BEN: Chapter 10 is a very helpful summary of the main thrusts of the previous chapters on early Judaism and formulations of grace, with the bonus of a brief direct comparison between Paul’s view and the views in these various other documents. One of the questions that this raises immediately for Christian readers, such as my students at Asbury, is that while it is all very well saying that there were a variety of views of grace in early Judaism, nonetheless, for Christians, the writings of Paul and others are part of the canon of the NT, and therefore part of the God-breathed rule of faith and praxis. This being the case, is it not inevitable that the objection to calling some of these other views ‘grace’ in early Judaism which do not stress incongruous grace, is that it does not pass the Pauline litmus test? That is, if grace, by Christian definition, is necessarily incongruous and has to do with faith in Christ, then of course it will be concluded that at best these other early Jewish writers have deficient views of grace in one way or another, and at worse it may be asked if some of them can be said to speak of grace at all. How do you respond to this push back?
JOHN: I have spoken of varieties of grace, rather than limiting the term ‘grace’ to one particular perfection (even if it is the one characteristic of Paul) for both linguistic and strategic reasons. Linguistically, Paul and Philo use the exact same Greek terminology, and Philo uses it both when he wonders whether anyone can be worth of the charis of God, and when he concludes that God on the whole gives his charites to those who are worthy or fitting recipients. To translate these terms differently in the varying cases, on the assumption that only gift to the unworthy is properly called ‘grace’, would be to load our translation choices with a particular theological judgment, in other words to read and translate the Greek with a particular Christian perspective on the meaning of terms. I think it is better to leave translation as unloaded as possible – but then to make clear that of the various possible understandings of grace, Paul’s is radical and unusual in perfecting the concept in his specific way. That way, it becomes clearer that Paul is not using a special term, but he is investing it with a specific set of connotations. But there is a strategic reason also, to do with the history of interpretation of Paul. If we refuse to use the term ‘grace’ outside of Pauline or Christian texts, we are giving the impression that no-one in ancient Judaism thought that God was gracious – that Judaism was a grace-less religion. We have suffered for centuries with that caricature, and we need to get away from it. My way of representing things is therefore: grace was everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same. If my use of the term does anything, then, it makes us ask (as your students ask): what do we mean by grace? Given that a lot of Christian controversies have arisen over this term, it is useful to ask ourselves that question now and again, and I don’t want to load the dice by saying that one biblical voice or one theological tradition has the one and only ‘true’ definition of this term.
BEN: I take it as given that you have shown the deficiencies of Ed Sanders’ stress on the priority of grace in Jewish theology, at the expense of other perfections of grace. You also take issue with him for assuming that grace is necessarily incongruous. I think this is fair if one is only looking at things from a history of religions point of view, wanting to be fair and do justice to the variety of early Jewish views and not treat them in a polemical way, but perhaps Sanders would say he was simply wearing his Christian theologian’s hat, rather than just a historian’s hat when he said such things. In other words, he goes beyond the descriptive approach to a prescriptive approach from a later Christian point of view. The problem with critiquing him for doing this, is that you are perhaps also critiquing Paul’s own critique of early Judaism in the process. How do you respond?
JOHN: I take it that Sanders was trying *not* to import Christian theological categories into his description of Judaism, though Neusner and others thought he did so anyway. In fact, he did tend to assume that grace is necessarily incongruous (as well as prior), which is why he struggled with those texts that clearly argue that it is not. I am trying to bring to the surface what he did and did not clarify for us, in order that we can get beyond generalisations like ‘covenantal nomism’ and get greater clarity about the variety of ways in which Jews in antiquity thought about God’s mercy/grace. I don’t think Paul ever critiques early Judaism of being devoid of grace: he thinks the whole Jewish people depend entirely on the mercy of God, from start to finish (Romans 9-11). What frustrates him is that many of his Jewish contemporaries have not embraced the fulfilment of that grace in Christ. It is not that they have a wrong view of grace, but that by failing to latch onto the grace of God now demonstrated and fulfilled in Christ, they have nothing left to build on except the broken kinds of worth that come from Torah-observance.
JOHN: Yes, Sanders did us all an enormous benefit in insisting that the covenant/election comes before the law and that the observance of the law was not viewed as a way of earning one’s way into election/grace. So his emphasis on the priority of grace was good as far as it went. But because grace is a polysemous term, and can be perfected in more than one way, we risk flattening things out, and failing to see the specific dynamics of each text, if we leave it at ‘religion of grace’. In that sense, the Sanders flashlight only gets us so far down the tunnel: we need more light to be able to see further and deeper.
BEN: Another key conclusion shows up on p. 315, namely that some early Jewish sources stress the incongruity of grace and some do not. You add “this is not because some have a higher or purer view of grace than others. “ Incongruity, you say, is only one of six possible perfections of grace. But would Paul agree? Wouldn’t he say that whatever other aspects of grace you emphasize, its priority and its incongruity are sine qua nons of grace, from his Christological point of view. Isn’t this why in the end Paul sees grace to either Israel or Gentiles as purely a matter of God having mercy on people??
JOHN: Yes, I am trying, however, to put Paul’s view in perspective, to look at it first from a kind of critical distance, so we can understand what he is doing. It was not self-evident that the notion of God’s grace being incongrous was necessarily better or higher: in fact, many had good theological reasons to reject that notion. We can thus see more clearly that Paul’s is not the ‘obvious’ view of grace, but was shaped by a particular set of Christological convictions and experiences. We will see how powerful and significant that is to Paul, in his thinking about the Gentile mission and about Israel, but I want to start from the point of saying: he didn’t have to perfect grace in this way, so why did he?
BEN: Just a brief question about Paul and election. You rightly point out his discussion of such matters in Rom. 8-11, and perhaps this question can be reserved for the Romans chapter, though you raise the issue here in Chapter 10. It seems to me a failure to think along with Paul to fail to notice that there are two things going on in these texts, one has to do primarily with salvation and one with election. Election refers to people being chosen for specific historical purposes, including, surprising people like a Pharaoh or a Cyrus. This says nothing about their individual salvation or lack thereof, indeed I would say the OT passages in question don’t really talk about salvation in the Christian sense of salvation from sin etc. They talk about rescue and redemption of slaves, a rather different and social issue. On the other hand, when Paul does move over into talking about election in a Christian sense, he wants to talk about Christ being the Elect one of God, the Righteous One of God, and believers are only elect in the sense and to the degree they are in that context, have that social or group identity. Salvation, on the other hand, when Paul addresses the matter directly in Rom. 10 is about hearing the preacher, sincerely believing in one’s heart in Jesus as the savior, and confessing with one’s lips the same thing. Salvation is by grace, but through faith in Jesus. Of course salvation and election are inter-related matters, but their basis and grounds and purposes are not identical, it would seem to me, and I don’t think they were identical for Paul either. What do you think?
JOHN: I am not sure I see in Paul the distinction you are making here. If we focus on the language of ‘calling’ (the most common term Paul uses in relation to election), his own calling in grace by Jesus Christ (Gal 1.16) and the Galatians’ calling in grace (Gal 1.6) are both expressions of God’s mercy that put them on the path of salvation. Note also the prevalence of the calling language in 1 Corinthians (1.26-28; 7.17-24) where it means more than being chosen for a specific purpose or vocation. Of course, Paul generally reserves the language of salvation for the final, eschatologial reality, but people who are called (1 Cor 1.24, both Jews and Greeks) are those who are ‘being saved’ (1 Cor 1.18). The two sets of language here seem to go quite closely together.