I hope to have demonstrated the value and necessity of placing Paul’s election language back in its original context, which was a decidedly Jewish one. As we reviewed the Jewish literature, we discovered a view of election that was grounded in God’s promises to the patriarchs. This overwhelmingly emphasized the collective nature of election as a concept that applied to a bounded community. When individuals were in view, their role, their character or their representation of a group was emphasized, never their being chosen for a particular soteriological standing. Likewise, the Jewish literature was decidedly conditional, with the various authors defining who was “in” and who was “out” by different means and markers. This typically meant Gentiles were excluded, along with many or most Jews, from the people of God. We can thus express these tendencies as described below:
1. At times, the description of individuals or a group as “elect” emphasizes primarily their character or piety rather than a particular, predetermined, soteriological standing (Ben Sira, Testaments, Additional Psalms of David, 1 Enoch).
2. When individuals are mentioned as “elect,” the identification either (1) recognizes them as such because they represent or mediate for a corporate group (Jubilees, Testaments, DSS, 1 Enoch), or (2) describes a vocational calling (e.g., king, priest, etc.; see Ben Sira, Psalms of Solomon).
The picture of election is primarily conditional, either implicitly (Tobit, Ben Sira, Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, Sibylline Oracles, pseudo-Philo) or explicitly (Jubilees, Testaments, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Psalms of Solomon, DSS), in that a number of Jews, whether a majority (Jubilees, Testaments, 1 Maccabees, Psalms of Solomon, DSS, 1 Enoch, Testament of
Moses) or an undefined number (Tobit, Ben Sira, Baruch, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sibylline Oracles, pseudo-Philo), were presently apostate and outside of the covenant. The concept was thus not nationalistic or ethnic, but primarily remnant-oriented.
1. The conditions of the covenant emphasized vary throughout the literature, and included circumcision, general piety, Sabbath observance, ritual purity, abstinence from sexual immorality, avoidance of intermarriage with Gentiles, proper calendrical and festival observances, resistance of Hellenization and idolatry, support for the Hasmoneans, rejection of the Hasmoneans, honesty, humility, proper interpretation and application of the law, rejection of the corrupt leadership in Jerusalem (e.g., the priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, Sanhedrin, Maccabees or Hasmoneans), and association with/allegiance to a particular community and its understanding of the law or its specially received revelation.
2. In spite of the conditional nature, God’s election of Israel was still primarily presented as a corporate, not an individual, concept. This is clear from the many uses of corporate or national terminology and imagery, such as use of the moniker “Israel” or “Judah” when referring only to the pious, vine and plant imagery, association with a righteous person (e.g., Enoch or Noah) or an explicit invocation of the remnant motif.
Some texts make an allowance for the possible inclusion of Gentiles in the eschatological people of God (Sibylline Oracles, 1 Enoch, pseudo-Philo), though largely Gentiles are considered to be wicked and sinful by nature. God’s mercy and human obedience do not exist in mutually exclusive terms. The recognition of Israel’s sin is widespread throughout the literature. At times, God’s mercy means his decision not to reject Israel completely, though they are deserving of such a fate. This does not create, however, carte blanche for Israel to be licentious, as they needed to remain faithful to the covenant (as variously defined) in order to receive
the covenant blessings.
1. God’s sovereignty and human freedom do not exist in mutually exclusive terms. While certain things, such as the declaration of what is good and what is evil, the final judgment and its rewards or punishments, and the election of Israel/the remnant are described as being predetermined, in no text does this negate human freedom and the responsibility to be faithful to the covenant with God. That God has an overarching plan is clear, but that every nuance within that plan, including the individual actions of humans, is preordained, is not.
2. There is a real possibility, except once the final judgment comes, for the apostates to repent and commit themselves to keeping the covenant as well as for those in the “true Israel” to commit apostasy and reject the covenant and its blessings.
As we looked at Paul’s letters, we did not find a drastically different picture. Paul similarly worked within a collective and conditional framework. Like his contemporaries he viewed the elect as a restricted group. In his most explicit election texts, Paul never concerns himself with God choosing specific individuals to receive eschatological salvation. Rather, in his most explicit election texts (in particular Gal 2–3; Rom 3; 8–11; and Eph 1–2), Paul always concerns himself with what it means for Gentiles to be a part of God’s people. Recognizing this aspect alone should cause us to step back and ask what exactly Paul is doing. When we see these sociological divisions and Paul’s attempt to bring a theological resolution to the problem of Gentile inclusion and majority Jewish exclusion, we recognize that Paul does not explore an abstract theological doctrine of God determining each individual’s eschatological fate, but rather wrestles with how to make sense of God’s actions in light of the covenant with the patriarchs. Paul deals in detail with how to resolve this dilemma, adamant that God has freedom to work how he chooses, has indeed fulfilled his promises to bless the nations through Israel and has renewed the covenant through his faithful and loving act in the Messiah. This public display of Jesus and miraculous vindication through the resurrection act as the sign that God himself has truly intervened.
And through this act, the law took its proper place in the realm of the risen Jesus and the Spirit, where God’s people, those who identify with his Messiah and submit to his Spirit, receive the enablement to fulfill this law and thus receive the promised eschatological life. For Paul, as for his contemporaries, election controversies were more about who God’s people were than how they were God’s people.
Among Jews of the period, the concept of election came to signify the “true Israel” or “remnant,” meaning those Israelites who remained faithful to the covenant. For Paul the terminology takes on quite the same meaning. In referring to those who have trusted in Jesus as “elect” or “chosen” or “called,” Paul claims that it is those who have been united with God’s Messiah who are actually in right-standing with God. Torah-faithfulness apart from obedience to the good news of God expressed through Jesus has become useless. For Paul, obedience to God comes only through identification with Jesus. Thus Jesus’ own faithfulness both grounds the faithfulness of the believer and brings God’s declaration of “rightness” to them.
Occasionally I am asked something to the effect of “What difference does it make how we think about election?” or “What does this view ‘do’ that others don’t?” It seems to me that this view better fits within the thought-world of Second Temple Judaism. The more we immerse ourselves in that world, the better we will make sense of Paul, a Jewish follower of a Jewish Messiah, and his letters. Several very practical implications also arise from this view. Space does not permit me to articulate these more fully, though we have touched briefly on each at various points in our discussion.
Much of the early Jewish discussion of the “elect” concerned their piety more than whether or not they were, or would be, “saved.” They shared a deep concern, though expressed in different and competing ways, with living faithfully to God’s commands as expressed in his covenant with them. Paul expresses a similar concern in his articulation of the faithfulness required of God’s people in Christ. For Paul, this faithfulness is enabled through the gift of God’s Spirit, but not at the elimination of the responsibility and commitment of the individual. Paul still calls God’s people to obedience to his law, though he expresses this in a more condensed formula based on the emulation of the Savior and the love of God and others.
Paul’s Jewish contemporaries also shared a common concern to distinguish God’s people from the rest of the world. This sometimes resulted in extremes, as we saw at Qumran or in the Maccabees. Each group, however, wrestled with how to remain faithful to God and resist the attractions and temptations of the world. This came, after all, from God’s own declaration for his people to be set apart for service to him. When Paul declares believers, including Gentiles (!), elect, holy, righteous and called, he calls on this rich history of God’s covenantal people. Those in God’s Messiah would likewise need to live in a way that distinguished them from the world, for this was their calling. And again the Messiah himself emulated this lifestyle and God’s Spirit will enable those who belong to him to reflect Jesus. As it was for Israel, this meant living in ways counterintuitive to the larger culture, dying to their own desires that they might live for God, and subsequently, and perhaps ironically from a human perspective, in doing so actually live life as God had intended all along.
The various Jewish sects of the period represented in our literature had deep convictions about how to define the boundaries of God’s people. This likewise fostered an important sense of unity in those communities. Paul too, perhaps more adamantly even, held a deep concern for the unity of God’s people, especially in light of the reconciliation of Gentiles to God. When competing identity markers, such as circumcision or collective cultural wisdom, challenged the centrality of the Messiah and his cross and resurrection, Paul felt compelled to strip those things of their significance. In doing so, he both continued to elevate the primacy of obedient commitment to Jesus as the central marker of identity and sought to promote the unity of God’s people around the primary marker. This unity required people from differing racial and socioeconomic backgrounds to learn to function together as a united, reformed, renewed people of God. In the case of Jews and Gentiles, long held religious beliefs and animosities created tensions and hostilities among God’s people. Paul would not allow these problems to continue to fester but rather dismantled any notion, whether an idea, a practice or a person, that might be exalted to the status which Jesus alone held. Paul would allow God’s people in Christ to be defined by no other means than the Messiah’s life, death and resurrection.
Finally, election from its inception in the biblical text through much of the Second Temple literature, and certainly in Paul, held a central position in the mission of God’s people. God chose Israel for his special possession in order to bring the Abrahamic blessing to the nations. This missional aspect of Israel’s calling is echoed through the prophetic literature of the Old Testament and through many Second Temple texts. For Paul this blessing in one sense had been accomplished since God had brought the Gentiles into his people as full members through Christ.
In another sense, both as it pertains to unbelieving Gentiles, and paradoxically to unbelieving Jews, this missional call of God’s people to bless the nations still endured and had not yet found its final fulfillment since there still existed those “outside the camp.”
We have been able only to scratch the surface of this topic in our examinations and reflections of these texts. I hope through this discussion that we might increase our awareness of the Jewish context of the New Testament and the ways in which we can better understand its message within that context. I have attempted to offer an account of the relationship between Paul’s thought and his Jewish background, which is both contextually sensitive and recognizes the connecting points and the divergences between them. In doing so, I have developed a view that attempts to deeply appreciate the continuity between Paul’s thought, the covenantal theology of the Old Testament and his background as a first-century Jew. I have aimed at providing a “thick description” of Paul’s theology of election, accounting for these various contexts as important influences on his theological articulations. These contexts act as spotlights that, when shown on their subject, allow us to appreciate the details of what we view. My study has also aimed at a rich theological description of these beliefs set within the ancient thought world rather than our own. Such a view also, as I have summarized briefly, creates important practical implications for how we understand human responsibility, Christian unity, faithful obedience to God and the core identity of God’s people. Though we face challenges in how we apply these ideas in our own context, which is in some ways very different from Paul’s and in others quite similar, by seeing Paul’s convictions in their historical and cultural contexts we can better allow them to shape our own.
I do not anticipate this to be the final word on this subject. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer a contribution to this area of Christian thought, which has been contentious for millennia. I do believe sincerely that when we aim at a more robust view of Paul’s world we can likewise grasp a more robust view of Paul’s letters. I also believe that what we see in Paul’s letters, specifically in terms of how he thinks about election from a Jewish framework, accords well with what we see in the rest of the New Testament. I have not, of course, developed this here, but I believe further work can illuminate it in a way that effectively accounts for both the world of the New Testament and the place of the New Testament in that world.