SBL Review (5): Critical Responses to Wright on Paul
PFG is not a normal work of history. In fact, I’m given to wonder: what does Wright mean by “history”, and in what sense is his a “historical” study? His book feels different to regular historical books; books on Seneca and Cicero critique them as people for being arrogant, or hypocritical, whereas Tom reads Paul hagiographically, and literally calls him “Saint Paul” on occasion. You would never say, “Seneca would have looked at the Jews of the 130s, and the 1930s, and think X,” as Tom does (mutatis mutandis) with Paul. And why does he think he’s involved in social-scientific research? Surely it’s the opposite.
On to the content, and particularly Tom’s reconstruction of Saul the Pharisee. Following Neusner, we may question Tom’s view that the Hillel-Shammai debate was “almost certainly” about attitudes to the powers rather than internal debates about purity, and that Saul the Pharisee was a zealot in the tradition of Phinehas and the Maccabees, and “almost certainly” on the Shammaite side (despite Acts 5!) Not only that, but historically speaking, the zēlotai had really very little to do with the Pharisees, as far as we know (Philo uses the word dozens of times, and only in one of those texts does Tom assert that the Pharisees are in view).
Further, on the narrative of exile, the notion of a controlling, or even guiding, national narrative is problematic in the ancient world. Do stories lend themselves to controlling ideas? Hellenistic texts indicate that stories are not controlling narratives, but resources that can be used or manipulated to delight audiences or readers - and the same is often true of the Bible (as we see in Philo, Josephus and the Scrolls). Tom gives the game away by talking about “the widely different ways in which the story was told.” What is stable about this controlling narrative? Each intuitive claim that Tom makes becomes another unstable rung on the ladder we are trying to climb with him. Tom takes Josephus’ oracle (War, 6) as referring to Daniel 9, but most of the signs and oracles in the discourse as a whole do not exist any more, and the context (I think) tells against Tom’s interpretation.
All in all, I find reading Tom to be a bit like reading Polybius or Josephus. They don’t show how they get to their conclusions, but write as great men, convincing you on the basis of their moral authority. I respect Tom as a great man, and for his moral authority. But I just don’t believe him about first century Judea.
PFG pursues two distinct agendas: soteriological (anti-Marcionite) and revelational (anti-adoptionist and anti-Gnostic). The former dominates, though, and the two make strange bedfellows.
Tom begins by sketching the big story, which he thinks holds together all sorts of elements which otherwise appear in tension (participation, justification, theosis, etc). But this big story doesn’t jump off the pages of the Pauline corpus, to say the least. Tom gets there through three moves: 1) Worldview analysis, 2) Intertextual maximalism, and 3) Romanocentrism. So what do we make of it?
Well: Tom’s view of Pauline soteriology is, underneath it all, a Lutheran perspective. The New Perspective is not very different from the Old Perspective: though not ahistorical or anthropocentric, and an effective repudiation of Marcionism, it still moves from plight to solution, and merely involves replacing “law” with “faith” as the condition of salvation. It is panoramic Lutheranism.
Those with biblicist proclivities find a lot to like here. Tom’s Paul is more satisfyingly canonical, and much fresher homiletically than Lutheranism. But Lutherans are troubled, and in the academy, a lot of scholarly concerns are still perceived to be missing. We don’t really get Paul the missionary, as he is eclipsed by Paul the Bible-reader, and Tom dismisses the apocalyptic reading, and dismisses alterity. Haven’t the main problems of Lutheranism simply been recast, rather than avoided? The othering of the Jew is still apparent, the law is still a problem, Israel has still failed (though corporately rather than individually), God still produces a plan A and then a plan B, and Christ’s intervention is only partially successful.
Now, I fully share Tom’s anti-Marcionite view, but Paul’s plotline is Christological and retrospective, not methodologically foundationalist. Tom would say, probably, that we have to start somewhere. I agree: but we have to start in the right place, namely Christology. Tom is well aware that the particularities of second-temple Judaism have been completely rethought in light of the figure of Jesus; the analysis of Paul’s thought must begin with his view of God in Christ. So Tom should stop sawing off a branch - apocalypticism - that he’s sitting on for half of this project, and that he needs to sit on for the other half.
It is a massive privilege to have Tom - perhaps the most widely-read NT scholar of all time - as a colleague. (When a Scotsman embraces you like that, you check your wallet.) But what can be said about this magisterial tome, especially when you have one second of response time for every two-and-a-half pages?
PFG is so exciting because it challenges so many dichotomies, and so many worldviews: Epicureanism, Stoicism, idealism, deism, and so on. And the criticism of some, that Tom sees allusions where there are none, is unfair; Polanyi is helpful here, with his concept of subliminal awareness (which I think well describes how Tom reads Paul). But here are my questions: 1) Where is Tom’s “symphony” (this great story)? In Tom’s mind? In Paul’s mind? In history? A combination? Is it possible for us to attach theological validity to the details of Paul’s reading of Israel’s history, and if so, on what grounds? 2) If Paul’s interpretation of events represents timeless Christian theology, where lies our warrant for believing it to be so? Can historical research, even with the right worldview, deliver the kind of recognition that (for Matthew, at least) flesh and blood cannot deliver? Can biblical scholarship deliver knowledge of the one in whom divinity dwells bodily? Isn’t participation in Christ a necessary precondition for understanding Paul’s vision? (This takes us to the distinction between first order and second order theological statements: descriptive, indirect statements about other people’s views, and prescriptive, direct statements about the activity of God.) 3) Can we recognise who God is in Jesus the Messiah without being given eyes to see? Tom is far closer to Barth than he realises he is, for all that he disavows Campbell’s apocalyptic approach.
PFG is a historical study of what Paul thought, and for that reason, I anchored it in the contexts in which Paul found himself, and developed his theology. Paul’s major ideas can be seen as a radical revision of the three central themes of first century Judaism (monotheism, election and eschatology): “this is the central point of my book, and I look forward to the day when someone will discuss it with me.”
To Steve: the fit between Josephus’ statement that Daniel is the only prophet who offers a timeline, and his citation of the ambiguous oracles in War 6 that incited people to revolt “at that time”, is just too close for me to be a coincidence. Much of the groundwork for my analysis of Pharisaism, including my Hillel-Shammai point, comes from NTPG part 3.
To Doug: two men went up to pray, one a historical scholar, and one a hyper-Calvinist. The hyper-Calvinist said, “Lord, I thank thee that I am not an Arian, a foundationalist, or like this man, a Lutheran.” The historical scholar beat his breast and said, “Lord, have mercy on me, an Anglican.”
To a man with a hammer, all problems look like nails; woe betide the screw that needs fixing, let alone the lightbulb. Doug is concerned not to fall into the trap of Pelagianism or foundationalism, but that does not rule out actually doing history - and we have to remember that, whenever Paul tells the story of Jesus, he tells it as the climax of Israel’s story (Rom 9-11; Gal 4:1-6), and this has nothing to do with the horizontal trumping the vertical. “The only Lutheran thing about PFG is that it’s published by Fortress Press.”
On plight and solution: the move is from Plight (A), to Solution (B), to a radically revised Plight (A’). And while I understand Doug’s desire not to say anything which might sound anti-Jewish, if we end with a Paul who would not have said “through the law I died to the law” (Gal 2:19), we’ve done it wrong.
To Alan: where is the symphony? In the mind of God, expressed in Christ, and made possible for us to share by the Spirit. On what grounds do we know this? In and through a community that strives to be fully human. Can an objective history provide this knowledge? No, because there is no such thing: but because history is done in public, we present hypotheses and test them, and although history cannot prove that Jesus did this or that, it can go a long way to clearing aside all sorts of alternative explanations of Christian origins.
(I didn’t take notes through all the post-paper exchanges, because I was enjoying it too much, but as you can imagine from the above, it was both animated and illuminating!)