Paul the Apostle, His Life, Letters and Thought— Part Fifty



It is the mark of an important book by a major scholar that it prompts deep thought and careful responses, even when one doesn’t agree with the author. This book does that on historical theological and ethical issues raised by Paul’s letters and thought. Ed Sander’s new large tome on Paul is well worth a slow, careful read. It makes many good points about all these things— historical, theological, ethical. For example, Sanders is quite right that Paul is not a systematician, nor is he constructing a systematic theology. This doesn’t mean he isn’t a careful and logical thinker. While it is true that sometimes Paul is responding spontaneously to an issue he had not thought about before as he writes a letter, this is often not the case. Paul’s letters are not composed of mere ad hoc off the cuff comments, and sometimes Sanders paints himself into a corner by suggesting this. For example, in his first long exegetical chapter on 1 Thessalonians, he suggests that it had not dawned on Paul that some Christians might die before the Lord returned and so he is doing damage control in explaining what the condition of the dead in Christ is in 1 Thessalonians. What prompts this mistake, and various others like it in this book is the mistaken notion that Paul was utterly convinced Jesus was necessarily coming back at any moment. Not only does Paul not ever say this (e.g. 1 Cor.7 says that the time has been shortened by the Christ event which has already happened, it does not say the time left is short) he uses the metaphor of the ‘thief in the night’ to talk about the second coming, a metaphor which conveys the notion of a coming at a surprising and unexpected time. Again and again Sanders talks about Paul reacting to the ‘delay of the Parousia’ but there is no evidence at all that he thought it was ‘delayed’ even in his later letters. The word delay implies that one knows a set time or period of time when something MUST happen. But Paul had no such time table in his head. His view was that Christ might come soon, or he could come later. And there was the second unknown, namely when Paul or other Christians would die, whether it would be before the return of Christ or not. In other words, Paul’s view was of the possible imminence of Christ’s return and nothing more. Paul did not engage in date calculations. Now this effects how you view Paul’s thought, especially his ethics. While Paul’s ethics are affected by what is yet to come in terms of the progress of salvation history, it is mainly affected by what has already happened eschatologically in terms of the Christ event. This is clear as a bell in his advice about marriage in 1 Cor. 7. Paul says the ‘schema’ of the world is already passing away, and the Christ event which already happened has shortened the time left. In other words, there are not lots of major eschatological events that have to happen before Christ returns. The ‘as if not’ advice in 1 Cor. 7 and the ‘no need to change status to get better ready for the Return’ advice is engendered by what is already true. Already the form of this world is changing and one can be a Christian whatever condition or status one finds oneself in. It is disappointing to me that Sanders simply repristinizes the old Schweitzerian eschatology and does not know or at least does not respond to the serious flaws in that whole way of reading Paul (see my Jesus, Paul and the End of the World).

There are other serious shortcomings in this book, and I’m not even going to talk about the failure to interact with the major Pauline studies of the last 20 years in any significant way. There is first of all, a whole series of assumptions about Acts which are incorrect. Sanders nowhere even discusses the possibility that Luke may have been Paul’s sometime companion on parts of his last two missionary trips and may have gotten some of his information about Paul’s early years from Paul himself. Nothing at all is said about this possibility. Secondly, there is no discussion at all about Paul’s being a Roman citizen, and both of these omissions lead to mistakes in analysis of Paul. If one is going to dismiss these two possibilities, it should at least be mentioned and some reasons given. But nothing is said.

This book is concerned in major ways to discuss development in Paul’s thought, and yes, there is some. I think Sanders is generally correct that Paul’s participationist language does develop the further one gets into his corpus of letters. So too does his Christological reflection as Phil. 2.5-11 shows. The issue is not the concept of ‘development’. The issue is that how one lines up the chronology of Paul’s letters determines how one views the development. For example, if you put Galatians late, then righteousness by faith seems to be an idea Paul came up with later in his ministry. But what happens if you put it early? Well suddenly, Paul had been thinking about righteousness by faith for a long time before he wrote Romans, and so it is not a later development. One of the major weaknesses of this book is dealing with the interface between Acts and Paul’s letters when they are talking about the same events. It is simply not good historical analysis to dismiss Paul’s missionary trip to south Galatia with a wave of the hand, or weakly admit once that he and Barnabas probably went there sometimes, but it has nothing to do with the letter to the Galatians. As we say in the South, that dog won’t hunt. Especially mystifying is why Sanders fails to take the clues in Galatians itself that it is a letter written before the Acts 15 council, before there was general agreement in the church that Gentiles need not have circumcision. Had Paul been able to cite the Decree or anything like it which had James or Peter or both saying, ‘stop the madness circumcision party, leave those Gentile Christians alone’ he would certainly have done so, and we would not have had all those colorful and polemical arguments in Galatians trying to head off their getting circumcised. The long appendix meant to bolster the north Galatia hypothesis doesn’t really do so, and I have left my critique of it there (and see my Grace in Galatia).

There are also serious theological weaknesses in Sander’s study, but to be fair there are also numerous strengths. On the strength side, his critique of a typical Lutheran reading of Rom. 7 is spot on, exactly correct. It is not a description of Christian life. Paul believes Christians have been set free from the bondage of sin. Rom. 7.14-25 is a Christian take on pre-Christian existence. On the weakness side, there is the whole issue of Paul’s theology of resurrection. Basic Greek grammar could have made clear that in 1 Cor. 15 pneumatikon soma, like psuchikon soma does not speak of the quality of the body’. Paul is not talking about a body made out of spirit any more than he is talking of a body made out of soul in the case of Adam. Just as psyche is the animating principle of the mundane human body, the nephesh or life breath which God breathed into Adam, so pneumatikon explains the animating principle or force of the resurrection body— it is real material body totally empowered by the Spirit of the risen Christ. Sanders is prepared to say that in somethings Paul dramatically changed his mind, for example in his earlier letters he thought faith in Christ was necessary for salvation, but out of the blue in Rom. 11.32 he thought universal salvation regardless of faith in Christ, will happen. This makes no sense of the argument in Rom. 11.25-32 in which Paul explains that when the full number of Gentiles are saved ‘in like manner’ and at the return of Christ, the full number of Israel will also be saved when the returning Christ turns away the impiety of Jacob and that group too is saved by grace through faith in the Messiah. There is a rather serious under-estimation of the consistency of Paul’s major thinking on such subjects, even though Sanders admits that the changes he sees in Paul’s don’t amount to contradictions or things retracted from what he said before. Too often, Sanders reads into the silences of Paul’s letters things he ought not to. For example, just because Paul doesn’t say as much in Romans about ‘being absent from the body and present with the Lord’ as he did in 2 Cor. 3-5, doesn’t mean Paul had changed his mind on that subject, and simply reverted to future resurrection of believers ideas. 2 Cor. 3-5 doesn’t lack future eschatology it speaks of Christ being the judge on judgment day. So what would have been more helpful is a discussion of how Paul holds both other worldly and future afterlife ideas together, affirming both.

While I agree that Paul’s letters are words on target for specific audiences, and so are theologizing and ethicizing into specific situations, it does not follow from this that Paul had not thought out many of the major lines of his thought before A.D. 49 or so when we first have letters from him. After all, he had been converted for more than 15 years by that time. The only letter we may have that comes from just after his first missionary journey is Galatians. 1 Thessalonians is written after the 2nd missionary journey in the 50s. While I agree that Lightfoot is probably wrong that Paul figured out the whole thing while in Arabia before his real missionary work began, nonetheless, his early letters do not reflect primitive theological and ethical thinking. And what happens to Sanders’ scheme of development if we just do three things: 1) accept 2 Thessalonians as Pauline as the vast majority of commentators on that book now do; 2) accept Colossians as probably Pauline, as, again most scholars who have written commentaries on that book now do; 3) disagree with the idea that 2 Corinthians is a compilation of several letters? Well, the conclusions become different do they not? For one thing Col. 1 brings in the whole issue of cosmic Christology in a more dramatic way. For another, 2 Thessalonians makes clear that Paul could reckon with events that could precede the return of Christ.

What of Sanders’ discussion of righteousness by faith? I think it’s quite helpful, and he is right to critique the imputed righteousness idea again and again. Paul is not talking about a legal fiction and he is talking about a real change, not just in status, but also in condition at conversion. It is Abraham’s faith that is reckoned as Abraham’s righteousness. Nothing is said about imputing Christ’s righteousness to the believer. In fact the whole language of credits and debts, of reckoning is not legal language it is business language, the kind Paul the tentmaker knew well. Paul was not a trained lawyer, unlike Calvin.

The argument that Paul must not have been trained in Jerusalem because he doesn’t due halakot like Judaean Pharisees etc. is a weak argument. Paul’s means of argumentation including his ethical argumentation are chiefly shaped by two forces: 1) his knowledge and use of the rhetorical means of persuasion; 2) his thoroughly Christian and theological way of thinking about ethics which involves the imitation of Christ, the reuse of Christ’s basic teaching in the Sermon on the Mount etc. Whatever was the case with Paul’s ethics and his education in the traditions of Jewish ethics before his conversion, the change in his life was so dramatic that this was, as Paul says in Phil. 3, yet another thing he left behind. Paul was both a Diaspora Jew and one who trained in Jerusalem, so the situation is not either/or but both and.

Sanders is right that Paul had various women co-workers like Phoebe and Priscilla and Junia and had no problems with their involvement in the proclamation ministry of the Gospel. He is right as well that Paul like other early Jewish writers such as Philo, opposed same sex sexual activity, and grouped sexual immorality together with idolatry in Rom. 1 and elsewhere. I could have wished for a better understanding of Paul’s theology of covenants in this book— when Paul talks about the law he mostly means the Mosaic Law that is part and parcel of the Mosaic covenant. When he reuses some of the ten commandments he does so because he takes them to be part of a subsequent covenant God has now made through Christ— the new covenant which Paul links not to the Mosaic covenant which is seen as an interim arrangement in Gal. 4 but with the Abraham covenant which is not seen as stage one of the Mosaic covenant. Alas, Sanders thinks Paul never resolves the mystery of the two dispensations, when in fact, he does. The Mosaic ministry and covenant has a glory that is fading in the bright light of the Christ of the new covenant. In the eschatological age, the Mosaic covenant has had its day and ceased to be required of either Jew or Gentile. Paul is clear enough in 1 Cor. 9— while for mission purposes he can be a Jew to the Jew, he is no longer required to live like that. He is under a different covenantal arrangement. Just how strange it was for Paul a former Pharisee to talk about ‘being the Jew to the Jew’ doesn’t register with Sanders. It means Paul sees himself as some third thing, neither Jew nor Gentile, but rather ‘in Christ’, just as he makes the distinction between Jews, Gentiles, and the Church of God at one point.

Despite the lack of real interaction with the Pauline scholarship of the last 20 years, this is an important book which nicely sums up many of Sander’s views on Paul, gives us lots of stimulating exegesis, and shows us that his thought about Paul has not changed much from the late 70s until now. Few scholars have done as a good a job of refuting Christian caricatures of early Judaism and Paul’s views on the Jewish law than Sanders. For this and many other excellent contributions to our understanding of Paul and early Judaism we owe Ed Sanders a great debt.

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