To Comprehend Paul, Read This

To Comprehend Paul, Read This December 12, 2013

I have long thought Paul’s thought needs to be seen at work in particular passages and that his whole theology comes to expression all at once — dense, to be sure, but all there. One such passage is Galatians 2:15-21, which I quote here so you can see how Tom Wright explains it in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God. In his explanation below, there are plenty of points to observe but some of this will be controversial for some.

If you want to hear the “new” perspective in one simple post, this is it. (Question: How does the old perspective read this passage? Hint: personal anthropology is at the forefront, not Jewish history.)

If I were going to pick one passage to make my present point about the Torah, it might well be Galatians 2.15–21. This is all about redefinition, the radical redefinition that can only be captured in the dramatic picture of someone dying and coming up a new person:

Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah. 20I am, however, alive – but it isn’t me any longer, it’s the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Here’s a very important point for the old perspective and one that illustrates the new perspective — the “I” here is not human experience but Paul’s own theology in autobiographical terms:

Paul is not here recounting his own ‘religious experience’ for the sake of it. He is telling the story of what has happened to Israel, the elect people of God – and he is using the rhetorical form of quasi-autobiography, because he will not tell this story in the third person, as though it were someone else’s story, as though he could look on from a distance (or from a height!) and merely describe it with a detached objectivity. It matters of course that this was indeed his own story. No doubt the experience Paul had on the Damascus Road and in the few days immediately afterwards may well have felt as though he was dying and being reborn. But what we have here is not the transcript of ‘experience’, as though he was appealing to that (curiously modern) category for some kind of validation. Peter had ‘experience’ as well; so did Barnabas; so, not least, did James and the people who had come from him in Jerusalem. So, of course, did the Galatians. By itself, ‘experi- ence’ proves nothing. ‘Yes, Paul’, they could have said; ‘That’s what hap- pened to you, but for us it was different.’ No: what mattered, for Paul, was the Messiah, and the meaning of his death and resurrection in relation to the category of the elect people of God (852-853).

What’s the issue, then?

The issue at stake in Antioch consisted, quite simply, in the question: were Jewish Messiah-believers allowed to sit and eat at the same table as non- Jewish Messiah-believers?230 Paul’s reconstruction of what happened goes in four stages.

First, the church in Antioch had been used to eating all together. They had made no distinction among Messiah-believers on the basis of their ethnic origin. We may assume, from the sequel, that this was a fairly radical move for Jews who had previously held to some form of the taboo which required them to eat separately from Gentiles.231

Second, Peter comes to Antioch and is happy to join in with the practice that has thus become established. Paul appears to regard this as in line with their earlier agreement.

Third, ‘certain people come from James’, in other words, from Jerusalem. Paul is careful not to say ‘James sent certain people’, leaving open the question of whether they represented James’s actual views. When they arrive, Peter changes his policy – whether because of something they say, or simply because Peter knows what they may think, or imagines what James might well say – and ‘separates himself, being afraid of the circumcision people’ (2.12).

Fourth, the rest of the Judaeans present (except Paul himself, we under- stand!), go along with Peter: Paul’s word for this is ‘co-hypocrites’, fellow play-actors (2.13). A note of sorrow enters: ‘even Barnabas’, who had shared Paul’s early missionary work and (according to Acts) had been of great help to him at a difficult time, went along with Peter and the others (854).

It is important to be fully clear on what the issues were. This was not a matter, as some have absurdly suggested, of people ‘learning table man- ners’.233 The question was as central as anything could be: is the com- munity of Messiah-believers one body or two? Which is the more important division: that between Jews and non-Jews (because Messiah-believing Jews would still be able to eat with non-Messiah-believing Jews), or that between those who believed and those who did not? Was Messiah-faith simply a sub-set of Judaism, leaving the basic structure untouched, or did it change everything? (854-855)

And now this means “justification” is redefined — notice this:

Paul would be up for the quarrel. He knew the moves. The opening statement says it all:

15We are Jews by birth, not ‘gentile sinners’. 16But we know that a person is not declared ‘righteous’ by works of the Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

At a stroke, Paul has told us what it means to be ‘declared righteous’. It means to have God himself acknowledge that you are a member of ‘Israel’, a ‘Jew’, one of the ‘covenant family’: the ‘righteous’ in that sense. Yes, ‘right- eous’ means all sorts of other things as well. But unless it means at least that, and centrally, then verse 16 is a massive non sequitur. ‘We are Jews by birth, not “gentile sinners”’; to say that, in the setting of a dispute about who you can eat with, and in the context of a statement about people ‘living as Jews’ and ‘living as Gentiles’ where what they have been doing is eating together (or not), leaves no elbow room for the phrase ‘declared righteous’ to mean anything else at its primary level. The whole sentence, in its context, indicates that the question about two ways of ‘being declared righteous’ must be a question about which community, which table-fellowship, you belong to. Do you, along with your allegiance to Jesus as Messiah, belong to a table-fellow- ship that is based on the Jewish Torah? If you do, says Paul, you are forgetting your basic identity. What matters is not now Torah, but Messiah. Justification is all about being declared to be a member of God’s people; and this people is defined in relation to the Messiah himself (856).

I predict this next paragraph could be contentious for some, perhaps many:

Paul’s overall point, throughout Galatians 3 and 4 is narratival, as we saw in chapter 6. Once you understand how the story works, the great covenant story from Abraham to the Messiah, you can see (a) that the Torah was a necessary, God-given thing, with its own proper role within that story, and (b) that the God-given role of Torah has now come to a proper and honour- able end – not that there was anything ‘wrong’ with it, but that it was never designed to be permanent. The latter is what Paul specially needs to stress, but the former point is vital (despite the long and loud chorus of dualistic readers) to avoid any slide towards Marcionism. Granted (b), any attempt to go back to Torah would be an attempt to turn back the divine clock, to sneak back to an earlier act in the play – and thereby to deny that the Messiah had come, that he had completed the divine purpose, that in him the Abrahamic promises had now been fulfilled. It is the same choice that faced Peter: either belong to the redefined elect family, the people of Abraham, or rebuild the walls of Torah around an essentially Jewish ethnic family – which would imply that the Messiah would not have needed to die (2.21) (862).

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