Paul, in Other Words: a Cultural Reading of His Letters

Jerome Neyrey (1990), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Paul, in Other Words attempts to interpret Paul’s letters by describing the symbolic universe of Paul as ‘a  first-century Eastern Mediterranean non-elite, typically viewing his cosmos’ (p 12), using cultural anthropology as a help in adjusting to a culture totally different from ours. Paul’s cosmos is made up of six areas:  purity, rites (rituals and ceremonies), body, sin, cosmology and evil.  Paul’s socialization was as a Jew of Pharisaic stripe, and a cultural context shared by Jews, Greeks and Christians.

Another key to Pauline interpretation is Neyrey’s listing of reading assumptions: occasional letters, inconsistency, conserver, reformer, saint Paul, history.  Insightful comments about the role of body language and metaphor draw heavily from 1 Corinthians (p 102ff).  Neyrey examines sin, pointing out Paul’s concept of sin as a two-fold phenomenon: rule breaking and/or corruption.

Also useful is Neyrey’s reflections on rituals and ceremonies in the church.  Rituals focus on acts that involve border crossings (graduations, sickness); ceremonies confirm the orderly separation (baptism).  Paul often disagrees with the divisions that rituals and ceremonies create, and ‘brings to the centre people usually left on the periphery’ (p 77); specific Pauline ceremonies include meals, the collections, and letters (p 78).

Neyrey’s treatment helps us realize the strength of our culture and its possibilities, inviting a ‘modern reader to a greater sense of ecumenism, the appreciation of other Christians in their distinctive otherness.  Cultural uniformity is neither possible nor desirable’ (p 224).