Sunday, October 28, 2007

The New Perspective on Paul - Part 1

One of the most important developments in NT scholarship within the past 30 years is the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP). For approximately the first 20 years, discussion of this scholarly development was limited to the academy, but within the past ten years elements of the NPP have begun to infiltrate the church as well.

It is always dangerous to attempt to summarize complex scholarly discussions in a short genre like a blogpost. But the volume of literature associated with the subject is so immense that many who want to understand face the daunting task of knowing where to even begin.

What I propose to do here is a series of posts on various aspects of the NPP. I will begin today with the first summary point:
1. First-century Judaism was not a legalistic, merit-based system by which a Jew earned favor before God by obedience to the Law, but was rather predicated on God's gracious election of Israel.
Although he was not the first to argue this, the landmark work was E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). The book was slightly misnamed, in that Sanders spends over 400 pages on Palestinian Judaism and only 100 pages on Paul. His goal was to compare the "pattern of religion" found in Palestinian Judaism (200 B.C. - 200 A.D.) and that of Paul. By "pattern of religion" Sanders means "how a religion is perceived by its adherents to function" or put another way "how getting in and staying in are understood" (17).

From his survey of the Jewish material, Sanders concludes that the pattern of religion can be best described as covenantal nomism, which he defines as
the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing the means of atonement for transgression (75).
The pattern/structure of covenantal nomism is this:
(1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God's promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement, and God's mercy belong to the group that will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God's mercy rather than human achievement. (422)
The punchline for Sanders is that one "gets in" by God's grace in election and "stays in" through obedience to the Law, including the provisions for atonement. When he compares this to Paul, he finds a similar pattern, only oriented around Christ instead of the Law. (As influential as Sander's reading of Judaism has been, far fewer have followed his reading of Paul).

Within a short time other scholars began to latch on to covenantal nomism as the definitive framework to understand first century Judaism. Today it is the reigning paradigm in NT studies, though there remains a remnant still unpersuaded.

Brief Response:

1. While Sanders has helpfully corrected a dangerous and simplistic view of first-century Judaism, his alternative covenantal nomism is reductionistic. For all the criticism that D.A. Carson has received for the polemical tone of his concluding chapter in Justification and Variegated Nomism (vol. 1), the fact remains that first-century Judaism displayed a variety of ways to understand the relationship between grace and works, getting in and staying, covenant and law, etc. (thus the term "variegated nomism").

2. Carson is also right to note that there is often a gap between what people claim to believe in terms of "getting in" and "staying in" and how the actions of those very same people betray at a practical level a much different belief. A modern day example would be certain strains of fundamentalism that claim to believe that salvation is by grace through faith but by their actions betray a legalistic effort to earn God's favor. Is it really that hard to believe that a similar phenomenon existed in Paul's day?

3. We need to be extremely cautious about thinking that we have a better understanding of first-century Judaism almost 2,000 years removed than Paul did as one who grew up in it. I am all for taking historical background and context seriously, but I get very nervous when we take a hypothetical reconstruction of that historical context that then force us to override the plain sense of the text.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Two Web Resources on Paul's Use of Scripture

As some of you know, one of my research specialties is Paul's use of the OT. There are two new web resources related to the subject worth noting.

The first is a blog entitled Paul and Scripture. Although there are not regular posts, the value of this site is that the 2006 papers for the Paul and Scripture seminar of the Society of Biblical Literature are available for free download (scroll down the page). Also available are the abstracts of the papers for this year's conference.

The second is a searchable bibliography of titles related to Paul & Scripture. It is currently in the process of being compiled, so thus far only 342 titles are included. But over time the goal will be to have a bibliography database that is reasonably comprehensive and searchable. When you go to the front page, you will see a list of recently added titles. For the full list, simply click on "Resources --> List" and then on the next page click on "First Creator" then "List" and that will provide you with the entire list of works. Or you can search for specific authors, titles, etc.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Pseudepigraphy & Pseudonymity in the NT

In the panel discussion I participated in Tuesday (see post below), the issues of pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity were raised by one of the panelists. Since this is an important issue that challenges the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture, I thought I would post a few thoughts.

1. First, some definitions. Pseudepigraphy ("false superscription") refers to writings that have been falsely attributed to a well-known person. Pseudonymity ("false name") is used synonymously to refer to the same phenomena, though as Carson and Moo point out, only the latter term can be traced back into antiquity. Examples include works like Wisdom of Solomon, 3 Corinthians, Assumption of Moses, Testament of Job, etc.

2. This phenomena encompasses a variety of motives, ranging from outright attempt to deceive to mistaken conclusions by well-meaning people. In other words, some authors intentionally claimed their work was that of someone else to deceive the audience and claim the authority of the falsely named author. At the same time, other works over time came to be associated with a figure with no intention to deceive; these were "honest" mistakes.

3. A distinction must be made between those works that are anonymous and later came to be associated with someone and those that make explicit claims to authorship. For example, the work called "Wisdom of Solomon" never explicitly claims to be written by Solomon (though 7:1-14 & 8:17-9:18 strongly suggest it); by contrast 1 Enoch directly claims to come from Enoch himself. This distinction is important when we come to the NT. It is one thing to note that Hebrews was (wrongly) thought by some in the early church to be written by Paul (it is anonymous); it is quite another to say that Ephesians was not written by Paul (despite its explicit claim).

4. Despite the fact that this was a common practice in the ancient world, there is absolutely no evidence that the early church ever knowingly accepted a pseudonymous document as authoritative. Again the discussion of Carson and Moo is instructive; they point out that even works (such as 3 Corinthians) that were highly regarded in parts of the early church were condemned when it was recognized to be falsely written in the name of Paul.

5. Therefore if any of the documents in the NT are in fact pseudonymous, they were accepted unknowingly. Furthermore, given the dating that many scholars give to "pseudonymous" letters such as Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (usually late 1st century, well after Paul's death), one must conclude that the recipients knew they were receiving a letter falsely written in the name of Paul. But then at some point this "knowledge" was lost. How does that happen?

6. The direct statements about pseudonymity in 2 Thess 2:1-2; 3:17 are often not fully appreciated. Paul explicitly warns the Thessalonians about being shaken by a letter claiming to be from him, and then concludes by noting that the writing of the postscript in his own hand was a distinguishing mark of his letters. Paul explicitly condemns the writing of a letter in his name. Of course, many critical scholars claim that 2 Thess is itself pseudonymous, which would mean that the real author of the letter was condemning the very practice he was engaging in! Talk about hubris!

7. Claims of pseudonymity, therefore, are usually based largely (if not entirely) on internal matters such as vocabulary, style, theology, etc. But notice how subjective such claims are! Do we really have enough of a body of writing from even Paul to emphatically state that Paul could not have written in a certain way? What about the potential role that a difference in amanuensis (secretary) would make in vocabulary and style. What about the difference in historical circumstances that Paul addresses; wouldn't they make some difference in vocabulary, style, and theology?

8. At the end of the day, claims of pseudonymity are a direct denial of the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, despite what some may claim. While as evangelicals we must not shy away from critical examination of the NT documents, we must also reject the naturalistic assumptions that frequently drive claims of pseudonymity.

This is but a brief excursion into the subject. If you want further discussion, let me once more direct you to the discussion in of Carson and Moo, pp. 337-350.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Latest from Matthias Media and Beginning with Moses

The latest edition of The Briefing from Matthias Media is now available here. For those not familiar with Matthias Media, it is a wonderful resource for materials usable in the church that are informed by a robust biblical theology.

Also, there are a series of new articles posted at Beginning with Moses worth checking out. Note especially the blurbs about the books by Bauckham and Greidanus.