NT Wright and the Supersessionism Question: What did Paul do?

NT Wright and the Supersessionism Question: What did Paul do? October 15, 2013

One of the distinguishing discussions today in Pauline studies is whether or not Paul was a “supersessionist,” and the issue is Paul thought the church “replaced” Israel in such a way that now God no longer worked with Israel but with the church. To get ahold of this one means knowing how the whole Bible is to be read when we see that word “fulfillment.” At the ground level it has to do with how Torah observant “messianic Christians” are to be and how “Jewish” Christianity ought to be… it goes back and forth. N.T. Wright, in his magisterial Paul and the Faithfulness of God, as he opens the second part of the book by examining Paul’s worldview as it takes on and adapts and adjusts the worldviews of Judaism, paganism and empire, goes square at that issue without using the terms so many in the supersessionism debate use. He differs with those, like Bockmuehl and Nanos, who see the messianists carrying on their Judaism, or Paul continuing to be kosher as he had been as a Pharisee, but because this has all become a worldview issue and not simply a theology issue, the framework changes with Wright — he seems to be talking about the same issues but now from a new angle. He’s asking What did Paul do with Judaism when he saw the resurrected Jesus?

In brief, I see in Wright a kind of Christian fulfillment theory that some will see as replacement theology and others as supersessionism and yet others (like Wright himself) will see as nothing of the sort. It is the Jewish Paul being completely Jewish under the Messiahship of Jesus. When Jesus is Messiah, nothing and everything chances at the same time: he’s just as Jewish, perhaps more so, and yet different than what contemporaries, like Pharisees, saw as Jewish. His terms: everything gets reworked (monotheism, election, eschatology), everything gets revised, everything is taken on in new categories but it’s the same old covenant in a messianic worldview.

I once had a lengthy conversation with a Jewish scholar who told me I could not be Christian without being a supersessionist; sometimes one gets the impression the only way not to be supersessionist is to be a radical pluralist. Here are words NT Wright uses to describe how Paul revised the worldview of Judaism.

Like Temple:

The replacement of Temple with Jesus and, secondarily and derivatively, with his people remains one of Paul’s central worldview-revisions, unnoticed in an earlier generation that chose to forget the significance of the Temple within Paul’s ancestral symbolic universe. He developed it further: the Messiah’s people, and the tasks they perform ‘in the Messiah’, are described in terms which reflect the people at the centre of Jerusalem and the Temple and the tasks they performed there. They were priests, offering sacrifices, indeed offering themselves as sacrifices, or, in Paul’s case, bringing the gentiles themselves as a quasi-sacrificial offering, with a kind of heavy irony, to Jerusalem. And Jerusalem itself, the focus of the longed-for centripetal pilgrimage of the nations, has been replaced by Jerusalem as the centrifugal originating point of the world mission. The redeemer does not now come to Zion but from Zion, going out into all the world to ‘gather the nations’, not by their coming to the central symbol of ancient Judaism, but by their becoming the central symbol, as we shall see, of the transformed world- view” (358).

Like Torah and food laws:

In the light of this, and of Paul’s own insistence that he took what he calls the ‘strong’ position, I find myself in agreement with those who have maintained that Paul did not himself continue to keep the kosher laws, and did not propose to, or require of, other ‘Jewish Christians’ that they should, either (359).

Paul’s revising of the Jewish symbol of Torah in terms of food and table- fellowship, then, was clear, if necessarily complex. First, all those who belong to the Messiah, and are defined by Messiah-faithfulness and baptism, belong at the same table: this, as we shall see, is a constitutive part of his most central new positive symbol. Second, Messiah-followers are free to eat whatever they wish, with that freedom curtailed only (but strongly) when someone else’s ‘weak’ conscience is endangered. Third, Messiah-followers are free to eat ordinary meals with anyone they like, but not with someone who professes to be one of the family but whose behaviour indicates otherwise. Fourth (an extra but important point), Messiah-followers are not free to go into a pagan temple and eat there. To do so would be to stage a contest with the lord himself. All this is not just ‘ethics’. It is a matter of a freshly crafted symbolic universe (361).

Similar, and just as interesting, observations are made about circumcision and sabbath and prayer and land and zeal/the Battle (with the satan, et al) and Scripture itself. Supersessionism? No, I don’t think. Fulfillment? Certainly. Revision? That’s the key term here. Faith in Messiah turns the old inside out and makes the old new without abolishing it.

He turns then to briefer escapades into worldview and paganism and then worldview and empire, on the latter he opens with this reminder, something in need of saying because so many think anti-empire means anarchism too: “The answer to corrupt authorities is not anarchy” (381). But he returns to the implication of a confession by way of a denial:

Jesus is ‘son of God’; he is ‘lord of the world’; he is ‘saviour’; the worldwide revelation of his rule is ‘good news’, because through it ‘justice’ and ‘peace’ are brought to birth at last. He is the one who ‘rises to rule the nations’. The announcement of all this is the key source, for Paul, of ‘power’, and in Ephesians, which is either Paul’s greatest summary of his own teach- ing or the work of a careful and close colleague and imitator, he speaks eloquently about the power of the one God at work in the Messiah, a power which has raised him above all rule, authority, power and dominion, and above every name that is named, both in the present age and in the age to come. Anyone who had seen the Eagle at work, and had heard its names and claims, would know what was being said. We must advance this case more fully later on (383).

On countering the breathtaking power of the story at work in empire and Rome …

Paul does not mention this story explicitly, any more than he speaks of the imperial claim made by coins, statues and other obvious imagery. Yet we should not ignore the subversive nature of the retold Jewish story which undergirds so much of his writing. If this – the story of Adam, Abraham and Israel, climaxing in the Messiah! – is the grand narrative of the creator’s design for his world, then the grand narrative of Virgil, Horace and Livy, and the visual symbolism which went with those writings, cannot be true, or the ultimate truth. That is the dilemma which Paul posed to his readers. The extent to which they will have ‘heard’ that subversive note is a question to which we must return (383).

Put together then we are back to the anti-empire theme:

When Paul said, ‘Jesus is lord,’ a good many of his hearers must have known at once that this meant, ‘So Caesar isn’t.’ And that was the ‘good news’, the euangelion which Paul announced around the world. Was that a subversion of the symbolic world of the empire? How could it not be? How would that work out? (384)

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