Romans and the New Perspective on Paul

John Polhill has a brief discussion of the New Perspective on Paul which packs a lot of the developments in Pauline theology into just about a page of text (Paul and his Letters, 296-97). Since Romans is such an important book for understanding Paul’s theology, this is a good place to pause in our survey of Paul’s letters and think about what effect the New Perspective has had on our perceptions of Faith and Works, justification and other classic Pauline topics.

martin-lutherThe so-called New Perspective on Paul offered a critique of the traditional view of Paul’s doctrine of justification and generated a fierce debate on both sides of the issue. Most of the writers who have challenged the established view of Pauline reconciliation have emphasized reconciliation as only one of many metaphors which Paul uses in order to describe salvation. E. P. Sanders, for example, does not want to privilege any one metaphor as the main or controlling idea for Paul’s soteriology, whether that metaphor is justification or not.

The core of Sanders’ argument is that Jews of the Second Temple period believed that they were a part of the covenant because of God’s election, and they remained part of the covenant on the basis of their good works. But even here it is not complete and totally adherence to every part of the Law, since no one could keep everything perfectly. Sanders therefore suggests that there was a sub-set of the Law which functioned as “boundary markers,” things which could function as defining who was “in” the covenant and who was “not in.” Sanders’ conception of Second Temple period Judaism under the rubric of “covenantal nomism” is an application of these last two emphases. Election is what gets one into the Covenant, if you are Israel then you are “in”; but what is it that maintains that relationship with God? Can someone find themselves outside of the covenant?

Most of the literature of this period asks this sort of question: What is it that defines “in the covenant.” In Maccabees it is Sabbath, circumcision and dietary Laws which are clear boundaries; in Jubilees and Enoch, the Qumran literature proper Calendar is included as a boundary marker, in Sirach it is a life of wisdom that marks out the elect.

With this in mind, one could argue that Romans or Galatians does not say that Jesus ended the Law, i.e., no one has to keep the Law anymore at all. Rather, Jesus ended the “boundary markers” which defined who was in or out of the covenant. Circumcision no longer was the sign of the covenant; the day of worship was not longer an issue; food taboos were no longer clear signs of right-standing with God. I am inclined to think that the calendar issues found in much of Second Temple period literature are behind some of Paul’s statements in Col 2:16, for example. The old boundary markers are done away; the people are God are to be defined as those who are “in Christ.”

What then does this do to the classic reformation formulation of Justification by Faith? Perhaps nothing, the doctrine may still be a correct inference from scripture. But if justification is simply one metaphor for salvation among many, perhaps the emphasis placed on justification as the central theme of Paul’s theology is over-played. I am not convinced it is, but the door is now open to other ideas from Paul which have been under-played for the last 400 years.

Romans 1:1 – “Set Apart by God”

Art by christina-mccowan“Set apart” might refer to Paul’s separation from Judaism, or his missionary activity (Acts 13:2.)  But it is more likely that the separation that Paul has in mind is his “consecration to a future task,” specifically the task of bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. Paul uses the word ἀφορίζω (aforizo) in both Gal 1:15 and this passage to describe his calling.  But the word is used in the Septuagint for setting apart a firstborn man or animal to God (Numbers 15:20) or  consecrating Levites to God’s service (Numbers 8:11).  In a few cases, the word is used to describe God  separating Israel from the nations to be his people (Lev. 20:26).

Paul chose this word to emphasize his belief that his life was something of a sacrifice to the Lord.  A sacrifice no longer lives its own life, but he is wholly given over to the purpose for which he was chosen.  But Paul takes this a bit further than a literal sacrifice – Paul set apart by God from birth (Gal 1:15)!   This is more like the prophet Jeremiah, who says that he was set apart for prophetic office before he was born (Jer  1:5).

Paul is separated for the purpose of the gospel of God.  Since most Christians have an idea of what the “gospel” is they overlook the rich background behind this word.   There is both an Jewish and Greco-Roman background to the “good news.”

Looking at the “good news” from the Jewish perspective, the word is associated with the coming time of eschatological judgment and salvation.  In the Hebrew Bible, the word בשׂר (bashar) is used in Isa 61:1, for example, to describe the activity of the anointed one, and is associated with both the coming of God’s salvation and his vengeance.  This word is translated as εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) in the LXX.  Jesus used the same phrase to describe both his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee (Matt 11:5 and Luke 7:22).

But the Roman world used the phrase “good news” as well.  They considered important events in the life of the Emperor as “good news” and celebrated them.  It is possible that this word was chosen intentionally to contrast the real good news of salvation with the false peace which comes from the Roman “good news.” This is a counter-cultural and dangerous idea, since it says that the “good news” about the emperor fades into insignificance in the light of the Gospel of God.

On one level, Paul is unique as one who was set apart by God to be the light to the Gentiles.  But on another level, Paul is a model for all Christians.  Later in the letter Paul says that all believers are to be a “living sacrifice” (12:1).  If Christians really lived out their “set apart”  calling, I think that the gospel could again be just as counter-cultural as it was in A.D. 55.

Book Review: Joseph H. Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry

Hellerman, Joseph H. Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2013. 313 pp. Pb; $17.99.  Link

In 2005 Joseph Hellerman published Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as cursus pudorum (SNTS 131; Cambridge University Press). There are a great deal of similarities between Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi and this new book published by Kregel Ministry. In fact, Embracing Shared Ministry draws on the insights of that earlier work and attempts to show that Paul’s vision of the church is counter to the Greco-Roman pursuit of honor and status.

HellermanThe first part of Embracing Shared Ministry concerns power and authority in the Roman world. Hellerman first describes social stratification in the Roman word, demonstrating that there was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power. In fact, Roman life can be described as a “Quest for Honor” (cursus honorum). The second chapter of the book shows the lengths to which a Roman might go in order to gain honor. Hellerman offers by way of example a tombstone of C. Luccius (A.D. 134), on which all of the honors achieved by the man are listed. In contrast to this, Paul offers his own list of honors in Phil 3:5-6, which he considers “rubbish.”

Any status Paul has as a Roman citizen or an elite member of Jewish society is of no value to him whatsoever. As Hellerman points out, this turned the Roman world upside down (p. 77). While members of Roman culture were motivated by self-promotion, members of Paul’s churches were to seek the honor of others and to think of others more highly than themselves. This flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99).

In the second part of his book, Hellerman applies the background he surveyed in the first part to the letter to the Philippians. He begins by point out that Paul simply identifies himself as a “slave” in Phil 1:1, despite the fact that a slave is the lowest class of person in the Roman world. In fact, Phil 2:5-6 will use that same language to describe Jesus.  In the Christ-Hymn Paul states that Jesus set aside his status as God and took on the status of a slave. Hellerman makes the point that this would be equivalent to a Roman senator setting aside his toga (his mark of status) and taking on the rags of a slave (also a mark of status). Because of that humble obedience, Jesus is exalted to the highest status imaginable, even above the emperor of Rome! That Jesus is called Lord is counter to a Roman world where Caesar is Lord and worshiped as a god (p. 167).

Is this view of Jesus “anti-imperial”? As Hellerman points out, “Paul’s agenda was not to influence the political process of Rome” (p.168). This means that “trendy academic portraits of anti-imperial Paul” are anachronistic.  Paul was not anti-Rome, although his gospel did subvert the social order by advocating Jesus as the Lord of a new social group. As I read Paul, I think that Hellerman is right that Paul is not consciously anti-Imperial, he in no way was advocating some sort of rebellion against the Empire. But the Gospel was so radical that it would erode the Empire if that Gospel practiced consistently. Perhaps the sad story of Church history is that by the time Christianity was the majority religion, it had become thoroughly Roman with respect to honor and status.

The third section of the book draws some very point application to contemporary Evangelicalism. At this point the book shifts from stories and illustrations drawn from the Greco-Roman world and focuses on real-world illustrations of the pursuit of honor and status in the church today.  These illustrations are drawn from Hellerman’s own experiences as a pastor and seminary professor. He is most interested in the problems of “corporate Christianity.” American Evangelical churches frequently turn pastors into CEOs who are expected to run their churches like they are big businesses. The problems with this church model are amply illustrated in two chapters with a number of anecdotes.

In the final chapter of the book, Hellerman makes some suggestions for returning to Paul’s vision for authentic ministry. It is no surprise at this point in the book that Hellerman argues that the church ought to have a “cruciform vision” for ministry. Rather than a CEO pastor, he advocates a “community of leaders” who together work as servant leaders who urge one another toward spiritual maturity and greater accountability. Just as Jesus set aside his honor and status as God in order to be a servant, Paul told his churches to set their own honor and status aside to serve one another. For Hellerman, that is the only effective model for the church today (p. 286).

Conclusion. What I find remarkable is that this book published by Kregel Ministry. It certainly is a book that pastors ought to read and the application of the book is important for developing vital ministry that seeks to live out the model of Jesus as the ultimate servant in modern communities. But this is not some sort of a post-emergent “let’s get back to Jesus” book. Nor is this book a popular leadership manual with plenty of pithy quotes and trendy jargon. Hellerman presents the data from the Roman world, applies it to the letter to the Philippians in order to tease out the nuances of the text modern readers simply miss. He then bridges the gap between that world and the modern world in order to challenge modern churches to follow Christ in a more authentic fashion.

I think that this book will appeal to scholars who study Greco-Roman backgrounds to the New Testament. Do not ignore this book because it was published in a ministry series since it collects most of the data from Reconstructing Honor in a handy (and less expensive) format. Pastors may find this a challenging read, but there is a treasury of background material here that will enhance teaching and preaching of the letter to the Philippians.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – Praying with Heads Covered

Nero as Priest

William M. Ramsay on cites Dio Chrysostom to the effect that the custom of women going veiled in Tarsus was an oriental and non-Greek custom, Paul is merely reflecting his own (Jewish) background by requiring women wear head coverings (The Cities of St. Paul, 201-5).  Because of the popularity of Ramsey’s works on Paul, this theory is often repeated in modern commentaries, but it seems odd that Paul would impose this one Jewish custom on congregations when he frees them from so many other Jewish customs.

The application of this rather obscure command is usually some vague platitude that women should be dressed modestly.  If the culture includes head coverings in this then the woman ought to not offend the culture.  No one ever points out that if this is the true application, then a woman visiting a culture which is comfortable with public nudity is free to “fit right in” when they visit the beach!

I seriously doubt that modesty is the issue Paul is trying to get at in 1 Corinthians 11.  There is clear evidence in the Greco-Roman world of prostitutes wearing head coverings.  There are several artistic representations of groups of women with or without head coverings.  There is simply no evidence that head coverings were universal in the Greco-Roman world!

Based on his study of Roman statues, D. W. J. Gill has argued that it was a Roman convention to cover the head while praying or offering a libation. There are two well-known statues from Corinth, one of Nero and one of Augustus with their heads veiled. It was the leader of a prayer or sacrifice that would cover their heads, the congregation (if any) would not necessarily do so. Gill argues that the social elite in Corinth also practiced head covering while praying or participating in a sacrifice. Since the passage in 1 Cor 11 seems to cover the whole congregation, perhaps it is only the prophets who are speaking in the congregation that are covering their heads while prophesying (in 14:29 only two or three ought prophesy).

The problem in Corinth is that the Christians are (continuing) to take their cues for worship from the pagan world.  They are worshiping in the same way that they would have in a pagan rite, Paul is rejecting this mixing of the world with the Church.

If the problem that is at the heart of the veiling of men / unveiling of women is taking worship cues from the pagan world, then there is a most serious application possible.  How far we want to take this application is quite controversial, from the mega-church movement to modern praise and worship services, it is possible that the American church has taken its cues from the pagan world rather than from the Bible.  The modern American church seems to be following MTV rather than the NIV.

There is always a tension between cultural relevancy for the sake of evangelism and participating in the world because we enjoy it.  It is possible that is what was happening in Corinth.  The members of the church of Corinth were routinely acting like the world without taking into consideration how their new Christian world view speaks to a practice (sexual mores, lawsuits, feasts and banquets at temples, etc.)

The veiling of women / men may seem like a minor problem to use (“it’s just cultural”) but that misses the whole point.  If these people were indistinguishable from the world in their worship, how were they going to effectively evangelize their culture?

Bibliography:

D. W. J. Gill, “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 41 (1990): 246-60.
C. T. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Headcoverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth” BA (1988): 99-115.

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 – Lawsuits in the Church

There appear to have been problems with Christians within the church suing each other in a court of law rather than dealing with the matter “within the family” (6:1-8). We are not told what the content of the lawsuits might be, but it is possible that these are lawsuits the results of perceived insults by members of the “parties” within the church. Perhaps a member of the Paul group insulted a member of the Peter group, who responded as any good Roman would by making a lawsuit against the offender. Imagine a typical argument in a classroom which spills over into Facebook insults which then results in a lawsuit, a counter lawsuit, and a major clash in a court of law.

Frivolous LawsuitAs strange as it sounds, this is the sort of thing which happened in the Roman world. Dio Chrysostom reports that the Roman word of the late first century was filled with “lawyers innumerable, twisting judgments.” (Cited by Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 62). These lawsuits were politically motivated, between members of the rich and elite class (or want-to-be elite.) These lawsuits were opportunity for young orators to show off their rhetorical talents before the elite citizens (the judge, magistrate, jurors, etc.)

Paul’s solution to the problem is to “shame” them for suing their brothers. Shame is an important factor in first century personal politics. Paul says twice in this letter that he desires to put the church to shame over some behaviors (here and drunkenness in chapter 11.) If the lawsuits were motivated by a perceived loss of honor in the first place, Paul turns a popular expectation upside down by saying that it is a loss of honor for a Christian to take his brother to court.

This therefore is the “shame”: they are suing family members. Paul frequently refers to his readers as “brothers” to emphasize that the Church is a new family rather than a social club. A person is not suing some stranger who has insulted them, they are suing brothers. The Romans did not approve of intra-family lawsuits, therefore Paul is emphasizing brotherhood of the believers.

Paul does not recommend going through a private arbitrator to solve disputes, as was the right of citizens. He says that they church ought to be able to deal with such disputes within the family. There are people within the congregation, presumably, that are styling themselves as orators, and all of the citizens would be familiar with the process of arbitration. Paul is saying that the church ought to function like a family, brothers dealing with one another with “strife and discord.”

How do we “bridge the gap” and apply this sort of teaching in a modern, local church context? At the very least, the church needs to return to the truth than all members of the Body of Christ are brothers and that it is a loss of honor to treat a family member like a stranger. This alone would have a positive effect on the local church.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 – Gluttons and Drunks in the Church

Drunken Satyr

When he writes to the Corinthians, Paul must correct the church because of of their behavior at private banquets (6:12-20). The issue here is going to banquets given by the rich and elite of the city. There is a great deal of evidence concerning the types of things that went on at a Roman banquet of the first century from contemporary writers.

Bruce Winter gathers a number of references from Plutarch describing the combination of gluttony, drunkenness and sexual immorality that were a part of the “after-dinners” as he calls them. There was an association between gluttony and sexual excess, as is seen from the well known saying reported by Plutarch, “in well-gorged-bodies love (passions) reside.” The writer Athenaeus said that the goddess Cypris (Aphrodite) does not visit the poor, “in an empty body no love of the beautiful can reside.” Plutarch also said that in “intemperate intercourse follows a lawless meal, inharmonious music follows a shameless debauch” (Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 84).

These banquets would only have been attended by the rich elite of the city of Corinth. The poor were not invited, only those of some social standing. In Corinth there was a major city-wide banquet for all citizens celebrating the games. Not only would there have been pressure to attend these banquets on a social level, there was the added pressure of begin a good citizen of Corinth and of Rome.

These sorts of banquets are in the background of 1 Corinthians. Members of the church are not visiting brothels as we might think of it today. They are attending meals with the elite of Corinth, either hosted in the home of a wealthy patron of the city or in a temple. The practice was considered not only acceptable, but in some cases required for social mobility. If one wanted to gain the favor of a wealthy patron in order to advance a business plan, then attendance at a banquet hosted by the patron was a necessity.

Why would the Corinthian Christians think that they had a right to participate in these banquets? Paul seems to have taught them that Christians are to be separate from such activities, and the strong Jewish ethic of many of the founders would have argued against going to a temple, eating food sacrificed to idols, and participating in the “after-dinners.”

It appears at the very least that some Gentile converts to Christianity did not see this kind of activity as “sin.” As with most of the problems Paul treats in 1 Corinthians, the congregation was slow to de-paganize and think about these behaviors through the lens of their new faith. The practice of going to temples to share meals with the elite of Corinth was socially desirable for the wealthy (and “wanna-be” elite). Perhaps individuals in the church thought they had to do their civic duty by doing to the banquets (a virtue) and did not yet see the additional practices as a vice yet.

This is a very challenging point for contemporary church life. While I do not think that many evangelical Christians are participating in civic orgies, we do seem to tolerate immoral actions among those who are elite citizens (or think that they are elite). A very obvious application is attitudes towards people in public office. The ones who agree with our politics are held to a far less rigorous moral standard than those we disagree with. It does not take too long to think of many examples if this sort of thing.

What are the sorts of behaviors that are accepted (or forbidden) by local congregations in order to better fit into contemporary culture?

A. T. Robertson, Paul, the Interpreter of Christ (Logos Free Book of the Month)

Logos has been giving away a free book each month for the last couple of years. This month they are offering a free copy of A. T. Robertson, Paul, the Interpreter of Christ for the Logos Library. This 154 page book is fully formatted for the Logos Library with real page numbers. All the features of Logos are available and the book will appear in the user’s library on both the desktop version of Logos and the iOS Logos app.

If we stop studying Paul, we shall miss much of Christ. A. T. Robertson, Paul, the Interpreter of Christ, p. 6.

AT RobertsonA. T. Robertson (1863-1934) is perhaps best known his massive A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research. His Word Pictures in the New Testament was a standard work for pastors for many years. He taught at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville until he died in 1934.  Paul, the Interpreter of Christ was published in 1921 and is a companion to his life of Paul (Epochs in the Life of Paul, 1914). He tries to show that Paul did know Jesus, but interpreted him in a way that was distinct from Peter: “It was not a new Christ that Paul had to preach, but he had a more just perspective of the world-mission of Christ than any of the apostles had yet grasped (p.21-22)”

This book deals with some of the problems relating the message of Jesus and Paul. This is a topic which continues to be discussed in contemporary scholarship. David Wenham’s Did Paul Get Jesus Right (Kregel, 2010) and the essays in Todd Still, Jesus and Paul Reconnected (Eerdmans, 2007) indicate that there is a great deal of interest in showing that Paul was an accurate interpreter of Jesus, while Pamela Eisenbaum’s Paul was not A Christian (Harper, 2009) separates Paul from Jesus (or at least the later interpretations of Jesus).

Since the book is long past copyright, it appears in a variety of formats at the Internet Archive, and I did notice someone trying to sell it for $2.99 in the Kindle store. Most of the time these are books I already owned because they were part of some collection I had purchased in the past.  For some reason, this one is new to me. In fact, I enjoyed reading the book as I teach Pauline Lit this semester!

The offer expires at the end of October 2013, so head on over to Logos and get this free book for your Logos library.