The British New Testament Conference 2013: A Review
Session: John Barclay, “Christ as Gift”
Big idea: Grace, for Paul, is basically about the incongruity of God’s gift to us in Christ.
Summary: Charis - that is, grace, or gift - has fallen from favour in recent NT scholarship, as it has become shorthand for Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace rather than merit, which most scholars accept is not a fair contrast to draw with first century Judaism. Yet it remains a huge part of Paul’s theology, and on the New Perspective reading in particular, it becomes hard to know what we are supposed to do with all these references to grace. Why does Paul worry about the Galatians falling away from charis, if they are simply going back to the Jewish covenant? Well: it all depends what you mean by charis. There were, in fact, at least four ways of understanding “gift” in Paul’s world, including seeing grace in terms of (1) superabundance, (2) singularity, (3) priority, and (4) incongruence. These need to be disentangled, because disagreements about grace/gift are not always what they appear (so, for instance, Augustine and Pelagius did not disagree on whether grace was prior, but they did disagree on whether it was incongruous). For Paul, it was the incongruity of grace that he not only believed in, but experienced. That is why he was so upset about the Antioch incident; for Paul, grace pays no regard to ethnic worth, and it is precisely this that the Judaizers were undermining.
Main strength: A reading of grace/gift that makes sense of Paul’s anger in Galatians, and his concern about falling away from grace, yet without presenting Judaism as a religion of legalistic works-righteousness.
Main questions: David Shaw: Is there any difference between the word “incongruous” and the word “unconditional” - and if not, is the latter just avoided for fear of sounding Calvinist? What differentiates those who respond to the gospel from those who don’t?
Implications: Church historical debates about grace/gift may well not reflect the way Paul (or whoever else) used the word charis.
Session: Tom Wright, “Jesus and the God of Exodus and Return”
Big idea: Paul takes Yahweh language about the exodus and applies it to Jesus.
Summary: Hurtado, Bauckham and co have established Paul’s high, divine Christology beyond reasonable doubt, on the basis of texts like 1 Cor 8. But another reason to find high Christology in Paul is his appropriation of exodus and return language which refers to Yahweh, and his use of it with reference to Jesus. So, the second temple period saw all sorts of hopes of God’s future return (Ezek 36-48; Isa 40-55; Mal 3), which clearly indicate that many Jews did not see the exile as over and Yahweh as having returned to Zion. (The only example of a second temple belief in the presence of Yahweh in the temple is Sirach 24, where it is imagined as Torah-wisdom.) Yet Paul, in several places, uses exodus-and-return language to refer to what God has done in Jesus, which indicates that for Paul, Jesus embodied the divine presence. Galatians 4 is an exodus story, in which the true God is identified as the Son-sending, Spirit-sending God, and as such the Jesus of Galatians 4 is not just Israel’s Messiah, but Israel’s God, leading his people out of slavery. Romans 6-8 is an exodus story (from slavery, to redemption by water, to freedom, to the gift of Torah, to the divine Spirit dwelling within God’s people), with Jesus as the one who leads people into the promised land, just as Yahweh does. 2 Corinthians 3-4 is an exodus story, as the God who would not show his face to Moses has now shown his face to us, in the face of Jesus Christ. So Paul’s use of exodus and return language of Jesus confirms his high, divine Christology (as well as, incidentally, his high divine pneumatology).
Main strength: A great one-liner: “The early Christians weren’t so much telling God stories about Jesus, as they were telling Jesus stories about God.”
Main question: John Barclay: Are those three texts really exodus passages, or are we just used to hearing Tom say that they are?
Implications: Paul’s view of Jesus as divine is not mainly expressed through explicit statements that “Jesus is God”, but through the way he rereads Old Testament stories and poems about God in the light of Jesus.
Session: Michael Gorman, “The Lord of Peace”
Big idea: Peace and nonviolence are a bigger part of Paul’s gospel than we usually think.
Summary: Paul is enormously concerned with the idea that Jesus is our peace, and even though the phrase “the Lord of peace” only appears once (2 Thess 3:16), the essence of it is central to Paul, who sees Jesus as “both the source and the shape of God’s shalom.” There are three elements to this: (1) Jesus as the promised prince of peace, or the one in whom the eschatological reign of peace has arrived (now expressed through reconciliation and nonviolence); (2) Christ as the one through whom God has made peace between man and God; and (3) peace as the defining mark of the ekklesia, which includes reconciliation and nonviolence. Sadly, Paul’s introductory references to peace are usually dismissed as formulaic introductions, or understood entirely in terms of reconciliation between God and man. But what if the gracious gift of the promised Messiah is in fact the shalom of God? Romans 15:7-13, for example, tells Paul’s audience that the ingathering of the Gentiles is part of God’s great cosmic peace initiative. References in Romans to the announcement of the gospel (e.g. 10:14-21), the essence of the kingdom (e.g. 14:17) and the results of justification (5:1) also emphasise peace. When you read Romans against the backdrop of Isaiah, which Paul frequently cites in Romans and in which the gospel is precisely one of peace (Isa 52:7), then elements like interpersonal harmony and nonviolence (Isa 2:4; 11:6-9, 13; 60:18; 65:25) become central parts of Christian praxis, since “the death of Christ is the non-negotiable foundation for Christian behaviour in the church and in the world.”
Main strength: The case for pacifism in Paul, and for peace as a central part of the church’s identity, is made much stronger by the connections between (especially) Romans and Isaiah. Peace in Paul cannot be divorced from the eschatological swords-into-ploughshares and lions-with-lambs vision of Isaiah.
Main questions: Tom Wright: What does God’s peace actually mean for the church? We get our own house in order, but what then? What does it have to do with Obama and Syria? John Barclay: God’s peace is the flipside of God’s wrath, just as God’s grace is the flipside of God’s judgment - so yes, God brings peace, but the question is how does he do that? What do we do with wrath, judgment and the role of the state (Rom 2, 13)?
Implications: Self-identifying as, and living as, a community of peace is extremely important for the church. And Christians probably shouldn’t bomb people.
Session: Larry Hurtado, “Fashions, Fallacies and Futures in New Testament Studies”
Big idea: There are fashions, sometimes very silly ones, in NT scholarship.
Summary: New Testament scholarship, like any discipline, is vulnerable to fashions, which frequently involve fallacies. If you use Google’s Ngram to search for terms like “structuralist exegesis” or “Marxist exegesis” over the last fifty years, you’ll find that they spike dramatically in a few years, and then disappear just as sharply a few years later. Some fashions last much longer: the pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth, which was demonstrably fallacious, lasted for fifty years; so did the orientalist idea that “the Son of Man” was a pre-Christian Jewish title, despite any supporting evidence. So why were they embraced so often, and by so many gifted thinkers, given that there was never any evidence for them? Because the desire in the scholarly community was so strong, whether to reform German Christianity in an orientalist direction, to tie the origins of Christian belief to pagan and oriental concepts, to find sources for the origin of early Christianity, or whatever, that the bar for evidence was lowered substantially. Scholarship, like any pursuit, is partly about desire: we all require less evidence to substantiate something we want to believe than something we don’t. So when we hear proposals we want to accept, we don’t notice that we’re treating the repetition of a scholarly consensus as if it is actual evidence, like Pooh and Piglet hunting the Woozle. Contemporary examples of scholarly fads that are likely to bite the dust (in time) include the three redactions of Q by John Kloppenborg; the invention of the Q community, and the proposals of Burton Mack; postcolonial biblical scholarship, since postcolonial students are generally Christians who are interested in theology, and are unlikely to share the post-Enlightenment premise that theology and NT studies are fundamentally different things; the obsession with Derrida, who knows nothing about biblical studies, and serves an example of what the French call “le dilettantisme”; and programmatic approaches to all sorts of things, including empire. As Jacob Neusner puts it, “We can only know what we can show.”
Main strength: Pointing out that NT studies is as susceptible to “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, particularly when wider socio-political factors make us want to believe something, as any other discipline.
Main question: What other examples, perhaps a little closer to home, might there be? The Q stuff is an easy, North American, Jesus Seminarish target, and neither postcolonialism nor poststructuralism are big in the guild in the UK these days. But what other, more currently popular, trends might be fads which have little or no supporting evidence? Feminist criticism? Queer criticism? An obsession with intertextuality? Or what?
Implications: In order to avoid doing this stuff ourselves, responsible scholars need to do three things. (1) Be very wary of assumed truths which are not grounded in evidence. (2) Engage with people from different ideological and geographical contexts, and ask them if they think it adds up. (3) As C S Lewis urged us, read old books, because they show you your blind spots. (And I’d add: read Wright’s review of Dominic Crossan’s book at least once a year, as a cautionary tale.)
Session: Louise Lawrence, “Sense and Disability”
Big idea: We need to engage with the biblical world using all five senses, not just sight.
Summary: Sensorial perceptions should be a central part of the exegetical task. But we encounter the world of Jesus in a heavily text-centred, visual way, rather than engaging with the variety of senses we have, and this privileges those who can see (or perhaps hear) over those with disabilities. Furthermore, the stories in Mark of Jesus healing (the leper and the blind man, for instance), use the disabled people as foils for a healing work, rather than validating them and their disability, and as such healing becomes an act of negation. Consequently, Jesus, Mark and we as readers are complicit in a collective act of exclusion towards people with disabilities, and we need to have our consciousness raised about this, both textually and practically.
Main strength: The section on the place of smell, in particular, as a very common way of marginalising people and things (lepers, disease, death, foreigners, rotten matter, faeces, Dalits, even the way childhood taunts are framed), was very insightful.
Main question: Are we honestly saying that for Jesus to heal a blind person is a temporal act of exclusion rather than an eschatological act of welcome?
Implications: We need to avoid reducing people with disabilities to their disabilities - but that does not mean, surely, that we stop looking for the healing power of the coming kingdom.
Session: Crispin Fletcher-Louis, “Did Paul Have a Christological Monotheism?”
Big idea: A numerical analysis of 1 Corinthians 8:6 confirms Paul’s divine view of Jesus.
Summary: There’s a general consensus, since Tom Wright’s seminal essay on 1 Corinthians 8:6, that Paul cites the Shema (Deut 6:4) and splits it in half, in order to apply it to Jesus. To this, however, we can add further weight, based on some insights from numerical theology. As is well-known, Hebrew letters, and hence words, have numerical values, and they are often significant: so hevel (“vanity”) has a numerical value of 37, and appears 37 times in Ecclesiastes; YHWH has a numerical value of 26, and there are 26 calls to praise him in Psalm 136; John 1:1-18 has 496 syllables, and the word monogenēs (“only begotten”) has a numerical value of 496; and so on. Well: 1 Corinthians 8:6 has 26 words, which matches the numerical value of YHWH, and it is also formed of two 13 word parts, which matches the numerical value of ehad (“one”). As such, it appears Paul is deliberately splitting the Shema in half, and emphasising that the one Yahweh should be understood as the one God and Father and the one Lord Jesus Christ, by means of a numerical pattern.
Main strength: The statement that, for Paul, “1+1=1. There is a form of perichoresis here: God and Jesus performing a mathematical dance.”
Main question: Will other scholars buy this? It sounds fascinating, but a bit bizarre as well.
Implications: Speaking of a “Christological monotheism”, in some ways, isn’t strong enough; Paul operates with a “Jesus monotheism”.