Take & read: New books in New Testament

Can we read scripture critically and theologically at the same time?

Modern biblical interpretation has been dominated by historical-critical methods and has been wary of allowing contemporary questions of meaning to influence the interpretive task. But some of the best new books in the field attempt to use the tools of historical analysis in conjunction with other disciplines, such as science, philosophies of personhood, theology, gender studies, and Christian ethics.

In The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans (Oxford University Press), Matthew Croasmun reflects upon how Paul’s language of sin shifts in Romans 5–8 from “sins” to something cosmic and active, something that seems to have its own agency. In these chapters, Sin (which Croasmun renders as a proper noun) enslaves, imprisons, deceives, kills, and exercises dominion over its subjects. Is Paul simply speaking hyperbolically when he personifies sin? Many regard Paul’s language of cosmic powers acting upon individuals as contradicting our modern view of humans as individuals who have their own agency and are responsible for their own actions. Or does Paul think of Sin as an actual person, capable of acting upon other persons?

Croasmun believes Romans 5–8 portrays Sin as an emergent power: a “superorganism with a group mind emergent from a complex network of individual human persons.” In other words, Sin emerges out of sinning individuals and institutions, at which point it can exert further influence back upon these individuals and institutions. Sin in Paul functions in a multilevel manner that relates the individual, the cosmic, and the social. Croasmun’s multilevel analysis of sin—as personal, mythological, and structural—has further implications for how interpreters understand Paul’s language of “the body of Christ” (Rom. 12:1–8) and “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).