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Posts Tagged ‘New Perspective on Paul’

augustus1a1augustus1b1I am coming back now to some further discussion of the book of Romans.  I am still dealing with some introductory matters which are important before dealing with the actual text.  I must confess that the following discussion confuses and baffles me more than any other topic related to Romans (which I’ll explain shortly).  In 1997 Richard Horsley released a book which charted a new course in Pauline studies, Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society.  Horsley is the editor, with contributions from such notable scholars as Dieter Georgi, Helmut Koester, Neil Elliott and Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza.  The studies were not new nor the conclusions novel, but the time was ripe for a wider readership and more cordial reception.  With the new found interest in Paul launched by E.P. Sanders, people were now ready to listen to something fresh.  That is exactly what Horsley and his colleagues have done–given us something fresh to think about.  Again, since Sanders, people have been open to the idea of hearing something other than “Justification by faith” in the book of Romans.  While never excluding that theme, some have found others to be just as prominent (if not more so).  It is the contention of Horsley that Paul intended the book of Romans to be an anti-imperial message subverting the grandiose claims of Caesar.  Here is where I can now explain my confusion.  The arguments in favor of this reading are so compelling that I cannot but think that these scholars are on to something.  BUT…hardly any mainstream scholars or commentators pay it any attention.  J.D.G. Dunn’s (who is one of my favorites) massive The Theology of Paul the Apostle hardly recognizes this theme at all.  In fact, were it not for Wright and Crossan, I probably would not have given it a second hearing (or maybe even a first). 

Is there, then, something in Paul’s letter(s) which DOES bring this to the surface?  The coin shown at the top of this post declares several things by it’s words and imagery.  The words declare Augustus (and subsequent emperors) as the Son of God.  The imagery (the corona civica=oak wreath) declares Caesar as the Savior of the world and the harbinger of peace, prosperity and righteousness.  Does Paul in anyway upstage Caesar with the message of Jesus?  That will have to be determined, but I think you can guess where I’m going.  What I want to do is investigate some of the words and concepts that were regularly ascribed to and associated with Caesar that Paul uses to describe Jesus.  This usage is either one of the greatest examples of coincidence in all of Paul, or one of the clearest instances of Paul’s deliberate, provocative challenge to Caesar and Empire.  Follow along, and you be the judge.

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godThis will be my best attempt at making a difficult subject easy to understand.  As noted in the previous post on Romans, a basic hermeneutical issue related to the book as a whole centers around the letters theme.  Again, most agree that somewhere in Romans 1:16-17 the main theme emerges. 

NIV

16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[a] just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

NASB

For I am not (A)ashamed of the gospel, for (B)it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the (C)Jew first and also to (D)the Greek.  17For in it (E)the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “(F)BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”

As was indicated previously, a decision is made on the part of the translators in translating dikaisyne theou.  Should it be “a righteousness from God” or “the righteousness of God.”  Let me first begin by saying that both are true and both are taught in Romans.  The Bible teaches that we are declared righteous by God.  The Bible also teaches that God is righteous.  So the issue is not one of heresy vs. orthodoxy, but one of exegesis.  We simply are trying to find out what Paul said in this particular verse.  Having said that, let me move forward by presenting why I believe “the righteousness of God” has the greater probability of being correct.  (I would also quickly note that it is not altogether unlikely for Paul to have both in mind as he pens this.  In fact, it might not be an either/or but a both/and, especially when it is understood that any discussion of God’s righteousness implicitly involves his setting things straight, including humans.  Thus, within this frame of reference it becomes more a question of which is primary and which is secondary). 

  1. Paul had at his disposal precise words which could be used to indicate the righteousness that comes from God.  In Phil. 3:9 Paul wrote, “and may be found in Him, not having (A)a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, (B)the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”  Paul uses a different set of Greek words here that unequivocally indicate a righteousness from God.  He uses he ek theou dikaiosyne.  Ek is the key word, meaning out of or from.
  2. The vast majority of the discussions of the righteousness of God in the Old Testament (and the Apocrypha and secondary literature for that matter) center around God’s faithfulness to His promises. 

Moving forward from this, I can elaborate a little bit on the second point.  First, the word “righteousness” is a classic example of a word that owes more to it’s Hebrew background than to it’s Greek.  In the Greek worldview, “righteousness” denoted a standard or ideal against which something or someone could be measured.  Something very much akin to this can be detected in the Bible.  However, in the Hebrew worldview, “righteousness” is much more of a relational term which emphasizes the meeting of obligations that are laid upon someone because of the relationship of which he/she is a part (1 Sam. 24:17).  This explains quite nicely why every time God’s promises seem to be in jeopardy, His people appeal to His righteousness as the solution to the problem.  In this reading, “the righteousness of God” could quite accurately be read as “God’s covenant faithfulness.”  Some further thoughts will bear out the likelihood of this frame of reference.

N.T. Wright does us a favor by highlighting the various strands of thought that were associated with God’s righteousness in Paul’s day and time.  He breaks them down quite nicely into the themes of Covenant, Law court and Apocalyptic.

Covenantal Themes

Wright notes that:

 “The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ (dikaiosyne theou) summed up sharply and conveniently, for a first-century Jew such as Paul, the expectation that the God of Israel, often referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures by the name YHWH, would be faithful to the promises made to the patriarchs.  Many Jews of Paul’s day saw Israel’s story, including the biblical story but bringing it up to their own day, as a story still in search of a conclusion—a conclusion to be determined by the faithfulness of their God.  As long as Israel remained under the rule of pagans, the great promises made by this God to the patriarchs, and through the prophets, had still not been fulfilled” (Wright, Romans, 398).

Again, repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, God’s righteousness is appealed to as the source of salvation and vindication.  The passages are too numerous to list, but a reading of Isaiah 40-55 would substantiate the point.  Another aspect of this which Wright clues us into is the belief common among Paul and his contemporaries that they were in some sense still in Exile.  This is one of the main thesis of his massive work The New Testament and the People of God.  This belief is thoroughly documented there.  Within this framework, God’s righteousness is very much related to God’s fulfillment of His promises to Israel, including the forgiveness of sins, release from exile and the defeat of paganism.

A quote from the Dead Sea Scrolls will reinforce this common way of appealing to God’s righteousness:

  “As for me, if I stumble, the mercies of God shall be my eternal salvation.  If I stagger because of the sin of the flesh, my justification shall be by the righteousness of God which endures for ever…He will draw me near by his grace, and by his mercy will he bring my justification.  He will judge me in the righteousness of his truth and in the greatness of his goodness he will pardon all my sins.  Through his righteousness he will cleanse me of all the uncleanness of man and of the sins of the children of men.” (1QS 11:11-15)

Law court themes

Bound up very closely to the themes of the covenant God made with Abraham are the images from the law court.  In a Jewish legal case, “righteousness” is the status of the successful party.  “Vindicated” is probably a better term here (Gen. 38:26).  The term not only applied to the accuser or the defendant, but to the judge as well.  Thus, the righteousness of the judge on the one hand, and the righteousness of the parties involved, are clearly distinct.  Yet, they remain closely related.  Within the law court imagery, God’s  righteousness/justice conjures up the notion of God fixing things or setting things right (including, again, humans).  Of all the Psalms, 143 most vividly portrays the desire for God to act purely by grace to vindicate/justify the oppressed by defeating the enemy.  Again, the appeal is directly related to God’s righteousness (or read “God’s faithfulness to His promises”).  I quote in toto for the full force.

1Hear my prayer, O LORD,
         (A)Give ear to my supplications!
         Answer me in Your (B)faithfulness, in Your (C)righteousness!
    2And (D)do not enter into judgment with Your servant,
         For in Your sight (E)no man living is righteous.
    3For the enemy has persecuted my soul;
         He has crushed my life (F)to the ground;
         He (G)has made me dwell in dark places, like those who have long been dead.
    4Therefore (H)my spirit is overwhelmed within me;
         My heart is [a](I)appalled within me.
    5I (J)remember the days of old;
         I (K)meditate on all Your doings;
         I (L)muse on the work of Your hands.
    6I (M)stretch out my hands to You;
         My (N)soul longs for You, as a parched land. Selah.
    7(O)Answer me quickly, O LORD, my (P)spirit fails;
         (Q)Do not hide Your face from me,
         Or I will become like (R)those who go down to the pit.
    8Let me hear Your (S)lovingkindness (T)in the morning;
         For I trust (U)in You;
         Teach me the (V)way in which I should walk;
         For to You I (W)lift up my soul.
    9(X)Deliver me, O LORD, from my enemies;
         I take refuge in You.
    10(Y)Teach me to do Your will,
         For You are my God;
         Let (Z)Your good Spirit (AA)lead me on level ground.
    11(AB)For the sake of Your name, O LORD, (AC)revive me
         (AD)In Your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble.
    12And in Your lovingkindness, (AE)cut off my enemies
         And (AF)destroy all those who afflict my soul,
         For (AG)I am Your servant.

Israel would identify quite nicely with the sentiments of the psalmist.  A basic longing for an Israelite was to be vindicated by God in the presence of the enemy.  However, a second level problem emerges at this point.  Israel was called to be part of the solution to the problem of wickedness.  Does their subsequent unbelief somehow call into question God’s righteousness and put in jeopardy his covenant faithfulness to them?  This is a major theme of the book of 4 Ezra, written after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.  So at the turn of the millennium various factions of Jews were clamoring for God to act to vindicate them as the covenant-faithful Jews (for example, the Essenes).

APOCALYPTIC THEMES

This desire for God to act in His righteousness was classically expressed in apocalyptic terms.  Some hear the word “apocalyptic” and automatically think of the end of the space-time universe.  However, apocalyptic imagery among the Jews served a different purpose.  Wright defines it as not “so much a state of mind or a set of beliefs about the future, but a way of writing that uses highly charged and coded metaphors to invest space-time reality with its cosmic or theological significance” (Romans, 401).  Thus “God’s righteousness will be revealed” was a coded way of saying that God would at last act in history to vindicate Israel.  It is no surprise then that apokalyptetai is used in Romans 1:17.

With all these themes in mind, hopefully you can begin to sense a much deeper and richer reading of Paul’s thematic statement that the gospel reveals God’s righteousness.  Is Paul concerned with how a person “gets saved?”  Sure.  But he has much more in mind than that alone.  Paul wants to show that in the events of the cross God has finally acted within history to demonstrate and reveal His righteousness/faithfulness for all to see.  Paul sees God’s future as brought into the present in the event of the cross.  Herein God displays his faithfulness to His covenant promises He made with Abraham.  Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles only makes sense within this eschatalogical framework; i.e., God’s purposes for Israel have been fulfilled, now it is time for the Gentiles to come in.

In this reading, “justification by faith” is important, but not the main theme.  God seems to be the theme more than me.  In fact, statistically the word “God” appears more frequently in this letter than in any other of Paul’s writings (once every 46 words).  Paul is showing the Romans what God has been up to and where they belong on the map of these purposes (Wright, 404).  I’m undone.

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When you seek to discern those items related to Romans on which there is near universal agreement, you end up with a very short list.  Yet there is a list.  Romans was written by Paul sometime in the middle to late 50’s from Corinth or somewhere nearby, while planning his final trip to Jerusalem and then planning to go on from there to Rome and then Spain.  That about does it for consensus.  From this point on everything we say could include a footnote which says “for opposing views see the recent commentaries and secondary literature.”  In light of these circumstances, any thoughts I offer about Romans will be done so with a spirit of humility in conjunction with constant dialogue with all who wish to participate.

One of the first basic interpretive dilemmas one faces when studying Romans is deciding what the book is about.  It might be tempting to say, “Well just study it and you will see what it’s about.”  But basic assumptions or presuppositions brought to any piece of literature are prone to distort the original message or intent of the author.  We are inclined to project our own preconceived ideas onto Paul (or whomever) and then find to our delight that he has said what we believed all along.  Any who study Romans must be aware of this and use caution.  However, despite this pitfall, we cannot deny that the “why” of the book is intricately connected to the “what” of the book (i.e., the actual content).  For Martin Luther, the basic question behind Romans was “How can I find a gracious God?”  So his reading naturally centered on “justification by faith.”  This fit quite nicely with his historical situation in which he fought against the legalism of the Roman Catholic church.  It’s not surprising then that Luther thought Paul to be fighting the same battle.  Thus, the reformation reading of Romans has held sway for  centuries.  I will discuss this more, but for now I simply highlight how our circumstances can heavily influence our reading of the book (and who knows, perhaps Luther was right–but this must be tested by the text).

Many appeal to Romans 1:16-17 as the theme of the book:

16″For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”

I believe the appeal is justified.  But we are not even close to the theme of the book if we cannot decide what these verses are saying.  Rather than listing at this time all the different takes on the passage, let me simply state what I believe to be the theme:  THE GOSPEL REVEALS GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS.  The perceptive reader will note that I have made an interpretive step in regards to verse 17 in my formulation of the theme; a step which differs drastically from that of the NIV translators, for example.  Verse 17 reads in the NIV:

“For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed”

This is a perfectly plausible translation of the phrase dikaisyne theou.  In fact, I believe Martin Luther would be quite pleased with the translation.  You will note, however, that it differs ever so slightly from the NASB recorded above; i.e., the righteousness of God.    In other words, is Paul saying that the gospel reveals a status received by the believer from God, or that the gospel reveals something about God himself–that He is righteous?  With the NIV’s reading, the main question might very well be, “How can I find a gracious God?”  But the reading proposed by the NASB (and others) indicates that the question might be instead, “How can a supposedly gracious God be righteous given all of the evidence that indicates otherwise (Israel’s unbelief and failure, etc.)?”  Or yet another question, “How does the gospel of God’s justice upstage that of Caesar’s?”  This last question, though on the surface a stretch, might have much to commend it in the final analysis.  But more on that later.  If you are like me and these types of questions interest you, then your wheels are probably spinning.  If, however, you find this dull and unimportant, then well…I am sorry 🙂

In the next post I will indicate why I believe the NASB to be on the right track.  Feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

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