Monday, March 21, 2011

Prof. Judith L. Kovacs at the Faculty of Theology, KULeuven

Last week Leuven played host to Prof. Judith L. Kovacs, Associate Professor of the Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia. Currently on research leave at the University of Oxford, she came to Leuven to give two presentations on her research interests. These included the writings of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 - ca. 215) and the patristic exegesis of the First Letter to the Corinthians.

On the first day, 14 March 2011, Kovacs led a seminar entitled, “Rival Interpretations of Jesus’ Baptism. Clement of Alexandria and the Followers of Valentinus.” Kovacs made known the results of her research on Clement’s first book of the “Paidagogos” (The Instructor). The sixth chapter of this book was considered by Kovacs to be an exegetical debate between Clement and certain followers of Valentinus. Moreover, from Kovacs’ perspective it was also a valuable source of information on Valentinian teachings not preserved elsewhere. From the beginning, Kovacs reasoned that Clement reacts to the critique of his Christian community and to the accusation that the members of his community are mere “babes” who follow “childish and contemptible” teaching. However, she saw the interpretation of Jesus’ baptism as the core of the exegetical debate. On the one hand, the followers of Valentinus believe that Jesus’ baptism is composed of two episodes: the baptism of John and the descent of the dove, both with a typological significance. On the other hand, Clement draws attention to the narration of the Gospels and to the impossibility to separate these two events when taking into account the adverb “immediately” (cf. Mt 3,16-17). Kovacs further argued that the climax of Clement’s defence of the Church’s baptism was the understanding of this baptism as “filtering of the spirit.” In her conclusion, Kovacs set the stage for future research on Clement’s writings by asserting the need for a careful reassessment of what has usually been perceived as mere adaptation of Gnostic theology and terminology.

Questions and remarks followed the presentation. One of the first questions referred to the difference between the interpretation of the baptism as “filtering the spirit” and that of “washing away sins.” Kovacs stated that while the two expressions have in common the outcome of purification, they must be seen as carrying different connotations. The discussion then evolved to the difficult problem of perfection in the writings of Clement. Thus, it was examined if perfection is for Clement an immediate or a durative process. Kovacs pleaded her case maintaining that Clement is not consistent in his writings and different views on perfection are encountered in his “Paidagogos” and his “Stromateis.” Furthermore, a participant proposed two levels of reading Clement’s text according to the addressee’s level of education, while another participant put forward a challenging understanding of Clement’s text as an advertisement for his Church. Kovacs appreciated both proposals. To conclude, the seminar proved to be a fruitful environment for Kovacs to test her claims and findings and to be enriched with new ideas and suggestions.

On the second day, 15 March 2011, Kovacs delivered a public lecture entitled, “The Patristic Paul. Early Christian Readings of 1 Corinthians.” Her argument was structured around four main points. The first part of the lecture dealt with the history of the First Letter to the Corinthians and emphasized the fact that early Christians did not make any distinction regarding the author(s) of the Pauline Corpus. In the second part, Kovacs developed her argument by pointing to the surviving patristic commentaries on the First Letter to the Corinthians and to the chapters of this letter that raised the interest of the patristic writers (e.g. chapters 2-3, 7, 15). In the same vein, the third step of Kovacs’ argument identified the most influential patristic interpreters: Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-ca. 254), John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407), and Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Finally, the last part of the lecture offered a perspective on the purpose and nature of the patristic commentaries, illustrated with excerpts from the patristic interpretations of the First Letter to the Corinthians. Kovacs was concerned with how patristic writers approached Paul and how the scholars using the historical critical method did that. The lecture ended with Kovacs’ conclusion that for patristic authors the interpretation of the biblical text was a pathway to God and the final outcome of their exegesis was the knowledge of God.

Following Kovacs’ lecture the questions and remarks centred on the methodological issue of bringing together patristic and historical-critical exegesis. Kovacs testified that she feels sometimes “schizophrenic” with her attention divided between patristic and historical-critical exegesis. In response to her problem, one of the professors from the audience proposed analyzing patristic exegesis with the same historical-critical method as used for the biblical text. Another issue was raised with regard to the difference between the homilies and the commentaries on the First Letter to the Corinthians. This time Kovacs articulated her reply by affirming that there is a clear difference in the audience, but the aim of both literary genres is the spiritual transformation of the addresses. Lastly, one participant was troubled by the Chrysostom’s interpretation of Paul’s wisdom in the First Letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1,10-17). Is John Chrysostom attributing Paul’s wisdom to the power of God or to rhetoric? Kovacs asserted that it seems that the power of God functions alongside Paul’s rhetorical skills in Chrysostom’s understanding of Paul’s wisdom. This time also, the audience proved to be ready to engage with Kovacs’ assertions in an academic and constructive way.

Teodor Brasoveanu

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