On Using Archaeology to Interpret Paul’s Letters

Settles2
As some people (most notably those who sit in my Romans class) will know, while I am committed to exploring the contingent nature of Paul’s letters (exploring the extent to which they are responses to the particular situational factors of the churches to which they are written) I am sceptical of the confidence that some scholars have in their ability to reconstruct those situational circumstances on the basis of slim evidence and to the neglect of Paul’s own construal of them in the rhetoric of his letters: ie. the relationship between the so-called ‘historical’ and ‘rhetorical’ situations.  Imagine my joy at coming across this quotation from a scholar who has worked hard to explore the ways in which NT scholars can use archaeological discoveries to aid them in their reading of Paul:

‘…to move from geographically restricted archaeological information to the interpretation of a New Testament writing is a complex and difficult, perhaps even impossible venture.’
Koester, Helmut, ‘From Paul’s Eschatology to the Apocalyptic Scheme of 2 Thessalonians’, Paul and His World: Interpreting the New Testament in Its Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 55-69.

I think this is understating the problem, and my scepticism explains why I struggle with works that offer highly specific, purportedly historical accounts of the situation faced by the early Pauline communities, not least that in Philippi.