African American Readings of Paul

Reception, Resistance, and Transformation

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Lisa M. Bowens
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , October
     2020.
     384 pages.
     $40.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802876768.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

According to Lisa M. Bowens, the objective of her groundbreaking text, African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation, is to “explore the complicated relationship that African Americans have with the apostle and to reveal and uncover the ways in which blacks did employ Paul to resist and protest” (2). In other words, Bowens’ book is a historical account of what she terms African American Pauline hermeneutics or “resistance or protest hermeneutics in which blacks employ Paul to protest the oppressive structures of society and to resist whites’ interpretations of the apostle” (4).

The text covers the 1700s to the mid-20th century, maintains an exclusive focus on Pauline hermeneutics, and discusses Pauline texts in relation to slave conversion experiences (10). From chapter 1, “Early Eighteenth Century to Nineteenth Century,” through chapter 5, “African American Pauline Hermeneutics and the Art of Biblical Interpretation,” Bowens meticulously demonstrates how African American hermeneuts (i.e., interpreters) utilized Paul with what she describes as a “dialectics of experience,” wherein they “bring their experiences as African Americans to the text while at the same time allowing the text, specifically Paul’s words, to interpret their experience” (296).

A couple of examples Bowens utilizes in the text underscore the point. One demonstrates how African Americans reappropriated and accepted Pauline texts, while the second demonstrates how African Americans rejected Pauline texts. Ultimately both examples show the complicated legacy of African Americans’ use of Pauline texts throughout North American history as they continuously struggle for human liberation.

First, according to Bowens, “As early as 1774, enslaved Africans interpreted Paul to argue their case for freedom and liberty” (21). Their purpose in doing so was to “seize hermeneutical control” of Pauline scripture, engage in exegetical reversal, and appeal to familial language to undercut slaveholding religion (25). Bowens cites petitions on behalf of enslaved Africans from 1776 and 1779 as historical examples. In these specific examples the experiences of American slaveholding and Christianity resulted in Pauline reappropriation by enslaved Africans seeking political liberation; in the words of the author, “snatching Paul from the hands of white slaveholders and employing him in the liberation fight” (21).

Second, although the author mostly cites reappropriations of Paul by African American communities, she does mention rejection of Pauline texts by some African Americans, such as Howard Thurman. In chapter 3, “Late Nineteenth Century to Mid-Twentieth Century,” Bowens outlines the basis of Thurman’s rejection of Pauline texts. Bowens includes a memory Thurman shares of his grandmother Nancy Ambrose’s rejection of Pauline texts because of the ways they were appropriated by American Christian slaveholders, and she notes Thurman’s discussion of Paul in his Jesus and the Disinherited (Beacon Press, 1996) as justification for this perspective.

Thurman’s ultimate rejection of Pauline texts derived not only from his grandmother’s experiences with them but the sociopolitical privileges Paul enjoyed through Roman citizenship. According to Bowens, “For Thurman, then, Paul’s citizenship creates a chasm between the world of Jesus and the world of Paul” (232). Furthermore, it was “the danger and lack of protection that derive from noncitizenship, which describes Jesus’s life and blacks’ lives” that shaped Thurman’s Pauline perspective. Thurman’s example, in contradistinction to the historical example of slave petitioners, demonstrates the complicated and fluid ways that African American figures and communities understood and used Pauline texts throughout North American history. Sometimes this understanding led to rejection, as in the case of Thurman.

Bowens ultimately achieves her objectives in outlining the complicated yet fluid relationship African American communities have had in wrestling with Pauline texts. Not claiming to be exhaustive, Bowens’s text reads as an introduction to historical African American Pauline hermeneutics, citing examples of both reappropriation and rejection of Pauline texts throughout North American history. This text would be an excellent academic source for scholars of North American history and biblical studies because of its unique subject material.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamel Garrett is a PhD student at Chicago Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lisa M. Bowens is associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is also the author of An Apostle in Battle: Paul and Spiritual Warfare in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.

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