Colby-Sawyer Professor Publishes New Research on Old Texts

Assistant Professor of Humanities Paul Robertson’s analysis of Paul the Apostle’s first-century letters that make up 13 books of the Bible has been published by the international academic printing house Brill.

Released as part of a series that makes original contributions to the field of New Testament studies, Paul’s Letters and Contemporary Greco-Roman Literature: Theorizing a New Taxonomy can already be found in major research libraries.

Professor Robertson joined Colby-Sawyer in 2012 and finished his dissertation at Brown University the next year. He devoted the next three years of his free time to revising his manuscript with an editorial team at Brill.

The final product uses quantitative mapping to situate the apostle Paul in a previously unrecognized social and literary landscape with other writers from the Ancient Mediterranean. The wider implication of Professor Robertson’s research is that writing is a social, embodied act.

I had the chance to sit down with Professor Robertson and discuss Paul’s Letters.

You focused on Paul the Apostle for your dissertation, but he was also the subject of your undergraduate research. How did you develop such an interest in him?

In my mind, Paul is easily the most fascinating figure in Christianity. He never knew Jesus, yet he’s our most prolific writer from that period. He was probably the figure most responsible for spreading Christianity. That alone is mind-blowing to me.

History is an imaginative enterprise. We have to imagine what it was like for Paul. He was originally a Jew, and he persecuted Christians. Then he allegedly had this religious experience, but you can imagine a hundred different reasons why he shifted to this other world—personal, economic, political, romantic. What made him flip the switch?

Previous Pauline scholarship characterized his writing as a unique manifestation of a new era in religion. Instead, you group his writings with similar texts and term this group a “socio-literary sphere.” What is the significance of this grouping?

The socio-literary sphere understands literature as a social act and a social practice. When you write, you are writing in society. Nothing exists in isolation.

Now, everyone in our culture is literate, but in the Ancient World it was less than two percent. If you wrote, you were part of a tiny minority, and the significance of being an educated writer said a lot more about who you were; it was much more of a significant social act to write in the ancient world than in the modern world.

To place Paul among this socio-literary sphere, you identify a set of twenty shared literary characteristics—such as the use of rhetorical questions and hyperbole—and map their occurrences across a variety of texts. Why did you choose this method of analysis?

Typically, comparative literature is not empirical. The only way influence can be proven is if it is direct, such as when one writer quotes another writer. If comparative literature scholars want to show an indirect influence, they usually draw vague connections between writers.

I wanted to quantify the notion of literary influence, so I charted it out. I can give a percentage that measures the extent to which Paul or Epictetus or Philodemus participated in a specific category.

The field of digital literature often uses computational technologies to perform text analysis. Could a machine have done this work?

I’m asked that a lot, but the answer is no, a machine can’t. A computer can analyze basic grammar and vocabulary, but it does not know the context. I was charting characteristics such as irony, and a computer can’t yet pick up on that.

You talk about previous categories scholars have used to compare Paul’s writings, arguing that his work resembles either the Jewish or Greek vernacular. Why are these categories not accurate for you?

Classification has to do with the level of specificity you grant, and essentially there’s no right or wrong answer to that—it just depends on the kind of question you want to ask.

I don’t think Paul wrote differently from other Ancient Mediterranean writers because he was Greek or Jewish, just like I don’t think I write all that differently than someone from California. Instead, I sought literary categories because they avoided implied valuations and qualities.

But once you cast away these binaries, once you get rid of these essentialized categories, you need to put something in its place. It is not enough to critique—you have to build. Otherwise you are just lobbing grenades. Let’s just use something we can actually test and prove.

For more information on Paul's Letters, and to check out the online edition, visit it's publication page here.