The Chosen People by Chad Thornhill– Part Five


BEN: In Chapter 5 it becomes clear that early Jews mostly thought that election was conditional, and the condition was faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant and its Law. You quote deSilva approvingly as follows “fidelity to the covenant ensures peace, sin against the covenant brings punishment, and repentance and renewal of obedience leads to restoration.” (p. 150). So only faithful Israelites remain in the covenant relationship and they do so by obedience, by being Torah true, and in that sense righteous. Outside the Pauline corpus is there any evidence that ‘all Israel’ will be saved regardless of their behavior, which is to say, is there any evidence of unconditional election of Israel with the outcome entirely determined by the Almighty, not by the human response? It seems clear that some of these texts even think that the majority of Jews will be lost.

CHAD: It seems to me there is not as it relates to the literature which I reviewed. My focus was specifically on materials from the Second Temple Period which were primarily in and around the Judean area (with some exceptions) which pre-date Paul or roughly date to his time period. So I can’t speak definitively outside of that group of texts in terms of, say Philo or post 100 CE Jewish literature. But within that group of texts, which in my mind is the best representation we have of the nature of Jewish beliefs around the period of the New Testament, it seems to me the answer is a resounding no.

BEN: At one juncture in this chapter you suggest that the Jewish Sibylline Oracles may be an exception to the rule that election is conditional on a certain response. But this seems to me to be an argument from silence, namely that just because the Oracles are silent about the judging of wicked Jews does not necessarily imply that the author or authors think ‘all Israel will be saved’. What do you think about this suggestion?

CHAD: Yes, I would say it is an exception to the extent that it is ambiguous. I don’t think there are any clear indications in the Sibylline Oracles of the unconditional election of all Israel and there are some implicit indications of a conditional view of election. So it is not an exception in that it contradicts that model but rather that it just doesn’t make explicit statements one way or the other.

BEN: Was the Testament of Moses the only example of a text which seemed to clearly exclude Gentiles from God’s salvation of human beings, and limit it only to some Jews?

CHAD: In my research it was the only one which so forcefully seemed to reject any possibility for Gentile salvation. In most texts, it is clear that the Gentiles are predominantly viewed as outsiders, but we do not find other explicit statements that they are destined for damnation. In many texts we find positive remarks about Gentiles (e.g., 2 Maccabees) which I think very much leave open the possibility. In others, like the Animal Apocalypse of 1 Enoch, we find wholesale Gentile inclusion at the eschaton. I think the OT prophetic literature itself, with its expectations of the gathering of the nations around Zion, likely influenced most Jews from being too adamant about the damnation of all Gentiles, but the Testament of Moses seems an exception to that larger pattern.

BEN: Some readers of your book, having already read Sander’s classic study Paul and Palestinian Judaism will be very surprised to hear there are early Jewish texts which reject the notion of unconditional election of ‘all Israel’ and quite to the contrary affirm that a majority of God’s people appear to be under his judgment, with only a righteous remnant being saved (see Psalms of Solomon, Dead Sea Scrolls, pseudo-Philo, Testament of Moses). Unless you want to call ALL of these documents sectarian in character and a-typical, it would seem that many if not most of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries operated with a righteous remnant concept. And some will surely ask you— Is this different from the view or views we find in the OT itself? And why is it, do you think that some of these apparently minimalist texts are prepared to entertain the salvation of some Gentiles, at least at the eschaton, while others are not?

CHAD: Yes, it is interesting to me that Sanders came to the conclusion he did concerning the Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal texts. He primarily examines Ben Sira, 1 Enoch, Jubilees, Psalms of Solomon, and 4 Ezra. In my reading, each of these texts strongly evidences a more conditional understanding of the covenant, with Ben Sira perhaps being the least obvious. I think this raises some problems for Sanders’ interpretation in places. It seems to me by starting with the Rabbinic material, which I would view, following Neusner, as less reliable depictions of Second Temple thought, that Sanders may have then taken that framework and the famous statement in m. Sanh. 10:1 that “all Israel has a share in the world to come” and applied it as the lens through which he read Second Temple Judaism. I think Sanders’ critique against older views of Judaism as “works-righteousness” based rather than grace based is overall very helpful. But this is one area where I think his study does not adequately account for the data. It is interesting as well that in m. Sanh. 10:1-3, it is said that those who deny the resurrection, those who read from heretical books, those who pronounce the tetragrammaton, Jeroboam, Ahab, and Manasseh, the spies, the wilderness generation, and idolaters, all groups which include or are predominantly Jews, do not have a share in the world to come. So even the Mishnah here portrays covenant belonging as conditional. I do think this largely meshes with how the covenant is portrayed in the Old Testament as well, though what distinguishes it, at least in part, is the emphasis in some of these texts on certain aspects of keeping the Law as primary over and against others. Concerning the salvation of the Gentiles, many of the texts which entertain either a possible hope or a clear hope for the salvation of some or many Gentiles (though not all, since those who oppress God’s people in particular are excluded) seem to me to follow the prophetic tradition of the nations being gathered to God to worship and serve him (e.g., Ps 2:8; 22:27; 82:8; 98:2; Isa 2:2-4; 11:10-12; 52:10; 61:11; 62:2; 66:19-20; Jer 3:17; 16:19-21; 33:9; Ezek 36:22-23; 37:28; Dan 7:14; Zeph 3:9, 20; Zech 9:10). This is met, however, within that same literature with proclamations of judgment and destruction against the nations as well. So part of what is displayed in the Second Temple literature is either maintaining that tension between judgment and salvation as the prophetic literature does, or favoring one aspect of it, as the Testament of Moses does, by declaring the condemnation of the Gentiles.

BEN: On p. 172 you say “God displayed his ‘rightness’ through the faithful obedience of Jesus, even to the point of death [on a cross]”. In what sense was it right for God to send his Son to a death on a cross? Do you mean this was a demonstration of God’s righteous character and his judgment of sin, or do you take dikaiosune as Wright tends to do as meaning something like God’s covenant faithfulness?

CHAD: I think Paul is wrestling here, similar to and as a sort of preview of Romans 9-11, with how to understand God as still being faithful to his promises to Israel if there is large-scale Jewish rejection of the Messiah and if Gentiles are brought in, seemingly dissolving any special relationship God had with Israel. So God’s “right” action (his acting “above the bar” in a sense or acting in “redemptive charity” and “uprightness”) for both Jews and Gentiles has been made manifest in the faithful life and death of the Son. I don’t think construing the dikai- language primarily as “justice” here completely fits in the scheme Paul has set up. Being revealed “apart from the Law” I take to indicate, as a segue of sorts, that Paul is beginning to dismantle the notion that Gentile converts must be fully-Torah compliant, as he begins to make more clear in 3:27ff. So I think in a sense it could be construed as faithfulness to the covenant promises, meaning most likely the promises to Abraham, though Paul does not explicitly establish that here. If used in a non-covenantal sense, I think it would simply refer to God’s upright, charitable, “above the bar” character in his dealings with fallen humanity. I would thus take the relational element in the passage as probably more at the forefront of Paul’s mind based upon how he sets up this section in 3:1-8.

BEN: I must say I find Dunn’s discussion of ‘hilasterion’ unsatisfying, and at some points wrong. That word absolutely is used in wider Greek literature to refer to the assuaging of some deity’s wrath, and so to propitiation. It appears to me Dunn wants to reduce the term to mean expiation of sin, and this does not work, because one has to ask— why for example in the OT the blood is applied to the contact point with God within the tabernacle—to the very horns of the altar. Sin is only expiated if a righteous God is propitiated. Say more as to why you seem to agree with Dunn (p. 172 n. 89).

CHAD: Part of the difficulty with hilasterion here is its limited usage in the NT (only here and in Heb 9:5) and in the OT (only a handful of times, primarily in Exodus and Leviticus). In the OT, it is usually translated as “mercy seat” and identified with the ark of the covenant. The mercy seat is associated primarily with God’s presence in these texts (cf. Exod 25:21; Lev 16:2; Num 7:89) with the exception of the day of atonement ritual described in Leviticus 16:13ff. In Leviticus 16:16, it states that blood is placed on the hilasterion to purify the holy place because of the sins of the people. The atonement for the people appears to take place on the altar outside of the tent, not at the mercy seat, which is described in 16:17ff. So the “mercy seat” as the place of the atonement for the sins of the people doesn’t seem to me to be what is described in Leviticus. Rather what happens at the mercy seat is purification, or removal of the effects of sin on the sacred space, and various OT commentators affirm that to be so. I wouldn’t deny that there are frameworks of propitiation elsewhere within the word group, but it seems to me that the hilasterion language from the LXX as it relates to the day of atonement is more closely related to purification than appeasement. Dunn’s point, which is of course debated, is that atonement in the OT acts on sin (i.e., atonement is “for a person” or “for sin”) rather than on God, and suggests that is the background from which Paul is drawing. I think the closest linguistic parallel to what we find in the New Testament usage probably actually comes from 4 Maccabees 17:22, where the seven martyrs are a hilasterion which prompts God to rescue Israel, which Dunn goes on to address in the section which follows. There are certainly in a sense more questions (at least for me!) than answers in this section of Romans where Paul is mixing various metaphors together, using some unclarified language, drawing on a variety of OT themes, and bringing them all together in a very dense formulation, particularly in 3:24-26.

BEN: I agree with your point on p. 173 that ‘works of the law’ probably is not meant by Paul to just refer to the boundary markers of Judaism (circumcision, Sabbath keeping, kosher), but is used more broadly by Paul to refer to any and all works of the Mosaic Law. I also agree that he is not talking in Rom. 3 about the inability to keep the Law perfectly. He is talking about the basis of right-standing with God under the new covenant as opposed to that basis in the old covenant. Right-standing is obtained by grace through faith in the faithfulness of Jesus. Yes?

CHAD: Yes, going back to the “spheres” notion in Galatians 2-3 again I think is helpful. As Paul will come to inquire in Romans, and argues in Galatians, if the Law in and of itself was sufficient to bring eschatological life, then why did Christ need to come? The Law’s purpose was to both mark out God’s people as distinct from their neighbors and to provide a framework for ethical living fitting of the people of God. But it was limited in what it could effect. If the “works of the Law” (variously understood by different Jewish groups in terms of what has prominence) are the realm of justification or the primary marker of God’s people, then Gentiles must, in essence, become Jews to be in God’s people. This is what I take Paul to mean when he says “for we reason a person to be justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God for the Jews only? Or is he also for the Gentiles? Yes, also for the Gentiles!” If the Law is the defining marker, in that “sphere,” so to speak, Gentiles either must become like Jews or be left out. For Paul, Jesus’ faithfulness, and the initial and ongoing response of the believer to it, is the only means of identifying who the people of God actually are.

BEN: Unpack the idea on p. 174 that the reason Paul uses two different prepositions ‘ek pistis’ for Jews, ‘dia pistis’ for Gentiles is because for Jews who were already in a covenant relationship with God, what has happened is covenant renewal, but for Gentiles it’s a genuinely new covenant, since they enter the chosen people from outside. This seems to require you taking ‘ek’ to mean ‘from within’. But is there really a basis for that reading of the preposition?

CHAD: As we also see in Galatians 2, Paul’s prepositions seem to be making some sort of distinction between Jews and Gentiles. If we take these prepositions spatially, there is a “nearness” which I think is indicated by ek, and a “farness” indicated by dia. This is not to say there are two different ways of salvation for Jews and Gentiles, but rather, I think somewhat in a salvation historical sense, it recognizes they come from two different starting points. As Paul began the chapter (and also brings up in Romans 9), the Jews had certain advantages, but those advantages in and of themselves do not constitute them being right with God (which I think most Jews, again, would have agreed with to some extent). The other option to take would be that there is no distinction intended between the prepositions, which many commentators accept. Their presence seems to be more than accidental or stylistic flare to me.

BEN: What does it mean to say that Abraham is in a sense the first Gentile convert, not the first Jew, in the sense that he was declared in right-standing with God on the basis of his trust in God, and not on the basis of keeping the (later)Mosaic covenant and doing its works of the Law? Abraham was ‘justified’ before he was circumcised and so before he kept any such Law. You interestingly suggest that perhaps Abraham becomes the parade example of how God justifies the ungodly (which ironically is also why he can be called the father of many nations not just the forefather of Jews), and therefore there is no basis in the Abraham story for Jewish exclusivity when it comes to who counts as the people of God—right?

CHAD: There is an interesting development in some of the Second Temple literature where Abraham is portrayed as a paradigmatic Law keeper. We see this as anachronistic since the Law wasn’t yet given, but the presence of this theme in various places (e.g., Pseudo-Philo, Ben Sira, Jubilees, etc.) demonstrates the vision of many Jews of the period that Torah observance was what defined God’s people, and Abraham, being the father of Israel that he was, would then necessarily need to likewise be Torah-observant. Paul turns that argument around in Romans 4, demonstrating “from the Law” (i.e., the Pentateuch) that Abraham was considered right with God prior to his circumcision. Abraham then becomes Paul’s paradigm for Gentile inclusion in the people of God apart from full Torah observance (again, circumcision is his primary focus here, but it need not necessarily be limited to that). Paul asks in Rom 4:9 if the divine blessings come only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised. The conundrum he raises is that if the answer is on the circumcised only, than Abraham himself would have been exempt since the covenant was initiated before he was circumcised! To put it another way, if only those in the sphere of the Law are right with God, Abraham himself would be left out. As both uncircumcised and circumcised, Abraham is capable of being the father of both Jews and Gentiles.

BEN: One of the interesting dances back and forth in Ephesians is the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, with the reminder that Gentiles came into the people of God as the Johnny come latelys, and at the same time the stress that in Christ whatever the person’s background, all are equal. Would you take Ephesians as a sort of object lesson to Gentiles to appreciate their fellow Jewish Christians and the heritage they have shared with them, while at the same time maintaining their equality in Christ, with the ‘middle wall of partition’ that has been torn down being the Mosaic law covenant?

CHAD: Yes, I think Ephesians 1-3 is largely about calling the Gentiles to remember their dependence upon Israel for the inheritance which they have received. Paul does not lay out explicitly what the issue was with this church (or churches), but I think that is a fair conclusion to draw from what he explains in those chapters. So Gentiles need to recognize the historical primacy of Israel for their own salvation, while also recognizing that now they are joint heirs and not just second class citizens in the people of God. There would be no inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s people if there first was not a covenant people. As he demonstrates in Romans and Galatians, Paul (who I take to be the “mind” behind the letter even if it is not penned from his hand) does not expect Gentiles to become Jewish. Those markers which separated Jews and Gentiles in the realm of the Law (Paul mentions only circumcision in the immediate context, but certainly there were other barriers created by the Law as well) no longer separate them in Christ. Gentiles stay Gentiles, and Jews stay Jews, just as males stay males and females stay females, but both are formed into one, unified, cooperating, equal people through the reconciliation accomplished in Christ’s death.

BEN: One of the least convincing parts of Wright’s argument in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is the attempt to say that Jesus=Israel=the church of Jew and Gentile incorporated into Jesus. Ephesians certainly does not support such a notion of Israel, where ‘Israelites’ are clearly distinguished from Gentiles. Gentiles are indeed incorporated into the body of Christ and so into Christ, and thereby are heirs to the promises and connected to the Abrahamic covenant as in Gal. 4, but they are not integrated into the Mosaic covenant and that covenant community of non-Christian Jews. Say a bit about your vision of both the problems and the promise of Wright’s aforementioned big book.

CHAD: I don’t think it’s easy to tie the Israel and Church language together in Paul’s letters to be referring to the same thing. There is a sense in which the national identity takes a back burner and the Church identity comes to the fore. The way I describe it is that there is one people of God who, in the new covenant, is made up of Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. Gentiles do not become Israelites. Israel does not become the Church or vice versa. Paul never makes statements which give us indications that all of these identities are completely collapsed. In terms of Wright’s big Paul book, I certainly overall agree with his starting point and approach in terms of framing Paul’s thought in communication with the Jewish and Greco-Roman world. The biggest problem with Wright’s big book is how big it is! I do appreciate Wright’s attempt to draw together a cohesive narrative from the Old Testament to the New as a means of making sense of Paul and some of the larger contours of what he develops I think are helpful. Wright also focuses on Jesus as the locus of election and works with something of a participationist soteriological model, which I find overall helpful. I think in some way the symbolic representation of Jesus=Israel makes sense in certain places, but in some, if not perhaps most, places I think he tries to make the narrative a bit too smooth where it isn’t obviously present at all. It seems in some places he denies a replacement perspective is what he is articulating, while in others (such as p.831), it seems like that is precisely what he is articulating. This happens also with his narrative approach overall which, again, I think is helpful in some places and feels strained in others. I found, for instance, his description of sin being located and isolated in Israel as God’s purpose of the Torah in order to deal with sin through Israel’s Messiah as confusing (895ff.). Where Wright also sees the Torah as having a majorly negative role (cf. 862), I would articulate things a bit differently. I also felt his discussion of the role of the Spirit in regeneration was a bit unclear (952ff.). In some places he uses stronger causal language to describe the Spirit’s role in creating faith, and in others “inspirational” language. The lack of precision felt a little bit like he was hedging his bets on the matter.

BEN: You finish this lengthy chapter by saying that God’s people are defined around the crucified and risen Jesus and faith in him is the only boundary one has to cross to get into the people of God. You suggest that God’s promise to Abraham to be a blessing to the nations could not be fulfilled any other way, in Paul’s view. Say more about this Christology redefining of the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, between God’s people and even other non-Christian Jews.

CHAD: I think in a sense, Paul came to understand that this redefinition of the boundaries of God’s people was essential in order for a meaningful ingathering of the Gentiles to occur. The corollary of it was also, as he discusses in Romans 9-11, a temporary Jewish rejection, which I think Paul views to ultimately be eschatologically resolved. So as it relates to the Jew/Gentile relationship, the redefinition of boundaries (“in Christ” v. “works of the Law”) was fundamentally necessary. Beyond this, Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplishes what the Law could not in that the Law did not have a mechanism to overcome the problem of sin and death. It could not impart eschatological life even if it could lead God’s people into “the good life,” in the sense of their personal flourishing for the remnant who were faithful. So Jesus’ death unbinds the powers of sin and death and his resurrection and the subsequent impartation of the Spirit results in the giving of eschatological life to his people as well as their empowering to walk faithfully in covenantal relationship with God.