the collection as the analogue of the Diaspora temple tax (which paid for priestly sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple) to establish a new, global movement, “one necessarily alternative to the international society ruled from Rome” (p. 147). Yet a problem with this exegesis arises when one compares Paul with his Jewish contemporary Philo of Alexandria, who mentions the Diaspora temple tax before the Roman emperor to defend Jewish loyalty to Rome, without any apparent awareness of its supposedly “anti-imperial” message of creating an alternative world order (see Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 156–57).

In any case, my disagreements with some of the exegesis and hermeneutics should not distract from my overall praise of this wonderfully detailed study of Paul. It deserves attention from classicists and ancient historians interested in the language and imagery of wandering in the topography and performance of Greco-Roman culture.5 I look forward to reading more good work from this promising scholar.


1. See, e.g., Ernesto Laclau, “Subject of Politics, Politics of the Subject,” in idem, Emancipations(s), 2d ed. (London: Verso, 2007), 56–65; and idem, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005), 88–89.

2. Although a few scholars still maintain the literary unity of 2 Corinthians as a whole, a current consensus agrees that 2 Corinthians 10–13 comes originally from a different letter. The identification of the other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle is an open question, however, and partition theories of 2 Cor. 1–9 abound. Luckritz Marquis adopts the Two Letter Hypothesis, with 2 Cor. 10–13 written earlier than the fragment preserved in 2 Cor. 1–9 (minus the fragment in 2 Cor. 6:14–7:1, which a consensus of biblical scholars identifies as an un-Pauline interpolation). See James Houghton Kennedy, The Second and Third Epistles of St. Paul to the Corinthians (London: Methuen, 1900); and Victor Paul Furnish, II Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible 32A (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 35–48. For alternative theories, see Hans Conzelmann and Andreas Lindemann, Interpreting the New Testament: An Introduction to Principles and Methods of N.T. Exegesis, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1988), 187–91; Margaret M. Mitchell, “Paul’s Letter to Corinth: The Interpretive Intertwining of Literary and Historical Reconstruction,” in Daniel N. Showalter and Steven J. Friesen, eds., Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), 307– 38; and Calvin J. Roetzel, 2 Corinthians (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2007). Luckritz Marquis responds well to critics of the Two Letter Hypothesis (pp. 84, 135–38, 141–42, 156 n. 13).

3. For a critique of the older dichotomy, see Troels Engberg-Pedersen, ed., Paul beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

4. See Arthur J. Droge, “MORI LOCRUM: Paul and Ancient Theories of Suicide,” Novum Testamentum 30 (1988): 263–86; cf. N. Clayton Croy, “ ‘To Die Is Gain’ (Philippians 1:19–26): Does Paul Contemplate Suicide?” Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 517–31.

5. See, e.g., Silvio Montiglio, Wandering in Ancient Greek Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); and Tim Whitmarsh, “ ‘Greece Is the Word’: Exile and Identity in the Second Sophistic,” in Simon Goldhill, ed., Being Greek under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 269–305.