For the next few weeks, I plan to discuss some new perspectives on Paul. This month’s Christianity Today features an article By Simon Gathercole called “What Did Paul Really Mean?” For the last few decades there has been a growing body of literature referred to by many as the New Perspective on Paul. Some people are strongly for this general trend in Paul studies and some are rabidly against it. Reformed Churches, especially those who place the Westminster Confession on a level equal to scripture, are against it. I hope in this introduction to a New Look at Paul, that I can clarify some fuzzy thinking and help people see Paul in his true historical context.
Some Preliminary Remarks
First, let me say that anyone wanting to know more about my own views of Paul can read my book, Paul Didn’t Eat Pork, available at hopeofdavid.com. To be brief, my position is that Paul: (a) respected and practiced Judaism, (b) understood rightly that Gentiles have a different relationship to the Torah of Moses than Jews, (c) opposed any attempt to force Gentiles to live like Jews in order to be rightly related to God, (d) assumed as a given the continuing validity of the Torah, and (e) has been greatly misunderstood by Christian theologians who have taken him out of his historical context and have assumed that Paul’s instructions to Gentiles apply across the board to Jews.
Second, let me say something about the New Perspective on Paul. It is a term coined by James Dunn, a serious writer whose works on Paul are well worth reading. It is also misleading. Not all who are identified as New Perspective agree on various points of Paul’s theology. Some New Perspective writers do hold problematic opinions that weaken the meaning of faith. It is a mistake to lump all together. I believe the article in the August 2007 edition of Christianity Today makes that error. The author, Simon Gathercole, leaves the impression that N.T. Wright, for example, would agree with some of the extremes of the New Perspective.
Third, this introduction to a New Look at Paul will be about reasons why a new look is needed. It is a fact that our interpretation of the Bible should be based on the best historical and contextual information. A simple look at church history will show that the most influential interpreters of Paul (names like Augustine, Luther, and Calvin) had little regard for historical context. Instead, they read issues of their own day into the life and thought of Paul. The proper procedure would be to interpret Paul as a first century Jew and then extrapolate principles from Paul’s writing to apply to contemporary issues. Instead, contemporary issues (such as the thought of Pelagius and the extreme abuses of the medieval Catholic church) were read as if Paul was writing about them.
Paul, the Christian
What did Paul look like? What was he like? It is not uncommon for moderns to think of Paul as a small man, bald, and with a hook nose. In The Acts of Paul, there is a description of the apostle:
And he saw Paul coming, a man of small stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness.
The description of Paul as a small, hook-nosed man with a uni-brow should be taken as fiction. The account is written so long after Paul’s life, there is almost no reason to take it seriously.
For the same reason, many of the popular conceptions of Paul need seriously to be questioned. Pick up any commentary on Paul. Whether it be a Protestant or Catholic commentary, conservative, neo-Orthodox, or liberal, 98% of them read Paul as anti-Judaism, anti-Torah. He is the prophet of a new religion to replace Judaism. He is Paul the Christian.
Christians have convinced the world that the message of Paul goes something like this:
1. My childhood Judaism prepared me to know God but misled me and kept me far from him.
2. I was taught from childhood that God works on the merit system.
3. For me, persecuting followers of Yeshua was the ultimate extension of my desire to earn God’s approval through keeping the Law.
4. But when Yeshua spoke to me on that road to Damascus, everything changed.
5. I realized that Judaism was false and all our expectations were being turned around.
6. Yeshua called me to abandon my childhood faith, to learn that we humans cannot predict God, and that my countrymen were radically unprepared to accept God’s new way revealed in Messiah.
7. I began teaching my fellow Jews and also non-Jews that God does not demand obedience to his Law, but simply faith.
8. Faith is opposed to Law and Law is merely a preparation for faith.
9. The thing we all have to realize is that we can’t obey God’s laws; they are beyond us.
10. But we can believe, and in believing, God will regard us as though we keep the Law, even though we don’t.
Paul is, allegedly, about freedom from the Law, a change away from Jewish legalism to Christian grace, and about a faith experience that renders Law almost if not completely unnecessary. After all, some say, love your neighbor really sums it all up, so who needs the other 600-plus little rules?
Early Indications That Paul Has Been Wrongly Read
This will be a series of articles on Paul and I am not attempting to lay out the entire case in this one article. This is just a beginning. But I thought it would be good from the start to note that the common reading of Paul is full of problems.
I first began noticing a problem as a new believer in Yeshua attending a Baptist church in the South. I did not grow up in a family of faith. My journey to faith in Yeshua as the Messiah, the one in whom I put all my trust, happened against the odds. As a new believer, the first major Christian doctrine I struggled with was the inerrancy of the Bible. I thought the whole idea smacked of ignorance. How could a book written so long ago by such primitive people be without error? It didn’t help that the people I heard talking about it had strong Southern accents and uneducated vocabularies. I was sure that only a hayseed would believe such a thing.
Then, my reading of scripture began to change my mind. I found myself profoundly moved day after day. I could not get enough. Formerly I was emotionally stunted. Somehow, I found myself weeping nearly every morning as I read the beautiful words of scripture. The stories of Israel and the words of Yeshua in particular made me weep. I came fairly quickly to agree that the Bible is God’s book, it is an amazing book, and it will lay bare the soul of anyone who reads it with honesty.
Ironically, that is where my problems began with what I was hearing in church. The Bible was without error, the church told me. But I learned from experience that most Christians don’t practice what they preach. I don’t mean just the people in the pews. I mean the preachers, the leaders, and the educated.
I found that scripture had levels of authority. The lowest level was assigned to the Old Testament, with exceptions for certain portions such as Psalms and Proverbs. I found that some New Testaments were printed with Psalms and Proverbs together. It occurred to me early on that this was really the Bible of the contemporary church.
Yet even the New Testament had levels of authority. Those teachings of Jesus were just too hard and did not have enough grace. Even just this morning I read a review of a book about the teachings of Jesus. The book is written by a popular, well-educated Christian leader. He certainly understands grace. Yet the reviewer gave the book a negative review. Why? He said the word grace did not appear in the index. Thats right, a book which basically summarizes the teaching of Jesus gets a negative review in Christianity Today (Aug 2007 issue). Jesus did not emphasize grace as well as we would like.
I learned that if you really want to know what to believe, you must turn to Paul. A point can only be sufficiently established by citing a verse from Paul. You can summarize teachings from the Old Testament and Yeshua, but in the end you must quote Paul to be certain that the Bible has not overturned some antiquated doctrine. That is, many of the teachings of the Old Testament are obsolete and even Yeshua was pre-Christian in some ways, so you’d better find a verse in Paul to prove a point.
I immediately was uncomfortable with the way Christians talked about the Bible. I was not an easy convert to faith in an inerrant Bible. Yet once I was there, I meant it. I shuddered when people would say, “But that’s just in the Old Testament.”
Would Paul really deliver a message so anti-scriptural? Would Paul truly turn his back on his childhood Judaism? Would Paul really agree with what many are saying in his name today?
Next time: what are some aspects of a New Perspective on Paul? I will focus on some writing by N.T. Wright on the subject. I know that Wright is still weak on understanding Israel’s continuing role as God’s people, yet, his work on the New Testament is a breath of fresh air. His grasp of Judaism is solid. His breadth of knowledge, command of the English language, and ability to put theology together leaves me in awe. I think everyone who loves theology would do well to read him, critically to be sure, but read him nonetheless.