Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God— Part Eighty One

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Chapter Thirteen of this opus is meant to be paired with Chapter 4, and the discussion of ‘religio’ in the Greco-Roman world. Now however the focus is on the intersection of Paul with that world, and not just a context description. There has been something of an allergic reaction in contemporary culture to the word religion. You even see bumper stickers these days which read ‘I’m spiritual, not religious’. There is of course a long history in Protestantism of tarring the word religion, and suggesting Christianity has little to do with it. Tom for instance begins Chapter 13 by reminding us of the Barthian debate, still raging in some quarters about whether the Bible is about a revelation (top down from God to his people) or a religion (bottom up– the human attempt to make contact with and be reconciled with some deity). As Tom reminds us, we need to ignore the whole post-enlightenment stigma attached to the word religion and ask the appropriate questions about Paul and ancient religion. It is of course true that Paul seldom uses the ancient language for religion in his letters (see p. 1321 n. 4– eusebeia,deisidamonia, threskia etc.)

Tom begins his discussion with an analysis of Ed Sanders, John Ashton, and Gerd Theissen’s recent musing on this and related subjects. He suggests that Sanders is guilty of imposing an eighteenth century terminology about religion— (“it’s all about getting in and staying” and the basis for each) on the discussion of Paul and Judaism. Tom’s complaint is that Sanders not only uses later Christian terminology to explain how ancient religions functioned, but that he includes certain ideas etc. within the scope of ‘religio’ that in antiquity would have fallen under the heading of philosophy, for example, ethics. I would say this is not quite correct. There was a strict ethical code imposed on priests, for instance in how they performed their duties (think for example of the Vestal Virgins, or the priests in the way they undertook a sacrifice, or an auspice), and if they did not do the procedure in the prescribed way, it required a do over. Tom admits that Sanders does understand that most ancient religions were not about salvation in the Christian sense or about having some sort of transformative religious experience either (the Mystery religions may be a partial exception). Tom however adds that Sanders is right that Judaism at its core is about covenantal nomism, the response to God’s grace by keeping his covenant. I agree with Tom, that some of the reaction to Sanders and the New Perspective is not motivated by an insistence that Judaism was simply a ‘works’ religion and not about grace, but by the suspicion that when you start talking about patterns of religion and praxis in regard to Christianity, you are implicitly turning the latter into a works religion. In other words (p. 1323) instead of making Judaism more like Christianity, Sanders made Christianity more like the stereotype of Judaism. Part of the problem here is the failure of various Protestants to realize that ancient religion was not in the main about conversion in any Christian sense of the term (see e.g. A.D. Nock’s classic book Conversion). Furthermore, for Jews, who believed they were God’s chosen people, it was not about conversion either. They were already God’s people. It was about faithfulness or unfaithfulness to their previously given status. It was about obedience and celebration and host of things, but it was not about answering the question ‘how does one get in’ unless we are talking about non-Jews who want to become part of the covenant community, and even then it was about socialization through a stepped process ending with circumcision and full Jewish status, not primarily about some sort of religious darkness to light experience.

Tom puts his finger on the problem on p. 1324 when he says that Sanders tries to analyze Paul’s theology as though it were religion, while giving short shrift to the Christian praxis that would actually have been seen as religio— namely the Christian sacraments. Tom is right to object to Sander’s conclusion about why Paul critiqued Judaism as he did— his basic objection was that the problem with Judaism was that it was not Christianity. Wright turns this around and suggests the problem with Sander’s analysis of Paul is that it is not Christianity as Paul saw it, either. Tom is right as well that Sanders, unlike Schweitzer, gives short shrift to Paul’s eschatology as well.

Turning to John Ashton, he takes a very different tack– he suggests Paul can be explained in terms of ‘religious experience’ (p. 1325) in particular his thinking can be explained in terms of his death and rebirth experience on Damascus Road. Now while there is some truth to this (see the work of Seyoon Kim), Ashton wants to say that Paul’s thought world is not a logical and coherent train of thought but rather a series of inchoate attempts to explain his experience. Paul is a mystic not a person pursing a logical train of thought. Of course Ashton thinks we are dealing with metaphors and myth (as in not historical events) when it comes to the Pauline analysis dying and rising of Jesus, and Paul’s dying and rising with him. To this Tom retorts “I am reminded of a cartoon in which a bishop consoling a Mother Superior about the death watch beetle eating away the convent roof suggests ‘it may help to think of the beetle as metaphor’ (p. 1325 n. 17). Tom sees some kinship between Ashton and H. Raisanen who indeed does suggest that Paul is just rationalizing his religious feelings into a theological argument. A telling critique of Ashton comes on p. 1326 where Tom points out not only Ashton’s failure to deal with many major themes in Paul’s thought, but his complete neglect of the fact that Paul thinks ALL Christians, not just himself, have been or must be crucified with Christ, buried, and rise up as new creatures in newness of life. In other words, Paul is not doing theology strictly out of autobiography.

Against Ashton, Raisanen, and to some degree Sanders and others Tom insists (p. 1327) “I have been arguing throughout this book… that Paul did indeed think through articulate and teach a coherent theology which was indeed a modification of Jewish belief in light of the crucified and risen Messiah and the gift of the Spirit; and that Paul urged his communities to think these things through.

Tom is more sympathetic to the work of Gerd Theissen on Paul and Psychology of Religion. Theissen says that religion is a semiotic phenomenon which operates with a system of signs which bring our impressions together coherently and link them with our actions. Humans cannot live without such systems. In other words, religions are embedded socio-cultural sign systems which are historical in character. They help people make sense of the world. I think Theissen is right to include ethics within this description of religion, though Tom has reservations except in the case of Judaism. When Theissen talks about Christian sign language (p. 1329) he is referring to a narrative sign language that consists of myth and history, a prescriptive sign language which consists of imperatives and evaluations, and a ritual sign language consisting of the primitive praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He adds that the whole sign system is concentrated in its rites. I would say, the central story of the religion is retold in its sacraments, both of which feature the issue of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. These are Christocentric sacraments grounded in the historical story of Jesus. Tom puts his oar in the water, much nearer to the Theissen boat, when it comes to Paul and religion, than to the Sanders boat.


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