This blog series introduces readers to (4) of the “big ideas” in Paul and the Language of Faith
For the previous post, see “Faith is Something You DO”
Idea #2: “Faith Language Points to Covenant”
There has been a long-time theological conundrum in Pauline theology studies. One the one hand, “covenant” seems like such a major concept in the Old Testament. On the other hand, the term “covenant” hardly appears in the New Testament, not even very much in Paul who spends a lot of time quoting the OT.
But in the midst of my research on Paul’s use of pistis (“faith”), I made an interesting and surprising discovery. Jews, like Paul, were comfortable in this time period (2nd temple Judaism) using pistis to point to covenant-like relationships. First of all, pistis was used commonly in the wider Greek world in reference to relationships of concord and mutuality. Thus, it was a perfect general term for a covenant-like relationship. Secondly, pagans (non-Jews) did not really have a perfect equivalent culturally to the Jewish concept of covenant, so it makes sense Greek-speaking Jews would use pistis as a way of talking about such a social phenomenon.
But where is the evidence?
We find Hellenistic Jewish texts where pistis clearly stands in the place of what one might expect as covenant language. For example, in the book of Nehemiah, we read about the rededication of the walls of the temple. The Jewish leaders make a special pledge of obedience to God. In the Hebrew text we read that they “cut” (krt) a “sure covenant” (emunah) (see Neh 9:38). The Greek Septuagint renders this as they “established” (diatithēmi) a pistis, which we might translate as “pledge of faith,” but which functions equivalently as a covenant. (Fascinating, right?)
Similarly, in Josephus’ Antiquities, he regularly substitutes out diathēkē (covenant) in favor of the plural form of pistis (pisteis), which could be translated “mutual pledges of fidelity” (See e.g., Ant. 6.228; 7.24; 10.63). Why does Josephus do this? Several scholars argue that, if Josephus expected pagans to read Antiquities, pisteis would communicate these kinds of relationships better than diathēkē. (See also Sirach 22:23 for a similar covenant-like use of pistis)
What does this mean for the study of Paul?
In many ways, it closes the perceived gap between the OT and Paul. Whereas we might have thought Paul didn’t have a “covenant”-oriented theology, now we might better conclude we were not looking in the right places. Now, not all of Paul’s uses of pistis are neon signs pointing to “covenant,” but on certain occasions this is a helpful perspective.
For example, in Galatians 3:23-26 Paul refers to the coming of pistis (“faith”). It makes little sense to see this as the coming of human faith; after all, human faith has been around at least since Abraham. This seems to be about the coming of Christ; but if that is the case, why didn’t Paul just say “when Christ came”? Perhaps pistis here refers to the new way humans could relate to God through Christ, a covenant-like relationship mediated by the person of Jesus Christ (and not mediated by Torah and works of the Law). It makes sense why Paul chose pistis if he was talking about a whole new way to connect with God.
Read more about pistis and covenant in these chapters of Paul and the Language of Faith
-Ch3: “Pistis in Ancient Non-Jewish and Jewish Literature”
-Ch8: “Covenantal Pistism: Pistis and the Quest for Paul’s Soteriology”