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Paul’s Triumph

2. February 2017 | Christoph Heilig | 3 Kommentare |

At the event, with a sign on the podium that read “TRUMP” and “Make America Great Again,” Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum entered to play second fiddle to Trump’s well tuned music. They met their Zod and kneeled. Doing so, to both men, may be no big deal or may be more media exposure. But it actually declares the ends of their campaigns days before the Iowa caucuses. They were subservient to Donald Trump, not equals. Their names did not appear on the podium, only Trump’s. The crowd was not there to see these men. The crowd was there to see Trump. Like conquered kings paraded in a Triumph through the streets of Rome, Santorum and Huckabee were paraded through Drake University, now the vassals of Donald Trump.

When I decided, almost exactly one year ago, to place this quote at the beginning of the first chapter of my manuscript, this was a rather risky decision – for it was a real possibility that at the time my book would appear in print, the political figure Donald Trump might already be forgotten.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

As it turns out, this is not the case and my illustration – that triumphal imagery can be used in a rhetorically forceful way – remains valid and intelligible. It’s not the first time, to be sure, that such language has been adopted to make a point…

In his second (canonical) letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes an assertion about his and his co-workers that has led to quite different, even opposing, translations and interpretations: When thanking God, the one who is πάντοτε θριαμβεύοντι ἡμᾶς ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ  (2:14), does he imagine himself as a victorious general (“thanks be to God, who always gives us victory/leads us as his soldiers in triumphal procession”) or as a captive who is led to execution? Or does the imagery have nothing nothing to do with the Roman military at all?

Peeters recently published a monograph – with the title Paul’s Triumph: Reassessing 2 Corinthians 2:14 in Its Literary and Historical Context – that deals with these questions in detail. You can order it from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.de. The Table of Contents can be downloaded for free here.

In this post I would like to highlight some specific aspects of my book where I hope that I have made helpful contributions. In other words, instead of offering a summary of my argument, I would like to point out some areas (some obvious and explicitly addressed in the book, some not; some central to my thesis, others only implications it might be valuable to draw out) in relation to which the results of my research might be relevant. Of course, whether these aspects actually would profit from my perspective is for others to judge, but I would like at least to point out where I myself see some potential.

1. Paul and Empire

In Hidden Criticism?  (preface and TOC can be downloaded here) I discussed the general plausibility of the hypothesis that we might find something like a counter-imperial subtext in the letters of Paul. I concluded that the hypothesis is not as problematic as some (most notably John Barclay in a magisterial essay) had argued. At the same time I suggested that for this paradigm to be heuristically fruitful, it would need to be modified in some regards. For example, I was not convinced that the attempt to avoid persecution was a plausible reason for the “hiding” or “coding” of criticism. Furthermore, I drew attention to the fact that counter-imperial resonances had to be related in a careful manner to more central communicative aims of the author.

In many ways, Paul’s Triumph is a book on its own and not simply the “application” of my theoretical thoughts from Hidden Criticism. Firstly, I was not actually concerned with offering a catalogue of criteria for identifying “echoes of Caesar” in that earlier book, but mostly with the presuppositions of this approach itself. These consideration cannot strictly speaking be “applied” but rather form the background against which, in my personal opinion, specific textual analyses ought to be carried out. Secondly, Paul’s Triumph is not simply the sequel of Hidden Criticism since it deals with much more than with the implications of 2 Cor 2:14 for Paul’s interaction with imperial ideology. (That is a “continuation” of Hidden Criticism in the strict sense only in so far as the new book picks up the concern I had expressed in that earlier publication, according to which  a focus on the counter-imperial dimension alone would be prone to misinterpreting Pauline texts.) That being said, I think that 2 Cor 2:14 can contribute a lot to the “Paul and Empire” debate. Since there is not space for a detailed discussion, I will simply flag up some of the key issues here:

  • Second Corinthians 2:14 is almost never used as a test case by those involved in this debate.
  • Still, it can be argued that this is the one place in the Corpus Paulinum (including Phil 4:22!) that contains the clearest reference to the person of the Roman Emperor!
  • The fact that Paul thinks the imagery is fitting for describing God’s action implies that we should be careful in speaking about Paul’s perception of the validity of Roman power too one-dimensionally.
  • Most commentaries on Second Corinthians talk about the Roman triumph as if it was a regular event with which every citizen in the Roman Empire would have been familiar. However, they regularly miss the fact that there was only one triumphal procession by a Caesar during Paul’s lifetime …
  • … and it is even possible to make a good argument that Paul met eyewitnesses of that event in Corinth!
  • Thus, when Paul decides to use precisely this imagery to make his point (on this “point,” the function within Second Corinthians, cf. below on coherence and literary unity), he most likely picks up a conversation that he had previously had in Corinth on this very topic.
  • Therefore, instead of assuming that Paul is simply using a kind of general, shared cultural knowledge, we should rather assume that he has a very specific triumphal procession in mind as a negative foil to the one he is describing.
  • Hence, Paul’s talk about his role in God’s triumphal procession should be taken seriously (besides the other things it is) as one of the few surviving takes on this specific event.
  • Furthermore, it should be noted that, following from this, the “counter-imperial” potential of the passage does not reside in a categorical statement about the Roman Empire as such, but rather in the specific contribution to an issue of “contemporary politics.”

If you are interested in the broader topic of Paul and Empire, this recent blog post on Bruce Winter’s contribution to this debate might also be of interest for you.

2. The Methodology of Exegesis

Many students of the New Testament learn exegesis with the help of a textbook that suggests that they follow certain “steps” in order to write a paper on the meaning of a certain passage. Some of these books do a great job in summarizing tools that have been demonstrated to be valuable in exegetical research (if you are interested in such things, make sure you check out this recent innovative German textbook, which for some reason does not yet seem available on Amazon). However, there are several problems with such a pedagogical approach that are not easily overcome:

First, it is almost impossible for textbooks to do justice to the diachronic character of the development of the methods they suggest. Therefore, students often are more confused rather than enlightened after reading the relevant chapter on, to give just one example, “form criticism” (which is “Gattungskritik” in German, while we have, of course, also “Formen” – just to make the confusion even worse), which builds on rather disparate versions of an approach that is connected above all by similar terminology. Without being familiar with the older German research on the “Sitz im Leben” of Old Testament texts and on Bultmann’s hypotheses on the formation of the Synoptic Gospels, it is almost impossible to understand how different accounts of form criticism relate to each other.

Second, even if students are able to actually understand and implement the individual steps of the exegetical “procedure,” there is the danger that because they have that recipe or formula, they lose sight of the very nature of what they are doing: What does it mean to do exegesis? What is the task at hand? It is important that we do not only know how we get there, but also exactly why these steps lead us to the goal we want to reach. It is important for the reason that only if we understand the basic inferential structure of what we do that we can really evaluate and interact with arguments by other scholars. How, for example, are we supposed to combine the results assebled through different methods so that each bit of evidence receives the appropriate significance?

This kind of textbook-exegesis, so to speak a  “step model” of exegesis (in which the goal is reached by working through a series of individual tasks and adding the results on equal terms), is not limited to student papers, to be sure. To be fair, it should be noted that there are certain advantages associated with that approach, such as the fact that in such a framework evidence of all kind is assembled and the reader can decide for him- or herself, whether he or she agrees with the conclusion that is reached or whether he or she would weigh evidence differently. Still, I would maintain that problematic consequences are noteworthy as well. Let me just give one example. Recent years have seen an explosion in the publication of commentaries, for obvious (not necessarily unethical!) reasons: they sell well (which makes the publisher happy) and depending on the format they can be written in a rather short amount of time, e.g. because the author can use his or her lecture notes (which makes the author happy). It is by no means my intention here to criticize every aspect of that trend (I recently co-translated a commentary myself!), but the recent debate surrounding plagiarism seems at least to have demonstrated, that there is a certain danger for some standards of good academic writing. Similarly, this also affects the way exegetical decisions are reached in many (though of course not all!) commentaries. While working through ca. 100 commentaries on Second Corinthians, from the 18th to the 21st century, I noticed a staggering amount of problematic issues: mistaken references to primary sources that were copied without checking them, references to different positions by different authors as if they were supported equally by the evidence although they clearly were not, decisions for one of the semantic options on the basis of an aspect that can actually count as a minor step on the actual inferential path to a well-substantiated result, etc. I plan to write on the history of research on that passage somewhere else, but I note this here because I would like to point out that sometimes the exegesis in commentaries suffers from a similar deficiency as some student papers: some authors follow a rather eclectic approach of collecting and evaluating arguments in the literature, because they do not seem to be aware of the inferential structures that should underlie their conclusions. In the book I adduce some examples, in order to draw attention to the importance of the aspect of methodology.

Together with Theresa Heilig, I’ve written an extensive introduction to abductive and Bayesian reasoning and I do not want to repeat these considerations here. What I would like to point out is the fact that Paul’s Triumph explicitly follows the structure of an inference as supported by considerations from confirmation theory in evaluating the relevant evidence. Therefore, my book can also be read as an argument for the value of epistemological considerations for exegetical practice. Getting in new primary evidence is key (cf. the forcefully argued case by Jörg Frey in the introductory essay of his recent volume), but having established a methodologically sound framework first, in which we can then fill in the data, is nevertheless obligatory. For those who are skeptical towards the additional value contributed by such considerations, my book might thus be an interesting test case. As I think I have demonstrated in Paul’s Triumph, many of the innovative proposals in the literature look very convincing at first sight only because they follow an inadequate inferential structure. If scrutinized within a methodologically complete framework, it becomes clear, however, that their plausibility is actually quite, sometimes even extremely, low.

3. Lexicography

Inasmuch as I take a look at the ancient usage of the Greek verb θριαμβεύω (used in 2 Cor 2:14 and in Col 2:15), my book aims at contributing, rather obviously, to the field of lexicography. I mention this explicitly, however, because I think that an important and by no means trivial implication of this research could lie in illustrating just how much effort it takes to determine the semantic range of a particular Greek word. Most NT scholars will certainly be aware of this, but I think it is a valuable reminder of the fact that the production of a really good lexicon is incredibly difficult.

Vice versa, this means that most dictionaries we use are rather limited with regard to how well supported the semantic information they provide actually is. I highly recommend John Lee’s historical analysis, which demonstrates that modern dictionaries often simply rely on information assembled hundreds of years ago. Indeed, it is not infrequent that they simply transliterate the transmitted Latin glosses. When I wrote a rather critical review of the NIDNTTE some time ago, this was not because I did not think that the editor was qualified (I profited immensely from Silva’s introduction to lexical semantics!), but because it seemed simply impossible to me that anybody, not even an expert like Silva, could perform such a task on his or her own.

The precise reason that it requires so much time to substantiate a meaningful definition of a Greek (or English!) word, is that lexemes have meaning only with respect to how they are used in relation to other expressions in that language system.  In order to speak in a meaningful way about θριαμβεύω, it is thus absolutely necessary to see how it is used differently in comparison to, for example, νικάω.

Therefore, I would be very glad if my book would have the effect of encouraging students of the NT to consult not only their dictionaries, but also to familiarize themselves with the Online TLG Corpus, which is a great resource that can help us in cases where dictionaries cannot solve our problems (because often they only offer a gloss and we do not know whether a certain aspect is also included in the Greek equivalent, etc.).

 4. “Word Studies”

When we talk about “word studies,” we are dealing with a phenomenon that enjoys a certain popularity in more popular books or in sermons: the author or the pastor aims at shedding light on a particular passage by telling us what else it can mean in many different places (even though, in these places this “meaning” regularly is something that emerges only because of contextual factors) – or he or she wants to point out the particular emphasis of a biblical author by contrasting the usage with meanings chosen in other biblical (or non-biblical) writings. In biblical scholarship, this notion has (for these reasons, most notably put forward by James Barr) been regarded with more skepticism in recent years – even though the problematic moves Barr had identified have certainly not been erased from academic publications yet. (Cf. on this whole topic my discussion of the TWNT/TDNT, the TBLNTs/NIDNTT, and the NIDNTTE.)

I adduce this area separately from “lexicography” because in this context, we are often dealing with the discourse meaning of a certain expression, i.e. with the communicative function of a particular word or phrase in a specific context. (In practice, as I just mentioned, it is often several discourse meanings that are adduced or compared.)

What connects this topic with the one discussed above is the fact that (usually but not exclusively) on a less academic level this discourse meaning is regularly determined by (a) opening a dictionary at the relevant place and choosing the gloss at the very top of the entry on our word. There is a certain logic behind such a procedure: Assuming that the meanings that are documented most frequently for that lexeme are listed first, one is less often wrong in constantly picking that meaning compared to always choosing a less frequently existing meaning. However, even if one always picks the dominant meaning (that is, for example, the one coming to expression in 90% of the texts) in translating a single Greek sentence, one nevertheless will inevitably make a misjudgment quite soon. (If one picks a meaning along these lines only twenty times, the probability that at least one is wrong is almost 90%!)

Why is that? Authors do not first choose a word and then contemplate what meaning they want to invest it with! Rather, they begin with a certain mental concept, a content they would like to express, and they then search for a term that could serve that end. Thus, if one of several meanings of the same word is attested less frequently, this could simply be because the concept that is expressed by it does not show up that often in this particular corpus. Hence, we should be looking for a different “frequency”: How often are different words respectively used to express the same idea, in comparison to other lexical options? If an author wishes to communicate a certain proposition, he or she might plausibly use a word that is far more often used to express a different idea – simply because it is still the best available choice for that semantic content. So here again, just as with establishing a definition/definitions for a lexeme, paradigmatic relations – i.e. the place of a word in a web of semantically related expressions – is of ultimate importance. Real “word studies,” thus, do not only look at a single expression, but actually at several related words, making it a much more time-consuming and complex task, to be sure.

Another common strategy for determining the discourse meaning errs at the other side of the spectrum, namely (b) by determining the semantic content of a word or phrase on the basis of context alone, even if the author would have had much better expressions at hand (see above), presupposing for a moment that he or she had actually wanted to express that thought.

In order to determine the communicative content of an utterance it is, hence, important to take into account both the proposition that one might expect on the basis of the semantic structure of the passage as a whole (“context”) and the lexical alternatives (“paradigmatic relations”) the author would have had for expressing the respective ideas. I do not want to claim that my analysis of 2 Cor 2:14 is in anyway complete in that regard. However, it is my hope indeed that while it confirms that “word studies” cannot be achieved cheaply, they are, nevertheless, worth the cost. The valid criticism by Barr notwithstanding, they offer worthwhile research perspectives and there is still a lot we can learn about the New Testament by focusing on the “discourse meaning” of specific expressions.

By the way – taking the opportunity to insert once again a picture into this long text – we also had a workshop on this subject a few months ago. Stay tuned for a report on our workshops from 2016 related to ancient languages!

5. Paul’s Creative Use of Language, the Coherence of Thought in Second Corinthians, and the Literary Integrity of the Letter

It is well known that in 2 Cor 2:14 the text suddenly shifts from a travel account to a praise of God, which is then followed by a lengthy discussion of the apostolic ministry – only to return again to the narrative in 7:5 (!). Hence, this transition from 2:13 to 2:14 has put itself forward as a prime example for a literary break within Pauline literature. Even though no longer as prominent as some decades ago (see for example the rather restrained position in Schnelle’s introduction to the NT), partition theories, especially within the Corinthian correspondence, are still alive.

I personally think that, first, there are good (evidence-based) reasons for having an a priori suspicion at least towards the rather complicated versions of these hypotheses (see also here) and that, second, the transition from 7:4 to 7:5 cannot be easily integrated into such a paradigm. However, when discussing my research with other scholars, I noticed that even if one were disposed towards assuming that 2:14-7:4 were a letter fragment, the analysis of the lexical semantics of θριαμβεύω should most certainly tip the scale towards assuming literary integrity. For if the verb is understood in its common ancient sense, the metaphor seems to pick up (and challenge!) the earlier notion of the chaotic travels by Paul and his co-workers. In fact, I would like to argue that Paul’s triumph imagery is a rhetorical masterpiece in that it encourages the Corinthians to identify themselves with the crowd watching such a procession, including the humiliated prisoners, “only to find themselves challenged by their simplistic perception of Paul’s ministry” (Paul’s Triumph, 259). This observation would be significant even without the guiding question concerning literary unity insofar as lexical semantics apparently help a lot in clarifying the coherence of the text on the level of content in this case and furthermore shed light on Paul’s creative use of language in general. Beyond this, however, the fact that against the background of ancient linguistic usage the choice of θριαμβεύω in 2 Cor 2:14 in its canonical position makes perfect sense is a significant argument against the hypothesis of a letter fragment.

The argument becomes even more forceful if we turn it on its head: Presupposing what we know about the meaning of θριαμβεύω, what do we think could have preceded it in the original letter? If our reconstruction of the original context looks somehow like 2 Cor 1:1-2:13, postulating such a fragment becomes obsolete …

I would even go so far to say that θριαμβεύω in 2 Cor 2:14 is a good test case for the heuristic value of Briefteilungshypothesen. True, the meaning of the lexeme is difficult to ascertain and scholars who assumed literary unity did often participate in the refusal to advance this discussion. Still, I think it is noteworthy that those who assumed a literary break often talk about the transition from 2:13 to 2:14 being rather difficult, without discussing the lexical sense of θριαμβεύω in any detail. Understandably so – for if we don’t know the originally preceding context, we have no real need and no contextual indications to establish its meaning. However, this reasoning becomes circular when the break is assumed on the basis of θριαμβεύω not “making sense” at the current position, i.e.  under the assumption of a certain meaning of the word.

Not only is such reasoning circular, it also demonstrates that at least in some cases (i.e., I do not want to claim that this affects the paradigm as a whole) the assumption of a literary break is (a) premature, (b) prevents us from discovering textual coherence we would find if we took a closer look, and (c) even functions as a “science stopper” within its own boundaries insofar as it does not encourage clarifying details (such as, in this case, the semantic range of θριαμβεύω) that are more likely regarded as pressing issues on the assumption of literary unity.

6. Bridging the German-English Divide

Lastly, I would like to point back to the very first post on this blog, where I retell how it came into existence. It was Wayne Coppins’s suggestion to create the blog in order to make our research more accessible to the English-speaking world. I won’t go into the details of the “gap” between the English- and German-speaking academic spheres here, for you can read more about Wayne’s view on this there. Here, I would only like to make some remarks regarding Paul’s Triumph with an eye on that topic.

Scott Hafemann (St Andrews) in his 1986 dissertation arguably suggested the most influential interpretation in recent times by arguing that the verb expressed the thought of Paul being led to death – with death being a metonymy for the apostolic suffering. Interestingly, it was the German-speaking scholar Ciliers Breytenbach (Berlin) who brought forward an alternative (less offensive?) interpretation a few years later (English version of the article: 1990; German version: 1991). He thought that θριαμβεύω with direct object simply expressed the celebration of a victory over the person referred to by the object – without that person necessarily being present (i.e., led [to death]) in the procession. Being followed by Jens Schröter (now his colleague in Berlin; for his English publications, see here), Breytenbach’s suggestion became quite influential in German circles, but also beyond.

Thus, we have here a very good example of an international dialogue – and of the importance of giving ear to all these voices! One of my criticisms of the NIDNTTE was that the relevant entry on θριαμβεύω did not even refer to this option suggested by Breytenbach (while the German revision accepted that interpretation but did not take note of Hafemann’s proposal!). This seemed all the more problematic to me since a few years ago a German revision of the work that the predecessor of NIDNTTE was translated from was published – relying heavily on Breytenbach’s suggestion. But even though it might be an exception these days that an English publication does not note the existence of Breytenbach’s suggestion, the same is not true for the – very few – critical reactions this suggestion has evoked. There are several shorter critiques in the English-speaking literature that are usually not adduced in German treatments of the passage and there is, more importantly, an extensive response to Breytenbach in German – Margareta Gruber’s Herrlichkeit in Schwachheit (1998) – which has almost completely escaped the awareness of English scholarship for twenty years! This is arguably the case because it was published in a lesser known series: Forschung zur Bibel. I myself had worked on the topic for a long time before finally finding this work!  (Sometimes, to be sure, it does not seem to be the language barrier that keeps scholarship from being recognized … Only a few weeks before finishing my manuscript I learnt that already in the 1970ies David Park had tried to find as many occurrences of θριαμβεύω in ancient literature as possible… Still, I found his dissertation mentioned only in two or three works on the subject.)

Thus, I would like to end this post with a short and simple advice on how best to find German literature. One of the aims listed in our first blog post is to provide “discussions of important new studies that are published in lesser known series in German.” I don’t want simply to list specific German series that are regularly missed in English publications, such as Forschung zur Bibel, but rather to offer two tips with regard to a more general strategy. (1) If you are working on a specific NT text and you are looking for German (periodical) literature, it is very helpful to use online bibliographies that allow for searches on specific biblical passages (see here, here, and here). (2) In order to get your hands on recent book chapters and monographs, it is my own experience that it does not suffice simply to look up your passage in up-to-date and extensive commentaries in English (such as NIGNT or NICNT). The best way to proceed seems to be to identify a very recent German monograph that deals with the subject and to take a close look at the literature adduced in the footnotes. This might lead you to literature you might otherwise overlook for years!

In conclusion, I would like to take the opportunity of the topic of this section to reiterate my thanks to Wayne Coppins:

To Wayne, who is truly ἀξιοθριάμβευτος

[Dedication of Paul’s Triumph, p. vii]

Of those who struggled through the whole thing one person has to be singled out: Wayne Coppins once again willingly read my manuscript in a very diligent manner, helping me with countless issues relating to the English language but also giving me constant feedback on strengths and weaknesses of my argumentation. Wayne perfectly exhibits the seldom virtue of being selfless, always ready when need be without demanding anything in return. Thus it is not just on the basis of his tall stature and good looks that he is ἀξιοθριάμβευτος, making marching together in God’s triumphal procession much more fun and academia a better place.


[From the praface of Paul’s Triumph, p. x; I should note that I use ἀξιοθριάμβευτος in the sense Sueton apparently understood it as well. It has been argued that the meaning Caligula had intended is everything else but charming … cf. Paul’s Triumph, p. 197. If you wonder what might be positive about being “worth being led in triumph” (LSJ), you might want to consult 2 Cor 2:14 and a certain recent monograph on the subject … ]


Christoph Heilig is working on an SNF-Project on Narrative-Substructures in the Letters of Paul with Prof. Jörg Frey. He is the author of Hidden Criticism? Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul, (Mohr Siebeck, 2015) and Paul’s Triumph: Reassessing 2 Corinthians 2:14 in Its Literary and Historical Context, (Peeters, 2017). Additionally, he has co-translated (with Wayne Coppins, the main translator and editor of the project) Michael Wolters The Gospel According to Luke and co-edited (with J. Thomas Hewitt and Michael F. Bird) God and the Faithfulness of Paul: A Critical Examination of the Pauline Theology of N. T. Wright (Mohr Siebeck, 2016).

Abgelegt unter: From us or people associated with usHints to and reviews of German literature you might otherwise miss

3 Kommentare vorhanden

  • 1 On Ancient Languages // Feb 23, 2017 at 13:48

    […] is increasingly gaining a following. The last mentioned topic deserves a blog post on its own and I have already written about my thoughts on “word studies” elsewhere on this blog. Hence, I will focus here on the event with Heinrich von Siebenthal. Nevertheless, I think it might […]

  • 2 Are There Anti-Imperial “Echoes” in Paul’s Letters? // Sep 13, 2017 at 9:56

    […] – and θριαμβεύειν was not one of them! For details on this, see the work discussed in this post. Interestingly, a statistician who has reviewed this work confirms that in his experience, […]

  • 3 On Mastering Koine Greek // Mar 9, 2018 at 15:07

    […] Heilig is the author of Hidden Criticism? (Fortress, 2017) and Paul’s Triumph (Peeters, 2017). Additionally, he has co-edited (with J. Thomas Hewitt and Michael F. Bird) God and […]

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