Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Eighty Two


In his positive proposal (beginning p. 1332), Tom wants to argue that while Christians did not have literal priests, temples, or sacrifices, “if religion in the ancient world was the system of signs including myths and rites by which people were bound together as a civic unity in which both gods and humans shared, then there is clear evidence that Paul saw the common life of those in Christ as precisely that, a united community, whose politeuma was in heavenly places, and whose complex unity was both expressed in and powerfully reinforced by a radically new kind of sacrifice, a very different kind of celebration, attention to the ancient Scriptures, prayers, and the praxis of the sacraments. Religion in antiquity then was part of the socio-political glue that bound the community together, and when a group such as Jews refused to participate in pagan religion they were seen as ‘atheoi’ without religion, and anti-social in the bargain. Just so with Christians as well. Tom suggests (p. 1333) that 1 Cor. 12.1-13 shows Paul talking in familiar but transmuted religious ways to his largely Corinthian converts. Religion now however is not about reinforcing stratification in society between Jews and Gentiles, between male and female, between slave and free. Now it’s about the breaking down of those barriers and creating a new community in Christ.

p. 1334 is crucial because here Tom wants to suggest that Paul is reinvisioning Christianity in light of the Exodus-Sinai events when it comes to the sacraments. He basis this on his analysis of 1 Cor. 10.1-4. And I would say this is exactly backwards. Paul is reinvisioning the experiences of the wilderness wandering generation in light of the Christian sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper! Just the opposite of what Tom is suggesting! The wilderness wandering generation was not actually baptized when going through the Red Sea on dry ground. Nor were they partaking of anything quite like the blood and body of Christ when they ate manna. Nonetheless, Paul’s point is that partaking of those OT experiences did not prevent them from committing apostasy!! The point being made is an ethical one, not an attempt to read the Christian sacraments in light of the Exodus Sinai experiences!

Furthermore, Paul in 1 Cor. 12 is not talking about water baptism anyway, he is talking about Spirit baptism, the Spirit joining a person to the body of Christ, and then being the resource which nourishes the new Christian on an ongoing basis. In regard to his larger point Tom is right, namely that Christianity was a sort of religion in antiquity and served some of the same community forming and binding of humans to God functions as pagan religion. But in the new religion, as Hebrews suggests, Christ is the priest, Christ’s community is the Temple, and Christ himself provided and served as the literal sacrifice, which should lead to his followers offering themselves as living sacrifices.

A good point is made on p. 1334 that participation in most Greco-Roman religion did not require an entrance ritual or an initiation rite, with the exception of the Mysteries. Christianity was more like Judaism in this respect. If we ask the derivation question, it is right to be cautious about suggesting either that Paul derives his baptismal praxis from the Mysteries, though there are some interesting analogies, or from Jewish cleansing rituals, or from the praxis of John the baptizer, or from analogies with circumcision, though Col. 2.11-12 does suggest an important connection there. The reason for this of course is that Christ’s death and resurrection is not a rerun and so baptism and the Lord’s Supper are to some extent based on and focus on some unique historical events. The reason baptism is important, is not quite as explained by Wright. He wants of course to connect it to the new Exodus etc. This is not what Paul connects it with. He connects it with becoming a new person, with a whole new creation, in other words with the story of God, brought forth out of the ground and brought to life. It is the Adam story which lies in the background here, as becomes clear in the first and last Adam comparisons in Rom. 5 and 1 Cor. 15. Paul is not interested in remaking Israel. He is interested in a whole new community which involves ‘neither Jew nor Gentile’ (Gal. 3.28). And it is a mistake to take passages where Paul is talking about the Spirit’s work and simply assume he is talking about what happens through or by or with water baptism. Paul could never have said, I’m thankful that more of you were not baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, but he does say he is thankful he did not water baptize more of the Corinthians, not least because they were apt to make too much of it, or the wrong thing of it (ala proxy baptism in 1 Cor. 15). So when Paul says in 1 Cor. 1 that they were washed, made holy, set right by the Spirit, he is not talking about what happened to them in water baptism, but rather what happened when the Spirit got hold of them and they became new creatures in Christ. Water baptism is not the means of the transformation, the Spirit is. Water baptism has some symbolic qualities to it that allows the language of baptism to also be used of the Spirit’s initiatory work.
There is a helpful and healthy reminder on pp. 1339-40 that the function of ancient religion was indeed to bind the polis together as a community, and Paul uses the language of priest, temple, sacrifice to achieve unity amongst his converts. As Tom says, sacrifice was everywhere in the ancient world, and while Paul uses all the language of religio in metaphorical ways, The reality behind the metaphor was ready to hand in a way it is not today. The shock value of Paul’s purely metaphorical way of using the language must have been considerable. Do you really mean to say ‘we’ are the temple, the Corinthians might have asked? Are you really suggesting the God dwells in the midst of us, and not in that building over there? And are you really saying that presenting ourselves as living sacrifices eclipses and does a better job of worship than the priests, temples, and sacrifices we are used to? And anyway, if we are talking about literal sacrifices, do you mean the death of Jesus is the last literal sacrifice necessary, make all other such rituals otiose and obsolete?

Tom goes on to show how Paul uses the language of festivals and processions and singing and praying in fresh ways, suggesting not only that pagan religion was after all a parody of real worship, but that Jewish religion was just a prelude and a signpost along the way to ‘worship in Spirit and truth’. As Tom says (p. 1341) when Paul says celebrate, he does not mean merely get happy or pop the cork, he conjures up the ancient religious festivals, processions, games (see Phil. 2.17ff.). The language is the same, but the transvaluation of values and referents is profound. I agree with him that Paul has transformed the religious language of the day into metaphors, but to a religious end— to create a united community centered in the relationship of a people to their God, and focused through worship. What Jewish religion adds to Paul’s religious recipe is the focus not just on the unity of a people, but on their being holy, a set apart people, religion then, in Paul’s hands is not about binding one to the secular world or polis as it is, but setting a people apart from it, to be their own community.