writing with the prospect of being hanged

In the preface to his great — and I do mean great — book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Richard Hays comments on the peculiar and difficult circumstance of the book’s completion: the immediate aftermath of his being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Mindful of the speed with which that particular form of cancer tends to do its evil work, Hays and the staff of Baylor University Press worked very quickly to get the book ready for publication. Hays:

If it had been possible for me to devote a year, rather than just a few weeks, to completing the writing of this book, I would have developed a much fuller theoretical account of my methodology. I would have engaged in more extended critical discussions with other studies of intertextuality and figural exegesis. But perhaps it is a mercy to the reader not to be subjected to too many pages of secondary theoretical discourse. The thing that matters in the end is the actual reading and interpretation of the primary texts. That is where my interpretation will stand or fall.

(By the way, or not at all by the way, I’m pleased to report that two years after his diagnosis Hays is still with us. Long may he thrive.) Speaking as a layperson, someone wholly outside Hays’s scholarly guild, I am inclined to accept the “mercy” hypothesis.

Last year I read John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift — a book I had eagerly anticipated. But Barclay’s meticulous accounts and assessments of (it often seemed) everyone who has ever written about Paul simply wore me out. In all the discussion of whether the work of Scholar C did or did not amount to a successful resolution of the conflict between Scholar A and Scholar B, I could not keep track of the main line of ther book’s argument, and I longed to return to the text of the Apostle’s writing. I hope I need not say that I would wish illness on nobody, but I do wonder what Barclay’s book would have been like if he had had to work under conditions of great urgency, so that it had to be written quickly or not at all. What if we scholars couldn’t elaborate, couldn’t pay our guild dues, couldn’t carefully situate our argument within the context of all the other arguments that have been made on our subject? What kinds of books might we then produce?

In that preface Hays (perhaps inevitably) cites Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about the power of the prospect of being hanged in two weeks to concentrate the mind. Well, you can’t do much in two weeks. But what if the hanging were scheduled for a year from now? I’d like to spend the rest of my career writing as though whatever I had to say had to be said by a year from … NOW.