maandag 11 februari 2013

Review of: Benjamin Fiore, The Pastoral Epistles: First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus (Sacra Pagina), Liturgical Press, 2007; in: Interpretation

Benjamin Fiore, The Pastoral Epistles: First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus (Sacra Pagina), Liturgical Press, 2007

Review in: Interpretation 2009 63: 78
Review door: Jouette M. Bassler
Gevonden op:

The Pastoral Epistles: First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus
by Benjamin Fiore, S.J.
Sacra Pagina. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., 2007.
253 pp. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-8146-5814-7.

THE CURRENT PROLIFERATION of commentaries seems out of control. Does the world need yet another on the Pastoral Epistles? In this case, yes it does! Benjamin Fiore's deep familiarity with the world and rhetoric of the Greco-Roman moralists allows him to hear nuances and resonances in these letters that are fresh and new. The commentary is not pitch perfect, but it is very, very good.

The commentary follows the familiar format of the Sacra Pagina series. Each section comprises the author's own translation, notes, interpretation, and a bibliography. The volume concludes with indices of Scripture and other ancient writings, authors, and subjects. Fiore brings to these letters his own scholarly perspective, framed by years of study of the Greco-Roman moralists and rhetoricians, and a pastoral concern to find in these letters "themes and lines of action for today that are consistent with the perspective of the texts" (p. 7). That statement is worded with deliberate care, for many of the directives in the letters are unsuitable for use today. Fiore finds, though, that a number of contemporary issues of great importance resonate with, and are informed by, the perspective of these texts. Topics that are illuminated by the perspective of these letters range from the pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church to the need for solidarity with those imprisoned for conscience's sake. The problem is that this important dimension of the commentary does not have its own designated section. Sometimes these reflections are found in the translation notes (e.g., pp. 78,91) and sometimes they are in the interpretation section (e.g., pp. 140,162). The reader cannot find them without engaging the whole commentary—and that is not an entirely bad thing. Beyond that, though, the binary format of notes plus interpretation generates irresolution about where "notes" should end and "interpretation" begin and inevitably leads to redundancy. In fact, the life of this commentary is often in the notes; the interpretations are sometimes cursory and often burdened with discussions of patristic interpretation (which provide few new insights).

The notes are packed with information: NT cross references, background from the Greco-Roman moralists, grammatical and exegetical discussions. Surprisingly, the notes are not consistently used to support Fiore's translation or to discuss alternative translations. Thus, for example, although Fiore discusses various interpretive options for the Greek word diabolos in 1 Tim 3:6 (p. 78), he does not explain why in 1 Tim 2:12 he translated gyne as "wife" instead of "woman," nor does he mention "woman" as an alternative, though it is a plausible translation (see NRSV, REB, NAB, NJB) that dramatically changes the meaning of the passage.

Fiore treats the letters to Timothy and Titus as pseudonymous writings from the last decades of the first century. He does not, however, focus on the differences between these letters and the undisputed Pauline corpus but devotes considerable energy to showing points of contact and coherence. That is, he does not treat the Pastoral Letters as a distortion or diminution of Paul's thought and rhetoric but as a reformulation of it for a later generation. He is, in short, cautiously and critically appreciative of the purpose, content, and rhetoric of these letters.

His discussion of authorship, however, is cursory and oddly skewed. He mentions only in passing the differences in content, vocabulary, style, and form that are the standard fare of such discussions and focuses the section entitled "Authorship" almost exclusively on the hortatory devices in the "example" passages (passages that provide examples,to imitate or avoid). The thrust of Fiore's argument here is that both the undisputed letters and the Pastorals contain such devices, but with subtle differences separating them. These differences are, however, so subtle that most readers will not find this to be a compelling argument. They will need to consult other commentaries for more helpful treatments of this issue.

Fiore also adopts the practice of referring to the author of these letters as "Paul" (without quotation marks), under the assumption that this "serves to retain ... the aura of Pauline authorship." More to the point, though, it creates confusion, especially when Fiore takes some pains to explain how the tradition that 1 Timothy was composed in Laodicea can be reconciled with Pauline chronology (pp. 125-26). The reader must be forgiven if she occasionally forgets that the letters are being treated as pseudonymous.

The question of the opponents also does not receive a definitive answer. Opponents pose a significant danger, Fiore claims, but also function rhetorically as a negative foil for the positive examples in the letters. In the introduction Fiore mentions, with apparent approval, K. Berger's identification of them as some brand of Pharisees (pp. 14-15), but he also mentions in the notes, again with apparent approval, J. Sell's assessment that there was a variety of opponents (p. 91). Clearly, as he states, their identity remains an "open question" (p. 15), but the contours of the question could have been more helpfully and consistently laid out in the introduction.

If the issues of authorship and opponents remain somewhat murky, the commentary shines in its exposition of the texts. Fiore recognizes that these letters, though filled with references to instruction, actually have exhortation as their primary goal. This insight brings a number of disparate elements into clearer focus. The oddly generic virtue lists that putatively serve as qualifications for church leaders actually establish them as moral exemplars for the church at large (p. 77). The hymn fragment inserted in 1 Tim 3:16 provides the grounds for the appropriate behavior summed up in the word "piety" as well as a model for church conduct (universal preaching and belief). The surprising admonition to Timothy (Paul's trusted associate) not to slack off (1 Tim 4:14-15) looks beyond Timothy to the community at large. Under Fiore's tutelage, letters that seem to present an undigested hodgepodge of material achieve remarkable coherence. Fiore also works diligently (and successfully, in my view) to overturn the prevailing and dismissive views that these letters reveal "eschatological tepidity" and an anemic, intellectualized view of piety.

One could wish that Fiore did not read so frequently with the text, accepting at face value, for example, the letters' description of the behavior of women and slaves as "unacceptable excesses" (p. 78) or interpreting the author's instructions regarding widows as a (benign) "wish list" (p. 108) instead of the authoritative pronouncement that they were clearly intended to be. Yet, in the end, Fiore's critique, though gentle, hits home: "the aim of finding respectability in the larger society was to be achieved through the sacrifice of a fuller life for women and slaves" (p. 214).

This is an exceedingly rich commentary that will reward multiple readings. It is both scholarly and pastoral; it illuminates these letters as hortatory documents of the first century and as valuable resources for the present. It is filled with insights—fresh, not recycled ones. Its few flaws can be easily overlooked in light of these benefits, and it belongs, not just on the shelf of, but frequently in the hands of, every serious student of these letters and every committed pastor.

Jouette M. Bassler, Professor Emerita

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