N. T. Wright – Paul and the Covenant

Wright makes the point on page 23 that there are two key texts in the Hebrew Bible which bring together the ideas of creation and covenant.  The first of these is Deuteronomy 27-30, which I have often called the “most important chapters in the Hebrew Bible” since they are foundational for not only the historical books which follow, but also the prophets.  I really do not think you can have a fully developed biblical theology of the Hebrew Bible without coming to terms with Deuteronomy, and perhaps one’s New Testament theology is not complete until the contribution to the message of the Hebrew Bible is understood.

What is more, Wright’s second example is Isaiah 40-55, a text which describes the glorious return from Exile as a new Exodus.  The people in exile are going to return to Zion in a procession through the wilderness, which is now a well-watered paradise, blooming with al kinds of plants.  In fact, Isaiah 40-55 is not just a new Exodus, it is a return to Eden.  God will do something at the end of the exile will restore creation to the original, intended state.

What is remarkable to me is that these two sections of Scripture (Deut and Isa) are the most important texts in Second Temple period Judaism in general, but even more important, for Jesus and Paul.  Wright states that the combination of covenant and creation which we find in these texts is a part of the “implicit narrative” of the Second Temple period.  He is correct, this sort of language turns up at Qumran and in a variety of the literature crated in this period.  Certainly we must include the New Testament as texts which were deeply influenced by the “implicit narrative” of these texts.

Wright selects three Pauline texts to illustrate his point, let me add a third.  In Galatians 3:10-14 we have a series of biblical texts combined to argue that what Jesus did on the cross has in a very real sense dealt with the curse of the Law.  In fact, this text connects the promises made to Abraham to faith in Jesus.  Here is how Wright reads the text:

  • Verse 10 – Everyone who does not do the law is cursed (Deut 27:26, blessing and curse, exile = curse);
  • Verse 11 –  “the righteous will live by faith” (Hab 2:4).  When Israel goes into captivity, they are under the curse and can no longer be a blessing to the nations.  How can the blessing of the nations ever be fulfilled if the nation is in exile?
  • Verse 13 – Christ redeemed from the curse by become a curse for us.  Israel at it’s best is salvation by works, if you don’t accept the messiah you have to be saved by works; the only way to overcome the curse is the death of Christ on the cross. The death of Christ on the cross is a re-living of the exile on the cross.
  • Verse 14-16 – if Israel cannot redeem the nations, how do the nations be blessed? Through the death of Jesus the true seed of Abraham and will bring the blessing to the nations.
  • Back to verse 11 – no one can be justified by the Law.  Israel is divided into faith and works, some relate to the messiah in faith, some relate in terms of works.  Those who are doing works for salvation are cursed, those who are operating under faith are the true seed of Abraham (who believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.)

In effect, Wright says that Jesus took on the curse of the Law in order to end the exile for good, so that those who have faith in Jesus are no longer children under the Law (and therefore the curse of the Law), but the are children of Abraham (and therefore live by faith.)

The real problem here is the historical question – did Second Temple period really believe they were still in exile?  Were they really looking forward to God breaking into history in order to put an end to the exile and create some sort of solution to the curse of the Law?  Would this have taken the form a real kingdom (ie., the diaspora Jews all return to Zion where the Messiah rules over them, and the Romans are destroyed), or is this a more peaceful, perhaps metaphorical solution which deals with the problem of sin which corrupted the covenant from the beginning?

I suppose the answer depends on presuppositions concerning the nature and relationship of the Church and Israel.  But I am really not happy with the either / or on this issue.  It could be both are correct views, if carefully stated.

N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective (2)

In this chapter Wright outlines his view of “Creation and Covenant.”  This is a summary version of his larger Climax of the Covenant, but is thorough enough to introduce the reader to what, in my view, is the heart of Wright’s Fresh Perspective on Paul.  Early on in the chapter he says that the ideas of creation and covenant are “at the heart of Judaism” and also “always central to Paul” (page 21).

Two key elements of biblical theology are important for Wright’s argument.  It is almost axiomatic that God is the Creator in the Hebrew Bible.  But it is equally obvious that we live in a “world gone wrong.”   At various points in the narrative of the Hebrew Bible God takes the initiative to repair the damage: covering the shame of Adam and Eve, rescuing Noah from the flood, choosing Abram out of Ur, and most importantly, redeeming Israel out of slavery in Egypt.  In each case, creation language is used to describe God’s work of salvation.  The parallels between creation and the flood are well known, but similar language is used in the Exodus (chaos, water, might acts of God, etc.)  I would also add that the promise of Gen 12 is to make (create) a new people from Abraham, and that the events of the Exodus are the creation of that new people.

At each of these points in history, God makes a covenant with the people whom he saves.  There is an unconditional aspect of the covenant (God will save Adam and Eve, Noah, Abram, the children of Israel) but there is also an expectation of continued relationship with God after he has rescued the people from their situation.  In each case, God expects that the humans in the covenant relationship will respond to the revelation they have been given. We know a great deal more about the responsibilities within the covenant with Abraham and the Law given through Moses, so we can understand the nature of the relationship between belief and response better than the covenants with Adam and Noah.  I do think that by way of analogy we can say that God expected some sort of relationship with the sons of Adam and the Sons of Noah.

Response to these covenants is a bit of a mixed bag – there is some obedience and there is much more disobedience.  Perhaps this is the nature of the record we have, since the historical books are designed to show the failure of the nation to respond to God’s covenant in the Law.  It is clear, however, that God used similar language to describe salvation in each covenant described.  In responding to the needs of people , God is doing “a new creation,” he is renewing the promises he made from the very beginning.

Up to this point I only comment on the Hebrew Bible, but several questions immediately come to mind.  Is this creation / covenant theme actually found in the Bible, or is it imposed by presumed theological decisions? Remember, Wright and I do not share the same theological presuppositions, but I think he is reading the story of the Hebrew Bible correctly.

Secondly, is Wright correct to say that this view found in Judaism is also in Paul?  If the idea of creation of covenant are found in Judaism and Paul, does this have anything to say about our development of systematic theology from the Pauline material?

N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective (1)

This is the first of a series of posts which are based on N. T. Wright, Paul:  A Fresh Perspective (Fortress, 2005).  This little book has stimulated quite a bit of my thinking, these posts help me to sort it out a bit.

Wright starts out with many of the same observations made by Polhill.  Paul has a foot in three separate worlds, Jewish Greek and Roman.   In fact, one of the things Wright has done well throughout all of his writings is to place the New Testament writers into the worldview of the first century.  I will briefly define “worldview” here as the story a culture uses to answer the “big questions” of life.  Worldviews are expressed in terms of cultural symbols and practice.  For example, it is possible to describe the “American worldview” through the myth of the Old West as told in classic cowboy movies.  In fact, if American had to choose a god it might very well be John Wayne, the rugged individualist who rides into town, defends the orphans and widows, shoots up the bad guys and rides off into the sunset.  This is a story which is loosely based on reality which describes the way people in America think about their country.

N. T. Wright identifies five “big questions” in his description of the worldview of the Second Temple period (see NTPG chapter 5, JVG chapter 10).  All cultures have to answer these questions, but Wright is only concerned with the world of the first century – how might Paul answer these questions?

  • Who are we?
  • Why are we here?
  • What is wrong?
  • What is the solution?
  • What time is it?

In the first century, Paul would have answered these questions with a story something like this.  We are the people of God, put here in this world to worship God and enjoy the goodness of his creation.  But the world has become corrupted by sin and we are unable to fulfill that destiny.  The solution to the problem is to be found in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The last question is therefore critical – where are we in God’s plan of redemption?  For Paul, a new age has begun with Jesus – a radically different new age has already dawned when Jesus rose from the dead (Fresh Perspective, 6, 9).

If we were to speculate how a first century Pharisee might answer the “key questions,” I am not sure that it would be that much different than Paul for the first three questions, and maybe even the last question (the new age is about to dawn with the coming of messiah.)  It is the solution which is so very different.  Paul sees Jesus as the central piece in God’s plan of redemption.

The resurrection of Jesus is a radically new idea within Judaism.  For the most part, no one was expecting the messiah to die, let alone rise from the dead.  As such, Wright sees the resurrection as one of the central clues for understanding Paul.  For Paul, God revealed himself through Jesus, but Jesus was not simply a teacher, but “Christ Crucified.”  While Paul remained a monotheist after his conversion, Wright says it was a “disturbingly redefined monotheism (6), with implications which sake the foundations of the worldview of the Second Temple period.

Acts 15 – Who were the Judaizers?

By Acts 15, there appear to have been some Jewish Christians that did not like the implications of Gentile salvation that Paul was preaching.  Individuals from this group went into churches established by Paul and taught that circumcision was required for converts to Christianity.  Who were these opponents of Paul?

The traditional answer to the identity of the opponents of Paul is that they are Jewish Christians that desire to impose the law on Gentile converts – Judaizers.  The term appears in the New Testament only in Gal 2:14 (although a form appears in  but is found in a number of secular sources (Plutarch, Cicero 7:6; Josephus JW 2.17.10; Ignatius, Magn 10.3) with the basic meaning of  “to  live as a Jew in accordance with Jewish customs.”

As early as 1831, F. C. Bauer (from the Tübingen school) suggested that there was a split within early Christianity.  Based on 1 Corinthians, he understood that there were two major parties, a Peterine party (which included the “Christ party”) and a Pauline party (which included the Apollos party).  Those that followed Peter claimed to be “of Christ” since their leadership had been followers of Christ in his earthly ministry, while Paul and Apollos did not know Jesus directly.  The Jerusalem Christians were of the Peter division, a party that was unable to counter Paul’s argument for a gentile mission, but were not particularly pleased with it either.  The opponents at Galatia were the radical elements of the Peterine division.  The serious problem with this view is that it makes Peter the Judizing element in Galatians, despite his rather conciliatory speech in Acts 15.

A real problem with the view of Bauer is that it makes Paul an independent apostle who is the only one that fully understood the teaching of Jesus and the mission to the Gentiles.  While this is quite similar to the view of Paul in some more conservative Dispensationalist circles, it does not reflect the variety of thought in the Jewish element of the church.  The situation was not “either Peter or Paul.”  Peter seems more moderate than James, Barnabas and Silas are a step further towards Paul.

Bauer also seems to have thought that Paul was in continual conflict with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.  This does not seem to be the case, although one might describe the situation as “cool” between the Gentile mission and the Jerusalem church based on Acts 21.

In 1865 J. B. Lightfoot argued against Bauer and the Tübingen school.  The Judaizers were not authorized at all by Peter or the Jerusalem church, although the Jerusalem church were slow in stopping them.  The Jerusalem Church wanted to find a way to compromise between the radical teaching of Paul and the traditional teaching of the Judaizers.  J. F. A. Hort suggested that these Jewish opponents of Paul were lead by James, although mistakenly so.  James himself did not authorize the teaching in direct opposition to Paul, but his followers took James’ example of a Law-keeping Jewish Christian to the logical extreme and forced Gentiles to keep the law.

More recently, Robert Jewett argued that the Jewish opponents of Paul in Galatia were from the growing Zealot movement of Palestine [1].  The Zealot movement was a rather radical anti-Rome movement that sought strict obedience to the Law for all Jews.  Any Jews that were “Gentile-sympathizers” were the enemy.  These teachers sought to supplement Paul’s teaching, according to Jewett, by teaching a form of perfectionism to counter the libertine paganism from which they were converted.

It is perhaps the statement made by Paul in Galatians 6:12-13 that gives us an insight into who the false teachers may have been. They are people that think that by compelling Gentiles to be circumcised they might avoid persecution for the cross of Christ.  Likely Jewett’s theory has some merit; some Jewish Christians thought that by making Gentile Christians conform to the basics of the Law they might avoid persecution by the growing radical elements of Judaism.

Galatians 6:12-13 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.

Who were the Judaizers, then?  Jewish Christians, likely Pharisees according to Acts 15, who, with good intentions, sought to supplement Paul’s gospel by requiring that the basics of the Law be followed: circumcision and food laws. Perhaps the real issue at stake here is the status of the Gentiles within the people of God.  Could an uncircumcised Gentile be part of God’s people along with Israel?  Could a person be faithful to God and not keep the key elements of the covenant?

Paul reversed this argument in Galatians:  can a Gentile be a member of the people of God and allow himself to be circumcised?  Can a Gentile be “free in Christ” and keep the Jewish laws concerning food, festivals, etc.?  The answer in Galatians is a resounding no.

[1] Robert Jewett, “The Agitators and the Galatian Congregation.” NTS 17 (1971) 198–212.  See also Howard, G. Paul: Crisis in Galatia, 1–19.

Issues at the Jerusalem Council: Circumcision

Circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. For many in the Greco-Roman world, it was circumcision which set the Jews apart, usually for ridicule.  Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94.  Some of Marital’s comments on circumcision are so crude the original Loeb translators did not translate them into English so as not to offend sensitive readers, choosing instead to translate them into Italian.  A new edition of Marital has been produced for the Loeb series by D. R. Shackleton Baily which not only translates these epigrams, but seems to strive to offend!)  All Jewish males were circumcised on the eighth day, a practice noted in the New Testament (Lk. 2:21;   Phil.  3:5).  There was some question as to the need for circumcision when a Gentile converted to Judaism. One of the first major controversies of the early church concerned the practice of Gentile circumcision, indicating the very close alignment of the earliest Christianity and Judaism.

The practice of circumcision itself is not unique to the Jews in the Ancient world, although some of the traditions based on the Old Testament are specifically Jewish.  Circumcision is given as a sign of the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis 17.  All male members of Abraham’s household are to be circumcised, those that wish to be joined to Abraham’s family must be circumcised (see Genesis 34, for example.)  While the practice of circumcision was common in Ancient Israel, the ritual itself did not confer “spiritual blessing” as a sign of the covenant.  For this reason the prophets told the people that they needed a “circumcised heart – clearly a metaphorical use of the idea of circumcision (Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7, 9).

Since Greek sports were preformed in the nude and much of cultured society revolved around the gymnasium, it was difficult for a circumcised Jew to participate without being exposing themselves to ridicule.  Many Jews simply refused to participate, others either did not circumcise their children so that they could participate in Greek culture.  Some chose to submit to an extremely painful procedure to reverse their circumcision.

There is strong evidence that during the intertestamental period and into the first century, at least part of the Jews thought that circumcision was required for the convert to Judaism.  See, for example, Schiffman in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 115-156, especially 125-127.  Schiffman discusses a text in the Talmud ( Yebamot 46) and the importance of the Izates story in Josephus.   In Josephus Antiquities 20.2.4 we read the story of  Helena, queen of Adiabene, and her son Izates, who “changed their course of life, and embraced the Jewish customs.” What is interesting here is that Izates desires zealously to embrace Judaism, and decides to be circumcised.  Helena and the Jewish Ananias tries to dissuade him on the grounds that he is a king, and the people will not accept the rule of a king that practices a foreign religion. Ananias seems to be arguing that if there is a mortal danger, circumcision can be ignored (if the person as a hemophiliac, for example.)  Since allowing himself to be circumcised bight lead to the rebellion of his people and the loss of his and his family’s life, Ananias recommends that he not be circumcised. After Izates decides to forgo circumcision, another Jew Eleazar, described as being “extremely strict” with respect to the Law, tells Izates that he is breaking the Law if he does not submit to circumcision. Izates does immediately receive circumcision, and Josephus tells us that God preserves him in the dangers he faces later in life because he obeyed the Law fully!

In the Loeb Edition of Josephus there is a lengthy footnote on this story. A few scholars have drawn attention to the fact that the debate between Ananias and Eleazar reflects the two schools of rabbinic thought in the first century, that of Hillel and Shammai, with respect to circumcision.  In Talmud Yebamot 46 a there is a description of a Rabbi Joshua who taught that only baptism was necessary for a Gentile convert, and the Rabbi Eleazar who argued that circumcision was necessary for the Gentile convert.  J. Klausner argued that the dichotomy between Joshua and Eleazar is similar to that of Paul/Barnabas and Peter/James (as suggested by J. Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (1943), 39-40),  but this may be reading the Paul / Peter relationship as a strict dichotomy alá Bauer.
Does the story of Izates indicate that Hellenistic Jews were more liberal on circumcision than Palestinian Jews?  Assuming that Ananias is a Hellenistic Jew and Eleazar is a Palestinian Jew, Schiffman (127) notes that the argument has been made that Hellenistic Jews did not require circumcision. But this is not the case since Ananias never argues that circumcision for a convert is not required, but that in this case there is an acceptable and legal “out” of Izates that will perhaps preserve his life.  Josephus’ comments at the end of the story make it clear that he approves of Izates’ decision to be circumcised. This brief survey indicates that the practice of circumcision was one of the most important issues to Jews of the first century.  Even for a Gentile convert, circumcision was required in order to be part of the “people of God.”

A Brief bibliography: Thomas Schriener, “Circumcision” in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, 137-139; Robert G. Hall, “Circumcision”, in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:1025-1031; Raymond E. Brown, “Not Jewish and Gentile Christianity But Types of Jewish/Gentile Christianity” CBQ 45 (1983) 74–79; J. M. Sasson, “Circumcision in the Ancient Near East” JBL 85 (1966) 473–76.

Paul’s Conversion and the New Perspective on Paul

The next question Polhill asks in his discussion of Paul’s conversion concerns Paul’s predisposition to conversion.  To what extent did was Paul “prepared” for his encounter on the road to Damascus?  Certainly Paul thought that God had prepared him to preach the grace of God (Gal 1:15), but this question usually is more interested in Paul’s psychological state of mind when he met Jesus.

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here.  Typically Paul has been viewed as struggling to keep the Law, perhaps in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is cited here; Paul is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death (Ro 7:25).  He has been “kicking against the goads” for some time, according to Acts 26:14.

But this reconstruction has been questioned by the New Perspective, especially by E. P. Sanders, following Krister Stendahl (who is cited by Polhill).  Sanders challenged what he saw as the Lutheran domination of Pauline studies on justification.  In the twentieth century (primarily Lutheran) scholars have made justification by faith the “center” Pauline theology. This leads to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism – Jews become proto-Pelagians, Paul is Luther bashing the RCC’s.  Judaism is thought to be the antithesis of Paul’s Christianity and Paul’s theology develops out of a struggle against Judaism.  Sanders changed the debate by arguing that the questions posed by the protestant / RCC debate have nothing at all to do with Judaism of the Second Temple period.   For Sanders, this totally obscures what was actually happening in the first century and how Christianity developed out of Judaism.  In addition, Sanders points out that the protestant Paul was never recognized by Jewish scholars (Sandmel, for example), he was incoherent or inconsistent.

So, according to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law.  In fact, that was Luther. He was the guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, and he read all that angst back into Paul.  Paul was therefore not converted on the road to Damascus.  Obviously this has huge implications, since the theological edifice of the reformation is guilt on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.

Polhill is correct in the end when he states that Paul’ encounter on the road to Damascus was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared (page55).  By appearing to Paul in his resurrection glory, Jesus radically changed Paul’s thinking in a way which cannot really be described as “conversion” in the contemporary sense.  It was a prophetic call like Isaiah or Ezekiel which resulted in a transformation of Paul’s thinking about who Jesus is.