The apostle Paul emerged into faith in Jesus as the Messiah out of the Pharisaic way of life. What was that like? This is one of the highlight questions Tom Wright asks in his new Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and to answer that question he prepares us with a lengthy and winding discussion of the “Story” at work in Judaism and the particular slant that Story was told by the Pharisees. Here is awesome summary, leading to this big question for us:
If this is Paul’s “background” and “past,” what do we now see in his letters we did not see before? or, what does this tell us about his theory of “justification by faith”? (More on that below, too.)
This begins with the major worldview questions for the Pharisees.
Who we? We are a group of Jews who find ourselves dissatisfied with the way our country is being run and with our life as a people, at home and abroad. We are therefore devoting ourselves to the study and practice of Torah, as a kind of elite corps, intending to advance the time when Israel will finally be redeemed, when our God will reveal his faithfulness to our nation.
Where are we? Mostly, it seems, in the holy land, which is where we might prefer to be; but some of us live and work in the Diaspora. We are, however, mostly living under the rule of the Roman empire (some, perhaps, far out in the east, have other pagan overlords), and we have struck a deal that we will pray for the emperor, not to him as everyone else is forced to do.396
What’s wrong? There are not nearly enough of us who take Torah with proper seriousness, and even among those who do there are schools devel- oping which the tough-minded among us regard as dangerously compro- mised. What counts, after all, is absolute purity. We do not imagine that we never sin, or never incur impurity, but we deal with it at once according to the methods and means of atonement and purification given by God and prescribed in the law. That is what it means to be ‘perfect in the law’. Butwe cannot compromise or collude with the wickedness we see in the nations all around us, and that goes especially for the rulers of the nations. Ever since the days in Egypt, and then again from the time in Babylon (where some of us still are) to the present, we have known what pagan rulers are like, and what it’s like to live under them. We will not be content until we no longer have to live as, in effect, slaves under these pagans, paying them taxes. Behind the problem of Israel’s large-scale failure to obey Torah prop- erly is the much bigger problem: when will our God reveal his faithfulness to the covenant, by judging the pagans, liberating us from their wicked grasp, and setting up his ultimate kingdom? That’s what’s wrong: it hasn’t happened yet.
What’s the solution? To the smaller-scale problem: a campaign to per- suade more Jews to take upon themselves the yoke of Torah. To the larger- scale problem: to pray (prayer is especially important; the Shema alone is the very foundation of our existence) and to wait in purity, to keep the feasts and the fasts, to study scripture . . . and perhaps, so some of us think, to join up with those who are eager for armed resistance and revolution. We have as our great models of ‘zeal for Torah’ the heroes of old, Phinehas and Elijah especially. They were not afraid to use the sword in the service of God. Nor were our more recent heroes, the Maccabaean freedom-fighters. We vene- rate, too, the martyrs who died cruel deaths rather than defile themselves with pagan food and practices. We are waiting for a new exodus, and perhaps a new Moses to lead it. Some of us want to hurry that process along.
What time is it? Well, there is a lot of discussion about that, because nobody is completely sure how to calculate the Great Jubilee of Daniel 9. But it has to be soon. The ‘present age’ will give way to the ‘age to come’;397 the present time is the time of continuing exile and slavery, despite various false dawns; some of us did make it back to our own land, but whether we did or didn’t we are still in the long, dark period Daniel 9 predicted, the ‘exile’ of Deuteronomy 28. The coming age, however, will be the time of freedom, and some of us have begun to think that maybe that coming age is being secretly inaugurated as we develop and pass on the oral law and do our best to keep it. Maybe that’s the way God’s faithfulness is being revealed. Meanwhile, we are frustrated that the great biblical laws about jubilee have usually been honoured in the breach rather than the obser- vance. We who keep the sabbath very carefully week by week are hoping and praying for the great Sabbath, the time when our God will have com- pleted the work of rescuing Israel, and we can enjoy ‘rest’ like Joshua’s people did once the land was settled. It is time for ‘messianic time’, for a new kind of time, for the same thing to happen to our time and history as happens in space and matter when we go to the Temple: an intersection ofour world with God’s world, of our time with God’s time. That’s what happens every week, every sabbath. We want all those times of rest to come rushing together as the true Jubilee, the real freedom-moment, not just because we want a new exodus but because we want to share God’s ultimate rest, the joy of work complete. (177-179)
Here is how the Pharisees, according to NT Wright, saw their problem:
We have thus approached, from the theological angle, the topic we discovered at the heart of our study of the narrative world of second-Temple Jews. If Israel is chosen to be the people through whom the creator will put the world to rights, what happens when Israel itself needs to be put to rights? The answer given by the Pharisees was reasonably clear: Israel needs to learn how to keep Torah, how to keep it properly this time. If Israel wants the covenant God to be faithful to his promises and bring the restoration they longed for, Israel has to be faithful to this God, to Torah, to the covenant. Plenty of evidence in scripture itself indicated that something like this was the right answer. Since Paul the apostle basically agrees with this answer, though providing a radical and shocking fresh analysis of what ‘keeping Torah properly’ and ‘being faithful to God’ now looks like, we may confidently conclude that this was what Saul of Tarsus, the zealous Pharisee, had believed as well. (183)
Now what about justification by faith in this worldview?
The point can be summarized thus. First, God will soon bring the whole world into judgment, at which point some people will be ‘reckoned in the right’, as Abraham and Phinehas were. Second, there are particular things, even in the present time, which will function as signs of that coming verdict. Third, those particular things are naturally enough the things that mark out loyal Israelites from disloyal ones; in other words (remember Mattathias!) strong, zealous adherence to Torah and covenant. Fourth, as a result, those who perform these things in the present time can thus be assured that the verdict to be issued in the future, when the age to come is finally launched, can already be known, can be anticipated, in the present. This, I believe, is what a first-century Pharisee would have meant by ‘justification by the works of the law’. (184)
So here’s Paul’s basic worldview coming into view on justification:
We may therefore suppose (supposition is all we have, in the absence of direct evidence, but this is where all the lines of evidence converge) that a first-century Pharisee like Saul of Tarsus would have seen the picture like this:
a. In the ‘age to come’, the creator God will judge the wicked (pagans, and renegade Jews), and will vindicate (= declare ‘righteous’) his people (i.e. will declare that they are part of his ‘all Israel’).
b. The present marks of this vindicated/justified people will be the things which show their loyalty to their God and their zeal for his covenant.
c. These things are, more precisely, the true keeping of Torah: (a) keeping the ‘works’ which mark out Jews from their pagan neighbours, and (b) keeping the ‘works’ which mark out good, observant Jews from non-observant – in extreme cases, the sceptics and the wicked, though there might be other more fine-tuned categories as well.426
d. You can therefore tell in the present who will be ‘vindicated’ in the future, because they are those who keep ‘the works of Torah’ in this way in the present time (*187).
That is why, if we are to understand Paul the apostle, we must see him within this rich, many-sided world. To move through the different concentric circles: the Pharisaic worldview was about the whole business of being human; of being a Jewish human; of living in a Jewish community; of living in a threatened Jewish community; of living with wisdom, integrity and hope in a threatened Jewish community; of living with zeal for Torah, the covenant and above all Israel’s faithful God within a threatened Jewish community (196).