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


And now for something completely different. In the penultimate chapter in this overly long book, Tom turns to Paul’s controversial and problematic relationships with his fellow Jews. This entails at the outset a discussion of Paul’s call/conversion. The chapter begins with an overstatement: “He did not see himself as establishing a new, non-Jewish movement. He believed that the message and life he proclaimed and inculcated was in some sense a fulfillment of all he had believed as a strict Pharisaic Jew.” (p. 1408). The problem is with that little word ‘all‘ in the second sentence. This is simply not true.

There were various things Paul believed as a strict Pharisaic Jew that he ceased to believe when he became a follower of Jesus. For example, Paul as a Pharisee absolutely believed one had to be circumcised, keep the whole Law including the food laws, observe the sabbath etc.to be a Jew, but Paul the follower of Jesus thought that was no longer required, even for Jews who followed Jesus, never mind for Gentiles. He did not believe Gentiles had to become Jews to be followers of Jesus. Furthermore, it is a very odd thing to say ‘to the Jews I became as a Jew’ (1 Cor. 9) if one thought one was still a Jew in the same way he had been previously a Jew, and more to the point was still practicing Judaism as before. Here is one more case where Tom, for the sake of emphasizing fulfillment over the notion of the newness of the new covenant and the new life it spawned has overstepped the mark. And I haven’t even mentioned believing in a crucified and risen Jewish Messiah. That was certainly something Paul did not believe in as a Pharisee. Indeed he persecuted those Jews who held such beliefs! It is quite impossible to say that Paul’s whole Gospel he saw a fulfillment of all that he had believed before. To the contrary: 1) it corrected some of the things he believed before; 2) it fulfilled some of the things he believed before; 3) it added some new unexpected things to both 1) and 2). Justice has to be done to both the new and renewed and corrected elements in Paul’s theological and ethical worldview. If we were just to talk about praxis we might also stress that as Pharisee he saw persecuting people for their beliefs as proper zeal, when he became a follower of Jesus he thought better of that and even said we should love our enemies, and treat them with kindness. A very different praxis.

Tom is right however that Paul was not into comparing religions, but had he done so he would undoubtedly have said the pure monotheism of Judaism etc. “showed up the complex and messy life of ancient paganism as a shabby muddle.” (p. 1410). This is mostly right. He is also right that Paul did not look out at the worlds religion as if it were a buffet, and then picked one. Paul was born a Jew and he believed the Jewish views and ways of life were true.

While it may well be true that Paul did not set out to found a new religion (see p.1412), it does appear that his life trajectory was rather like that of John Wesley in relationship to Anglicanism. While it was said of Wesley that he faced Anglicanism, loved it, pledged allegiance to it in various ways nevertheless like a British rower in a single scull boat, with every stroke of the oars, he moved further and further away from what he faced. In other words, from his very success as an evangelist of Gentiles, and his very insistence that they did not have to become Torah true Jews to be saved or participate in the Christian faith, he did nudge the followers of Jesus de facto into a new direction. What began as a sect of Judaism was to go on to become a new, mostly Gentile religion, and Paul was very much responsible for the stimulus in this direction in various ways. While the language of supercession or replacement says too much since Paul did see the Jesus movement as the true fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant with its promises, not its replacement, one must not minimize the new revolutionary element in Paul’s worldview and praxis, and importantly its net effect.

Tom then engaged with Krister Stendahl and others in the old debate, was what happened to Paul on Damascus Road a call or a conversion, or both. I would stress it was not just a call, though it certainly involved a call. Paul did not just change Jewish job descriptions from zealous persecutor of heretics, to equally zealous recruiter of Gentiles. Paul’s messianic and eschatological beliefs led him to think he was offering the fulfillment of the promises and assurances of true Judaism, as Klausner, Sandmel, Schoeps and others saw, but this is not the whole truth. As Alan Segal (of blessed memory) said, Paul was a convert, his life, his thought world, even his experiences were transfigured and transformed on Damascus Road (see Segal 1990). Alan would say he converted from one Jewish sect to another, a new apocalyptic Jewish sect, and then lived as a Jew among Gentiles. Well yes, but he did not do so like other diaspora Jews who continued to keep sabbath, food laws, circumcise their children etc. He just didn’t.

Much more helpful is Tom’s discussion on pp. 1414ff. of a comparison between the Qumran community, the bar Kokhba movement, and the Pauline version of the Jesus movement. He’s right that the Qumranites were very sectarian, and saw other Jews as apostate, not keeping the law strictly enough. And it is also true that Akiba saw Simon as the Messiah as the son of the star of prophecy fame. The analogy works up to a point— but only up to a point. Yes, all three movements saw themselves as the fulfillment of various things and ideas Jewish. But in the case of both Qumran and Bar Kokhba we are talking about an intensification of the keeping of the Mosaic covenant, where with Paul we are talking about the eclipsing of the Mosaic covenant with the new covenant which fulfills the Abrahamic covenant. Paul is not all about the renewal of the Mosaic covenant. He just isn’t. Luther was right about some of the radical implications of what Paul says in Galatians, and elsewhere. Did Paul see Jewish Christ followers as the link between the patriarchs and the new community of Jew and Gentile united in Christ in which ‘there is no Jew or Gentile’? Yes he did. Did he think that that made this new community Israel, or already the eschatological expression of Israel? Well, not quite, since the story wasn’t over, and Israel still had a future, when Jesus returned. What had previously been thought to happen when the Messiah came (once) was now bifurcated into what had and would happen when Messiah came twice. And this is why ‘conversion’ is not an inappropriate term to use for anyone who became part of the community that is Jew and Gentile united in Christ, but at the same time recognizes things have changed so that ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, circumcision nor uncircumcision’ is not a mere slogan, but rather a program, a glimpse of the future saved humanity.

Tom finds Alan Segal’s definition of conversion as transformation the least problematic. But transformation for Paul doesn’t just involve something purely cognitive (like a change of views), it also involves a change of heart, of will, something affective as well. When Paul says in Galatians 1.15-17 that God revealed his Son ‘in me’ he is certainly talking about a deeply personal experience, and when in 1 Cor. 15 he says that God’s grace was shown in his transformation, it does not really amount to much to say Paul didn’t also mention repentance or having a heart warming experience (p. 1421).So what? It would be hard for anyone to hear 2 Cor. 5.17 and not conclude that Paul was including himself in that ‘anyone who is in Christ and becomes a new creature or experiences a whole new creation (take your pick) such that the old has passed away’. In other words, Paul is talking about a transformative personal experience that has both cognitive and affective dimensions.

The interpretation of what Paul says in Gal. 1.13-15 is not adequate either (p. 1422). Paul says he was formerly or once in Judaism, and in that Judaism he had been advancing, but he was no more. When one contrasts what Paul says is the case, namely that he is now in Christ, and what was formerly the case, namely that he was in Judaism, it ought to be clear that Segal is right in saying that the transformation which took place in Paul was not just a calling to a new task, but involved a conversion which entailed a changing from one religion community to another (p. 1423). It is not adequate to suggest that the term Ioudaismos merely refers to an energetic defense and promotion of a certain way of life. This is probably true, but not the whole story. It also involved for Paul the life and practice of a religion, which Paul, as 1 Cor. 9 makes clear, does not feel obligated to practice anymore. He can do, but he doesn’t have to. It is a very odd thing for a Jew to say he became a ‘Jew to the Jews’, meaning he adopted that way of life as needed to related to his fellow Israelites. It was a missionary tactic so he might save some Jews. Within the call was a conversion, as Tom admits on p. 1426, and I would stress that what Paul is talking about happened to him before he was ever water baptized, as the Acts accounts make clear. This is precisely why it is not accurate to say that for Paul when he talks about transformation he is mainly “talking about the transformation which consisted of the cross itself, not as a private spiritual experience but as the public messianic event to which one was joined in baptism.” (p. 1424). Only Paul thinks that happens by Spirit baptism, not water baptism, which is why on the one hand in 1 Cor. 12 he speaks of the Spirit doing the baptizing of the Corinthians into the one body of Christ, and on the other hand he thanks God in 1 Cor. 1 he has not water baptized more of them, since they (rather like Tom) had made too much of water baptism. Water and Spirit baptism should not be fused or confused in Pauline theology (see my book Troubled Waters).

What transformation does Tom think happened on the cross? He suggests that the world died there, and Israel as well. He takes Gal. 6.14 to mean this (p. 1426). But this is not what that text says– it says that the world was crucified ‘to me’ and vice versa through the cross of Christ. It’s not the world that died qua world– it is that the world became dead to anyone who is in Christ. And Paul says nothing of Israel dying in that text. This probably comes from Tom’s assumption that Christ dies as Israel, not merely as the representative of Israel or the messiah of Israel. But it is also a mistake to collapse the one and the many when it comes to Israel and her messiah. Did Jesus die for the sins of Israel as well as the world— yes he did. Did his death on the cross mean the end, the death of Israel. No it did not. Paul believes Israel, which is not the church, still has a future (see the previous discussions of Rom. 9-11). What happened to the world as a result of Christ’s death on the cross was not its death but the beginning of its denouement, such that Paul can say the form of the world, its ‘schema’ is passing away, but has not yet completely done so. More in the next post.

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