Tim Gombis on The Paul We Think We Know

Tim Gombis on The Paul We Think We Know July 25, 2011

By Tim Gombis, from CT:

But first a brief on the issue. The “new” perspective has thrown a spanner into theology, and it is such a powerful, paradigm-shifting perspective that at times things seem incomprehensible. The writings of Paul, which used to be so clear in the “old” perspective, are suddenly no longer so clear. Actually, for those of us who think EP Sanders, JDG Dunn, and NT Wright (and others) got us closer to the meaning of the NT things did get clearer, it’s just that the old view got confusing.

In my view the foundation of the “old” perspective was human depravity, and I often say the foundation is an Augustinian anthropology, though I don’t mean to say it’s not NT but invented by Augustine. What I mean to say is that humans are seen as depraved and dead and in need of grace. From the old perspective, that is the issue Paul is specifically addressing in Romans and Galatians (mind you, it’s hard to find that issue in the other of Paul’s letters, which ought to be a clue to something being amiss, but that’s for another post). So, the old perspective thinks the driving issue was “how do I, a sinner, get saved and find righteousness before a holy, wrathful but gracious God?”

The new perspective says,”Well, yes, but not quite yet.” For the new perspective, Paul — and just read Colossians or Ephesians from start to finish — is facing a slightly different set of issues: How do we incorporate Gentiles into the Israel of God? And on what basis? And what about the law? And what does that say about personal salvation? That’s about the order of things for this new view on Paul, and Tim Gombis, who isn’t here offering a brief for the new perspective but trying to help us all see Paul with 1st Century eyes, helpfully gives us some ideas for understanding Paul. Read on, but later today I’ll have a another post on Paul. This Monday is Paul-day.

The misconception about Paul with the longest historical pedigree is that he was anti-Jewish. Many imagine that after his Damascus Road experience, Paul immediately rejected Judaism and embraced Christianity. They assume that in the first century these were two clearly distinguishable religions. Before his encounter with Christ, the thinking goes, Paul was wrapped up in a legalistic pursuit of salvation and was teaching others a similar philosophy. So great was his passion that he persecuted the Christians who taught salvation by grace through faith. After his conversion, everything changed. He embraced God’s gracious salvation by faith in Christ and rejected the system of dead rituals bound up in Judaism. Paul left Judaism, therefore, and turned to Christianity.

This account of Paul thrives among evangelicals because it resonates with many who come from legalistic environments. We narrate our testimonies as a movement from guilt to grace, from enslaving oppression to freedom in Christ. We assume, therefore, that Paul’s journey mirrored ours. This view also shapes much of our preaching. Eager to let the glorious light of the gospel shine brightly, evangelicals set it against the dark backdrop of Judaism as a religion of works righteousness.

This scenario, while familiar, is deeply mistaken in at least three ways. First, it represents a faulty vision of Judaism in Paul’s day. E. P. Sanders’s seminal book,Paul and Palestinian Judaism, was the catalyst for much of the intense debate over the past three decades in Pauline studies. Until its publication in 1977, the sharp contrast between Paul and his Jewish heritage dominated scholarship. Sanders’s work gave scholars an entirely new appreciation of first-century Judaism, opening up afresh the world of Jesus and his first followers. We now have to realize that Paul’s past wasn’t ruled by simple legalism.

Because of this “new perspective,” scholars now recognize that Paul would not have regarded Judaism as legalistic. They point to Jewish texts that stress the absolute need of divine grace for salvation. The Community Rule, a document from the Dead Sea Scrolls, contains the following:

As for me, I belong to wicked mankind, to the company of ungodly flesh. My iniquities, rebellions, and sins, together with the perversity of my heart, belong to the company of worms and to those who walk in darkness. For mankind has no way, and man is unable to establish his steps since justification is with God and perfection of way is out of his hand.

The problem in the early church, therefore, was not the temptation toward legalistic works righteousness. They faced the communal challenge of incorporating non-Jewish converts into the historically Jewish people of God. First-century Judaism didn’t have a legalism problem; it had anethnocentrism problem. The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and had difficulty imagining that the God of Israel who sent Jesus Christ as their Savior could possibly save non-Jews without requiring them to convert to Judaism. This is the issue in Acts 15, when Christian Jews from Judea urged the Gentiles in Antioch, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

While the early church leaders decided in theory that non-Jewish believers in Jesus were not required to become Jews (Acts 15:13-21), many churches struggled with the practical challenges of becoming healthy multiethnic communities. Paul, as pastor and theologian, addresses these challenges by claiming that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Rom. 3:20). This is not a condemnation of Judaism as inherently legalistic, but an affirmation that God does not justify a person merely because he is ethnically Jewish. Jews and non-Jews approach God on equal terms when it comes to salvation. All have sinned and all stand in need of God’s redeeming grace in Christ (Rom. 3:23-24). Therefore all who are in Christ are equal siblings in God’s new family (Gal. 3:26-28).

A second reason why we cannot envision Paul as anti-Jewish is that even after his conversion, Paul remained a Jew. [… for the second and third reasons, go to the link above. Good piece.]

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