Basics of the New Perspective: Was Paul “Converted” to Christianity?

Critics of the traditional view of Paul’s theology often note that Paul’s experience is described in terms of Augustine’s conversion or Luther’s struggle against the Roman church.  Both men found their experience parallel to Paul’s and meditated deeply on what God did in their lives to release them from the weight of their guilt.  This traditional view of Paul’s conversion is that he underwent a spiritual an psychological conversion.  If Romans 7:7-25 deals with Paul’s apparent struggle with sin prior to his conversion, then we do have a spiritual and psychological reversal in Paul’s conversion.  Paul is described in the traditional view as a Pharisee that struggled with sin and the guilt of not being able to keep the Law.   His conversion releases him from the weight of the guilt of his sin; he experiences justification by faith and converts from Judaism to Christianity.

The New Perspective on Paul calls this traditional view into question.  James Dunn has built on the work of Krister Stendhal to argue that Paul did not experience a conversion from one religion to another.  Rather, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Hebrew Bible, especially that of Jeremiah. The Damascus Road experience as a theophany, not unlike what Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6.  Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry.  Paul never left Judaism, Stendahl argued, he remained a faithful Jew who was fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles” from Isaiah.  (Not all scholars who are associated with the New Perspective agree, N. T. Wright still talks about “Paul’s Conversion” in What Saint Paul Really Said.)

Dunn points out that Paul stayed “zealous,” but instead of zealous for the Law, he because zealous as the “light to the Gentiles” (“Paul’s Conversion,” 90).  This view of Paul’s conversion is that he does not “found a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law.  His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism.  Paul may  not changed have even parties within Judaism: he went from a Pharisee who did not believe Jesus was the messiah to a Pharisee who did believe Jesus was the messiah.

The problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law, it is a radical change that is unanticipated in the prophets. The reaction of the Jews in Acts is key.  Everywhere Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision, they riot and attempt to kill Paul.

Philippians 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely.  He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology.  While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are significant radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.  While it is possible Paul thought he was staying within Judaism, his contemporaries disagreed. (I suspect that includes not a few Christians Jews who disagreed with his view of the Law for Gentiles.)

But it is also problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus.  He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians, in Ephesians 3 he is quite clear that he has a special commission as the apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul never joins the Jerusalem church nor does he receive his commission from them (again, Gal 2) .  He seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel.  Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory.  Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews.

It is probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call.  I agree that Luther  and others hear their own conversion in Paul’s Damascus Road experience.  But to think of the categories “conversion” and “call” in modern Christian categories is a mistake, Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history.

Bibliography:  There is a huge bibliography of essays and monographs on this issue; the critical articles include: J. D. G. Dunn, “‘A Light To the Gentiles’ or ‘The End of the Law’? The Significance of the Damascus Road Christophany for Paul” in Dunn, Paul, Jesus, and the Law, 89-107.  See also  Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982); After Kim was critiqued by J. D. G. Dunn and others, he responded in a number of articles that are collected in Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).

Basics of the New Perspective: Judaism as a Religion of Grace

There are a few battleground ideas and texts on which the New Perspective differs from the traditional view.  First and foremost is the nature of Judaism in the first century.  From the traditional perspective, Judaism was a legalistic religion which required works for salvation.  This was often stated but rarely proven, especially in popular presentations.  The Pharisees are often described as hand-wringing legalists who sought to burden others with onerous laws which made little sense.  Perhaps there is an undercurrent of anti-Semiticsim here, but more often than not this mis-characterization is simply the result of ignorance of what Jews actually believed in the Second Temple period.

Sanders turned the assumption that Judaism was a legalistic religion on its head – Judaism was in fact a religion centered on God’s grace, as demonstrated in his election of Israel as his people and his gracious gift of the covenant.  Of critical importance is the election of Israel as God’s people and the covenant He made with them.  Philo states: “Yet out of the whole human race He chose as of special merit and judged worthy of pre-eminence over all, those who are in a true sense men, and called them to the service of Himself, the perennial fountain of things excellent” (Spec. Laws 1.303).  Similar statements of Israel’s election are common in nearly all the literature of the second temple.  Equally common are statements about the covenant God sought to initiate with the people he had chosen.  Sanders cites Pseudo-Philo: “I will give my light to the world and illume their dwelling places and establish my covenant with the sons of men and glorify my people above all the nations” (Bibl. Antiq. 11.1f, JBP, 264).

Israel’s election is confirmed by God’s gift of the Law and his requirement of obedience to that law. Everything we know about Judaism in the Second Temple Period is predicated on the fact that God gave the law and he required his people to obey.   Because Israel is chosen and given a Law and the responsibility of obedience, she is liable for both rewards and punishment; to experience both God’s justice and mercy.  God cannot let an evil-doer escape.  He is all-knowing and punishment is certain (Antiq. 1.14; 3.321, 4.286).

Perhaps the most controversial point in Sanders’  view of common Jewish theology is that Judaism was a religion of grace.  As noted above, the Christians often describe Judaism as  a works-salvation in contrast to Paul’s salvation by grace alone.  Everything in Jewish religion seems to point to the grace of God in this life.  Whatever one has, whatever one is, it is only by the grace of God.  One did not do the various “works of righteousness” (circumcision, food traditions, but also shema, prayer, wearing tefillin, etc.) in order to receive grace, rather one did them in response to the grace already received.

If this is a correct understanding of Judaism, then it seems to me that it is rather a” Pauline” way of expressing ethical obligations.  Or maybe Paul is rather still Jewish in his ethical teaching!   Paul never says one can be right with God on the basis of good works, it is only by God’s sovereign choice to adopt the believer as a member of his family that we can be saved: by grace through faith.  But it is well know that Paul also gives many ethical and moral commands which he expects from his churches.  These are not requirements to be saved, but the natural response of those who are “in Christ.”

To summarize this point for Sanders: Election is what placed the Jews “into” the covenant; obedience is what “keeps them in.” There are a number of mechanisms which are used to deal with disobedience, all of which are expressions of God’s grace. There is nothing Israel did to merit this election.  Israel is given every help possible by God’s grace to assist them in the “keeping in” element.

Is this a wrong view of Second Temple Judaism?  Perhaps Sanders has overstated his case in come respects (Matt 23 makes the Pharisees out to be legalists) and Paul seems to be arguing against some form of legalism in Galatians.  There is a certain attraction to legalism since it defines the steps one must take in order to be right with God.

But on the whole, I think Sanders is correct.  A major cornerstone of the theology of the Hebrew Bible is the gracious loving-kindness of God, his hesed.  Nowhere in the Bible do we read of someone who claims to be burdened down by the impossibly heavy load the Law.  Rather, keeping the law is the proper response to a gracious God. The big difference between Paul and Second Temple Judaism is his view of Gentiles keeping the Law.  More on that later.

The New Perspective on Paul: What was the Old Perspective?

Before examining the challenge of the new Perspective on Paul, it is important to have some understanding of what the traditional on Paul view is.  At the foundation of Sanders’ critique of the standard view of Paul is that Luther read Paul through the lens of his own struggle with sin and his battle with the Pelagian / semi-Pelagian Roman Catholic church which claimed one could earn merit before God by preforming good deeds.

I will start with the observation that I find much of what is written on the traditional view is more or less Systematic Theology with respect to method.  This is not necessarily negative, Luther and Calvin did not “do biblical theology” quite the same way it is done today.  They were simply unable to examine the historical and cultural background to Pauline literature.  They did in fact return to the text of Scripture, but they did so in order to serve a developing theological reformation.  In addition, they were waging a theological (and political) battle.  They could not examine texts apart from the theological questions raised by Luther.

In his book on the New Perspective on Paul, Stephen Westerholm provides a seven-point summary of what he calls the “Lutheran” Paul.  He arrives at these points after examining the Pauline Theology of Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley.  I am summarizing his points here and offer some commentary.

  1. Human nature was created good, but has become corrupted by sin and is unable to please the Creator.  This entails the idea that all who are in Adam are also in his sin. Romans 5 clearly indicates that Adam’s sin is somehow imputed to his descendants so that all humans have a sinful nature which separates them from a holy God.
  2. Humans must therefore be “justified by divine grace” through faith, apart from works. This is the cornerstone of the Reformation: since humans do not merit salvation, they can only be saved by a sovereign act of a gracious God.
  3. This justification by faith leaves humans with nothing to boast before God.  A text like Eph 2:8-9 shows that Paul’s view was that no person could stand before God as their judge and claim to have done anything to merit salvation, either before or after they were justified.
  4. Even though humans are justified by God’s grace, they are still expected to do good works. There is a unfortunate misunderstanding that some theologians in the reformed tradition think that after justification, a believer may sin all they want.  It is clear from Paul’s letters that he expects believers to behave in a certain way, but does he ever threaten them with the loss of salvation?
  5. The Law was given to awaken the awareness of sin in humans.  The role of the Jewish law is the burden of Galatians. Paul argues there that the believer is not required to keep the Law since it only functioned as a guide until God acted decisively in Jesus.
  6. Sin is still a reality in the life of the believer.  Westerholm comments that there is a different in the way Wesley or Luther deal with the problem of sin, nevertheless they recognize that humans still sin even after they are justified before God.
  7. Divine grace may or may not be irresistible.  Again, this varies between Luther / Calvin and Wesley.  The very act of having faith may constitute a “work” which can be seen as a human contribution to salvation.

For the most part, I read this list and want to shout “Amen!” after the first five points, and I have some strong opinions on the last two where there is divergence in the various streams of the Reformation.  These theological points, when properly defined, are a solid theological response to the growing influence of Pelagianism in the church in the sixteenth century (or the early twenty-first century for that matter). With respect to the first five points, I believe I could support each statement with enough proof-texts in Paul to show that this general outline is “Pauline.”

The challenge of the New Perspective is to start with the text in the proper historical climate.  Is it possible that this tight outline of systematic theology is not what Paul intended at all?

Bibliography:

Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and his Critics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004), 88-97.

The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction

It is hard to imagine a work on Paul’s theology which does not address the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP).  Since Ed Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1979, a landslide of books have been published developing and modifying his ideas.  The 2010 meeting of the Evangelical Society was almost entirely devoted to a discussion of the New Perspective, especially as expressed in the writings of N. T. Wright.  I heard papers decrying the New Perspective as an attack on the assured results of the Reformation (one paper concluded with a lengthy quite of the Westminster Confession, as if that somehow proved the point being argued!) I heard papers from Wright Fan-Boys taking his ideas as if he has somehow become the Pope of Evangelicalism.

Usually these sorts of scholarly arguments are confined to the Academy.  Several factors have dragged the New Perspective out of the University or Seminary classroom and into the popular media.  First, the growing popularity of N. T. Wright over the last ten years has brought these ideas to the public’s attention.  Wright has attempted to communicate at the popular level both in print and in his many speaking engagements every year.  Second, since Wright is perceived as a representative of the New Perspective, he has come under fire from advocates of the traditional view of Paul’s theology.  This too has taken place in more popular media than most academic debates.  John Piper wrote a very popular book which sought to correct Wright, although he more or less defends the traditional view of justification by faith.  Wright responded with a book intended for laymen, Justification. Third, in the last five years the phenomenon of the Blog has propelled otherwise arcane theological debates into the public eye.  Bloggers do not have the same level of accountability as a major publisher and are far more likely to describe Wright as an arch-heretic bent on destroying God-Ordained Reformation churches.  This sort of thing is picked up by pastors and teachers in local churches and trickles down to congregations.

The New Perspective is not a dangerous idea which will destroy the heart of Christianity, although it will force a reconsideration of some of the assumptions of the Protestant Reformation.  This is not to say it will turn Protestants into Catholics.  As Wright frequently says, all he is trying to do is to continue the reformation by being faithful to Scripture and accurately describing Paul’s theology. Of course, that is what advocates of the traditional formulation is doing too.

I find the reactions to Sanders, Dunn and Wright somewhat bewildering, mostly because I do not work within a context of a Protestant Reformed denomination.  I have always resonated with a more Calvinist view of salvation, but I am not bound by a commitment to a confession nor do I have a strong affinity for Luther and the reformation, although that is probably because my tradition moved beyond the reformation in Eschatology and Ecclesiology.  I agree with Wright that there is nothing wrong with “reforming the Reformation,” Calvin and Luther would want the discussion of Pauline theology to continue and make use of all of the evidence available today.

Because this is an important issue, I am going to devote five or six postings to the New Perspective in anticipation of my Pauline Theology and Literature class I will be teaching this fall.  Here is my plan for this series, I might add one or two more topics before I am finished.  Feel free to suggest a potential topic for the series.

  • What was the Old Perspective?
  • The Beginnings of the New Perspective:  Lake, Davies and Sanders
  • Wright and Dunn: A Newer Perspective?
  • Response to the New Perspective
  • Dispensational Theology and the New Perspective on Paul

I will admit that this is a brief overview.  Each of the topics ought to be a chapter of a book (they probably will be, eventually!)  I am confessing up front that this series is woefully inadequate for a full understanding of the topics.  For this reason I will provide a list of other resources for each post “for further study.”  My goal is to provide a brief orientation to the New Perspective on Paul so that a student may read other works on the New Perspective with some context.

More Free Books: The International Critical Commentary (ICC)

The International Critical Commentary (ICC) is one of the most important commentary series of the twentieth century.   I was quite pleased to find that volumes which have gone out of copyright are available through Google Books for free.  When I was in college I used to be able to buy volumes of the ICC for about $10, so most of these I own.  Several are very nice, well preserved books which I treasure.  I will always opt for the “real book” whenever possible, but thanks to Google these excellent commentaries are free to download.  The ICC is one of the truly great commentary series, preserving some of the best scholarship over the last 125 years.  Even thought many of the volumes have been replaced by more recent scholars, the original commentaries are worth having.

Many of the early volumes are still available used, although they are not particularly cheap.  W. R. Harper on Amos and Hosea is listed on Amazon in Hardback for $49.50, the “inexpensive” paperback reprint is available new for $43.  This reprint is printed on-demand from the same scan which appears on Google books at no cost.  Some of the less popular volumes can be found used for less that $20, but many are becoming quite rare.

There are several volumes which are essential commentaries to own.  Alfred Plummer on Luke is classic commentary everyone should have on their shelf (virtual or otherwise).  Volume one of R. H. Charles’ classic two-volume commentary on Revelation is available, although I cannot find volume two.  Sanday and Hendlam on Romans is another excellent commentary, although the author is listed as S. R. Driver, the editor of the series.  Ernest Burton on Galatians is still consulted by anyone working in Galatians.

A few of the volumes are interesting, although after 100 years, they are not particularly cutting edge.  Most commentary series have some volumes which are not as good as others, the ICC is no exception.  Toy on Ecclesiastes and Paton on Esther are worth reading, but they represent scholarly opinion which has in many ways been abandoned.    Likewise, while Driver’s commentaries on Genesis and Deuteronomy are pillars of the Documentary Hypothesis, they may very well boggle the mind today.  Yet, in my opinion, every volume in the series is worth owning (especially since they are free through Google Books).

There are some drawbacks to Google Books, however.  Even though there are four pages of books listed under International Critical Commentary, many are repeats with incorrect names.  For example, J. Skinner is listed as the author of the International Critical Commentary, but when you examine the book, it is actually Plummer’s Luke commentary.  Skinner did write the Genesis commentary in the ICC, and for some reason he is listed as the author on about a dozen volumes.  Because of the nature of the scans, these volumes cannot be searched, nor can you cut and paste text from the books.  The books are page scans, so you are viewing a graphic of the page, not text.  If you need search capabilities, Logos sells the entire collection in their searchable, indexed format.  This collection includes more recent volumes which are still under copyright.

Copies of the ICC can also be found at the Internet Archive in a variety of formats, but not all are very useful.  For example, I downloaded T. K. Abbott’s Commentary on Ephesians and Colossians in the Kindle / mobi format, and frankly the conversion was terrible.  Greek characters are not recognized and unreadable, many English characters are mis-read.  I tried the epub version, using Stanza on my iPad and found the text to be the same unreadable mess.  I was able to download the PDF file and read the scans, and the Internet Archive’s online reader displays the pages correctly.

I use Google Reader on my iPad and find the text quite readable, although I wish that the Google Reader app was a bit more intelligent.  For example, since the books are so badly tagged, I would like an easy way to change the way the book is indexed.  The author’s name occasionally wrong, I need to be able to fix this if the book is to be found in my growing collection of books.  In addition, Google Reader needs to have a way to create subgroups (OT Commentaries, NT Commentaries, sort by topic instead of author).  I expect the app to improve, but these seem like simple additions which ought to be made sooner rather than later.

I would recommend downloading all volumes of the ICC from Google Books, there is a wealth of scholarship waiting for you to use.

Psalm 23 – An Eschatological Reading (Part 2)

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]

In a previous post I argued that Psalm 23 should be read as a corporate song expressing the hope Israel has in their God as a Good Shepherd.  The song is laced with messianic hope for a future true Shepherd who will lead them out of the “valley of the shadow of death” to the House of the Lord, where they will live forever.  As I stated previously, the two metaphors (God as shepherd and God as host) are common metaphors expressing messianic hope in the Hebrew Bible and they are often paired (Ezekiel 34 and Isa 40-55, for example).

The presence of the Shepherd is a comfort to the flock.  Unlike Psalm 22, the worshiper feels the presence of God in a very real way and he is comforted by this.   While it is true that “to comfort does not mean to sympathise but to encourage,” (HALOT, 689, citing Elliger), the word has a very tender and compassionate undertone. It is often associated with comforting someone after the death of a loved one.  The word is used in Gen 37:35 to describe the effort of the family to comfort Jacob after Joseph appears to have been killed (cf. Jer 16:17).

The word appears in several Messianic contexts.  In Isa 61:2 the activities of the “anointed one” includes comforting those who mourn. This is the text Jesus read in Nazareth at the beginning of this ministry, directly applying it to himself as the Messiah, the good Shepherd who will comfort the one who mourns.  In Isa 66:13, when Jerusalem is restored, she will be comforted by the Lord as a mother comforts her child.

There are a number of texts which describe God as tenderly comforting Israel (Isa 1:21; Ps 71:21 86:17 119:82; God comforts his people Isa 49:13, 52:9, 66:13, God comforts Zion, Isa 51:3; Zech 1:17; Isa 51:12 Jer 31:13, Lam 2:13; Ps 119:76, with hesed).  Perhaps most significant for the argument I am making here is Jer 31:13 which describes the future time when God makes a New Covenant with his people.  “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”  The future age will be characterized by a reversal of Israel’s mourning (Lam 2:13).  Instead she will rejoice as the Lord tenderly comforts her.

Verse five has three metaphors which are usually found in the context of the Messiah elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.

Preparing a Table – Messianic Banquet.  This is a banquet eaten in the presence of the enemy.  This may be a result of a treaty (the enemy is invited to eat with the King who conquered them), or more likely the table is spread on the field of battle and the enemy is destroyed. To “spread a table” implies a sumptuous meal. While the word table can refer to any meal, it is used for a king’s banquet (Judg 1:7 1Sam 20:29, 34, 2Sam 9:7,10, 11, 13; 19:29 1Kings  2:7, 5:7 10:5 / 2 Chron 9:4; Dan 11:27; Neh 5:17), this does not have to be a table, but rugs spread out on the ground for a king to eat a banquet, as Isa 21:5.   The term is used of an eschatological banquet in Isa 65:11, the Lord sets a table for Fortune, and in Ps 78:19 it refers to God setting a table in the wilderness, in Prov 9:2 Lady Wisdom has prepared a table.)

Anointing with Oil – Messiah.  This is not the word typically used for anointed which becomes the title Messiah. The verb דשן in the piel has the connotation of refreshment or enrichment.  But since the object is the psalmist’s head, and oil is used to “refresh his head,” anointing with oil seems to be the meaning.  It is used in another messianic text, Psalm 45:7. The cognate noun is used to describe foods at the eschatological banquet, they are “fatty” (Isa 55:2, Jer 31:4, cf. Ps 36:9, 63:6, 65:12 for rich, abundant foods).  This word is also a connection between the end of Psalm 22 and Psalm 23.  Ps 22:30 may use a rare form of this verb meaning “grow fat.”

Overflowing Cup – The banquet described is abundant, the worshiper’s cup )goblet( of wine is never empty, it overflows.  The word is rare in the Hebrew Bible, but in cognate languages the verb has the idea of satisfaction of appetite and even drunkenness, but also irrigation, springs, a good water supply.

The psalm began with an affirmation of faith in the gracious provision of the Lord even in the midst of suffering, but it ends with a future hope that the Lord’s people will dwell in his presence forever.

Despite the fact that we tend to personalize Psalm 23, read in the context of the Hebrew Bible, it is likely that God as Shepherd implies Israel as sheep.  As the nation passes through the valley of the shadow of death, they need not be afraid since the Lord defends them and will comfort them when they suffer.

Psalm 23 – An Eschatological Reading

Psalm 23 is probably one of the most well-know texts in the entire Bible, one that provides comfort to those who have lost loved ones. It is often personalized – the Lord is my Shepherd, I will not want.  But that is not the original intent of the Psalm.  I want to argue in this short introduction to Psalm 23 that the nation of Israel as a whole is in view and that Psalm 23 is eschatological.  What follows is an application of my dissertation topic to Psalm 23.

The Psalm is associated with David, the original shepherd-king (verse 1).  As is well known, the phrase “of David” does not necessarily mean that David wrote the psalm, but in the case of Psalm 23 there is a certain attraction to the image of David watching his sheep, thinking about his relationship with God, and creating this song comparing that relationship to a Shepherd watching over his flock.

There may be more to this Psalm than a shepherd-king’s piety.  The song may very well have been created by David after he has become king.  Throughout his life he has certainly experienced the providential care of God, and he has certainly “walked through the valley of the shadow of death” many times in his rise to the throne.  The final two verses describe victory of enemies and an anointing with oil, perhaps alluding to the fact that David has been anointed officially as king, he has established peace in the Land, and his kingdom is prosperous (his cup overflows).  He looks forward to dwelling in the Lord’s house forever, perhaps an anticipation of building the Temple.

More likely, the psalm was written in order to express a hope in the future restoration of Israel, possibly during the exile.  The Psalm combines  two classic images of the future in the Hebrew Bible, a Good Shepherd and an eschatological banquet.  Just as David was a pious shepherd-king, the coming messiah will be the ultimate Good Shepherd who will host a victory banquet which inaugurates a new age of peace and prosperity for all Israel in the Land of the Promise.

In the Hebrew Bible the image of God as Shepherd is common (Isa 40, Jer 23, Ezek 34, Ps 80) as well as in the Ancient Near East (King Hammurabi, ANET, 164b; Shamash, ANET, 388). The nation of Israel is God’s flock, the king is to be a “good shepherd” and care for the flock on behalf of the owner.  The psalm could have in mind the experience of Israel in the wilderness, where God led them, provided for them, and brought them to the land of Promise. (A.A. Anderson, Psalms, 1:196–97; Craigie, Psalms 1–50 , 206-7, Willem A. VanGemeren disagrees, EBC, 7:215.)  Ezekiel 34 points out that the shepherds of Israel (the kings) have been terrible and the sheep (the people) are not taken care of properly.  The prophet therefore looks forward to a time when God will send a true and good shepherd who will care for the people properly.

The metaphor of the Lord as a host of a great banquet is also found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.  Isaiah 25:6-8 is the key passage for an eschatological banquet, but there are others.  Isaiah 40-55 describes the Lord leading Israel out of exile and providing for them a banquet in the wilderness as the people come out of Babylon and return once again to the land of the promise. This banquet celebrates God’s victory over his enemies and the restoration of the kingdom to Israel.  In fact,Ezekiel 34 combines the shepherd image with provision of food in a way similar to Psalm 23.

The combination of these two images (shepherd, host) is clearly messianic.  The Psalm looks forward to the time when the Lord will provide a Good Shepherd to rule over the people, but also to a king who will preside over a great victory banquet.  Jesus himself uses both the image of the Good Shepherd and the image of a banquet-host often in the gospels.  The Parable of the Good Shepherd in Luke 15, “my sheep hear my voice,” and other statements make it clear that Jesus presents himself to Israel as the expected Messiah.  Jesus’ table fellowship is often seen as an anticipation of the messianic banquet.  While there is no one text in the gospels which allude to Psalm 23, the traditions found in the psalm resonate with the teaching of the historical Jesus.

Psalm 23 therefore represents a blending of two messianic images, a shepherd and a banquet-host.  The canonical context is important – Psalm 22 concluded with an anticipation of an eschatological banquet at which the afflicted will eat and be satisfied, the prosperous will also eat and worship, but they will “bow down to the dust.”

Does this mean that reading the Psalm as God’s personal protection of individuals is wrong?  This may be a case where personal application is valid, even if it ignores the original meaning of the Psalm.