Paul the maker of theatrical scenery?

Here’s an interesting thought. In The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (70), as part of a discussion on ‘Christian Doctrine as Dramatic Narrative’, Thiselton notes the argument of L.L. Welborn that ‘tentmaker’ is an unlikely translation of skēnopoios in Acts 18:3. The BDAG Greek Lexicon points to the better attested use of the word in the context of Old Comedy to denote a ‘stagehand’ or ‘manufacturer of stage properties’. The characters depicted on the vase in the image – slaves helping an old man to climb some stage scenery – are wearing grotesquely exaggerated costumes characteristic of Old Comedy.

The problem is that outside the New Testament skēnopoios is used only in the theatrical sense or figuratively to describe the construction of an impermanent dwelling. That could refer to a tent, but there is nothing in the context of Acts 18:3 to resolve the sense in favour of ‘tentmaker’. BDAG concludes:

In the absence of any use of the term skēnopoios, beyond the pass. in Pollux and the Herm. Wr., and the lack of specific qualifiers in the text of Ac 18:3, one is left with the strong probability that Luke’s publics in urban areas, where theatrical productions were in abundance, would think of skēnopoios in ref. to matters theatrical.

It may then be that the only real argument against supposing that Paul, Priscilla and Aquila made a living out of the theatre is that the whole tawdry business would have offended their religious sensibilities. Welborn thinks that in speaking of Christians as ‘fools’ or ‘clowns’ for the sake of Christ (1 Cor. 1:27; 4:10; 2 Cor. 11:16-17) or of himself and the apostles as having ’become a spectacle (teatron) to the world’ (1 Cor. 4:9), Paul is drawing on first hand experience of the theatre. But if that is correct, it is also clear that he has found there images of humiliation and degradation. Indeed, 1 Corinthians 4:9 rather suggests the arena or the victorious parade of a defeated enemy than the theatre.

In the end, it has to be said that the lexicological arguments either way are flimsy. Aesthetically, as the postmodern church endeavours increasingly to associate itself with hip, creative, progressive, subversive (etc.) movements on the fringes of mainstream culture, it is appealing to imagine that Paul was involved in such a disreputable and religiously offensive profession. But sadly, these matters cannot really be settled on the basis of popular sentiment.

Wow, this is really interesting! It would also connect with the statement in Galatians which (if taken literally) would imply that the Galatians had Jesus 'theatrically portrayed' to them as crucified...

Yes, I didn’t think of that one. Excellent. I only have Thiselton’s brief summary of Welborn’s argument in Paul, the Fool of Christ: A Study of 1 Corinthians 1-4 in the Comic Philosophical Tradition. I have to say, I’m not really convinced by the argument about skēnopoios – it’s hard to imagine Paul erecting stage scenery. But maybe that’s just another example of interpretive conditioning. In any case, if it helps to bring to life the various cultural frames of reference within which Paul’s mind worked, it can’t be a bad thing. I’m all in favour of deflating his theology to culturally and religiously and politically relevant proportions.

This is really interesting Andrew...thanks for sharing this. This would also be in line with how he was able to travel so much to influential cities and would also contribute some meaning to his 'working night and day' in 1 Thess 2:9 (kind of a joke...)