Thursday, May 19, 2011

identifying Paul (again)

I'm currently reading through Tim Gombis's introductory volume, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark International, 2010). Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post, I read Rodrigo Morales's published doctoral dissertation, The Spirit and the Restoration of Israel: New Exodus and New Creation Motifs in Galatians (Mohr Siebeck, 2010), last week. So all things Paul have been on my mind these last few days.

Gombis's discussion of Paul is introductory and pitched at beginning ("perplexed") students, so of course there is lots of room to nitpick and complain about lack of nuance or precision. But the goal of the book isn't to provide nuance or precision; it's to speak in broad strokes and get people into the discussion. Details can come later.

So I hope it's clear that I'm not nitpicking here (or at least I don't think I am). And I should also disclose that I know Gombis personally, and I've found him to be one of the nicer, more congenial younger biblical scholars. I think he and I think a lot alike. But as Gombis briefly introduces Paul's letter to the Galatian communities, he attributes the problem Paul confronts to a "very conservative Jewish Christian faction . . . seeking to make certain that the Christian communities that sprang up in Asia Minor were thoroughly Jewish" (25). A little later, Gombis explains that Paul bristles against the claim that gentile converts "must adopt a Jewish way of life." I'm not sure what to make of Gombis's use of the term Jewish; even (or perhaps especially!) in an introductory volume such as this I think a little more nuance is necessary.

The problem comes down to this: If Paul sets out to correct the claims of the "agitators" (see Gal. 5.10) that gentiles "must adopt a Jewish way of life" (25), what should we think Paul set up as an alternative to that Jewish lifestyle? Should the converts remain gentiles? If so, we need to explain the continued negative references to gentiles in Paul's letters (e.g., Eph. 2.11–12; Gombis accepts Pauline authorship of all thirteen letters attributed to Paul). Should the converts become Christians? If so, we need to explain how Paul never uses the word Christian in any of his letters.

Since neither of these terms—gentile or Christian—will work for Paul, the question remains: What should we think Paul set up as an alternative to the Jewish lifestyle the "agitators" were advocating to Paul's gentile converts in Galatia? I think the only answer that will work, historically or theologically, is, Paul proposes a differently Jewish lifestyle to the universal Torah-obedience advocated by his opponents. If I learned anything from Morales (which I wouldn't expect Gombis to cite even if they weren't both published in 2010), Paul understands his vocation as "apostle to the nations/gentiles" in terms of bringing the blessing of Abraham to bear upon the nations of the Roman Empire, and this precisely because God has poured out his Spirit upon his people Israel and brought an end to their experiences of the covenantal curses (exile and, especially, death).

In other words, and to sum up Morales's point and wrap up this post, the problem Paul has with Torah in Galatians isn't that it's Jewish. The problem is that Israel has failed to keep the terms of the covenant and has brought upon itself the covenantal curses—exile and death (see Deut. 27–30)—rather than the covenantal blessings. But God has not abandoned his people or his promises to them; instead, Israel's messiah, Jesus, overcame the covenantal curses brought on by Israel's failure to observe Torah. (Notice the problem isn't Torah itself but the people's failure to keep Torah.) Now the gentile Galatian believers have a choice to make. Do they take on a Jewish lifestyle defined by Torah? Or do they take on a Jewish lifestyle defined by the blessing of Abraham, now unleashed on God's people in the aftermath of God's Spirit poured out on Israel and a new heart given them? This latter might be what we mean when we refer to a "Christian lifestyle," but we need to recognize (and teach others to recognize) that in all likelihood, for Paul, this was simply a better way to be Jewish.


Anonymous said...

Great summation of Paul's thinking. That's no easy feat.


Rafael said...

Is that you, Patty?

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