BEN: On p. 352 n. 7, you freely admit that Paul uses rhetorical shorthand from time to time, a shorthand involving the Good News and Christ’s central role in it. Why not see pistis Christou as a parade example of such shorthand? After all, the discussion of the crucifixion and death of Christ and its effects, even on Paul’s body, keeps coming up in this letter?
JOHN: I do think pistis Christou is shorthand, but I see it as the noun shorthand for ‘we have believed in Christ Jesus’, the verbal phrase at the centre of Galatians 2.16. If Paul talked anywhere about Christ being ‘faithful’ (pistos) or of Christ ‘believing’ or ‘trusting’ (pisteuo), in reference to the cross or anything else, I would be open to reading it as a reference to Christ’s faithfulness or trust. But I don’t see that, and neither, I think, did any of the early Christian interpreters of this phrase.
BEN: I think one of the real strengths of Lou Martyn’s argument about Galatians, and one which you seem to resonate with, is the notion that the Christ event is an incursion into a pre-existing situation and story, not a continuation of the pre-existing story of Israel. This is all the more so if one thinks that Paul is suggesting the overlap of the ages, with the age to come breaking into ‘this present evil age’ (see also 1 Cor. 7). Whether one calls this apocalyptic or not, Paul surely is saying something similar to what C.S. Lewis meant when he said— ‘when the author of the play steps out on the stage, the play is over’ (or at least interrupted and taken in a whole new direction). Here I think Martyn is much nearer the mark than Wright. I think there is another reason beside traditional Reformed covenantal theology, why Wright has an allergic reaction to Martyn’s view. He keeps manifesting an affinity for Caird’s realized eschatology approach to things, as opposed to the idea of future eschatology affecting and making incursions into the present. Do you sense that misreading Pauline eschatology is part of the problem in strident critiques of Martyn?
JOHN: Wright sees the coming of Christ and the church as the final act of a long historical drama, and this means that he tends to underline connections and continuities between the Christ-event and what went before, and also, perhaps, to expect more of the church than Paul’s eschatology and historical reality can support. Martyn sees the Christ-event as an incursion that inaugurates a war in this world between flesh and Spirit, and thus expects rather less of the present (in that sense, the eschatology is less realized). There is perhaps something problematic in both views. In both cases, there is a tendency to take what is manifestly a historical event (God’s sending of the Son, born of a woman etc.) as an event of history in the sense that it follows in a historical sequence (Wright) or marks a watershed between what was historically before and historically after (Martyn). But if God’s interventions into time do not fit our normal sense of historical order, things could look very different. This is an event that enters into and alters history, but it is not bound by the rules of history: that is why Paul can talk of Christ being present in the wilderness with Israel (1 Cor 10) and of Christ as the agent of all creation (1 Cor 8.6; cf. Colossians 1). This suggests that the Christ-event is not just the end of a historical sequence but the reality that punctures time whenever God’s grace invades the human domain, though manifested fully and completely in the sending of the Son. That is the way (but the only way) Paul can connect the Christ-event to the previous history of Israel in Romans 9-11. And in that way we can avoid Marcion’s notion that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is wholly discontinuous with God’s action in the world pre-Christ.
BEN: What do you take Paul to mean when he talks about ‘my former life in Judaism’ (see the note on p. 357) or for instance when he says in 1 Cor. 9 ‘to the Jew I became as a Jew…..’. These sort of texts suggest to me that Paul views himself as no longer within non-Christian Judaism as he was before, but that he can adopt and adapt Jewish customs so as to win some for Christ. Further, his setting in binary relationship the assembly of God as opposed to his former life in Judaism, suggests that the former is not seen as a subset of the latter, however much it may have emerged from the latter. In short, it seems to me that while Paul is still operating in the sphere he previously fully inhabited, he does so as to some degree an ‘outsider’ who has a new community and a new identity, however much indebted to Judaism it may be. Thus I would say that in Paul, and in the Pauline communities we already see ‘the parting of the ways’ in a preliminary form. It does not await later post-apostolic developments, at least not entirely For sure, many of his Gentile converts had never emerged from Judaism, and I doubt they thought they were joining a ‘Jewish’ community per se when they met in house churches as opposed to the synagogue. . How would you parse these things since, as you say on p. 358 ‘what happened next was not the next stage of his development within Judaism’?
JOHN: This is, as you know, a complex and, at the present time, a very controversial issue among Pauline scholars. A lot depends on what we mean by ‘Judaism’ – a term that may not mean the same in our usage as in Paul’s. In theological/Scriptural terms, Paul never leaves what he calls ‘Israel’: he belongs to the people of God (Rom 11.1) and he continues to hold that the ‘Israel of God’ (Gal 6.16) matters to God (Romans 11.11-32). He does not see himself as setting up a new people of God, but of joining Gentiles to the people who from the beginning have been defined solely and purely by the grace or mercy of God (Romans 11.17-24). He understands faith in Christ as the fulfilment, not the contradiction, of Israel’s identity – it is how Israel becomes most truly itself. But in social/political terms, the communities he forms are not sub-sets or even adjuncts to local Jewish synagogues. When the local Jewish communities reject his message (as he himself used to reject the good news of Christ), that social divide is very stark, and in some cases and times, as you say, must have looked already like ‘the parting of the ways.’ Elsewhere, or at other times, Jewish believers like himself might still be members of local synagogues – we know he went often enough and was considered enough of a member to be beaten in punishment five times (2 Cor 11.24). Wherever Jewish and Gentile believers mix (as in his life among Gentile converts, or as in Antioch or Rome), he requires Jewish believers to show a degree of cultural flexibility that might mean living like a Gentile and not like a Jew (Gal 2.14), wearing their Jewish traditions as an option and not as a requirement. But we know from Josephus, Philo and others in the first century, that taking Jewish traditions as an option not a necessity could be regarded as apostasy. Paul understands all he does as done out of allegiance to Christ (the Messiah) and in honour of God, but he insists that ‘I have died to the Law [in the sense of no longer accepting its ultimate authority] in order to live to God’ (Gal 2.19): that is a stance that those beholden to ‘ancestral traditions’ (what Paul means by ‘Judaism’; Gal 1.13-14) could not understand.
BEN: On page 359-60 you critique, rightly in my view, the attempt, mostly by Jewish scholars, to recover Paul for Judaism. I’m thinking of Nanos, Eisenbaum, etc. You point out that while Paul continues to self-identify as a Jew, and has a belief in a future for Israel as a group, that this should not be seen as his rather peculiar way of showing a continued allegiance to Judaism, the normative Jewish way of life, the Mosaic covenant etc. What specifically leads you to this conclusion, and why are Nanos and others pursuing that line of thought wrong?
JOHN: From the 1960s, the Stendahl-Gaston-Gager school of thought (continued by Stowers, Tomson, and now by Zetterholm et al.; ‘the radical new perspective’ or ‘Paul within Judaism’ scholars) have argued that anything negative Paul says about the Law is addressed only to Gentiles and is only about Gentiles’ relation to the Law, and that Paul has no expectation that Jews should do anything other than keep the Torah and trust in the Mosaic covenant: faith in Christ is for Gentiles and not for Jews. I read this as a) a reaction against old-perspective readings of Paul as opposed to a Judaism which was represented as legalistic, nationalistic, and/or moribund; b) arising from acute anxiety lest Christian resources be used (again) in critique of Judaism, in an age of inter-faith tolerance; c) an act of solidarity with Jews who can feel patronised or harassed by Christians who seek to convert them. Now there is a kind of alliance, as you say, with Jewish scholars like Nanos and Eisenbaum who offer a reading of Paul ‘liberated’ from Christian presuppositions. Scholarship often goes through phases of ‘revisionism’ and it is always attractive to feel that one is on the cutting edge of a totally new way of reading the texts. I think most Pauline scholars (and most ancient historians I know outside of this debate) can see that the matter is far more complex: what Paul says about the Law certainly applies also to Jews like himself (see Gal 2.19-21; 1 Cor 9.19-21), and the good news about Jesus Christ is for Jews (first) and also for Gentiles (Rom 1.16, etc.). As I said above, Paul is a self-identifying Israelite, a people whose identity was always formed by grace and is fulfilled by faith in Christ; and he lives to and for the Lord (Jesus), on the understanding that the Torah is no longer his final authority. That scrambles ancient categories of identity and it scrambles our own modern and post-modern understandings of identity and ‘religion’. Because he does not fit our normal understandings of what is a ‘Christian’ and what is a ‘Jew’, all attempts to make him fit our categories, one way or the other, keep running up against the evidence of the text!
BEN: Let’s talk about the Pauline mission for a minute. Paul says in Rom. 1 that the Good News is for the Jew first, and in Acts he is portrayed as going to synagogues first, wherever he went where there was already a Jewish presence. Plus, his own accounts of his travails mention repeated submission to the 39 lashes, which suggests he not only had taught in the synagogues, but had submitted to the punishment so he could continue to do so. This being the case, the division of labor between Paul and Peter becomes a bit murky. Is Paul mainly preaching to the God-fearers in the synagogue, or is he also trying to win over Jews too. Then we have the further fact that Paul casually mentions a synagogue leader or leaders in Corinth he converted (see also Acts 18). Does this mean that Paul focused on gentiles, but shared the good news with all comers, while Peter focused on Jews, but with the same latitude? How do you envision the missionary work of Paul vis a vis Peter?
JOHN: You are right that the clear-cut ethnic division mentioned in Galatians 2 looks less neat on the ground and in reality. Perhaps it was initially intended geographically (Peter keeping to places with a strong Jewish majority population) and culturally (Peter remaining within the cultural confines of the Jewish tradition, Paul crossing cultural boundaries in the pursuit of his mission). Since there were Jews in most places where Paul worked, and since he naturally used whatever networks he could to gossip the good news, and perhaps had a particular interest in the ‘god-fearers’ on the fringes of Jewish synagogues, it does not seem that Paul could or would keep himself entirely aloof from fellow Jews. But he did regard himself as primarily called to be an apostle ‘to the Gentiles’ and that focus, and his resulting experiences among Gentiles, is reflected in the radicality with which he talks of the grace of God as dissolving the value invested in former distinctions.
BEN: Circumcision was clearly a very big deal in Paul’s world and culture, with both positive and negative valences depending on who you talked to. I quite agree with your emphasis on how important it was, and your resisting the temptation to minimize Pauline comments about how neither circumcision nor uncircumcision much matters or counts in the divine economy now. I think one has to say what Alan Segal said— that Paul was viewed not merely as an abnormal Jew but an apostate one by many, perhaps including some more conservative Jews within the church. Paul certainly thought some of his fellow believers were out to get him. Most importantly, circumcision was the covenant sign of the Mosaic covenant, and as such the gateway into keeping that Law, all of it. Help us understand just how radical Paul’s message and lifestyle was in regard to these things. Do you think that Paul simply more clearly and quickly understood the full implications of the Good News of grace to all persons than others such as Peter or James?
JOHN: Male circumcision was (and remains) the mark of Jewish identity; even if it was not often visible, it affected marriage choice (a Jewish girl could not marry an uncircumcised man) and thus the whole social fabric of Judaism. To non-Jews, it was laughable, or worse: a sign of self-mutilation, typical of uncultured ‘barbarians’. What makes Paul radical is that he says ‘neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything’ (Gal 5.6; 6.15; 1 Cor 7.19): at a stroke he undermines the investment of Jews in this mark of specialness, and the investment of non-Jews in the perfect, unblemished male body. That’s why he can say: just stay whichever way you are (1 Cor 7.17-18), there is nothing to be gained in changing either way, but nothing wrong with whatever you are (circumcised or uncircumcised). Paul is announcing a new value system, where much of what counted in the old regime is not worth anything at all now, either positive or negative. By extension, adhering to the Jewish way of life is not wrong in itself (not primitive, or narrow, or morally inferior), but it is disposable if/when the demands of the gospel require one to live otherwise. That sort of cultural adaptability was easily represented as inconsistency or even apostasy, but Paul would justify it as necessary flexibility out of a consistent allegiance to Christ. I think Paul got this more radically than others in early Christianity because he lived and experienced it in his Gentile mission. It is often the case that cross-cultural missionaries are able to ‘relativize’ their own cultures far more than those who have never lived outside their cultural tradition. So his radical theology of grace matched (and was further fueled by) his radical life experiences.
BEN: One of the things A.J. Levine and I have gone round and round about is the whole issue of purity laws, whether we are talking about food laws, or other kinds. Clearly enough many early Jews thought violating those laws was a big deal, including some Jewish Christians. A.J. however says it was mostly not a big deal because there was always a remedy for such ritual defilement, namely the mikveh etc. If you became impure in one way or another, say by eating with a Gentile, you had a get out of jail free card, according to A.J. and even sacrifices were not necessarily required. While I grant this may be the view of many modern Jews I know, it doesn’t really seem to come to grips with how seriously violations were viewed in Paul’s world, for the most part. I suspect in fact that it was an even more serious issue in the Diaspora than in Israel itself, because of constant danger of impurity in a largely Gentile environment. How would you respond to A.J’s point?
JOHN: There is a difference between accidental impurity (for which there are purification rituals, at least where there is a mikveh, or if you can go to the Temple), necessary ritual impurity (like corpse impurity when you bury a relative or remove a dead animal), and consious flouting of a purity tradition. The food laws are a good case in point. Diaspora Jewish authors show a lot of concern to justify the Jewish food laws: they sometimes give them allegorical explanations, not to dismiss them but to underline how important it is to keep them. If a Jew in that context says ‘the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 14.17) or ‘I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself’ (Rom 14.14), that is threatening to Jewish culture, as it is a conscious in-principle assault on the value of the whole system of food impurity. Josephus says that Jews are anxious about what they eat and who they eat it with, and preserve this tradition even if it makes them seem ‘anti-social’. If Paul justifies breaking these taboos, he is undermining the value of a very significant feature of Jewish culture.