N. T. Wright, Paul A Fresh Perspective (3): Messiah and Apocalyptic

Wright suggests in this chapter that we ought to be reading Paul’s use of “Christ” a bit more apocalyptically.  Essentially, when Paul says “Christ,” he means “Messiah.”  That Jesus is the Messiah is not a major issue in the circles I travel in, but in New Testament Scholarship, a return to Jesus as Messiah is something which is in fact controversial.

Wright wants to get away from a false dichotomy that the Messiah was either a political idea or a religious idea (49).  This is excellent, since there is no separate of church and state in the first century or in the Hebrew Bible.  In addition, Wright states that Paul’s used of Messiah was not “religious” over against “political.”

A second idea which Wright argues strenuously against is that apocalyptic in the Second Temple period and in Paul does not mean “end of the space time universe” (50-51).   If one thinks that when Jesus returns is the “end of the world as we know it” they are wrong – that sort of an idea does not exist in the first century, in the Bible or in most Second Temple period apocalypses.  Again, Wright is more or less correct.  In this literature, when Messiah comes he vindicates  Israel and restores them to their inheritance.  Zion becomes the center of the world and all people, whether Jew or Gentile, will worship in Zion.

It is significant to me that Wright talks about the coming of the Messiah as God accomplishing his “many-staged plan of salvation” (53).  Even a text like Eph 3:8-11 is apocalyptic: God has called Paul to make know “the plan that through the church the many-splendoured wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places” (52).   That God has a plan administered in several stages to bring about the redemption of the world is a very familiar idea to me and it warms my dispensational heart.

However, clearly Wright is not a dispensationalist, and many people have noticed that Wright has become increasingly agitated at dispensationalist finding comfort in his books.  There are really two reasons for this, as I see it.  First, Wright sees the American “Left Behind” version of dispensationalism as an aberration.  In The Last Word and Surprised by Hope he seems to go out of his way to distance himself from this sort of thinking.  Secondly, Wright is an Anglican and does not make a distinction between church and Israel the way a dispensational does.  Israel has been replaced by the Church and there is not “future” for Israel separate from the church.

If I have read Wright correctly, two reactions immediately come to mind.  I hope that no one judges dispensational thinking by Left Behind (or Hal Lindsey, etc.)  Those books are not theological mature thinking, nor are they theological in the least.  There are at least a half-dozen well-written and scholarly explanations of dispensational thinking that are better representatives than pop-culture phenomenons.  I am thinking here of Bock, Blaising, Saucy, and of course Dale DeWitt.

Secondly, Wright is incorrect if he thinks that dispensationalism (even in the hokiest forms) believes that the return of Jesus is the “end of the world as we know it.”  In dispensationalism, the present age gives way to the kingdom, which goes on forever.  The re-creation of the heavens and the earth, drawn from texts in the Hebrew Bible and Revelation, is in fact a re-creation of the heavens and the earth.  I suppose this is a radical change, but it is the same “space-time universe.”  Apocalyptic that looks for the complete destruction of the world is wrong-headed (Wright is correct here.  Although it makes a great Bruce Willis movie, “Armageddon” as the end of the world is not good theology!)

I find much in Paul: A Fresh Perspective which is conducive to a contemporary, even progressive dispensationalism even if Wright would protest.  Your mileage may vary.

Was Thessalonica a “Gentile” Church?

What was the ‘social setting” of the church at Thessalonica?  Pollhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (P&HL, 185).  But this is problematic because Acts tells us that the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy – presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument that the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations.  First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.”  Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.”   Secondly, 1 Thess 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church.  This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Thirdly, 1 Thessalonians does not quote from the Old Testament,  although 2 Thess seems to allude to the Hebrew Bible.  If the church were written to a gentile audience with very little synagogue training and knowledge, we would expect few biblical quotations.

So where to these Gentiles come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely that they would have “turned from idols” since they were worship God in the synagogue.  In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person.  The fact that the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think that there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians.  Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report.

I think that the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church.  If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life.  Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically the national Roman cult.  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at lesat an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left  the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, 65).

The letter itself seems to praise the church for their strength in persecution, so maybe it is not wise to make too much of this alleged defection of some prominent converts, but it might explain the last of Jewish allusions in the letter.

What is the Restrainer in 2 Thessalonians 2?

This is a difficult problem in reading the apocalyptic section of 2 Thess 2.  Paul says there that the Man of Perdition cannot be revealed until the “restrainer” is removed.  The problem is that he does not explicitly state who / what the restrainer is.  Both the restraining power and the mystery of lawlessness are active at the time Paul writes.  The restrainer must therefore be something that was active at the time of Paul and will continue to be active until the Day of the Lord.  As a result, there are a number of suggestions as to the identity of this restrainer / restraining power.

There are two issues that need to be resolved with respect to the identity of the restrainer.  First, there are lexical issues:  What does the term katexw mean?  It can mean to hold back or restrain, but also “to hold fast, keep secure.”

Secondly, and perhaps more problematic, are grammatical issues.  In verse 6, Paul uses a neuter singular participle, but in verse 7 he uses a masculine singular participle.  These two words should not refer to the same thing according to the rules of the Greek language.  The first must have neuter referent, the second a masculine. The many suggested alternatives for understanding this passage can be categorized as taking the restrainer as a good force or an evil force.

From the time of Tertullian on, the neuter participle was taken as a reference to the Roman empire, and the masculine to the emperor himself.  The verb means “to restrain,” therefore it is the rule of the Roman empire (or the rule of law, God ordained political order, etc) that restrains the chaos of the man of lawlessness from being revealed.  The primary problem with this view is that Paul does not have a political rebellion in mind, but rather a religious apostasy, a rebellion against God.  It is also difficult to see Paul claiming that the fall of Rome will be the beginning of the tribulation period and the power of the Anti-Christ.

Oscar Cullman, followed by T. Munck argue that the neuter participle is the preaching of the Gospel, and that the masculine participle is Paul himself as the key leader of the evangelical outreach in the first century. There is a serious problem with this view in the fact that Paul appears to believe that he will participate in the return of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13ff), this interpretation would need to have Paul taken out of the way before the beginning of the Day of the Lord.

I . H. Marshall defends this position by accepting the first participle as the preaching of the gospel, but changing the identification of the second to something other than Paul.  Essentially he sees the God as restraining the forces of evil in the present age so that the preaching of the gospel can be fully accomplished.  The force that is holding back evil is an angel or some spiritual being working on God’s behalf.  This presupposes the idea that the gospel must be preached to the whole world before the Day of the Lord, which is simply not a Pauline requirement for the Day of the Lord.  This position is appealing since it makes God the restraining power, but one must deal with the “taking away” of the restrainer.  God could not be removed, although his role as a restrainer may be.

Roger D. Aus (JBL 96/4 [1977]: 537-553) attempts to make 2 Thessalonians reliant on Isaiah 66 in a number of places, therefore the source of the restrainer also found in Isaiah.  While the word does not appear in the LXX, 66:9 does talk about the shutting up of the womb as an image for the delay in restoring the fortunes of Israel.  Aus argues that Paul is freely translating the MT at this point, using katexw to mean delay of the Day of the Lord.  While it is possible that the verb could be used to translate the Hebrew of Isaiah 66:9, it is far from the most obvious choice, and Paul simply uses the verb without any modification.

Charles Gilbin devotes an entire monograph to 2 Thessalonians 2 and develops a unique theory concerning the problem in the church as well as the identity of the restraining power.  Gilbin sees a specific charismatic prophet within the church that has delivered the prophetic message that the Day of the Lord has begun. He therefore argues that katexw in the neuter has the sense of a prophetic seizure, and that the masculine pronoun refers to a false prophet.  There are several problems here.  katexw only has the sense of a prophetic seizure in the passive, both verbs are active here.  Additionally, it is hard to understand why Paul would argue that the entire Day of the Lord is held in check until a single false prophet in a small local is taken out of the way.

As early as Darby (Notes, 452), the restrainer has been identified as the Holy Spirit in the Church.  Walvoord, for example, argues in his prophetic writings that the restraining power is the Holy Spirit.  This is not essentially different than I. H. Marshall described above, although Darby and other following Dispensationalist have made far more of this than Marshall would allow.  If the restrainer is the Holy Spirit, then this passage becomes a clear argument in favor of a pre-tribulational rapture.  The Holy Spirit is restraining the satanic influences in the world through the activity of the Church the Body of Christ.  When the Body of Christ is removed from the world, the Satan is free to attack the world through the Anti-Christ.

Obviously this is a powerful argument for the pre-trib position.  But is the Restrainer the Holy Spirit?  Is that what this passage is really saying?  It can be objected that the grammar of the passage makes the identification of the Holy Spirit as the restrainer impossible since the restrainer is masculine and the word for Spirit is neuter.  If the genders are properly interpreted, they need to refer to two different things, albeit coordinated things.   An additional problem is that the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in the passage.  The gospel is (in chapter 1), and the forces of evil are clearly in the context, but the Holy Spirit is not.

In the most recent revival of this argument, Charles Powell (BibSac 154 [July 97]: 321-333) sees the preaching of the Gospel as a part of the restraining force, but settles on the first referring to the Spirit and the second to God, with not contradiction based on the Trinity.   He notes that in John 14:26 the Holy Spirit is called ho paravkletos, a masculine noun referring the neuter pneuma.  This avoids any grammatical difficulties, and sounds quite a bit like I. H. Marshall.

It may be objected that the Old Testament very clearly indicates that the Holy Spirit will be active in the tribulation (Joel 2, for example.)  If he is removed at the beginning of the Tribulation, how can he be “poured out” as Joel predicts?  It is possible to argue that the restraining function of the Spirit through the Body of Christ will end at the rapture, although the functions of empowerment for ministry or prophecy will remain.  Obviously God, who is omnipresent, cannot be “removed,” therefore there is some sort of shift in activities, such as at the time of the Flood.

Therefore it is best to conclude that the Restrainer power is God, through the Holy Spirit and the positive effects of the preached Gospel.  The Spirit is active in the world as a preserving agent, a ministry that will end at the time of the Rapture, allowing the events of the tribulation to unfold.

Paul, Jude, and the Libertines

Weird things happen when you teach several different things at once.  Since I am teaching a Bible survey for a Men’s Bible study at my church and a Pauline Lit, I found myself reading about Jude but thinking about Paul, especially the early years before the Jerusalem council.

While I have always thought of Jude as rather late (post 70 at least, if not in the 90’s), In his WBC volume on Jude and 2 Peter, Richard Bauckham argues that the letter is very early, perhaps as early as A.D. 50.  This reading is based on the use of Jewish apocalyptic style found in the letter.  He finds three elements of the book which lean toward the earlier date:  There is a lively hope for the return of Jesus (14-15).  Secondly, the style of the letter is a Jewish midrash which draws together texts from the Hebrew Bible to argue that the false teachers will face judgment at the Coming of the Messiah.  Finally, there is no hint of church offices in the letter – elders, deacons or bishops, nor is there any appeal to human authority.  The institution of the church is limited when the letter was written.

One serious challenge to this early date is the nature of the opponent.  They seem to be libertine, or even antinomian, which has always made me think that the letter must therefore be written later, after Paul’s death at the very least.  But if the letter is written at the time of Paul’s first missionary journey and the controversy of which led to the Jerusalem council, the issue is quite a bit different from Galatians or James.  In Galatians, Gentiles are discouraged from keeping Law (Paul says “gentiles, your are not converting to Judaism”) and in James Jews are encouraged to continue keeping the Law (James says, “Jews, you are not converting away from Judaism.”)

Jude might give witness to some people who took Paul’s gospel of freedom from law to an extreme and lived a life that was not bound by law at all.  These libertines are not really an issue in Acts 15, but they are in Philippians, perhaps in 1 Thess 4, and certainly a problem in Corinth and Romans 6.  That Paul has to answer the objection, “should we sin that grace may abound” implies that someone was in fact sinning so grace might abound!

What made me wonder is the fact that Jude seems clearly Jewish – it is a midrash constructed from various texts from the Hebrew Bible. If Jude is writing to Jewish Christians who have antinomians in their midst, it seems like these might very well be Jewish Libertines not Gentiles. If that is the case, then Paul’s gospel of freedom from the Law for Gentiles might have had some traction among Hellenistic Jews which led to a rejection of the Law. Perhaps this is the source of James’ concern in Acts 21, that some think that Paul has rejected the Law.

The Opponent in Philippians

In his commentary on Philippians, Gordon Fee pointed out that as many as 18 different suggestions have been made for the identity of the “opponent” in Philippians.  In this case, the identity of the opponent may provide a bit of a hint to the date of the letter.

Paul begins to deal with these false teachers” in chapter three, although those who preach the gospel from impure motives in chapter one are likely the same group.  One of the more common  identifications of the false teaching is that they are Judaizers, similar or identical to those in Galatia.  Certainly circumcision is an issue (3:2), and the fact that Paul boasts in his own credentials as a law-observant Jew might imply that his opponents have a similar boast.  It is possible that these are Jewish teachers trying to re-convert the Jewish Christians or Gentile God-fearers trying to encourage gentile converts to join them in keeping the law.

If the book was written in the early 60’s from Rome, it is surprising that the issue of Gentile conversion is still a major issue.  The issue seemed to be settled after Acts 15; for it to arise again nearly twelve years after the Jerusalem Conference seems unlikely.  As such, this is a good argument in favor of the early date of the book, written from an Ephesian imprisonment (Polhill, P&HL, 166).

On the other hand, if Philippians was written from Rome in the early 60’s, it is only a few years before the outbreak of the war against Rome in Palestine.  This was a time of extreme nationalistic pride and hopes for an independent Israel.  If this period was anything like the Maccabean period, it is possible that circumcision for those within the Jewish covenant was emphasized.  We are on the same sort of ground as Galatians (are the Gentiles converts to Israel)?  If they are, then they must conform to the covenant and be circumcised.  Even as far away as Rome, it is possible that Diaspora Jews saw the boundary markers of circumcision and food laws as non-negotiable for the Jewish people, including those who were ethnically Gentile and sought to align themselves with the Jewish Messiah Jesus.

Another suggestion which has merit is that of David deSilva.  Based on his reading of Philippians as a “letter of friendship” he has suggested that the opponents of Paul in the letter are not actual opponents in the church, but rather Paul is “using a common strategy for building up unity and cooperation within a group: warning about the presence of hostile and dangerous groups on the outside, against whom the Philippians need to present a united front” (deSilva, “No Confidence In The Flesh” Trinity Journal 15:1 (Spring 1994): 31-32)

On balance, I tend to agree with Polhill and date the letter early.  While the evidence for an Ephesian imprisonment is thin, there is enough to lead to me believe Philippians at least was written from Ephesus in the mid 50’s rather than Rome in the early 60’s.  (The other prison epistles were written from Rome, but that is for another time!)

The Unity of Philippians

There has been little discussion of the unity of Philippians until the 1950’s. Since that time there has been a discussion of the sudden change in Paul’s material in 3:1 and the hymn material in 2:6-11. Three letters have been identified, in the following chronological order:

  • 4:10-20 – a letter thanking the Philippians for their gift,
  • 1:1-3:1, 4:4-7, 21-23 – a warning against divisions
  • 3:2-4:3, 8-9 – an attack on false teachers

These three letters were written by Paul but placed together in the present arrangement by an unknown editor. We will want to look at the most commonly addressed break in the text that is interpreted as an interpolation and indication of a compilation, then attempt to explain how this section is related to the unity of the Philippian letter.

The abrupt change of material in the third chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians has caused some scholars to see an interpolation in the text.  It is argued that an addition, from the hand of Paul, has been made to the epistle in the middle of verse three at a later date and is not part of the original letter to the Philippians.  The epistle itself implies that another letter was sent to the Philippian congregation (3:1) and there is reference in the Apostolic Fathers to a second Philippian letter. It is suggest that this interpolation is that second letter to the Philippians.

The interpolation idea is difficult to accept because there is no textual evidence that there was an insertion made.  If the insertion were made much later than the first century there would be some textual tradition that preserved the letter without the addition.    Even the implication from Polycarp is weak because in the same letter Polycarp also refers to the “letter” Paul wrote in the singular.  A problem exists in Philippians chapter 3, but the interpolation of a “previous letter” does not satisfactorily solve the problem.

While it is certain that Paul does change from “warm” to “hostile” in the space of a few verses, this change in tone is not sufficient cause to suggest an interpolation.  There are several occasions in Paul’s letters where he shifts from a loving tone to a hostile tone.  The Corinthian Epistles have several examples of this shift from warmth to a scathing condemnation.  In addition to this, the break in 3:1 is not very severe.  Finally, the verb blepete is imperative, but it does not have a strong connotation of warning.  Thus the translation “beware” may be too strong.  A translation of “observe” or “consider” may be more accurate.

Duane F. Watson (“A Rhetorical Analysis of Philippians and its Implications for the Unity Question,” Novum Testamentum 30 [1988]) makes a convincing argument that the letter to the Philippians is a well-written piece of rhetoric conforming to the standards of Greco-Roman rhetoric  He attempts to show a logical progression of thought through the whole epistle.  This rhetorical analysis makes it clear that there is a unity and a flow to the whole epistle that is lost if it is broken up into several smaller pieces.   Watson says “In the most general sense, the unity of Philippians in matters in invention, arrangement, and style speak highly for its original unity.”

It seems best, then, to see Philippians as a single letter written by Paul with a rhetorical structure, indicating unified thinking throughout.  The alleged break in 3:1 is a sharp transition in order to regain and focus the attention of the readers.