Romans and the New Perspective

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 (P&HL, 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.

The 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 1 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.

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.

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.

Polhill on the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)

I realize I have wrestled with this question quite a bit lately, but I ought to address the Jerusalem Conference and Galatians one more time since I ran across something interesting on the issue.

In Polhill’s chapter on Galatians in Paul and his Letters (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999) it is less than clear if he believes that Galatians comes before or after the Jerusalem council. He gives both sides of the argument and deals with Galatians after the council. I was under the impression that he was opting for the later view, which he states clearly as his view on page 111 of P&HL. In his excellent commentary on Acts, he says “Although the two accounts contain significant differences, the similarities seem to outweigh these, and it is probable that they relate to the same event” and a bit later “it will be assumed in the commentary that follows that Paul and Luke were referring to the same conference” (Acts, NAC 26; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) page 321.

However, John Pollhill also wrote the notes on Acts for the ESV Study Bible. In this shorter commentary on Acts, he states “Though some scholars think that Paul is referring to this meeting in Gal 2:1-10, it is better to see that passage as referring to private contacts made during his famine relief visit to Jerusalem” (ESVSB, 2114). I suppose this indicates some change of thought for Polhill on the chronology of Acts and Galatians.

It is good to know that scholars develop their ideas over time.