Paul and his Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright– Part Six


Tom reserves his most strident critique of the apocalyptic approach to Paul for Lou Martyn’s Galatians commentary and the impact it has had on Pauline interpretation. So Chapter Eight of the book is an analysis of the work of Lou Martyn and his disciples e.g. M. de Boer, B. Gaventa. The basic analysis of the apocalyptic school involves the assumption that God in Christ breaks into the world bringing new creation and overthrowing not just one religion but the whole concept of religion. There is a radical opposition between grace and religion. The Union School has not really engaged with the new perspective discussion, although they accept the Hays proposal about pistis Christou. Much is made of the two ages language in the discussions of Martyn and his disciples and the language is taken to signal a rupture in the flow of salvation history or covenantal progression.

One of the things Wright keeps points out is that the two age schema is not distinctive to apocalyptic literature, nor should it be seen as a defining signaling device that indicates apocalyptic literature or thinking. He puts it this way….

“A two age scheme is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for giving a text,
or the ideas expressed in it, that label. The two-age scheme is simply a widespread
feature of Jewish thought throughout the second-Temple period and
on into the high rabbinic period. We may assume that Saul of Tarsus, as a
zealous Pharisee, took it for granted, and we may take it as read that this of
itself is not sufficient to affix the label ‘apocalyptic’ around his neck”. (p. 158).

“But the ‘two ages’ scheme, a belief in angels (including
evil ones), a sense of cosmic drama as well as the local and personal challenges
faced by individuals and groups – all this is to be found as far back as
early biblical texts and as far forward as medieval and modern Jewish writings.
And once we have said this we have insisted that the entire history-of-religions
discussion of Paul must be moved from the narrow screen of something labelled ‘apocalyptic’ on to the much larger screen which has the multiform, complex, swirling history, culture, thought and writing of
ancient Israel as its backdrop and the equally multiform life of early Judaism
as its foreground. That is where Paul belongs. To notice that he, like many
other early Christians, thought in terms of the ‘present age’ and the ‘age to
come’, and to deduce from this that he is therefore to be seen within a rather
narrow subset of ‘Judaism’ called ‘apocalyptic’ (and within that, as we shall
see, a narrower one again) is entirely unwarranted.”

So, it would appear that DeBoer and Martyn arrive at the notion of apocalyptic as something which has transpired in the death of Jesus, not in the future as Kasemann thought. They see Paul as largely concerned with responsibility for evil and rescue from evil, which of course is a form of soteriology, a cosmic sort. Tom’s big concern is that the apocalyptic Paul advocates are ignoring the narrative about Israel and covenant reaching climax motif in Paul. Further Tom argues that the texts De Boer is relying on to set up his apocalyptic paradigms do not neatly fall into categories of cosmic responsibility for sin and death on the one hand or individual responsibility for sin and death. His point is that Jewish texts would often say both in the same text. So the distinction between cosmic and human responsibility for evil is artificially imposed by De Boer. See Test. of 12 Pat. 67-69. That Adam shows up in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch does not mean that this literature rejects cosmic responsibility for evil.

Tom’s big point is that…
“the books which might properly be called ‘apocalyptic’ – whether we confine
this, as I think we should, to a genre of that name, or whether we launch
out into the stormy waters and apply the label to a type of theology or
worldview – are never simply about (a) the human plight and (b) the divine
solution. They are, again and again, about Israel’s plight – a subset of the human plight, to be sure, but specific, historical, and urgent – and the divine covenantal solution.28 The question is, What is Israel’s God up to, in the world and with his people? These writers were always striving for what might be called a theopolitical vision: their question was not ‘how do people
get saved’ so much as What is going to happen to Israel? These books, as a
result, are again and again preoccupied with the strange dark story of Israel
from earliest days to the present time”. (pp. 162-63).

Tom adds “In Martyn’s hands, the polemic between Paul and ‘the Teachers’, seen through the lens of de Boer’s ‘two types of apocalyptic eschatology’, has turned into the familiar neo-orthodox
polemic of ‘revelation’ against ‘religion’. This can be, and now often is, cast
in terms of the ‘vertical’ against the ‘horizontal’: the divine initiative breaking
into the world, over against any human project, system or effort…. At this point Martyn seems to me to have stepped back from the history-of-religions analysis on which his work was
supposedly based, and to have taken his stand instead on the familiar but
dangerous territory in which Judaism was a ‘religion’ while (Pauline) Christianity
was a ‘revelation’.”

In the notes Tom quotes Martyn as follows…. Thus e.g. Martyn 1997a, 87, 151, 155, 164 (“Judaism was now revealed to be a religion, as distinguished from God’s apocalyptic and new-creative act in Christ’; ‘the whole of the letter shows . . . that the advent of Christ is the end of religion’); 382f., 474, 478 (the Teachers are ‘nothing more than men who place their trust in religion rather than in the God of the crucified Christ’ (italics original)). At 417 n. 82 Martyn suggests that ‘the promissory voice’ of the Law had an ‘original, nonreligious, Abrahamic form’.”

Tom calls Martyn and De Boer’s approach a highly sophisticated version of the old Lutheran perspective on Paul, ala Kasemann. The basic complaint about Martyn’s describing of the Teacher’s theology (in Galatians) is that it involves the perils of mirror-reading, which often leads to skewed readings of texts.

Tom stresses that retelling the story of Israel is at the heart of Jewish apocalyptic, and that Paul is doing that in Gal 4. My take on that is: 1) notice how different Revelation is in comparison to the earlier Jewish apocalypses on this very score. It is not about a retelling of Israel tale; 2) Paul is selective in the portions of the earlier story he is retelling in Galatians and Romans— he sticks with the patriarchs. He avoids Moses and the exodus. The slavery to sin he speaks of conjures up Adam, not the exodus and Moses’ story. The language of bondage is not exodus specific or a cipher for exodus stories. The slavery of this present evil age began with Adam, and it was nor alleviated by Moses and the exodus. L. Goppelt is right— apocalyptic interprets history as a series of events heading for a specific end or telos.

Tom stresses that the periodization of history is one of the things that most characterizes apocalyptic (see Gal. 4.4— when the time had fully come…). This is not because of a belief in an easy maturation or evolution of human history. In other words, apocalyptic doesn’t mean an absolute break with the past, though it is referring to God’s managing of all history and to divine incursions along the way.

We will let Tom have the last word here—– “It
does seem a serious weakness, in a commentary on Galatians, that one cannot
easily understand how the Paul of this ‘Galatians’ could transmute into
the Paul of Romans. Of course, all kinds of developmental schemes have
been offered. Beker, as we saw, envisaged a mixture of ‘coherence and contingency’.
Hübner and others have postulated significant development, not
least perhaps from a negative view of the Jewish law to a positive one. But,

starting where Martyn starts, the only way of holding the two letters in any
kind of relationship to one another would be either to shrink Romans
beyond the bounds of credibility, until it became simply a fuller version of
(this) ‘Galatians’, or to postulate some massive rethinking in between the
two, such that one would then be forced to choose between two radically
different visions of God, Israel, the gospel and the world. Romans, after all,
has a strong and thematic narrative core, and the narrative in question is the
classic Israelite and Jewish story of Adam, Abraham, and Abraham’s family.
In particular, the clearly positive view of the law in Romans, insisted upon
even when the law is doing devastating things,91 stands in sharp contrast to
Martyn’s reading of Galatians. And Paul’s positive view of Israel does the
same. Martyn’s Paul, faced with the question of Romans 3.1 (‘what advantage
has the Jew’), ought to have responded ‘none at all’. With that, we
would be back with the shallow reductionism of C. H. Dodd.” (p. 184).

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