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Cultural Identity and Pauline Interpretation

As a rioplatense of German ancestry, a Latino who received his higher education and pursued a career in the educational system of the United States, I am a double hybrid whose identity is somewhat ambiguous. The ambiguity of my hybridity has increased because I am a Seventh-day Adventist who grew up in a predominantly Catholic culture and felt comfortable and fulfilled his academic dreams in a Catholic institution.

Reading Paul, I ask him questions from within different locations. As a student of Paul, I ask, “Who was Paul writing to? What were his recipients concerned with? Why was he writing to them? How would his readers have understood what he wrote?”

As a rioplatense, I ask, “Which Pauline themes are also central to my Latin culture? What would Paul say to my compatriots and me about our submission to Fate, our constant preoccupation to outwit each other and the laws of the land, our love-hate relationship with death, and our authoritarian and hierarchical social structures?” As a Seventh-day Adventist, I ask, “What does Paul mean by salvation? How does he view himself in God’s world? What does he consider to be the purpose of life on earth? What is his moral compass?”

Of course, I never ask all these questions at the same time. At different times, I am particularly concerned with one of these sets of questions. In reference to the second and third sets, however, I can only address them after I have more or less answered the first. Then, I have to ask two crucial questions: “In what way does what Paul says challenge my cultural and religious views? Does Paul reveal unnecessary burdens in my cultural and religious baggage?” I must also ask, “In what way does what Paul say reflect a blind spot in his own cultural and religious background?”

Placing on the table the cultural locations of both the author and the readers allows us to recognize that there is more than one legitimate interpretation. This does not mean, however, that all interpretations have equal merit. It does mean that one must come up with criteria for their evaluation. I find helpful a set proposed by David Rhoads: literary cogency, historical plausibility, and ethical impact on various contemporary contexts.

In reference to the last point, in what ways may they promote justice, respect, and liberation, and in what ways may they lead to injustice, exploitation, and oppression? I think we would agree that justice, respect, and liberation are biblical standards that transcend the cultural limitations of particular biblical authors and readers of the Bible.

Herold Weiss is professor emeritus of religious studies at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. This commentary first appeared in the winter 2007 issue of Spectrum magazine.

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