The Apostle Paul is widely recognized among contemporary continental theologians as one of the most essential political thinkers in the Western tradition, and among the recent philosophical interpreters of Paul, Agamben has distinguished himself in at least two ways. The ﬁ rst is the erudition and depth of his reading, above all in his book The Time That Remains: A Commentary On The Letter To The Romans . 1 The second is the degree to which his work on Paul is integrated into his larger project. While Badiou presents his reading of Paul as a more or less detachable ‘example’ of his notion of faithfulness to a truth-event, 2 Agamben has claimed Paul’s letters as fundamental for a style of thought that is central to Agamben’s philosophical approach: namely, messianism. Accordingly, Agamben has also had recourse to Pauline arguments in many of his works, including the Homo Sacer series. Paul comes up at key moments in State of Exception , 3 for example, and the argument of The Kingdom and the Glory hangs crucially on a close reading of Paul’s concept of oikonomia and how it is taken up by later patristic writers. 4
In this chapter, I would like to address Agamben’s use of Paul in another work in the Homo Sacer series, namely The Sacrament of Language . 5 This work includes what seems to me to be a substantial new engagement with Paul, and with the New Testament more broadly. This engagement is primarily situated in the aleph-note to §16, where he attempts to demonstrate that the Greco-Roman concept of law is intimately tied up with the concept of the curse that Agamben characterizes as a kind of ‘fall-out’ of the oath. The passage is as follows:
It is in the perspective of this technical consubstantiality of law and curse (present even in Judaism-cf. Deuteronomy 21:23-but very familiar to a Jew who lived in a Hellenistic context) that one must understand the Pauline passages in which a ‘curse of the law’ ( katara tou nomou —Galatians 3:10-13) is spoken of. Those who want to be saved through works (the execution of precepts)—this is Paul’s argument-‘are under a curse [ hupo katara eisin ]; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe
all the things written in the book of the law.”’ Subjecting himself to the judgment and curse of the law, Christ ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us-for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”’ The Pauline argument-and, therefore, the very meaning of redemption-can be understood only if it is situated in the context of the mutual belonging, in a juridical and not only religious sense, of law and curse. 6
At ﬁ rst glance, this seems to be typical Agamben bombast-only Agamben has noticed this crucial aspect of Paul’s argument (despite the fact that Paul is one of the most commented-upon writers in the history of humanity), and without this profound insight, one is doomed to chronic misunderstanding. Yet given the depth of Agamben’s previous work on Paul, I am inclined to give him the beneﬁ t of the doubt and to treat this as, at least potentially, a productive commentary on Paul. On the other hand, given the important role of Paul for Agamben’s thought, it is likely that his use of Paul here can, in turn, shed light on Agamben’s overall project, providing new avenues of inquiry for future scholarship on Agamben’s work.