Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Controversial Studies and the Question of Motive: The Apostle Paul

(Prologue to this series here. )

Scholars have been trying to distinguish between "the reason for which Paul held his view of the law and the arguments which he adduces in favor of it" for a long time (as E.P. Sanders puts it, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, p 4). Paul makes four arguments against the law. Which (if any) are his real reasons?

Paul said "not by law" because he thought--

(1) Faith in Christ was salvifically exclusive. Since the death and resurrection of Christ provided salvation, and the spirit was the guarantee of that salvation, the law (as good as it had been in the past) was automatically disqualified (Philip 3:4b-11; II Cor 3:7-11).

(2) Gentiles were saved as Gentiles. Pagans should inherit the messianic promises without becoming Jews in the process. (Gal 3:3-9,13-14; Rom 3:21-23,28-30, 4:9-12,16-17a, 10:4,12-13).

(3) The law was impossible to obey adequately. No one could fulfill the law; it was a dead-end project (Gal 3:10-12; Rom 9:30-10:3,5-8; cf. Gal 5:2-3).

(4) The law increased sin, or was powerless against it. The law was an active agent confining people to sin (Gal 3:19-24, Rom 11:32; (cf. Rom 3:20, 4:15, 5:20), or at least was ineffectual against the power of sin (Rom 7:7-25) -- in either case, leading people away from salvation instead of toward it.

Lutherans salivate the more they go down the list, while the New Perspective emphasizes (2). Some NP advocates, like Sanders and Esler, favor (1) and (2) -- perhaps (1) slightly more than (2) -- and I think they're right. Sanders says, "it is the Gentile question and the exclusivism of Paul's soteriology which dethrone the law" (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p 497), but the latter (1) dominates his argument:
"Paul's view of the law depends more on the exclusivism of his Christology than on anything else... Since salvation is in Christ, therefore all other ways toward salvation are wrong... Paul could then argue from the common observation that everybody transgresses to prove that everyone is under the lordship of sin. But this is only an argument to prove a point." (Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, p 57; Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p 482, 499)
Esler too:
"I agree with E.P. Sanders that Paul moved from solution to plight, discovering first in the death and resurrection of Christ the reality of salvation, especially from the pervasive sinfulness of the 'present evil age' (Gal 1:4), even though he himself had not been sinful (Philip 3:6), and then developing the implications of this for his Gentiles..." (Galatians, p 176; italics mine)
Yes, and the way I see it is that the Gentile mission forced Paul's hand, demanding he address the law openly. He began working out the full implications of his Christology as he battled on behalf of his converts.

The background here is important. In the earliest days of the movement, the apostles -- James, Peter, and Paul alike -- thought Christ's return was imminent, and presumably took for granted that any Gentile converts were exempt from the law in light of this (as Paula Fredriksen has argued). At this point there was little reason for Paul to argue against the Torah per se. With the end on the horizon, he and the other apostles would have adhered to as much of the law as Jesus did (or didn't) -- regardless of what Paul thought about that salvifically -- and let the few Gentile newcomers do as they please.

But the kingdom didn't come, and Christianity began attracting more and more Gentiles, prompting reactions from wider Judaism. The apostles seriously had to rethink the issue. At this point (around 49 CE), Paul's exclusivist outlook would have merged quickly with his ideas about Gentile freedom -- over against James, who was starting to see things differently. I doubt Paul could have kept Christological reasons distinct from social ones. Both point to genuine motives. Christology was the real reason, but the Gentiles brought the issue into the open.

"Lutheran" arguments about the law's inherent problems -- (3) and (4) -- were exactly that, subsidiary arguments made to prove a point, and not always convincingly. We should all know that Paul had no trouble meeting the law's demands as a practicing Pharisee (Philip 3:6). He's the last person we'd expect to claim that the law makes sin a bigger problem. But that claim answers his homemade dilemma resulting from (1), namely, "Why did God give the law in the first place, if it doesn't save?" Answer: to consign people to sin so that they can be saved (Gal 3:19-24; Rom 11:32). That's perverse, of course, and Paul had to dig himself out of the hole -- which he did by exonerating God at the expense of his sovereignty: the deity actually intended good with the law, but sin foiled his intent, resulting in disobedience and despair (Rom 7:7-25). The fact that this theology is so problematic and inconsistently expressed -- not to mention contradicting actual experience (Philip 3:6) -- tells against it having anything to do with Paul's real reasons for attacking the law.

He did away with the law because he found something so better, that it made something so good seem like "excrement" (Philip 3:4b-11). Scholars have been nonplussed by this Paul. Thus Dunn:
"There remains something very odd in Paul's attitude to his ancestral faith. The Lutheran Paul has been replaced by an idiosyncratic Paul who in arbitrary and irrational manner turns his face against the glory and greatness of Judaism's covenant theology and abandons Judaism simply because it is not Christianity... I must confess that I find Sanders' Paul little more convincing (and much less attractive) than the Lutheran Paul." (Jesus, Paul, and the Law, pp 186f)
The critique speaks volumes. Dunn doesn't like Sander's Paul (he's not "attractive"), and he can't comprehend him (he's "idiosyncratic"), and so sticks to motive (2). My response to Dunn is that religious converts are often unattractive and idiosyncratic, and we should not be trying to mainstream their mindset.


Paul's motives are located in (1) and (2), but especially the former. We should respect the New Perspective's emphasis on the latter: if not for the Gentile mission in a long-delayed parousia, Paul wouldn't have had much to say about the law. But that's only half the story. If Gentiles were Paul's only reason for attacking the law, he would have simply loosened the Torah's parameters and dispensed with "Jewish" requirements like circumcision, food laws, and sabbath observance (as in Rom 2-4). But he went well beyond this, insisting that Christians die to the law in its entirety (Rom 5-8), as much as they die to the reign of Adam, sin and the flesh.(1)

As a convert(2) Paul looked back on the era of the Jewish covenant as a dark age -- even though he had found it personally rewarding -- and at Abraham as a lone faith-figure who anticipated far better things to come. "What once had glory has glory no more, because of a greater glory." Therein lies his true motive for attacking the law, however radical, question-begging, or simplistic it seems.

In the next post we will examine Pope Urban II's motives for summoning the crusade.


(1) That Christians fulfill the law (Gal 5:14, Gal 6:2, Rom 3:31, Rom 8:2, Rom 8:4, Rom 13:8-10) does not mean the law is still in force. It means that Christians have access to the best which the law promised but never delivered, by an entirely different route -- the spirit. See Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, pp 334-335.

(2) Bruce Malina and John Pilch say that "conversion" is an inappropriate term used to describe Paul's Christ-calling. Per Stendahl, he was "called" in the same way the prophets of the Hebrew Bible were called (Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, p 13); and he wasn't converting people, rather announcing "a new stage of Israel's corporate history, a new development in Israel launched by the God of Israel" (p 23). Philip Esler, on the other hand, thinks "it is reasonable to speak of Paul's conversion" (Galatians, p 126): "the way in which Paul seeks to characterize his new orientation, by describing himself as called like Isaiah and Jeremiah, cannot be the end of the issue, since his contemporaries who opposed his activity were easily able to deny such claims...he [actually] taught apostacy" (ibid, pp 121-122). Zeba Crook further points out that by the time of Hellenistic Judaism, it was possible to speak of someone being called and thus converted: Paul was invoking the call of the divine patron-benefactor (which involved conversion by definition) and the call of the prophets at the same time (Reconceptualizing Conversion, p 176). I believe that Esler and Crook are correct. And again: Paul thought the law was obsolete, and the best it ever had to offer could be obtained by another route -- the spirit. He did not believe that an ethical kernel of the law remained in force.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good analysis; I agree that (2) goes hand-in-hand with (1), when you boil it down. Paul's famous adaptability (and the limited number of surviving letters) muddies the waters.

Blogger James Crossley said...

This debate goes to the heart of Pauline theology and Christian origins for me. I think you are absolutely right when you say the gentile issue forced Paul's hand. If we do (as I think we do) have a situation where there are gentiles converts and their friends behaving differently in different contexts, many not really interested in observance, and some observing the law in a more Jewish context but behaving differently in other contexts. Yet at the same time all these people are associated with with the Christian movement and are not going away. Someone had to deal with this situation. I agree that it is not simply social context that drove it (even though I think it was the major driving force here) but it miht not be a simple as just relaxing certain parts of the law for gentiles. For a start, there might have been different parts of the law neglected in different contexts. Also, and here the mix of social context and theology comes together, once one or two parts of the law are neglected (and some big major ones) what does that say about the rest? It already opens up a massive question concerning validity.

Another possible context that might be worth considering/speculating about is the context of Jewish slaves (note the opposition to Stephen's preaching in the synagogue of the freedmen and the argument that Paul came from a freed slave background) and Jews in the army. What do you do with Jews who couldn't observe the all law all the time and perhaps even had to contradict it in practice. What about soldiers who had to work on the Sabbath? This may also be another possible background to Paul's thinking perhaps? What do you reckon?

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

What do you do with Jews who couldn't observe the law all the time and perhaps even had to contradict it in practice. What about soldiers who had to work on the Sabbath? This may also be another possible background to Paul's thinking perhaps? What do you reckon?

Excellent point James; I always appreciate concrete thinking like this. This is how we might understand some of Jesus' own alleged conflict with the law. Some Context Group scholars have argued that Galilean peasants didn't always have the money necessary to keep kosher, or take the time to truck off annually to the temple. I tend to think that Jesus did keep kosher myself, but it's an example of what you're getting at, and a reasonable one.

Blogger Steven Carr said...

'(2) Gentiles were as good as Jews. Uncircumcised pagans had to be included as equals in the messianic community (Gal 3:3-9,13-14; Rom 3:21-23,28-30, 4:9-12,16-17a, 10:4,12-13)'

I can't find any notions that people should be treated as equals in those Biblical verses.

Could you elaborate please?

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I can't find any notions that people should be treated as equals in those Biblical verses.

Good point. This is how I should have phrased it: "Pagans should inherit the messianic promises without becoming Jews in the process." I've edited accordingly.

See, Stevie, my penchant for egalitarianism gets the better of me too. Thanks for pointing out my error. What would I do without you?

Blogger Steven Carr said...

Your original statement, since removed, was, 'Gentiles were as good as Jews.'

So did Paul think Gentiles were not as good as Jews, which is why the statement to the contrary was inaccurate?

Was tbe idea that Gentiles did not have to convert to Judaism to be saved a new one in Paul's time+

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

So did Paul think Gentiles were not as good as Jews?

In some ways Paul portrays Gentiles as better than Jews in Galatians: Jews are under a curse (Gal 3:10-12), while law-free Gentiles are the real descendants of Abraham (Gal 3:6-9,13-14). But at the same time he's calling for an abolition of distinction (in view of the apocalypse): 'in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek' (Gal 3:27-28).

He portrays Jews as the better group in Romans (Rom 3:2, 9:4-5, 11:1-32). But for the most part we should say he thought Gentiles were as bad as Jews, though in different ways which preserve ethnic distinctions between the two groups. Gentiles are under the domain of sin without the Torah (1:18-2:5), Jews under its power with the Torah (2:17-3:20). In Christ there is Jew and Greek: through baptism Gentiles are liberated from the power of sin which ruled them as immoral pagans (6:15-23), while Jews are liberated from the power of sin which ruled them through the law (7:1-6). Paul respects ethnic identity in Romans (as Philip Esler has so clearly seen) and keeps distinctions intact, contrary to Galatians.

The fact that Paul treats Gentiles as the better race (even while trying to abolish distinctions between the two) in Galatians, then Jews as the better race (even while insisting that both are in messy situations without Christ) in Romans, tells against him thinking like an egalitarian. In his ancient mind, someone always had to be better than the other.

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