Reinventing Paul

Book Review

John G. Gager (Oxford University Press), 2000, 198 pp.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Krantz

In his recent book, Reinventing Paul, Gager has perhaps less reinvented than recovered the Apostle to the Gentiles. Through a concise review of the results of recent Pauline scholarship, he lifts Paul from the historical distortions of his theology that have plagued the Church since its inception and allows him to stand as a cogent defender of his gospel and the inclusion of the Gentiles.

Though he does so without overbearing detail, Gager pursues his argument first by citing, and then refuting, via the work of several recent authors, the traditional views that lie behind the portrait of the “old Paul.” His willingness to engage a reading of Paul with which he has obviously little patience is a mark of his desire to help bring about the end of the anti-Judaic Paul and to give future Christian readings of the Apostle a more firm and less distorted foundation. He cites the unspoken tendencies of Paul’s exegetes that lead them inexorably to their mistaken conclusions:

1) Reading back into Paul from later times, importing views developed much later (especially the rejection/replacement view of Israel and the Church)

2) Drawing unjustified universal conclusions from Paul’s particular circumstances, and

3) Reading Paul against Judaism.

Gager maintains that it is not necessary for the interpreter to throw up her hands when confronted with passages like Romans 3:1 or 11:1 and declare that Paul is unrescuably inconsistent. It is necessary to:

1) keep Paul’s audience (Gentiles) always before us and

2) understand his rhetorical strategies.

Having given, in digest form, a recounting of the sources of the dominant image of Paul, Gager goes on to describe the new directions being taken in Pauline studies. This movement toward a more true “Paul” centers itself on Paul’s self-description as “Apostle to the Gentiles” and sees all Paul’s references to Torah, or law, as being applicable only to them. “When Paul appears to say something (e.g., about the law and Jews) that is unthinkable from a Jewish perspective, it is probably true that he is not talking about Jews at all. Instead we may assume that the apostle to the Gentiles is talking about the law and Gentiles.” In other words, through the faith of Christ, Paul believes that God is saving Gentiles as Gentiles.

The other dominant factor in the interpretation of Paul becomes an understanding of the complex rhetorical nature of his letters. Paul is demonstrated to have resorted to the use of “voices” other than his own in his writings, so as to engage his opponents, and to have written in the guise of the “unreliable author” that he might lead his readers/hearers to a position he specifically wants to refute.

Chapters three and four of Gager’s book deal with the portions of Galatians and Romans whose mis-readings have undergirded the old, anti-Judaism Paul. My one regret is that Gager nowhere makes mention of Mark Nanos’ recent book, The Mystery of Romans. Gager writes off the specifics of Paul’s audience in Romans as unrecoverable, where Nanos’ reconstruction would only have supported and nuanced, in many ways, his conclusions.

Gager may be criticized for having dealt so quickly with so heavy a subject as he does. Indeed, he does not, like E. P. Sanders, refute the positions he seeks to undermine point by point. His endnotes, however, are clear and easily used, and they provide the reader with a great many resources that deal with the subjects in much greater detail.

It is no longer excusable for a student of the New Testament to paint Paul as the opponent of the “straw-man” of Pharisaic Judaism created by Bauer et al. The image of Paul as the proto-Lutheran will no longer stand. Gager’s book gives the average student of the New Testament an accessible doorway into the “new perspective” on Paul that is emerging, a perspective that we can only hope will one day usher in a whole new understanding, and further repentance on the part of the Church for its triumphalism and anti-Judaism.

Reinventing Paul

Book Review

John G. Gager, William H. Danforth Professor of Religion at Princeton University (Oxford UniversityPress), 2000, 198 pp.

When World War II finally ended in 1945 and thereafter, as the details of the Nazi Holocaust became known, there was an outpouring of shock and outrage unprecedented certainly after any of the other wars of the twentieth century. But it only slowly dawned upon the Christian world that there was somehow at the heart of this horror a whisper, a hint, an unease of conscience or fear that there was something more going on here than simple inhuman brutality. Could there have unwittingly been — only form the words silently on your lips — Christian complicity? Had the words, “His blood be on us and on our children,” written out in Holy Scripture, finally reached the apogee of their trajectory?

Whatever the reasons, among them, perhaps, an uneasy Christian conscience, the years since the second World War have seen the beginnings of a Christian reaching out to Judaism that is without parallel in the two thousand year history of the Church. The story of this historic rapprochement is long and involved and not what is being written about here, but one of the key participants has been Pope John Paul II who spoke the words to the assembled German Rabbinical Conference in the Cathedral Museum of Mainz, November 1980, (referring to the Jewish people): “The people of God of the old covenant never revoked by God.”

The old covenant never revoked? Surely that must mean that Jews and Christians stand seeking justification, each under their own covenant, on an equal footing before the God we both worship. And although the Protestant world does not speak with a single voice much of it has trodden the same theological path.

Until 1977 Christian New Testament scholarship, nearly without exception, drew its understanding of first century Judaism from the works of Ferdinand Weber, E. Schürer, W. Bousset and Paul Billerbeck. Weber was the earliest. In 1880 he published a work in German called System der altsynagogalen palästinischen Theologie, an attempt to work out a systematic theology of Judaism in the time of Jesus and Paul. His student W. Bousset was in turn the teacher of Rudolph Bultmann, perhaps the most influential New Testament scholar in the first half of the twentieth century. Bultmann’s immense reputation was substantially responsible for the more or less uncritical acceptance of Weber’s perspective among contemporary New Testament scholars. And Weber’s view of first-century Judaism was not friendly. He saw the Judaism he wrote about as an incomplete, imperfect, unsatisfactory religion, steeped in legalism and mired down in a system of works-righteousness that had an inaccessible God employed as the accountant-in-chief toting up the good deeds in one column of the record book against the sins of the poor hapless Jew in another.

There were dissenters from this view, C.G. Montefiore for one, and George Foot Moore, who published between 1927 and 1930 a three volume work called Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim that should have effectively destroyed Weber’s work. But it didn’t. The world of New Testament scholarship sailed blithely on, ignoring the work of Montefiore and Moore, comfortably ensconced in the arms of a patronizing, if not overtly hostile, conception of Jewish religion in the first centuries of the Christian era. That is, until E.P. Sanders published in 1977 a bombshell of impeccable scholarship called Paul and Palestinian Judaism. With Sanders the gloves came off. He called his shots explicitly, stating that it was his intention to demolish the Weber-Bousset-Bultmann thesis once and for all. And he did, in page after page of detailed references and analysis of the original documents, which until he took the trouble of studying them had been mostly available to scholars only in a series of extracts published by Paul Billerbeck. Sanders showed Billerbeck’s choice of extracts to be biased and tendentious, frequently parading obscure and minority opinions as mainline rabbinical thought and exegesis.

This brings us to Paul. Sanders realized that a new view of Judaism in the first Christian centuries entailed a reevaluation of Paul, and the final section of his book makes a new effort in that direction. Part of the reason Christian scholars had embraced the Weber-Bousset-Bultmann view of Judaism for so long had been that it fit so neatly with the Christian perception of Judaism that Paul seemed to be struggling against, and the Judaism and Pharisaism that is handled so roughly in the Gospels. But the Gospels were all written during an early period when the Church was in open conflict with Judaism, and that writing in those circumstances was polemical in nature and intent.

For two thousand years, Paul has been a bone sticking in the throat of any possible Jewish/Christian dialogue. Throughout much of Christian history, perhaps dating even from the writing of the book of Acts, Paul has been seen as in conflict with Judaism, as attacking the validity of the law, as embracing salvation by grace through faith against the supposedly Jewish concept of justification by works, as rejecting the old covenant in favor of the new, and portraying Israel as replaced by the new creation in Christ. Jews have traditionally seen Paul as either unredeemably heretical or else plain crazy, and they have been unable to discern in Paul’s letters any recognizable Judaism as they know it.

Is it possible Paul has been misread and misunderstood for these two thousand years? This is an issue for both Jewish and Christian scholars, and today, prompted at least in part by new Christian approaches to Judaism, there are many Jewish as well as Christian scholars studying and writing about Paul. This ongoing reevaluation of Paul is far from complete. We are at the stage of debate, not even close to the stage of consensus.

The beginning of the revolution in Pauline studies dates to 1961 when Krister Stendhal, Lutheran Bishop in Sweden and more recently Dean of the School of Divinity at Harvard University, delivered an address later published in the Harvard Theological Review in 1963 entitled, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” Among Stendhal’s insights: (1) Paul lived and died a Jew. He had no concept of Christianity (a term unknown to Paul) as a new religion. (2) Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road could not have been “from Judaism to Christianity”. Paul’s own understanding of his experience was that he was thereby appointed by God to be “Apostle to the Gentiles.” (3) It is St. Augustine’s discovery of Paul’s “introspective conscience” and Martin Luther’s focus on “justification by faith” that have led later interpreters to impose meanings on Paul that are diametrically opposite to what Paul actually said.

A succession of scholars have progressively brought Paul closer and closer to his Jewish roots, including E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, Daniel Boyarin, Lloyd Gaston, Stanley Stowers, and most recently John G. Gager in Reinventing Paul.

Gager begins with a series of antinomies found in Paul’s writings, among them, “Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law” (Gal. 3:11), over against, “Do we overthrow the law through faith? By no means. On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31). Will the real Paul please stand up? Can such contradictions be resolved?

Gager insists they can, and the means to do so is by paying very close attention to whom Paul is speaking, and who it is he is speaking about. For instance, many of Paul’s negative comments about the law are not addressed to Jews in general but rather specifically to a group of his gentile converts, and it is for them, these gentile converts, that the law is of no value or even a curse.

According to Gager, Paul believed that Jesus was sent by God so that gentiles could be saved, not as proselytes to Judaism, but as gentiles through faith in Jesus Christ. When Paul writes to his Galatian converts in Galatians 5:2 “if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no profit for you,” what he means is, “if you become a Jew then Christ’s mission to save you as a gentile is wasted.”

Did Paul believe then that there were two ways to salvation, one for Jews under the old covenant and one for gentiles through Jesus Christ? Perhaps, in the short term, but not ultimately, for there is one passage where Paul reveals his eschatological beliefs: 1 Corinthians 15:24-28.

Then comes the end when he (Christ) delivers the kingdom to God after destroying every ruler…. When all things are subjected to him (God), then the Son himself will also be subjected to him (God) who put all things under him (Christ), so that God may be everything to everyone (or all in all).

And thus, Gager says, Paul shows himself in the end to be a thoroughly Jewish monotheist.

It may be there are still dozens of books to be written on “the new perspective on Paul” and hundreds of articles in learned theological journals to appear before a scholarly consensus is found. But this speech in the debate is a knockout.

Reviewed by Robert Egolf

Paul in Israel’s Story – Self and Community at the Cross

Book Review

John L. Meech (Oxford University Press), 2006, 192  pp.

This book from the AAR Academy Series is an impressive interdisciplinary work which moves nearly seamlessly through the fields of biblical theology, systematic theology, and philosophy. Although properly speaking it perhaps falls into the category of what Pamela Eisenbaum has characterized as a “neotraditionalist” reading of Paul (meaning the traditional approach considered in light of the new perspective), nevertheless Meech’s work demonstrates a nuanced systematic reading of Paul which arguably articulates what many biblical scholars have (in my opinion) not as successfully envisioned — a hypothetical “post-new perspective perspective.” This is in part precisely because Meech sidesteps focused biblical debate in a larger philosophical quest to address the postmodern problem of the self as articulated by Paul Ricoeur.

Specifically, although not uniquely, Meech begins by lessening the tension between Luther and the new perspective by reading Luther’s doctrine of justification against the background of the eschatological community as constituted in Christ (cf. pp. 12,13). In proceeding to lay out a biblical interpretation of Paul’s self-understanding, Meech chooses as his principal dialogue partners James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, Terence Donaldson, and Stephen Westerholm. Theologically Meechconsiders himself a Bultmannian (cf. p. 5), although he strongly argues that a critical reappraisal ofBultmann is essential.

Specifically, while following Bultmann in asserting that a transcendent encounter with the risen Lord can be articulated in phenomenological terms (cf. p. 46), Meech rejects Bultmann’s eschatology as being empty of content, preferring instead Jürgen Moltmann’s account of the community of the living and dead in Christ. More to the point, and this is what occupies most of Meech’s book, Bultmann’sattempt to move directly from Paul’s interpretative horizon to our own by means of his program of demythologization is supplanted by a series of detours as articulated by Paul Ricoeur in addressing the problem of the self as other. Meech further qualifies Ricoeur’s work by emphasizing the self in the context of a community. Writing of Paul’s shift in his self-understanding, Meech draws together his biblical, theological, and philosophical arguments:

Paul fails to recognize his community with Jesus because of a misdirection of the community’s aim in Paul and others. In what Paul later articulates as an encounter with the risen Christ, he is confronted by a silent suffering other who cannot be articulated in his community’s story. When he retells the community’s story so that Jesus can appear as a living body like himself, Paul can finally represent Christ’s suffering as his own (“I bear on my body the brandmarks of Jesus,” Gal. 6:17). In this reconfigured story, a more original community of persons is disclosed in which each person is a living body. Paul shifts from one who confidently addresses his world to one who is addressed by a new referent — the crucified and risen Christ. That the referent is new does not mean that Paul’s reconfiguration created it. Rather, in retrospect he can say that his community always bore witness to Christ and that the community is continuous in its embrace of this other despite its former misdirection. Paul narrates this concordant discordance as the community’s dying and rising with Christ and locates his own dying and rising in the community (p. 132).

Those who, like myself, remain somewhat less than enthusiastic about Luther and Bultmann should nevertheless be able to appreciate Meech’s correctives vis-à-vis Moltmann, Ricoeur, and an emphasis on community in articulating an approach to Paul’s self-understanding. Regardless of whether this approach proves compelling in the long run, nevertheless Meech’s thoughtful book should be considered seriously as a welcome and long overdue initial systematic treatment of key Pauline themes in the newly reconfigured landscape of Pauline biblical studies and contemporary philosophical discourse. It will be very interesting to see how future works explore this otherwise uncharted territory.

Mark M. Mattison

Paul and the Mosaic Law

Book Review

James D.G. Dunn, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 2001, 376 pp.

Though not an introductory book to the subject, nor a book for beginners, Paul and the Mosaic Lawis nevertheless an indispensable work for those studying the new perspective on Paul. Originally published in 1996 as volume 89 of Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, this book is a compilation of essays from the third Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium on Earliest Christianity and Judaism, held at St. John’s College in Durham in September of 1994. For this 2001 edition, the German essays have been translated into English.

Unfortunately, the editing is poor. The Hebrew and Greek are inconsistently transliterated and the book is riddled with typographical errors to the point of distraction. The English-speaking reader should also be forewarned that the non-English citations are generally not translated. Nevertheless, the book brings together essays by some of the world’s most accomplished New Testament scholars in a stimulating way. It preserves a spirited exchange between Stephen Westerholm and Heikki Räisänen, intruiging suggestions by Peter J. Tomson about Paul’s understanding of halakah for Gentile Christians, and several exegetical gems scattered throughout.

The opening essay by Hermann Lichtenberger appropriately sets the tone with a helpful survey of the law in Qumran, the Septuagint, the Pseudepigrapha, Philo, and Josephus, though his treatment seems a little choppy and all too brief. Martin Hengel immediately follows with an intriguing reconstruction of Paul’s ministry in the unknown years between Damascus and Antioch.

Graham Stanton’s essay makes some valuable points near the end, including a compelling reason to regard the “elemental things of the world” in Galatians 4:3 as the elemental pairs of Jew-Gentile, etc., rather than demonic powers.

Some of the essays are pedantic, particularly the ones providing word-for-word exegetical studies, but others are captivating. N.T. Wright argues with his usual eloquence for his view of Romans 2, almost (but not quite) convincing this reviewer that the law-abiding Gentiles in that chapter are Christians. Richard Hays’ treatment of the different aspects of law in Romans 3 and 4 is particularly good, and Bruce W. Longenecker makes some important contributions to the issue of covenant theology in his treatment of Galatians 2:15-21.

Stephen C. Barton provides a helpful political and sociological context for Paul’s effort to be “all things to all people,” pointing out that it “is by no means only a ‘missionary’ principle, as is often assumed. Indeed, its primary connotation here is a pastoral-political principle to do with compromise and self-denial for the sake of church unity” (p. 279).

John M.G. Barclay’s essay articulates the case for the “weak in faith” in Romans 14 being law-observant Christians, together with the consequent irony of the pastoral implications for the “weak.”

Finally, James D.G. Dunn concludes the volume by assessing the impact of the symposium and providing intimate glimpses into the discussions surrounding the presentation of the papers. He clarifies points of agreement, among them “that Paul’s principal treatment of the law in his letters was formulated in dialogue and dispute not with non-Christian Jews, but with fellow Christian Jews. This at once cuts the nerve of much of the charge of anti-Judaism laid against Paul” (p. 310). He also writes that “no one seemed to want to maintain that Second Temple Judaism taught the need for ‘perfection’ in law-keeping” (p. 312), though that idea is alluded to at a couple of points in the book.

Some issues are eloquently argued but ultimately unresolved throughout the volume, such as whether pistis Christou means “faith in Christ” or “faith(fulness) of Christ,” and how to balance continuity and discontinuity with reference to the law. But consensus in an exchange such as this is unlikely, and the differences are guaranteed to stimulate serious reflection.

Without a doubt, this important work belongs on the bookshelf of every student of Pauline theology. The way that the symposium brings together a diversity of viewpoints into dialogue is encouraging. It would be even more exciting, from this reviewer’s viewpoint, to see Jewish, feminist, and liberation theologians brought into the dialogue as well. Contributors from the two-thirds world (often referred to as “the third world”) in particular could help to bring some critical insights to bear on the issue of the new perspective on Paul.

Reviewed by Mark M. Mattison

Paul: A Short Introduction

Book Review

Morna D. Hooker (Oxford: One World Publications), 2003, 176 pp.

If you’re looking for an introductory textbook on Paul, you probably won’t find a better one thanMorna D. Hooker’s Paul: A Short Introduction. Concise yet thorough, Hooker’s small book covers every significant aspect of current Pauline studies. Though writing in a non-technical way for the reader with little theological background, she nevertheless articulately describes the current state of Pauline studies.

Hooker begins by carefully explaining the most basic issues — the legacy of Paul, the problems of reading Paul’s biography from Acts, the problem of determining Pauline authorship, and so on. Students who are new to Pauline studies will find these opening chapters invaluable.

This book is firmly grounded in the new perspective on Paul (cf. pp. 120,145,146) — Hooker argues lucidly that Paul was “thoroughly Jewish in his thinking and his approach” (p. 146). He was neither the creator of Christianity nor the distorter of Jesus’ original message (p. 148). Hooker closely associates Paul’s “calling” (as apostle to the Gentiles) with his “conversion” (pp. 22,60,107), identifies Paul’s Galatian opponents as Jewish Christians (p. 60), and works coherently through texts like Galatians 3:10-14 (p. 43).

In her treatment of justification, however, Hooker emphasizes simple trust in what God has done in order to achieve righteousness (p. 73), apparently implying the traditional idea of Gentiles being justified like Abraham rather than because of Abraham (cf. pp. 44,65). On the other hand, her treatment of “righteousness” on pp. 73ff is informative.

Hooker’s treatment of key christological texts is closer perhaps to Dunn than to Wright (cf. p. 50, although cp. p. 58 n. 18). Also like Dunn, Hooker interprets Paul’s teaching on the atonement in terms of representation rather than substitution (pp. 92-95). Like Sanders, she emphasizes participation in Christ’s death and new life. On the translation of pistis Christou, she is closer to Hays than to Dunn, preferring “faith of Christ” over “faith in Christ” (pp. 105,106) — reflecting the broad consensus of Pauline scholars.

More importantly, however, the book succeeds where it most counts. She argues lucidly against misogynist interpretations of Paul (cf. pp. 128,129,144) and treats with sensitivity the problem of the misappropriation of Pauline texts. For instance, in addressing the problem of slavery she writes that “It was surely a gross misinterpretation of Paul’s teaching to suppose that what he said about abouthow one should behave within a particular social system gave approval to that social system for all time” (p. 144). Although some of her arguments may not be fully compelling to those with a more liberationist approach (cf. pp. 118,119), nevertheless she is acutely aware of and sensitive to the issues.

Most significantly, Hooker ably demonstrates that Paul was not anti-Jewish (cf. pp. 145,146), aptly illustrating the point by considering Luther’s approach to Paul. When the language of an intra-Jewish debate was re-read after the break of Christianity with Judaism, it appeared much more sinister.

Accessible yet academic, Hooker’s book is a valuable resource. Not every book needs to break new ground and explore novel theses. Sometimes a good summary of an already established consensus is more useful.

Mark M. Mattison

Contours of Pauline Theology – A Radical New Survey of the Influences on Paul’s Biblical Writings

Book Review

Tom Holland, Scotland, UK: Mentor, 2004, 392 pp.

Generally speaking, conservative Reformed criticisms of the new perspective on Paul strike me as lackluster and predictable. That cannot be said, however, of Tom Holland’s new book, which is bound to shake loose some long-standing presuppositions in Pauline studies.

The book is not without its weaknesses. Holland’s apparent anxiety about the contributions of liberal scholarship (a hallmark of conservative works) can be slightly distracting. One may also question whether Holland has adequately made his case that the literature of second-temple Judaism is too fragmentary to provide much insight into Pauline studies, while at the same time apparently presupposing that nothing stood culturally between the texts of ancient Israel and Paul’s understanding of those texts. The significance of intertestamental writings, many of us believe, is that they serve as reference points in recovering the way in which Jews of that time understood their Scriptures, and considering the fact that we know Paul only through a scattered collection of letters bearing his name, one could very well argue that understanding the apostle’s thought is actually more challenging than understanding the thought of other authors of the time, and quite frankly we can use all the help we can get.

Nevertheless, Holland argues his case well and with refreshing verve (his analogy on pp. 65 and 66 is particularly interesting). These methodological differences aside, Holland’s book raises enough questions about traditional assumptions to clear the way for groundbreaking research, and his approach does allow for a rigorous reexamination of the degree to which Paul is indebted to texts like Isaiah and the Pentateuch.

Holland’s central thesis is strong because it is so simply stated: That Paschal theology ties together early Christianity’s key doctrines. A survey of New Exodus themes provides an important framework for this thesis, and tightly weaves together Holland’s evangelical interpretation of the Pauline doctrines of atonement, justification, and christology. A particularly cogent articulation of his concern about N.T. Wright’s reliance on Maccabean martyrdom traditions as a key to understanding the atonement is found on page 180:

If it is true that Paul’s understanding of the death of Jesus is that he is the great example of the Jewish martyr, then it means that his death is of no more significance than the death of any innocent sufferer. … In other words, martyrdom theology is a surrender of the great evangelical doctrine of the unique substitutionary sufferings of Christ. Without realising what has been surrendered, evangelical scholars have abandoned the historical doctrine of the uniqueness of Christ’s atoning suffering and have replaced it with a doctrine that has no distinct Christian content. It fails to uphold the uniqueness of the sufferings of Jesus. This outcome is the result of embracing psuedepigraphal writings as the key to New Testament interpretation rather than taking seriously the statement of Paul that the redemption Christ has achieved was witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets.

I would argue that it is the resurrection that imbues Jesus’ death with unique significance – but then again, to be fair, I don’t believe in a penal substitutionary atonement either.

Holland’s alternative explanation for the hilasterion of Romans 3:25 hinges on the argument that the blood of the Passover lamb described in Exodus 12 was understood to have propitiatory value, an argument strengthened by Ezekiel 45:25 which describes the anticipated eschatological Passover as involving sin offerings.

When he turns his attention to the doctrine of justification and the new perspective on Paul, Holland quickly brushes aside Sanders’ articulation of covenantal nomism but dedicates considerable space to challenging Dunn’s and Wright’s portrayal of the pre-conversion Paul as one “zealous” for the law in the tradition of the Maccabean revolutionaries. For Holland, this is of particular significance because if Paul was not a Zealot then his initial persecution of the church was based not on nationalistic pride (brought to a head in issues like circumcision) but rather opposition to the proclamation of a crucified Messiah per se. On the other hand, while arguing that justification did indeed have a forensic dimension, Holland points out that it nevertheless cannot be read outside of a covenantal (hence corporate) framework. More on this below.

Finally, when turning his attention to the doctrine of christology, Holland dedicates considerable space to articulating his thesis that the description of Jesus as the “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15ff and elsewhere is to be understood in a Pascal, New Exodus context. As a result, he is able to argue that a high christology is implicit from the very beginning of Christian reflection, since “Only God himself [sic.] could be the firstborn/redeemer of the whole creation” (p. 269). Of the earliest Christians, Holland writes, “Their Christology was not ontologically based, although this was its inevitable conclusion, but functionally based. … New Testament Christology is clearly basically functional, and not only is Jesus seen to be fulfilling the Messianic promises, but into this fulfillment model are drawn statements that can mean nothing other than that Jesus is uniquely and ontologically identified with Yahweh” (ibid).

As the above-cited argument demonstrates, Holland is apparently able to stay firmly within the Reformed tradition even while proposing new categories of Pauline thought. He argues that proponents of the new perspective have misread the Reformers while simultaneously arguing that his own approach is fully compatible with their theology. Having said that, Holland’s thesis is likely to present a significant challenge to traditional Calvinists as well. His interpretation of key texts throughout 1 Corinthians and Romans involves the most vigorous argument for a corporate dimension of Pauline theology that I’ve seen. Those conservative Presbyterians who are struggling to reconcile the current state of Pauline studies with traditional Reformed confessionalism may find this book of considerable value. But there’s enough here to challenge everyone, regardless of their confessional background. As Dr. Peter Head of Cambridge has written in a pre-publication review, “Challenging, unsettling and infuriating, Dr. Holland’s tour de force cannot be ignored.” I agree. This book is a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate in Pauline studies and deserves serious consideration far and wide.

Mark M. Mattison

Toward A Richer Doctrine of Justification

by Wan Chee Keong

Traditionally, justification has been understood as God’s once-for-all, forensic declaration that someone is ‘in the right.’ In spite of its shortcomings, ‘the new perspective on Paul’ has recovered other long-neglected facets of the doctrine. This has led to a richer and well-rounded theology of justification.

It has brought, first of all, awareness of the ‘covenantal’ facet of justification; secondly, the fact that there are ‘present’ and ‘future’ dimensions (besides the ‘once-for-all’ dimension); and thirdly, the ‘Jewishness’ of the forensic aspect.

1) The ‘covenantal’ facet of justification.

a) For all their prerogatives (Rom. 3:2; 9:4,5), the unbelieving Jews were not justified. What then did they miss? These blessings in justification are in that portion of Romans dealing with the destiny ofIsrael according to the flesh (chs. 9-11).

Justification is a declaration that believers are members of the true Israel, the Elect, God’s Chosen People (9:6,25;11:7); they are the true children of Abraham (9:7, NEB, RSV, NIV); children of God (9:27, cf. 9:4); salvation is theirs (9:27; 10:1,10,13; 11:11,14,26); they have come into ‘riches much more’ (11:12); theirs is life from the dead (11:15); they have arrived ‘at law’ (9:31; 10:4), i.e., Christ, the ‘goal (telos)‘ of the law. Having arrived ‘at law’=’in Christ,’ they have attained a right status and holiness (in essence. See also 1 Cor. 1:30. For this understanding of ‘at law’ see Tim Gallant’s excellent essay, The Doers of the Law will be Justified).

We find roughly the same blessings set forth in the other two letters dealing with Justification: Galatians and Philippians.

b) Galatians: Justification encompasses freedom from bondage under the Law (2:4; 4:26; 5:1,13); freedom from the elemental things of the world (4:3,9); living to God (2:19); the blessing of Abraham = the gift of the Spirit (3:2,5,14; 4:6); the working of miracles by God (3:5); being sons of Abraham = children of promise (3:7,29; 4:28); life (3:11,12,21); an inheritance (3:18,29); being sons of God (3:26; 4:5-7); members of the ‘Israel of God,’ the truly Elect, Chosen People of God (6:16). The last is particularly highlighted by N.T. Wright.

c) Philippians: To be justified means becoming a member of the true circumcision (3:2), i.e., the true ‘covenant people of God inheriting all the promises made to ancient Israel’ (Ralph Martin, TNTC,p. 138. Cp. Rom. 2:28,29). It is to worship in the Spirit of God, which is true worship; it is to glory in Christ (3:3). It is the eschatological fulfillment of ‘the service’ of Romans 9:4.

2) The present and future dimensions of justification.

In Galatians 2:16 the verb ‘justified’ occurs three times: the first time, in ‘the present tense’ which ‘can cover the whole process’; the second, in the aorist (a ‘once-for-all’ event or reference to the goal of the whole process, as in 2:17 — the point being that justification is by faith from start to finish); and the third, ‘in the future tense,’ i.e., ‘at the last judgment’ (cf. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law, p. 208). Of course the terms dikaiosunē (righteousness), dikaiosunē theou (righteousness of God), and dikaiow (justify) have different functions and different ranges of reference. But these functions and ranges overlap.

‘Righteousness’ is not only a status granted at conversion, but can also be used in reference to an ongoing status, or living relationship (as in Rom. 5:21), and to describe the end-point of the whole process (as in Rom. 6:16 and Gal. 5:5). ‘The righteousness of God’ is to be seen, therefore, as the outgoing power of grace which grants, sustains and finally secures that ‘righteousness,’ not just a once-for-all act. Nearly half the relevant Pauline uses are aorist and perfect tenses (i.e., justification is a ‘once-for-all’ declaration). But more than half are present and future tenses. To be sure, the present tenses could be taken as ‘timeless’ presents, but most of the future tenses are best taken as referring to future (=final) justification (on the day of judgment; Rom. 2:1; 3:20; Gal. 2:16; 5:4; Dunn, ibid., pp. 207, 208. See also R. Lusk’s The Tenses of Justification.

3) The ‘Jewishness’ of ‘legal right-standing.’

Usually, no mention is made of which legal standard is referred to God’s gift of a forensic right-status. It is as if the legal datum is self-evident. That is not so. Different audiences/readers will have different data in their minds, depending on their background/environment. For Paul, however, there can only be one datum: the Mosaic Law. To him, this is the really true datum. For the Law is ‘the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth’ (Rom. 2:20). ‘So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good’ (Rom. 7:12), ‘the Law is spiritual’ (Rom. 7:14). Justification as ‘right-status’ is therefore Jewish through and through.

Tom Holland on the New Perspective

by Mark M. Mattison

On March 20, 2006, Tom Holland of the Evangelical Theological College of Wales spoke at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, a conservative institution in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His lecture, entitled “A Reformed Response to the New Perspective on Paul,” summarized some of the arguments from his book, Contours of Pauline Theology, which I reviewed for The Paul Page in December of 2004.

As I mentioned in my book review, Holland’s criticism of the new perspective is unique and, I believe, deserving of serious consideration by Pauline scholars of all persuasions. Many conservative Reformed criticisms of the new perspective follow a familiar outline: They begin by listing propositions from historic Protestant confessions (assuming that they simply restate scriptural propositions), compare those propositions with selected quotations from one or more contemporary biblical scholars who advocate the new perspective, seek to demonstrate a difference (with varying degrees of success), and conclude that the new perspective must therefore be “heretical.” Not so with Holland, who better appreciates the differences between various biblical and theological disciplines.

He began his lecture by describing what he regards as the failure of Evangelicalism: “We have not focused on the texts of scripture; we have focused on the texts of the confessions. Being reformed is not being committed to the confessions, it is being committed to the convictions of the reformers, that of on-going reform.” Doubtless many evangelical biblical scholars will concur, including N.T. Wright, who has written of “the kind of serious biblical scholarship the Protestant Reformation was built on,” a tradition he is proud to “carry on … if need be, against those who have turned the Reformation itself into a tradition to be set up over scripture itself” (The Shape of Justification).

Holland went on to talk about the importance of distinguishing between historical theology, pastoral theology, philosophical theology, systematic theology, and biblical theology, arguing that “Biblical theology cannot be controlled by confessional interests. It must put all preferences aside and listen to the message of the sacred text.” Generally I would agree; however, I question the degree to which any of us is capable of completely extricating ourselves from our presuppositions and hearing the scriptural texts exactly as they would have been heard by those to whom it was first read aloud. I believe we can achieve this to a certain degree by rigorously articulating and admitting our own proclivities so that we can recognize the dissonance between the text and our own sensitivities (and those of others), but I question the epistemology of positivism which presumes that we are capable of approaching the text unfettered by our own presuppositions. Not to dwell on this point too long, what I do appreciate is Holland’s recognition of the distinction between biblical theology and systematic theology, a distinction which seems to me to be lost on some of those who are of the Calvinist persuasion.

The bulk of Holland’s lecture was dedicated to identifying methodological weaknesses of the new perspective, with a particular criticism of what he believes is “the assumption of uniformity” in reconstructing the belief system of second-temple Judaism (another prominent feature of his book). He quoted J. Neusner as stating that “What is wrong with the established view is simple. People join together books that do not speak the same language of thought, that refer to distinctive conceptions and doctrines of their own. If books so close in topic and sentiment as the four Gospels no longer yield harmonization [here he paused to register a quick point of dissent], books soutterly remote from one another as the Mishnah and Philo and Fourth Ezra and Enoch should not contribute doctrines to the common pot: Judaism.”

He went on to quote J.H. Charlesworth on the Pseudepigrapha: “In these writings, as in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we are introduced to the ideas, symbols, perceptions, fears, and dreams of pre-AD 70 Jews. Since none of them can with assurance be assigned to Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots or Essenes, it is wise not to describe early Judaism in terms of four such sects; rather we must now think of many groups and numerous subgroups.”

However, I believe it may be overstating the case to argue that the new perspective necessarily presupposes an essential uniformity of thought among the various sects of second-temple Judaism. The two scholars quoted above clearly argue against homogenization, but that does not mean that they, like Holland, doubt that extrabiblical literature can yield insights about ancient Judaism or shed light on the scriptural text. For instance, as James D.G. Dunn has written, “Worth noting is the fact that J. Neusner, though fiercely critical of [E.P.] Sanders’ methodology, nevertheless accepts Sanders’ understanding of Judaism in terms of ‘covenantal nomism’ as valid. That rabbinic discussions presupposed the covenant and ‘were largely directed toward the question of how to fulfil the covenantal obligations’ is to Neusner a ‘wholly sound and … self-evident proposition’. ‘So far as Sanders proposes to demonstrate the importance to all the kinds of ancient Judaism of covenantal nomism, election, atonement, and the like, his work must be pronounced a complete success’ — ‘Comparing Judaisms’, History of Religions, 18 (1978-9), pp. 177-91 (Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians [Westminster: John Knox Press], 1990, p. 204, n. 16).

Similarly, in a recent review of Craig A. Evans’ book Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies, J.H. Charlesworth has written that the collection “will assist all interpreters of Scripture. The New Testament texts come alive with fresh meaning when read in the context of the literature of their time. Evans demonstrates how these texts provide meanings for words and concepts, clarify the history and sociology of the period, and illustrate the historical, exegetical, hermeneutical, and canonical context of the New Testament documents.” This is hardly the commendation of someone who believes that noncanonical literature cannot clarify the meaning of the scriptural text.

Another point of methodology criticized by Holland was “the assumption of dependency.” He stated that “Most of the Pseudepigrapha was written in Palestine while most of the NT was written to people throughout the Roman world. Is it really reasonable to think that the apostles refer to writings that most of their readers had no access to and expected their readers to interpret their statements in the context of these writings?”

He expressed the same sentiment during the question-and-answer session, when I asked what he thought about the use of the phrase “the works of the law” in 4QMMT since its meaning there appears to approximate the meaning proposed by Dunn in the letters of Paul. Holland questioned whether the recipients of Paul’s letters would have known of 4QMMT. But this again overstates the argument. The assertion that documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls can shed light on Paul’s letters doesn’t require that Paul’s audience have personal knowledge of a particular document. The point is merely that a certain term can be shown to have a particular meaning in a related first-century context.

Simply put, I’m still not persuaded that the literature of second-temple Judaism is irrelevant to the study of Paul’s letters.

The most interesting part of Holland’s presentation, however, was the last portion, his Reformed response to the new perspective. Ironically, his response not only challenges the new perspective but evangelical biblical scholarship as well. His response(s) consisted of four points:

  • We have not appreciated the corporate nature of the NT
  • We have not appreciated the OT dimension of the NT
  • We have not appreciated the New Exodus paradigm of the NT
  • We have not appreciated the paschal model for the NT

My review of his book highlights these arguments and celebrates the willingness of a conservative scholar both to question excessively individualistic readings of Paul and to locate Paul’s meaning on the map of a historical, biblical narrative instead of on the abstract grid of a systematic, philosophical construct. This is where Holland is at his best and it is precisely where I believe his contribution to the field of Pauline studies is worthwhile.

Response by Tom Holland

Dear Mark,

It was good to meet you at the lecture in Grand Rapids. You were very kind to restructure your day to attend an afternoon event and especially to go the extra mile in writing a report on the lecture for the Paul Page. I am glad to be able to respond to your comments in the report as you have invited me to do.

What you have written is very fair and you have highlighted the things I wanted to say. I am grateful for the positive comments in both your review of my book as well as in the report on the lecture. It is clear that the major difference we have relates to the Pseudepigrapha and its relevance to NT research. I understand why you are unhappy with my position and naturally I want to focus on this. I will, if you don’t mind, also make reference to some other reviews that challenge me on the same point, as it is an ideal place to deal with this issue that has been raised elsewhere. All the reviews are available on my home page for your readers to access.

Firstly, let me say from the outset that my position is not that of someone who cannot step outside of the text of the Christian Bible through fear of losing his way, or even his confidence, in those texts — indeed it is the very opposite. I was trained to interact with such texts and for many years used this method to interpret the scriptures for the people I taught. I was a Baptist pastor for eighteen years, and while the Pseudepigrapha did not figure highly in most commentaries  a couple of decades ago, I was more than comfortable in using the insights my teachers imparted, which were largely based on engagement with extra Biblical literature.

But, I do want to correct a possible misunderstanding. I have never said that the ITL is of no use, only of limited use (see Contours p. 60). I accept that they give us a good idea of the main issues occupying Jewish thought in the first century. These include the expectation of the Second Exodus, the raising up of a descendent of David and the fulfilment of many prophetic predications that related to this momentous event. I also accept that they can alert us to a meaning of a word that clearly existed among some of the communities of ITL that might fit the NT text in a surprisingly helpful way. But before transposing the meaning great care needs to be taken to ensure that the writer of the NT text is actually sharing the same understanding. What I am anxious to underscore is that we cannot construct a theology of ITL and use it as the key to NT thought.1 There was no such thing as a Jewish theology, only Jewish theologies. Even Rabbinical Judaism was a minority viewpoint at that time. Later, of course, it was to become the dominant (and representative as far as Rome was concerned) school of theology.

So to gather statements, for example about wisdom, and to argue that these are the source of the ideas of wisdom in the NT, is an example of abusing these texts. As you know, I have sought to use this as an example in Contours (appendix 4) to show how this material has totally confused the real picture of what the NT writers refer to in calling Christ “the wisdom of God”. I am naturally delighted at the widespread agreement that my argument has elicited.

To put my case into the context of my visit to Grand Rapids: it is as if, having visited a range of churches in theUS visit, I gathered all the views of the people I spoke to and merged them to produce ‘the American view’. If I were to be so foolish as to give a lecture to a UK audience from the perspective of my synthesis of American Christianity, I would be doing all of the groupings that I spoke to a deep disservice, for even among those who had a lot in common, there were still some very important differences. I am sure you would feel the force of this and would be very unhappy for me impose on you the views of others I met with and addressed.

But even within a community upholding a common tradition, there are divisions. In a recent class of post graduate students, I asked for opinions on what the baptism of the Spirit meant. It was clear that there were, even in a class where the students had a common confessional position, a range of different opinions. I asked them how they would feel if I listened to all their views and then wrote up a position that they were to sign and embrace as their own. The students response was a firm rejection — such a treatment would not represent the understanding they were concerned to preserve. If we cannot do this reliably for a group of likeminded theologians, what chance is there of doing if for such a disparate range of theological opinion that existed in Second Temple Judaism?

I have to confess, that, since writing Contours, I have come to see that the usefulness of the Inter Testamental Literature is even more limited for NT scholarship than I had previously appreciated. Even though Charlesworth has cautioned against misusing the Pseudepigrapha because of its complex theological diversity, from his endorsement of Craig Evans’ book he is obviously very positive about it as a source of customs and social practices for Second Temple Judaism. Despite the endorsement of such an able scholar, I am forced to warn of the danger of assuming that customs were uniform throughout intertestamental Judaism. In this area I have come to think that Charlesworth, along with many others, is making a serious mistake.

Let me try to explain. In the early days of our married life my wife and I had regular debates as to the correct way of doing things and the meanings of certain practices and even words. We came from the same country, shared a common history and had the same language, yet in her home area, some 150 miles from where I was broughtup, there was a slightly different culture from the one that had moulded my thinking and expectations.

I have encountered this difference in other contexts. As a Baptist pastor, I have done some itinerant preaching. It is interesting to find how practice and even understanding varies from one congregation to another. Differences exist, even between different congregations that are in the same town and of the same denomination. I have no doubt that this is also found in other Christian denominations. Words, rituals and practices all have a range of meanings that are particular to that one congregation. Ask any minister of his experience when he moves to pastor a new congregation — there is always a steep learning curve!

An example of the above variation is the way funerals are conducted. In the town where I was a minister there were people from all over the British Isles. It was an education in itself to learn what adaptations I had to make to reflect the practices that they were used to and which they wanted their loved ones’ funerals to follow.

Clearly the tribes of Israel had different traditions and value systems. You only have to read the OT to see this fact. Such differences can also be found in the NT documents themselves. In addition to the natural evolution of their local cultures, the Hebrews were influenced, depending on their geographical location, by a range of invaders and occupiers throughout their history. Hengel demonstrates the influence of the Greek occupation.2Others identify the influences of other invaders and occupiers as well as the normal cross cultural influences of neighbouring states. In other words, even in the practice of customs, there is diversity. So, finding a practice in a document of the Pseudepigrapha and then claiming, without the required support, that it is evidence of Jewish understanding and practice, is to make a jump of such magnitude that no social anthropologist or historian could take as serious scholarship.

So, even in the useful information we get from the ITL about customs etc. we have to be very careful that examples of practice or understanding are not forced onto the NT text to support a meaning. The safest thing is to work with the texts that are the product of the group of people we are seeking to understand, and in this case, for the NT church, it is the OT biblical text. But, even in that collection of literature, there are many variations that ought to be recognised and respected!

And this is what is not being done! The Pseudepigraphal literature is being blindly used without the controls that the specialists in these fields of study would say are essential to good practice. I am forced to the conclusion that using this literature to open up the meaning of the NT is fundamentally flawed and with it are the conclusions which its adherents reach.

Such an example is found in Tom Wight’s Jesus and the Victory of God (pp. 250-251). He draws our attention to how Josephus made demands on a man to become his disciple and uses this to explain the calling of the disciples by Jesus. The fact that Josephus had no religious mission, whereas Jesus obviously did, ought to cause us to question the transfer of the model. But other basic questions need answering. Is this practice related to Josephus’ social status? It was a status that Jesus clearly never had. Is it a practice that was locally recognised rather than widespread — in other words does it reflect the customs of a region or the entire nation? How can we establish its wider significance for Jewish practice? To use this example as the cornerstone of a major argument is building on very unsure foundations. This sort of analysis can be applied to much of the material that is used to ‘enlighten’ the NT text.

You mention in your report that after the lecture you asked me about 4QMMT. I replied, asking how widely such a text would be available for Paul’s readers, or even Paul himself, to interact with. You rightly say this is not the point; that the text shows that such understanding did exist in Judaism. I agree with this, but the last thing that must be done is to take this meaning (which certainly does not have unanimous agreement) and impose it on the uses of the Greek form found in the NT. I warn of this in Contours pp. 217 & 232. Words can have different meanings in different contexts and this is true in the NT just as much as it is in the Pseudepigrapha. Only a careful evaluation of the context, and the argument being made can tell us how the word is being used and it is my contention that the full range of meanings found in the semantic domain for ‘justify’ is present in the NT writings. In some of these texts the meaning seems to match that of Dunn’s reading of 4QMMT, but in other passages this is certainly not the case.

I have already argued in Contours that there are certainly ‘covenantal nomistic’ readings of the term present in Paul.3 However, I don’t come to this conclusion by imposing the meaning from any outside text but from the arguments that are being made within the letters. I do not have a problem with the New Perspective view of justification being in some of the Pauline texts, but I certainly have a problem in arguing that it is in all of the uses of ‘justify’. The point I have made is that Paul’s audiences were victims of different misunderstandings, and the errors of one church must not be imposed on the other churches — this would be just as disastrous as imposing the meaning of 4QMMT, if we could agree on it, onto the argument being made in any one of the NT documents. Because Paul writes into the situation of individual churches, we must assume he knows the issues they were struggling with and his argument was tailored to meet their needs. What justification might mean in one letter must not be presumed to mean the same in another, even though written by the apostle himself!

This response would be the same as I would make to Craig Evan’s review of Contours.4 He also raises 4QMMT and adds that in 4Q521 we find allusions to words and phrases from Isaiah, in connection with the appearance of the Messiah. Evans argues that it is surely relevant to Jesus’ reply to the imprisoned John, where Jesus alludes to similar prophetic vocabulary.

I do not find any problem in this. It simply demonstrates overlap in the way different Jewish groups interpreted scripture. However, it would be quite wrong to conclude that there was strict equivalence in their views of the Messiah and that of the NT writers. Indeed, others have noted5 the danger of transferring DSS material into the NT to understand theological details. Parallels do not necessarily constitute sources and even more so when the nature of the ‘parallel’ is not clearly understood. All that we have established is the widespread knowledge and influence of the OT texts, and that is the very point I have been seeking to make! However, how the different groups interpreted the details of these texts is another matter.

Just as I have failed to convince you, I am afraid you have not convinced me. But what I am anxious to make clear is that I am happy to embrace covenantal nomism for some texts, but not for others. I find no difficulty in accepting that some Jews had this perspective, but I certainly cannot accept that all Jews did. Sanders’ conclusions have gone off the rails because he failed to recognise the diversity of Intertestamental Judaism. Consequently, the arguments that build on his conclusions are building on sand. Because of this, I cannot agree with Wright that justification is about ecclesiology (although in some Pauline texts it is!), and not about soteriology. In excluding soteriology, Wright has misrepresented the understanding of the reformers and has imposed one meaning on all texts. Both are methodologically wrong.

The issue of methodology is very important. It has been my goal to keep to those texts that the first-century believing community would have known, i.e. the scriptures of Israel. It is my commitment to scrutinising these texts that has led reviewers to speak of Contours being a significant breakthrough. In other words, the eclectic method failed to identify this particular thinking. Because scholars turned to the Pseudepigrapha and borrowed from its Wisdom tradition they failed to see that calling Christ ‘the firstborn of all creation’ (Col 1.15) was soteriological and rooted in the Passover. It was equally because the same scholars imported the meaning ofhilasterion from 4 Macc 4.22 into Romans 3.25 that they failed to see the Paschal structure of the passage and how it contributed greatly to appreciating the Paschal theology of the early church.

And so, I would claim from these two examples that the use of the Pseudepigrapha has been hugely detrimental to gaining a clearer Biblical understanding. If the method of exclusion has born such significant fruit, it would be wise not to reject it too quickly in preference for a methodology of inclusion that to my mind has fragmented and diminished understanding rather than adding to it. I am encouraged by the range of scholars who have acknowledged that this issue needs to be reflected on.

So, any suggestion that the reason I cannot cope with the development of Biblical scholarship is a reflection of my conservative theological position, which seems to be being suggested by Bird in RBL6, does not understand either my development or myself. As a young pastor, I had grabbed this method with both hands and used it for many years before coming to realise its flaws.

The last mentioned reviewer says “Holland states the New Testament letters [were] written to communities outside of Palestine and presumably outside of access to most Pseudepigraphal writings (67). Yet this is patently false, not all of the pseudepigraphal writings were composed in Palestine (Aristeas and Jospeph and Aseneth were probably in Alexandria and the epistle of Jude for one quotes 1 Enoch and Assumption of Moses.Holland wants to argue that Paul’s theology had the Hebrew Bible as its substructure but needlessly asserts in the process that Paul would not borrow or echo thoughts from a “dubious Palestinian perspective” (i.e. referring to the Pseudepigrapha) in the process.”

I have to confess that the argument that Bird has made is certainly, to my mind, weaker than the one he has dismissed. He cites me correctly, saying that the gentile churches were “presumably outside of access to mostPseudepigraphal writtings” which I would have thought needs no defence, but he answers this by saying that three works of the Pseudepigrapha were “probably written in Alexandria”. How does this deny the statement that most of the Pseudepigrapha was unknown by the gentile churches?

Bird then appeals to the apparent citation of a part of 1 Enoch found in Jude as evidence that thePseudepigrapha was widely known. But this argument is far from persuasive. Why are these sorts of quotations not found littering the NT text if they have had the influence that they are supposed to have had on the thinking of the NT church? No one is denying that some people in Palestine, and maybe a few other places, might have known of some of the documents, but the likelihood of many gentile congregations knowing even a sample selection is remote. Also, the fact that the terminology means different things depending on the group the author belonged to means that we cannot, or should not, be assuming that they are all telling us the same message.

Furthermore, it is not until it can be established that Jude is quoting Enoch, and not a commonly known oral tradition that is attributed to Enoch, which inevitably a writer wanting to pass a work off as the patriarch’s would naturally include, can the weight that he wants to give to the text of Jude be allowed. But even allowing it to be a direct quote from 1 Enoch, it is a single document, written specifically to Jews, possibly living in Palestine. That is not the sort of evidence that any historian would accept for concluding that this literature permeates the letters of Paul which were written to gentile churches throughout the empire. These communities were separated by hundreds of miles from the source of the vast majority of these documents. Not until it can be shown that these documents are turning up regularly throughout the Roman world can there be an appeal to them as keys to interpret Paul, or even the gospels themselves, for all were mostly written to non-residents of Palestine. And even then, as I have argued earlier, we have no right to assume that the terminology is the same within thePseudepigraphal collection, never mind that it matches the meaning of the NT authors. I have to confess to being at a loss to understand why scholarship so readily embraces this material. I cannot imagine for one moment that such undisciplined thinking would be allowed past the door of a history department — the historical/textual evidence is just not good enough.

And finally, in response to Bird, he claims that Jude cites from the Assumption of Moses. Bird is more confident in the way he claims this than are the experts in the text. Charlesworth for example has provided an insightful discussion and rejection of this proposal!7

I have also been criticised by Craig Evans. He says: “Major complicated questions of interpretation and criticism are treated too simply, with the author frequently lapsing into the logical fallacy of excluded middle. For example, NT interpreters err, H. says, in appealing to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, because the theological perspectives of these writings are not the same as the perspectives of the NT authors.”

Evans goes on to say: “What he identifies as a “growing dependence” is the ongoing effort to flesh out and contextualize as much as possible the exegetical and theological discussions of late antiquity, out of which the writings of the NT emerged. Often it is this extracanonical literature that helps the interpreter understand how a given OT passage quoted by a NT writer was understood. Failure to take into account the parallels in the Scrolls, Pseudepigrapha, and other writings from late antiquity may well result in faulty interpretation and dubious theological inferences.”

I have to confess that the logic loses me! Because I question the validity of using the Pseudepigrapha, I am guilty of seriously faulty interpretation. But that is the case I am making against using the Pseudepigrapha and I have not been shown by Evans, other than by his deep commitment to this literature, that there are grounds for relying on this corpus as a hermeneutical key!  The argument that I have made has been ignored and the charge is made that I lapse into “the logical fallacy of excluded middle”. I am afraid that our thinking is in different parts of the universe! I refuse to allow these documents to control my reading of the NT text because I truly believe that they are the source of a “logical fallacy of a polluted middle”.

If we apply the guiding principles that Hays8 has given for establishing the presence of a previous text in the argument of a text that we are considering, the possibility of Pseudepigraphal texts having any significant influence in the NT is very low indeed.

My position on the Pseudepigrapha and the DSS is not in any way confessional, it is solely on scholarly grounds that I refuse to give them the sort of control that many are allowing them to have. If this is not understood then I am afraid that what I have written has totally missed its mark.9

You have done me a great kindness to say that Contours is groundbreaking. The only reason I arrived at these conclusions was that I came to see that the Greek world was being imported into essentially Hebraic texts. In fact, my reservation about using the Greek texts and culture explains my concern about using thePseudepigrapha. Indeed, I think a more reasonable case can be made for using these Greek texts than for theintertestamental texts because these writings, or at least many of the practices they record, were widely known throughout the Roman world and therefore their ideas were accessible to Paul’s hearers and readers. This was not so with the Pseudepigraphal texts. If I had stayed with the methodology that Bird, Evans and yourself are so committed to, I would never have made the ‘groundbreaking’ progress.

Thank you again for your interaction and all that you do in serving the wider community interested in the theology of Paul. Your willingness to serve this community is a very valuable contribution to the task of wrestling with the texts of the Christian Scriptures.

With my very best wishes,

Tom Holland

The Evangelical Theological College of Wales


1I do accept Helyer’s argument that the ITL can show us trends that we can reflect on and see if the same trends are reflected in NT understanding, but that is not the same as relying on details of vocabulary as a key to exegesis, which Helyer practices, see Helyer, R.L., “The Necessity, Problems, And Promise of Second Temple Judaism for Discussions of New Testament Eschatology” JETS 47/4 (December 2004) 597-615.

2Hengel, M.,  Judaism and Hellenism, 2 vols. ET London, 1974.

3For a full discussion see Contours, chapters 9 & 10.

4CBQ 68 2006 (3).

5Barrett, C.K., The Second Epistle to the Corinthians,  London, 1973,75 challenges those who use parallels concerning the Spirit in Qumran for understanding the NT doctrine of the Spirit


7J.H.Charlesworth and J.C.Mueller, New Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. A Guide to Publications(ALTA Bibs 17; Metuchen, NJ: American Theological Library and Scarcrow Press, 1987) p. 77.

8Hays, R. B.,  Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, New Haven/London, 1989. See pages 29-32.

9I am encouraged by the warnings given by Helyer “Problems” 609-614 who, though he is very committed to the literature, cautions against their misuse by using similar arguments to what I am presenting.

The Shape of Justification

by N.T. Wright

Wright submits the following response to Paul Barnett with the caveat that he is not entirely happy being part of what could appear a monochrome “new perspective,” since it’s a complex phenomenon. What follows was written during the 2001 Feast of the Presentation of Christ in theTemple and printed in part as the April 2001 column of Bible Review. Though he writes with Barnett’s criticism in mind, Wright addresses the most serious allegations made by a variety of authors.

Just before Christmas, a friend told me that an Australian Bishop — Paul Barnett, himself a New Testament scholar — had placed an article on his website, entitled ‘Why Wright is Wrong’. (He has since toned this down to ‘Tom Wright and the New Perspective’.) The question at stake is: what did Paul mean by ‘justification’? This topic has again become a storm centre, though perhaps not equally in all teacups.

In a minute I shall go through Barnett’s piece and show where I find it mistaken, both in what it says about me and in what it says about Paul. What I want to do first is to show how Paul’s statements about justification fit together and make sense, and how they relate to the questions of personal faith, salvation and pastoral practice which Bishop Barnett rightly raises.

1. It’s best to begin at the end, with Paul’s view of the future.

(a) The one true God will finally judge the whole world; on that day, some will be found guilty and others will be upheld (Rom. 2.1-16). God’s vindication of these latter on the last day is his act of final ‘justification’ (Rom. 2.13). The word carries overtones of the lawcourt.

(b) But not only the lawcourt. Justification is part of Paul’s picture of the family God promised (i.e. covenanted) to Abraham. When God, as judge, finds in favor of people on the last day, they are declared to be part of this family (Rom. 4; cf. Gal. 3). This is why lawcourt imagery is appropriate: the covenant was there, from Genesis onwards, so that through it God could deal with sin and death, could (in other words) put his creation to rights.

(c) This double declaration will take the form of an event. All God’s people will receive resurrection bodies, to share the promised inheritance, the renewed creation (Rom. 8). This event, which from one point of view is their ‘justification’, is therefore from another their ‘salvation’: their rescue from the corruption of death, which for Paul is the result of sin. The final resurrection is the ultimate rescue which God promised from the beginning (Rom. 4).

2. Moving back from the future to the past, God’s action in Jesus forms Paul’s template for this final justification.

(a) Jesus has been faithful, obedient to God’s saving purposes right up to death (Rom. 5.12-21; Phil. 2.6-9); God has now declared decisively that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, in whom Israel’s destiny has been summed up (Rom. 1.3f.).

(b) Jesus’ resurrection was, for Paul, the evidence that God really had dealt with sin on the cross (1 Cor. 15.12-19). In the death of Jesus God accomplished what had been promised to Abraham, and ‘what the law could not do’ (Rom. 8.3): for those who belong to the Messiah, there is ‘no condemnation’ (Rom. 8.1, 8.31-9).

(c) The event in which all this actually happened was, of course, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus.

3. Justification in the present is based on God’s past accomplishment in Christ, and anticipates the future verdict. This present justification has exactly the same pattern.

(a) God vindicates in the present, in advance of the last day, all those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Rom. 3.21-31; 4.13-25; 10.9-13). The lawcourt language indicates what is meant. ‘Justification’ itself is not God’s act of changing the heart or character of the person; that is what Paul means by the ‘call’, which comes through the word and the Spirit. ‘Justification’ has a specific, and narrower, reference: it is God’s declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status ‘righteous’. (We may note that, since ‘righteous’ here, within the lawcourt metaphor, refers to ‘status’, not ‘character’, we correctly say that God’s declaration makes the person ‘righteous’, i.e. in good standing.)

(b) This present declaration constitutes all believers as the single people, the one family, promised to Abraham (Gal. 2.14 – 3.29; Rom. 3.27 – 4.17), the people whose sins have been dealt with as part of the fulfilled promise of covenant renewal (Jer. 31.31-34). Membership in this family cannot be played off against forgiveness of sins: the two belong together.

(c) The event in the present which corresponds to Jesus’ death and resurrection in the past, and the resurrection of all believers in the future, is baptism into Christ (Gal. 3.26-9; Rom. 6.2-11). Baptism is not, as some have supposed, a ‘work’ which one ‘performs’ to earn God’s favour. It is, for Paul, the sacrament of God’s free grace. Paul can speak of those who have believed and been baptised as already ‘saved’, albeit ‘in hope’ (Rom. 8.24).

Among the remaining questions, three matters stand out at the moment.

The ‘faith’ in question is faith in ‘the God who raised Jesus from the dead’. It comes about through the announcement of God’s word, the gospel, which works powerfully in the hearts of hearers, ‘calling’ them to believe, or indeed (as Paul often puts it) to ‘obey’ the gospel (Rom. 1.16f.; 1 Thess. 1.3f., 2.13; 2 Thess. 1.8). This faith looks backwards to what God has done in Christ, by means of his own obedient faithfulness to God’s purpose (Rom. 5.19; Phil. 2.6), relying on that rather than on anything that is true of oneself. For Paul, this meant refusing to regard the badges of Jewish law-observance (‘the works of the law’) as the decisive factor (Phil. 3.2-11). And it looks forward to the final day: because this faith is the first sign of new God-given life, it is the appropriate anticipation of the final verdict, which is guaranteed by the same Spirit who inspired faith (2 Cor. 1.22; Phil. 1.6).

By ‘the gospel’ Paul does not mean ‘justification by faith’ itself. He means the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. To believe this message, to give believing allegiance to Jesus as Messiah and Lord, is to be justified in the present by faith (whether or not one has even heard of justification by faith). Justification by faith itself is a second-order doctrine: to believe it is both to have assurance (believing that one will be vindicated on the last day [Rom. 5.1-5]) and to know that one belongs in the single family of God, called to share table-fellowship without distinction with all other believers (Gal. 2.11-21). But one is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith (this, I think, is what Newman thought Protestants believed), but by believing in Jesus.

‘Justification’ is thus the declaration of God, the just judge, that someone is (a) in the right, that their sins are forgiven, and (b) a true member of the covenant family, the people belonging to Abraham. That is how the word works in Paul’s writings. It doesn’t describe how people get in to God’s forgiven family; it declares that they are in. That may seem a small distinction, but in understanding what Paul is saying it is vital.

The three tenses of justification have often been confused, causing some of the great problems of understanding Paul. If we keep them simultaneously clearly distinguished and appropriately interrelated, clarity, and perhaps even agreement, might follow. If justification is about belonging to the single family, it would be good if that family could try to agree about what it means.

To that end, let me now offer my comments on Barnett’s original article. I am aware that in doing so I am putting my head in a noose. Every few months some friend, or even some stranger, tells me that people in Sydney, and some in America, are declaring me an outcast, a distorter of the true gospel, or whatever. Considering how little I have published on the subjects they are talking about, this is remarkable.

Bishop Paul first gives a review of the rise of the ‘new perspective’ on Paul in the work of Ed Sanders. His brief summary needs nuancing here and there, but it’s not far off track. What is interesting, though, is that even in his brief summary he shows that the ‘new perspective’ has this in common with traditional Reformed readings of Paul (from Calvin to Cranfield): it sees the Jewish Law as a good thing now fulfilled, rather than (as in much Lutheran thought) a bad thing now abolished. This should be borne in mind, not least because I came to my own view, already outlined in 1976 before Sanders’ book was published, from being dissatisfied with Cranfield’s Reformed position but knowing that, out of sheer loyalty to the God-given text, particularly of Romans, I couldn’t go back to a Lutheran reading. (Please note, my bottom line has always been, and remains, not a theory, not a tradition, not pressure from self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, but the text of scripture.) When Sanders’ book was published I found further reasons for the position I had already moved towards, even though there are problems with his overall account of Judaism, and though I found, and still find, his reading of Paul very unconvincing.

This already shows that, though obviously I have some things in common with Sanders, and some with J.D.G. Dunn, I am by no means an uncritical ‘new perspective’ person. Frankly, many of the criticisms of Sanders at least, if applied to me, are not just wide of the mark but on a different playing field altogether. With that, I come to Barnett’s specific points.

First, method. Barnett says that I first tease out what a word, or a worldview, ‘would have meant’ at the time. Well, yes. That is what all historians, all lexicographers, all serious readers of texts from cultures other than their own, are bound to do. If we just started with a set of documents in a language and culture other than our own, and refused to take into account what other writers in that language and culture meant by the words, we would be in the position I would be in if I picked up a book in Japanese, of which I know not a word. Nor are my reconstructions speculative and unprovable. I spent two hundred pages in The New Testament and the People of God establishing my positions inch by inch, and what I have said about Paul builds on all that. It is false to say that I suggest that Paul would have seen the hopes of Israel in ‘political’ terms; in our world, that word carries the overtones of ‘and therefore not religious’; whereas my point is that, as is easily provable from almost any second-Temple Jewish writing, the ‘religious’, the ‘political’, and for that matter the ‘personal’ and the ‘communal’, are cheerfully mixed up together in ways that baffle post-enlightenment readers (and so much evangelicalism is, alas, still in complete thrall to the enlightenment), but were obvious to people in that day. When it comes to the word dikaiosune and its cognates, it isn’t a matter of ‘what Wright thinks the word would have meant then’, but what serious historical lexicography tells us.

Of course, Paul has the right to use words in his own way. I insist on this in my writings, for instance when I argue step by step that Paul retains the shape of his Jewish theology but fills it with new content. I have often struggled to make this sort of point clear against people who force him into a lexical straitjacket — and against those who think, a la Marcion, that he abandoned everything Jewish and invented a new message from scratch. But unless Paul’s usage had a fair amount of continuity with what people of that day would have expected the words to mean — these were letters, after all, and he wouldn’t be there to explain it if when he said ‘righteousness’ he meant ‘Sydney Harbour Bridge’ — he would be incomprehensible. We can never, in other words, begin with the author’s use of a word; we must begin with the wider world he lived in, the world we meet in our lexicons, concordances, and other studies of how words were used in that world, and must then be alive to the possibility of a writer building in particular nuances and emphases of his or her own.

Let me risk labouring this point by adding the following. What I am doing, often enough, is exactly parallel, in terms of method, to what Martin Luther did when he took the gospel word metanoeiteand insisted that it didn’t mean ‘do penance’, as the Vulgate indicated, but ‘repent’ in a much more personal and heartfelt way. The only way to make that sort of point is to show that that’s what the word would have meant at the time. That’s the kind of serious biblical scholarship the Protestant Reformation was built on, and I for one am proud to carry on that tradition — if need be, against those who have turned the Reformation itself into a tradition to be set up over scripture itself.

Moving to the particular point about ‘righteousness’ and ‘salvation’, Barnett in fact hits his own wicket when he says they are synonyms. That’s the sort of trouble you get into if you insist on not seeing what words mean lexically. They do not mean the same thing, and actually the passage Barnett quotes from Romans 10 shows Paul making a careful distinction between them, as he does throughout his writings. ‘Righteousness’ in Paul is partly a courtroom status and partly a covenantal status, the former being a metaphor to help understand the significance of the latter. ‘Salvation’ in Paul means, of course, rescue from sin and death. Of course the two go hand in hand, but they are not synonyms, and nobody is helped by suggesting they are.

Is justification then a ‘process’, as Barnett says I say — with the result that he suggests my view ends up destroying ‘assurance’? Absolutely not! What seems to have happened here — and, to be blunt, in more than one North American attempted rebuttal of my work — is that criticisms regularly made by Protestant evangelicals against either Catholics or Liberals have been wheeled out as though they somehow ‘must’ be applicable to me as well. This is bizarre. My short sketch of justification above should put the matter straight.

The central point that Barnett makes has to do with the relationship between ‘the gospel’ and ‘justification’. I have just finished writing a popular commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and it was interesting to do so, this last month, with Barnett’s questions in my head. Let me make it clear that I do not, in any way, drive a wedge between ‘the gospel’ and ‘justification’. They belong intimately together, like fish and chips or Lindwall and Miller (I am trying, you see, to contextualise myself in the world of my readers). But they are not the same thing. ‘The gospel’, for Paul, is the proclamation that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord of the world. When Paul arrived in Thessalonica, or Athens, or Corinth, or wherever, we know what he announced, because he tells us: The Messiah died for our sins and rose again (1 Cor. 15.3-8; cf. 1 Thess. 4.14, where he is summarizing the same thing). Again and again in the Thessalonian correspondence Paul declares that this word, this gospel, worked with power in his hearers’ hearts, with the result that they came to faith: just as, in Rom. 1.16, the gospel (which Paul has summarized in 1.3-5) is God’s power to effect salvation. This moment is what he describes frequently as God’s ‘call’. Paul’s own ‘ordo salutis’ goes like this: God loved, chose, called and glorified (2 Thess. 2.13-14), or, in the fuller terms of Romans, God foreknew, foreordained, called, justified and glorified. This sequence is very interesting. The ‘call’, for Paul, is what happens when the gospel is preached: God’s word in that gospel works powerfully upon hearts and minds, and people find that they believe it — the crucified Jesus really is Israel’s Messiah, the world’s Lord! But — and this is my central point here, an exegetical point with large theological implications — Paul does not call this event ‘justification’. ‘Justification’ is the declaration which God at once makes, that all who share this faith belong to Christ, to his sin-forgiven family, the one family of believing Jews and believing Gentiles together, and are assured of final glorification.

I do not, then, ‘interpose’ extraneous elements between the effectual call and God’s declaration ‘righteous’. I never have, never would, never (please God) will. I merely insist on Paul’s scheme rather than our traditional evangelical ones, because I believe in the primacy of scripture rather than that of tradition. In Paul’s terms, ‘call’ and ‘justification’ are not the same thing. If centuries of theological tradition have used the word ‘justification’ to mean something else, that is another matter; but if that tradition leads us to misread Paul (as, in my view, it manifestly has), then we must deal with the problem at the root, and not be scared off from doing so by those who squeal that this doesn’t sound like what they heard in Sunday school. Barnett of course doesn’t do that, but he certainly misstates my point when he says that, according to me, ‘justification’ is ‘a badge of membership’. It isn’t, and I never said it was. Faith is the badge of membership, and, as soon as there is this faith, God declares ‘justified’. For Paul, faith is the result of the Spirit’s work through the preaching of the gospel (read 1 Cor. 12.3 with 1 Thess. 1.4-5 and 2.13); this is not driving a wedge between gospel and justification, but explaining how the gospel works to produce the faith because of which God declares ‘righteous’.

And the classic Pauline way in which God makes this declaration, stating publicly and visibly that this person is indeed within the family, is through baptism — which obviously, in the situation of primary evangelism, follows at a chronological interval, whether of five minutes or five years or whatever, but which simply says in dramatic action what God has in fact said the moment someone has believed. Nothing is ‘interposed’; no ‘wedge’ is driven between the gospel and justification. You might as well say that because I declare that the starter-motor of the car is not the same thing as the petrol engine I am driving a wedge between the one and the other. The two are designed to work in close correlation; but if the mechanic doesn’t know the difference between them he won’t be able to fix your car.

And the car needs fixing. Even though I am not an uncritical exponent of the ‘new perspective’, I cannot understand how a scholar like Barnett can criticise it, as he does at the end of his piece, as though it were a form of Pelagianism (‘surely I am good enough’, etc.). Sanders’s whole point was that that was not what Judaism was saying: you may disagree with his analysis, but his point was that the law and works were not appealing to the Jews as the basis of their salvation. If the New Perspective is pastorally naïve (Sanders was of course trying to be historical, not pastoral; those who opposed Martin Luther said he was being pastorally naïve, but he opposed them on the grounds of what Paul really said and meant) it is not for those reasons.

There are other major issues we haven’t touched on, and I am grateful to Bishop Barnett that he has raised things in such a focussed way. We haven’t, for instance, discussed the meaning ofdikaiosune theou, ‘God’s righteousness’, nor the vexed question of imputation. But I hope I have said enough at least to hit the ball firmly back across the net. If we are to keep the rally going, I hope it will be centrally focussed on the exegetical details, since as I have said more than once it is the text of scripture itself, rather than later traditions about what it is supposed to mean, that matters to me. By all means let’s look at the theological, evangelistic and pastoral questions, but let’s be clear where our authority lies.

I have spent most of my professional career in debate with scholars a million miles outside the evangelical tradition — people like Sanders, Vermes, Crossan, Borg, and semi-scholars like A.N. Wilson. I hope my fellow evangelicals realise what is involved in this, and how many people have expressed their gratitude to me for showing them a way to retain and celebrate Christian orthodoxy with intellectual integrity. It feels odd now to be debating the other way round, so to speak, but if it’s necessary I shall do it. And I hope and pray that those from within the household of faith who want to take issue with me on this or other topics will do me the courtesy, which I promise I shall do to them, of discussing criticisms with me first, so that we can clear up misunderstandings, before going public. I think that, too, is biblical.

The “Righteousness” of Romans and Galatians, and the Gospel of Christ

by Edward L. Hamilton

When comparing the message of Jesus in the gospels with that of Paul in Romans or Galatians, one (sooner or later) cannot help but be struck by the apparent disparity in attention given to the subjects of “righteousness” (dikaiosune) and “justification” (dikaiosis). In Romans, these words recur repeatedly, as centerpieces for an elaborate theological project developed over the entire course of that particular epistle. To Paul, the theoretical question of how one acquires dikaiosunefor oneself (and recognizes it in others) is an all-consuming priority, a point to which he returns again and again.

For Jesus, by contrast, the nature of righteousness is tacitly assumed to be a point of general consensus, a premise raised only occasionally as a prerequisite for other questions. Jesus never shows any interest in challenging someone’s interpretation of “where righteousness comes from,” defining different types of righteousness, or connecting it explicitly with his (quite common) references to the role of faith in healing and salvation. In fact, aside from a bit of foreshadowing about the role of the Spirit in John, Jesus never mentions righteousness outside of the gospel of Matthew, and even there he never uses it in the precise technical sense beloved by Paul.

To most orthodox Christians, who would demand that Paul be found a faithful steward of Christ’s teaching, this presents a challenge. Paul cannot be inventing a “new gospel” — the Lord forbid that he should fall under his own curse! (Gal 1:6-8) — so one of two possibilities must be true. Either the difference is purely a matter of vocabulary, and Paul is repackaging the teachings of Christ into new language, or the difference reflects Paul’s need to address some novel problem that has arisen since the resurrection. In the evangelical tradition, it has been most common to suggest the first option, and declare that the detailed theological constructs of Romans and Galatians are themselves “the gospel” of Christ — often with the implication that they are a substantially less opaque and more kerymatically pure presentation of “the gospel” than Jesus managed to provide himself! Martin Luther’s attitude, if perhaps extreme, is a usefully exaggerated example of the sort of gentle (?) deuterocanonization of the Synoptics that can result:

Now John writes very little about the works of Christ, but very much about His preaching. But the other Evangelists write much of His works and little of His preaching. Therefore John’s Gospel is the one, tender, true chief Gospel, far, far to be preferred to the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke. In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and good for you to know, even though you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. (Preface to the New Testament)

The more regular, and more sophisticated, synthesis follows this line: Jesus, at least in the Synoptics, is mostly interested in challenging the Pharisees, since they thought that they could follow a Pelagian “works-gospel” that would allow them to be viewed by God as good enough to be worthy of entry into heaven. Jesus, who for much of his ministry was primarily interested in defeating their system of distorted Judaism, taught a gospel that amounted to a deliberate reductio ad absurdum of this system, presenting God as an infinitely demanding judge whose perfectionism could never possibly be satisfied by any human being.

The primary function of the “New Law” section of the Sermon of the Mount, for example, was to set the bar so high that even the Pharisees couldn’t clear it: “Be as holy as God is.” He didn’t honestly expect for any of his listeners to be able to satisfy the high standards he was setting, he just wanted them to sink into a state of total hopelessness concerning their own ethical capabilities, as an inspired act of “creative destruction.” Once everyone was uniformly leveled to a state of mutual despair, he could sacrifice himself to accomplish the real solution, and leave behind his disciples to explain what it all meant! Thus, both Jesus’ (superficially) positive moral teaching and his aggressive anti-Pharisee polemics are to be identified with the “negative” half of Paul’s gospel, clever indictments against the same false theory of righteousness that Paul is purportedly trying to refute.

There is a certain element of truth to some aspects of this picture. The gospel was, indeed, understood in part as a “mystery” before the resurrection. And it is impossible to escape the Synoptics without a deep impression that there was something catastrophically wrong about how the Pharisees were functioning as spiritual custodians of the Torah. But there are too many problems with this theory to allow it to be accepted uncritically in all its particulars. The suggestion that Jesus was deliberately insincere about aspects of his instruction, in even the most limited respect, is almost entirely unevidenced by any apostolic teaching in Acts or the Epistles. Too many elements of those extended teachings fall alarmingly close to exactly the sort of Pelagianism that Paul is supposedly critiquing. The alms-prayer-fasting praxis triad of Matthew 6, for example, doesn’t seem to attack the idea of “practicing righteousness to gain reward” so much as it emphasizes doing this discretely, to ensure that the reward comes from God and not men. The “cup of cold water” exhortation in Matthew 10 (and Mark 9) again straightforwardly makes this connection between doing good deeds and gaining eternal reward, with no reason to suspect any implicit irony. This point is driven home even more forcefully in contexts like Matthew 7:21-23 and the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25.

Now, none of this is to suggest that Jesus really means to preach a “works-gospel” himself! The heavy focus on forgiveness, constantly reinforced in Jesus’ encounters with various ostracized and marginalized “sinners,” makes it quite clear that apart from God’s mercy the human condition will remain deeply flawed. We cannot avoid noting, however, that every time Jesus does venture to discuss concepts like “works,” “reward,” and “salvation,” he seems unconcerned about affirming their interconnectedness, without ever qualifying his remarks: “Now don’t go taking these ideas too far like the Pharisees, or you won’t be emphasizing faith heavily enough.” The Pharisees are never criticized for teaching others to follow the Law — in fact, they are obliquely commended as authorities in Matthew 23:2 — but only for failing to follow it adequately themselves.

The problem with the Pharisees was not fundamentally that they were seeking to establish themselves as righteous according to their own works; they would surely have defended themselves by noting that the Torah was itself a gift from God. Rather, they were being condemned for overly scrupulous adherence to some portions of the Law to the neglect of others that were more important, and for doing this with the intent of earning the praise of men rather than God. This is certainly one way that one might choose to define “legalism,” but if so, it is not precisely the same as what we usually mean by “works-righteousness,” at least not since letting that category fall under the defining influence of Pelagius and Augustine.

Again, at the risk of redundancy, I must repeat that none of this means that Pelagius was right. What it really means is that Jesus and Paul, and the Pharisees, and whomever Paul was criticizing in Galatians, all would probably have agreed that Pelagius was dead wrong: We have no power to do good apart from God, period, and when we (inevitably) fail, we have no recourse but to supplicate God for unmerited forgiveness. But if “works-righteousness” is not really the locus of Jesus’ clash with the Jewish teachers of the Law, then we need to find a new approach to reconciling the apparent discontinuity of interest level in righteousness/justification between the gospels and the Pauline epistles.

The Alternative of the New Perspective

The so-called “new perspective on Paul” offers at least one possible alternative. Contra the traditional approach, commentators from the new perspective prefer to read the Pauline epistles as addressing more particular questions, uniquely relevant to circumstances in those ecclesial communities to which they were written. Specifically, the letters to Galatia and Rome were written to address questions of “community boundary” and “covenantal membership.” The “novel problem” that Paul needed to address was the sudden influx of non-proselyte Gentile converts that began during Paul’s first missionary journey (starting from the end of Acts 13). How were these Christians to be received? The consensus view of the Jerusalem council was that they be received as Gentiles, without embracing the purity code, and without circumcision. This decision, as presented by the brief synopsis of Luke, seems to have been embraced as a leap of faith by the apostolic community. The Spirit, so far as anyone could tell, was indwelling Gentiles in the same way as Jews, and since the Spirit was sent to lead the Church into “all truth,” there was little point in arguing. It’s not even entirely clear that the elders of Jerusalem realized, at the time, the extent to which this necessitated a radical restructuring of communal identity for “the people of God,” but eventually the ecclesiological implications needed to be hashed out in detail, and that task quite naturally fell to the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul.

The epistle to the Galatians represents a fairly practical response to the external symptoms of Judaizing tendencies, in this case, a sundered fellowship between those who demanded circumcision (along with Sabbath-keeping and some other non-ethical componenents of the Torah) and those who did not. Paul’s answer is vigorous and forceful, and relies more heavily on his own apostolic authority as an inspired minister of the gospel than on any detailed argument. The Law, while formerly useful for the purpose for which it was intended, must yield to the transformed reality of the resurrected Christ. Everything about the new “way” of Jesus, the conversions, the miracles, the ekklesia, the Spirit, and the promise of righteousness, all of that came as a result of “hearing with faith,” quite apart from any invocation of the Law. Paul seems almost stunned that his new church, after hearing the gospel, could return to behaving as though this was just the latest retooling of proselyte Judaism.

In this short correspondence, Paul isn’t trying to carefully elucidate a robust ecclesiology for the ages, he just wants to keep his new church from collapsing within a few months of underwriting its charter. That doesn’t make his dialectic any less brilliant and energetic, but it does suggest a certain degree of caution should be taken before universalizing his fleshy prose to function as prooftexts for other controversies — whether for the relationship between Jews and Christians (as per Nicene patristic thought, which discovered a more sweeping polemic against Judaism as a whole), or for foundational questions of soteriology (as per Luther, who discovered a supernaturally prescient critique of the Catholicism of his era). Paul just doesn’t have questions nearly that broad in his viewscope, and reading him as if he does may come at our peril.

Before turning to Romans, as Paul’s mature tour de force evaluation of the difficulties that first arose in Galatia, it would be prudent to review the elements of the new perspective most germane to this study. The new perspective, to begin with, insists that “righteousness” for Paul and his Jewish contemporaries never means an abstract moral state or disposition, but is intimately connected with the outcome of the eschatological project of Israel’s God. The coming of the Messiah, as commonly affirmed by every sect of Second Temple Judaism, was expected to concretely vindicate the faithfulness of Israel in the presence of all other nations. Being “found righteous” meant that one would be included in that group of devout Jews who had avoided falling into apostasy and departed from the proper worship of the true God.

The Law, among other functions, provided a sort of spiritual barometer for how well that fidelity was being maintained. If sacrifices continued to be offered, if unclean meats and abhorrent sexual immoralities were eschewed, if the feasts and Sabbaths were steadfastly observed, then Israel’s people could take comfort that they were “ready” for final judgment and subsequent redemption, the Messianic age promised by the prophets, to arrive as the culmination of history. If these elements were being neglected, it was a sign that Israel was being lax and careless about the maintenance of its covenants, and that the God who had vowed to eternally abide by them might ignore Israel, or even permit another extended period of persecution and geographical exile.

Righteousness, thus, could only be understood within the context of that series of distinctive convenants that had been established between God and Israel’s patriarchs, priests, and kings.Israel’s “righteousness” was guaranteed by fidelity to those covenantal obligations, and God similarly demonstrated His “righteousness” by serving as their guarantor in perpetuity. In order to properly appreciate the complexity of the problem addressed by Romans, we need to recognize that Christianity was being attacked as deficient on both sides of that relation. Paul refers frequently to not only our righteousness, but also “the righteousness of God.” The traditional Reformed reading takes these two phrases to define the opposite ends of a common axis. We either have a “righteousness centered on (or originating from) ourselves,” or its antithesis, a “righteousness centered on (or originating from) God.” Obviously, the former is designated as the object of criticism, and the latter commended as what we should seek instead.

But Romans is not simply about our righteousness, and where it comes from, and thus this conclusion begins from a false premise. It is also providing a theodicy. Paul is genuinely concerned that Christianity is vulnerable to the charge that it literally describes a God who is “unrighteous” by Jewish standards. He takes this charge quite seriously, for its own sake. Of course, in order to have a proper understanding as to why God has in fact remained righteous, all appearances to the contrary, we also need a proper perspective on how human righteousness is to be recognized. The questions are intricately linked and cannot be disentangled, so Paul needs to constantly refer back and forth between them in a way that can easily blur them together unless we pay careful attention to the flow of thought. But God’s righteousness will, at the end of the day, still be God’s righteousness, and human righteousness will, at the end of the day, still be human righteousness — because we are different parties operating under a common covenantal framework with different responsibilities.

Why was the Christian God potentially open to an accusation of unrighteousness? For two reasons. First, Paul’s position on the function of the Law (as first presented in Galatians and reiterated in Romans 2 and 8) is that it brings only condemnation, in fact, exactly the same condemnation that would occur apart from the Law. The Law is useful, but only as a sort of communication from God concerning our fallen state that forces us to face hard facts. (Ironically, this is exactly the interpretation of Jesus’ “New Law” that the evangelical Protestant tradition provides!)

But surely some of the Jews, the ones commended for their righteousness in the Hebrew Scriptures, were genuinely righteous, were they not? Does Paul’s revisionism amount to a retroactive claim that no one in Israel was ever truly righteous? Any God who would authorize changing the rules halfway through the game is guilty of appalling trickery, especially if the rules are changed in a such a way that those who thought they might have a chance at “winning” are really losing just as badly as everyone else. Paul’s formidable challenge is to demonstrate that the rules really haven’t changed. Those who were found righteous before Christ, and those who are found righteous after Christ, must be “found righteous” (i.e., identified as members of the community that will be eschatologically vindicated) for identical reasons.

Second, over the first few decades of Church expansion, the geographical center of the Christian movement had swung inexorably away from Palestine and Jerusalem, and the ethnic core of converts was increasingly non-Jewish. As far as virtually all evidence in the prophets was concerned, this was exactly the opposite of what any good Jew would have anticipated. If the Messianic age was really at hand, the wealth of the Gentile nations should have been flowing intoIsrael (Isa 45:14; 60:5-16; Micah 4:13; Zeph 2:9). The kings of the Gentiles should recognize Israel’s sovereignty, and their defiant peoples reduced to servitors (Isa 49:23; 45:14,23; Micah 7:17). The Gentiles should have been facing destruction at the hand of Israel and Israel’s God (Isa 54:3; Micah 5:10-15; Zeph 2:11). The only option for salvation of the Gentiles would be to gather them together with the remnant of Israel, the exclusive vessel of redemption (Isa 56:6-8, cf. the “diaspora witness” passage in Isa 66:18-24). Contrary to all of this prophetic witness, it was increasingly obvious that the epicenters of Christian expansion, the bases for future missionary activity, would be Gentile cities like Syrian Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome.

The last of these was particularly scandalous from a Jewish perspective. Rome was the mystical continuation of Nineveh and Babylon, and its deified Caesar was heir to the impiety of Antiochus Epiphanes. For God to reject the cities of Israel (“Woe to you Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum”) and relocate His base of redemptive operation to somewhere like Rome was an act of pure treachery. Paul’s job here is, if anything, even harder. He needs to explain why a body of recent converts who bear no outward resemblence to Jews are nonetheless the true heirs to the promises made to Israel, and why this cannot simply be fairly caricatured as “God just got sick of His old chosen people and had them replaced by a new batch.” (Initially, of course, this accusation would be expected from the Jews, but as we have seen historically, it has been all the more problematic a form of reductionism in the hands of Christians….)

Resolving the Tensions

A wonderful feature of the new perspective is that, despite radically redefining the questions involved, the answer is pretty much the same one we’ve been using all along: “The just shall live by faith.” Faith, then, is the distinguishing feature of those who will be ultimately vindicated by the work of God that unfolds throughout history and is consummated in the eschaton. This resolves (though far from trivially, and with much necessary intermediate exposition) the threat on both fronts. The righteous have always been justified by faith all along, and to the extent that they have been under the Law, the Law has functioned quite properly to point them towards the need for that faith.

Similarly, “faith” as a common feature to the righteous allows for a redefinition of Israel in response to the proclamation of Christ’s gospel. Abraham is truly “the father of us all,” that is, all those who are found to live by faith, and the new ekklesia is grafted smoothly onto the old Israel, pruned of dead branches but still rooted in the same fertile soil (and, Paul broadly hints, this is exactly the surgical operation that needs to be performed to ensure a return to full health at some distant point in the future, after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”). Even more impressively, we find in Romans 6 that our own “righteousness by faith” exists in elegant symmetry to God’s “righteousness revealed through faithfulness,” in particular, God’s faithfulness in providing a Savior who could satisfy the debt of the Law, conquer death and end the reign of sin. Freed from sin, we have the opportunity to pursue sanctification by submitting our lives to the model of Christ’s perfect obedience, even the demanding program of sanctification prescribed by Christ, and thereby obtain eternal life.

On one “axis” of controversy, we find that the just are to be identified as righteous on account of their faith in Christ, not on the basis of works of the Law. This means that Gentiles can be invited into the ekklesia as Gentiles, and Jews as Jews, without any need to transform one into the other. On the other axis, we discover that this resolves the ostensible threats that were causing God to appear “unrighteous” rather than “righteous,” and thus the righteousness of God is consistently demonstrated before, during, and after the advent of Christ’s gospel.

The debate was never really a matter of whether our righteousness came “from ourselves” or “from God.” I suspect that if you asked Paul, he would heartily endorse the latter, but that simply isn’t what he’s devoting a lengthy and complex letter to establishing. The debate was over on what basis our righteousness (status as members of the true people of God) comes — “faith,” versus “the Law” — and whether or not the answer to this question is consonant with God’s (covenantal) faithfulness, and we should read and apply it with this in mind.

As an application of this interpretation to a specific test case, let’s look at the beginning of Romans 10. Paul is criticizing his fellow Jews; “they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.” The next line reads, “For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own righteousness, did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.”

How do we read the contrast between “God’s righteousness” and “their own righteousness”? In the traditional model, this is a question of origin: Paul wants us to quit trying to find a righteousness from “within ourselves,” and start looking to God. But that really wasn’t a fault that could be fairly ascribed to the Jews, who were under no illusion about Who was ultimately responsible for providing Torah to them. From the new perspective, we instead view the distinction between “God’s righteousness” and “our righteousness” as formally benign. God should have a righteousness proper to Himself, and we are wise to seek to establish a righteousness proper to ourselves (though, to be sure, derived ultimately from God).

The problem, then, is not with the Jews trying to establish “their own righteousness.” The problem is that this must be done in a way that respects the pattern laid down by God’s righteousness, as per Christ’s great act of obedience in Romans 5. (The is the “knowledge” with which the commendable Jewish “zeal” to pursue righteousness fails to be in accordance.) The right approach to establishing one’s righteousness is thus, as we all know, based on faith rather than based on the Law — but we should resist exactly equating “based on faith” with “God’s righteousness,” and “based on Law” with “our own righteousness.” It’s not that we actually receive God’s righteousness as a sort of transferred commodity; it’s that we look upon it, climatically manifested in Christ’s obedience to the point of death, as the prototypical example of how we ought to go about acquiring and preserving our own righteousness.

This is a subtle point, but it is absolutely essential to prevent the collapse of divine and human righteousness, two entirely separate entities, into a single amorphous “pot” of righteousness that God is pooling with us. That loss of distinction muddles the true, more delicate interdependence of the two controversies, and creates all manner of unnecessary anxiety about whether or not baptism, or faith, or repentance, or anything else, might originate partly from within us and thus fail to truly be “righteousness of (i.e., from) God.”

Paul, I’m sure, would quite enthusiastically endorse the sort of language that makes all of these things a manifestation of the Spirit working within us (rather than our own labor), and would also warn just as strongly against boasting on the basis of personal faith just as he does against boasting on the basis of Law. But the hyper-Calvinist paranoia that we might accidentally believe the gospel “in the wrong sort of way,” and fatally taint the ordo salutis with unconscious semi-Pelagianism, is simply an unfortunate side effect of a botched misreading of Romans.

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