Monday, August 01, 2005

Galatians & Romans Pick List

Of all the books in the bible, Galatians and Romans have been the most worked to death. What if we had to come up with a pick list of scholars who have penned analyses of both letters? Here's mine:
1. Philip Esler. Galatians, 1998. Conflict and Identity in Romans, 2003.

2. Mark Nanos. The Irony of Galatians, 2002. The Mystery of Romans, 1996.

3. Francis Watson. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach, 1986. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, 2007.

4. James Dunn. Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians, 1990. Romans, 1988.
Each is a New Perspective advocate, loosely speaking, but pushes different conclusions from the others. I outline the highlights and why I chose them.

1. Philip Esler. Galatians, 1998. Conflict and Identity in Romans, 2003.

Esler's approach uses all the best tools to make sense of Paul's polemic in an honor-shame world. He's "new perspective" but doesn't jump through exegetical hoops in order to make Paul sound as Jewish-friendly as possible. Paul could be seriously offensive -- and anti-Judean in the extreme -- when defending the rights of his Gentile converts. He was on a scriptural battleground, engaged in fiercely competitive interpretations of God's will. There's no place for systematic theology or benign literary approaches here.

Esler accounts for the differences between Galatians and Romans in terms of Paul's willingness to adopt a more positive (and hopefully more successful) approach to the problem of ethnic rivalry. Thus, while in the first letter Abraham was the heir of uncircumcised Gentiles (Gal 3:6-9), in the next he became the heir of both the uncircumcised and circumcised (Rom 4:1-17). Where the Torah had been an active agent in consigning Israel to sin (Gal 3:19-24), it was now holy (Rom 7:12) and either passive in relation to sin (Rom 7:7-13) or free of its taint altogether (Rom 7:14-25). And instead of advancing the supersessionist claim that the Christian movement has supplanted Israel (Gal 6:16), Paul now insisted that the promises to Israel were still being fulfilled, but in an unexpected way (Rom 9:1-11:32), with the result that the pagan nations had become a means to an end. Most importantly, Romans concludes positively by enjoining Judeans and Gentiles to "welcome the other" and respect one another's different practices (Rom 14:1-15:6).

But if Paul became more sensitive to his fellow Judeans, his essential doctrine remained the same, as agonistic and sectarian as before: the Torah was obsolete; the spirit offered access to the best the law promised but never delivered. The age of the covenant -- a period of gloom and doom -- was finished; the new covenant had dawned. As a Pharisee Paul had fulfilled the Torah adequately; nothing was more glorious than the Israelite covenant. But as a Christ-believer, he looked back on this covenant-era as a dark age, and at Abraham as a lone faith-figure who anticipated better things to come.

Here are the key points of Esler's work.

The Battleground of Ethnic Identity: Galatians and Romans deal with ethnic identity issues, the former diminishing Judean identity; the latter maintaining positive differences among Judeans and Greeks. Romans is carefully addressed to "the Judean and the Greek" every step of the way, putting each group on the same salvific plane, but in different ways.

The Law: The law is entirely obsolete with regards to salvation. Christians have access to best which the law promised but never delivered, by a different route: the spirit.

Salvation History -- Abraham an Exception to the Rule: Christ is the end of the law, not the climax of it. There's no salvation history in Paul’s thought. Abraham is an exception to the rule in a faithless era, who anticipated the faith-righteousness of later Christians. Pagans are his legitimate heirs, because God calls whomever he wishes. He hates Israel (for now) as he hated Esau, just as he showers favor on the pagans as he did to Jacob. The law is finished because Moses anticipated that it would be a dead-end project. It may as well be distant as the heavens and the abyss, for Christ (not the commandment) is nearby, on lips and in hearts of believers. This, however, is all a mysterious means to Israel’s end. Gentiles are actually worthless in and of themselves, dependent upon the root of Abraham and the coparticipation of faithful Judeans. Judeans who don’t persist in unbelief will be regrafted back into the olive tree -- supported by the lone but formidable faith-patriarch, Abraham.

Justification: Righteousness is equivalent to privileged identity, "life", or "blessing", used only in contexts where ethnic issues are at stake. It is not a covenantal or forensic term. The righteous are not judged on the last day; they are simply waived through.

Paul's Relationship to Jerusalem: Paul was hostile to the pillars, especially after Antioch. He was a sectarian apostle.

What was Antioch about? It was about circumcision, not food laws. And it was about lying and backbiting, not mere "hypocrisy". The pillars were now saying that Gentiles had to become proselytes in order to share table-fellowship. So James had revoked the agreement reached earlier (in an honor-shame context he was under no obligation to keep his word to a rival like Paul anyway) by sending a group of delegates to break off the fellowship. The best Paul could do was accuse Peter of hypocrisy, since he would have made a fool of himself if he had accused Peter of the simple truth -- that the pillars had lied and broken their promise, a promise naturally meaningless unaccompanied by an oath.

Is Luke's Apostolic Decree historical? No. Luke wanted to present Paul as being reconciled to the other apostles and on friendly terms. So he inserted the four requirements of the apostolic decree in order to portray a compromise.

2. Mark Nanos. The Irony of Galatians, 2002. The Mystery of Romans, 1996.

Nanos sits opposite Esler in almost every way. His Paul is Jewish-friendly to the core, much maligned and misunderstood. He didn't oppose the law, and he never gave up on the priority of Israel. But this isn't wild revisionism. Nanos' readings owe to careful and insightful considerations of Paul’s rhetoric. In many ways Mystery of Romans is one of those books you read and say, "It's so obvious. Why didn't we ever see this before?" How indeed can the weak in faith of Rom 14-15 possibly refer to Christians? And Irony of Galatians is one of those studies best showing how people don't always mean what they say. Mystery of Romans points to what's been under our noses for a long time, while Irony of Galatians digs up what's been under Paul's rhetoric for a long time.

Nanos' Paul has immediate relevance in a post-Holocaust age: we can warm to a figure who was doing away with discrimination and anti-semitism more than anything else. But again, it would be a mistake to dismiss Nanos as another Gaston or Gager. Nanos respects the text, and shows every sign of trying to understand Paul on his own terms. Rom 11 may offer the reader some surprises, but there are not exactly a two-path plan of salvation here.

Nanos sees non-Christian Jews in the background of Paul's polemic, in Galatians as much as Romans. The Galatian influencers took an understandable position for being outside the Christ-movement. As far as they were concerned, the new age hadn't dawned yet, and so Gentiles should be treated as usual and encouraged to get circumcised. Paul's point, made with exasperation, is that his converts should know better than this, that Christ's death inaugurated the new age and made conversion to Judaism unnecessary. Paul wasn't in dispute with Christian Jews -- far less the pillars, who fully agreed with him.

Here are the key points of Nanos' work.

Irony and Mystery: In Galatians Paul is impatient with his Gentile converts for considering becoming proselytes, and so launches a preemptive strike against the Judean outsiders who have been influencing his converts in this way. The irony is that Paul doesn’t have anything against the Torah at all; most of it remains in force. In Romans he is troubled by anti-semitism and addresses the Gentile faction throughout, making clear that Israel has first dibs. The mystery is that Paul is concerned about the fate of non-Christian Israel more than anything else, even through the Gentile mission.

The Law: The law is still in force with regards to salvation. Parts of it are optional for Gentiles, though they must abide by minimal Judean standards set forth in the apostolic decree, especially when in the company of other Jews.

Salvation History -- The Priority of Israel: Christ is the goal of the law, not the end of it. Israel is always God's priority. Through the Gentile mission Israel’s universal hopes are being fulfilled. The olive tree shows that the fate of Israel precedes and supports the fate of the nations. Israel hasn’t fallen, only stumbled. Her division has initiated Gentile salvation, which in turn will -- in the process -- end that division. Israel is in the process of being divided so that she may be restored.

The Weak in Faith of Rom 14-15: These are Jews who do not have faith in Christ. They are not Christian Jews who are supposedly weak for believing in the importance of Torah-observances -- about which Paul says "everyone should be convinced in their own minds what is right". Rather, if these Jews accepted that God raised Jesus from the dead they would become strong in faith, just as Abraham became strong in faith for believing God would give life to Sarah’s dead womb (Rom 4:18-25).

Paul’s Relationship to Jerusalem: Paul was on friendly terms with the pillars, who agreed with him about how the Gentile mission should be implemented.

What was Antioch about? It was about circumcision, not food laws. And it was about hypocrisy, not heresy. The circumcision faction was a group of non-Christian outsiders who accompanied the Christian delegates sent by James, outsiders who naturally believed that Gentiles should become proselytes before sharing table-fellowship with Jews. When Peter deviated out of anxiety of this faction, masking his true beliefs, Paul called him a hypocrite. Peter hadn't changed his beliefs -- far less switched sides or allegiances -- which would have been heresy rather than hypocrisy. He covered up his beliefs for expedient social reasons, compromising in order to get along with outsiders.

Is Luke's Apostolic Decree historical? Yes. It stands somewhere between requirements for resident aliens and God-fearers, developed as the basis for minimal Gentile requirements. Paul and James (and Peter) were on the same page, insisting that while pagans need not be circumcised, they were not free to "Gentilize" with abandon.

3. Francis Watson. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach, 1986. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, 2007.

Watson's book (the original and revised) remains one of the most lethal critiques of the Lutheran approach. Amazingly, the author washed his hands clean of the New Perspective in between the two editions (see "Not the New Perspective"), but his thesis itself remains intact. His Paul is aggressively sectarian, advocating complete separation from the synagogues, as much now as before.

Watson's argument -- that Paul was trying to eradicate Jewish identity and heritage -- remains useful in interpreting Galatians, though it breaks down when applied to Romans. Still, there is helpful commentary in the Romans section. A superb case is mounted for the Genesis account behind Rom 7:7-13, the point being that Judean behavior under the Torah is parallel with Adam's under the commandment in Eden. And Rom 7:14-25 teases out further implications, in terms of the futility and despair resulting from Judean attempts to follow Torah -- not a timeless observation (since it contradicts Paul's actual experience as a Pharisee (Philip 3:4b-6)), but a hindsight one, seen backwards from the perspective of faith, understood for the first time.

Watson's view that Romans is addressed exclusively to Judeans (save in Rom 11:13-32) is extreme, but serves as a balance against what has since become a strong trend in the opposite direction. Esler would see what should be obvious: that the letter gives careful attention to both "the Judean and the Greek", and that far from trying to persuade Judeans to abandon their heritage, Paul wanted them to maintain it.

Here are the key points of Watson's work.

Separation from the Synagogues: Galatians and Romans insist that the church should be a sect outside Judaism, not a reform movement within. In Galatians Paul tells his Gentile converts to avoid Jewish practices at all costs. In Romans, he addresses the Jewish group (save in Rom 11:13-32) in trying to persuade them to abandon the synagogue and join the Gentile community (Rom 14-15 presupposes two different congregations separated by mutual hostility).

The Law: The law is relevant only in a sectarian sense. The Torah belongs to the Jewish community which Christians should have nothing to do with. Christians do, however, possess insight into the "true" meaning of the Torah.

Salvation History -- God's Inconsistent Consistency: Christ is the end of the law as practiced by the Jewish community. God is perfectly consistent with his scriptural character in rejecting Jews and calling Gentiles by law-free righteousness. He is inconsistently consistent, however, in planning to save all Israel despite this.

Sin and the Law: Rom 7 is neither introspective nor autobiographical; it proves exegetically that sin used the law to its advantage (with the example of Adam), and that it succeeded from that point on in reproducing itself within the human host.

Paul's Relationship to Jerusalem: Paul was hostile to the pillars after Antioch, and by the time of Galatians was a sectarian apostle.

What was Antioch about? It was about circumcision, not food laws, after testing a loose agreement reached in Jerusalem. Paul exaggerates the extent to which his understanding of the Gentile mission had been accepted by the pillars. They had accepted the legitimacy of the his mission without addressing the question of circumcision. James soon didn't like the way things were going, and so sent a group of delegates to Antioch in order to remove Judeans from impure table-fellowship until Gentiles fully adopted the Torah.

Is Luke's Apostolic Decree historical? No. Luke presents Paul as one of the "men from James", sent to impose food laws, which was not the case.

4. James D.G. Dunn. Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians, 1990. Romans, 1988.

Dunn was the first "new perspective" advocate to engage in comprehensive work on Galatians and Romans. Sitting somewhere between Esler/Watson on the one hand and Nanos on the other, Dunn thinks Paul both affirmed and opposed Judaism. Above all, he affirmed the covenant and claimed the Torah should be fulfilled. He only opposed the way the covenant confined the scope of salvation to Judeans. His problem wasn't with the law, only with the works of the law, since ethnic observances (like circumcision, food laws, sabbath) confined the grace of God to the chosen people. In effect, they served as covenant badges signaling Israel's favored status. Faith-righteousness did away with them and opened salvation to Gentiles on an equal basis. Liberated from a nationalist spin -- minus its "works" -- the Torah was to be fulfilled.

Dunn may have a point about the meaning of works, but Paul contrasted faith-law as much as he did faith-works. Paul says he destroyed the law in its entirety, and in a context like Rom 5-8 works are nowhere in view. It was virtuously impossible to attack works without bringing down the whole law in the process. One represented the other, and stark alternatives are in any case what to expect with contesting faiths in an agonistic culture. For Paul the choice was law or Christ; the works contrast supplemented as a corollary.

Here are the key points of Dunn's work.

Reform Movement within Judaism: Galatians and Romans assume the church should continue as a reform movement within Judaism, insisting on fulfillment of the Torah freed from a nationalist perspective.

The Law: The law is still in force, but without racial boasting and ceremonial works. The spirit allows fulfillment of the law apart from works, or apart from the Jewish monopoly on God’s favor.

Salvation History -- The Butterfly vs. the Olive Tree: Christ is not the end of the law, rather, the end of one stage of it and the beginning of another. The role of the Torah as a badge of privileged election is over, paving the way for a new era in which the law can be fulfilled by everyone on an equal basis. Israel has only been temporarily set aside, until the Gentile mission is complete. Paul doesn't advocate continuity by transformation, as when "a caterpillar becomes a butterfly and the empty shell of the caterpillar is all that is left of the old stage of existence". He believes in continuity by extension, as when "wild branches are grafted into an olive tree so that both old and new are part of the larger whole".

Paul's Relationship to Jerusalem: Paul acknowledged the authority of the pillars at an early stage, but after Antioch he became an independent missionary. He still, however, saw his work as falling within Judaism.

What was Antioch about? It was about food laws, not circumcision. The question of circumcision had already been settled. James was now calling for a more scrupulous observance of dietary laws, especially with regard to ritual purity and tithing.

Is Luke's Apostolic Decree historical? Yes and no. The Jerusalem Council settled only the circumcision issue, which is why food became a problem at Antioch. The apostolic decree was a later development, an accommodation between Jewish and Gentile believers once the Gentile mission had been established, perhaps by the late 50s.


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