In this posting I query another of Tom Wright’s major emphases in his mammoth new work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. This concerns his emphatic view that in Paul’s view ”Israel” becomes effectively the church, or more specifically becomes simply all those who put faith in Jesus.
“‘Israel’ and the People of God: Wright & Response”
from Larry Hurtado’s Blog
For those of you who don’t know, Larry Hurtado is a scholar of the New Testament and Christian origins with quite a number of published works to his name. I follow his blog because I find his research and insights into the early church to be interesting and informative.
How Hurtado started commenting on Wright’s latest book is as follows:
Late in 2013 I was asked by the journal, “Theology,” to review N.T. (Tom) Wright’s then-forthcoming book on Paul. As I am committed to preparing an essay on Paul for a conference in Rome in June this year, I agreed. A few days later a huge parcel arrived for me, and upon opening it I found that I had agreed to read/review a work of two volumes comprising over 1600 pages! I’ve sent off the review now, and it’s been accepted for publication in due course. But, even with the special generosity of the editors, I had to confine the review to 1800 words, which required brevity and a selection of things to mention. I have more to say about the work, however, and so in this and subsequent postings will give some further observations and thoughts beyond what I was able to include in the “Theology” review.
Hurtado has written a small series of blog posts thus far, reviewing different aspects of Wright’s tome (and at 1600 pages, it can correctly be referred to as a tome).
This morning, Derek Leman wrote a brief blog post regarding “Hurtado’s critique of Wright’s low view of the Jewish people,” but I felt there were a few more things that could be said.
The first is that N.T. Wright is a well-known and read scholar and author, and I find his perpetuating Christian supersessionism (also known as “replacement theology” or “fulfillment theology”) by replacing Israel with “the Church” to be at least disturbing if not completely offensive. Not that Wright is trying to be offensive. He’s being honest within the context of his understanding and convictions. I just happen to believe he’s wrong and I’m gratified that a scholar of Hurtado’s stature is willing to challenge Wright’s low view of Judaism on his blog.
But Hurtado said something else in last Sunday’s blog post:
But (as I see it) Paul did continue to see the family of Abraham, the full company of the redeemed, as comprised of believing Jews (such as himself) who remained Jews, and gentiles who remained gentiles. To be sure, their respective identities were to have no negative impact upon accepting one another, for they were all “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). But along with that oneness there remained (for Paul) the significance of “Israel” as fellow Jews, who were (as he saw it) heirs of divine promises (Rom 9:4-5). Although at present, most of his fellow Jews were “enemies” (so far as concerns the gospel), they were, nevertheless, “beloved” by God, whose gifts and calling were irrevocable (11:28-29).
I hope you read that quote carefully. In the realm of Messianic Judaism in its various expressions, it is generally affirmed that Jews and Gentiles in Messiah are united and yet remain distinct identities, each possessing unique (though somewhat overlapping) responsibilities to God. Jews in Messiah are still Jews and Gentiles in Messiah are still Gentiles, though all are “one” in God’s love, in the promises of salvation, and participation in the Messianic Kingdom.
Larry Hurtado is a Christian scholar of early Christianity, not a “Messianic”. And yet we see him stating something that is quite familiar to those of us who are affiliated with or otherwise “friends” of the Messianic Jewish movement. And this isn’t the first time. I’ve mentioned before, primarily in Larry Hurtado on ‘A Muslim Reads Galatians’ and Jewish Identity in the Way, that Hurtado is associated with supporting the continuation of Jewish identity and Torah observance among the early Jewish disciples of Jesus.
Today, the typical “Christian on the street” (so to speak) takes it completely for granted that when Jews came to Christ, they stopped being Jewish (or at least stopped behaving “Jewish”) and converted to Christianity. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of Evangelicals truly believe Paul preached a “Law-free” gospel of Christ and that the Jewish believers were no longer “under the Law.”
But the Christian on the street, that is, the average man or women in a church pew on Sunday morning, most likely doesn’t keep up with current Christian scholarship, nor are they aware that there are bodies of Christian scholars who disagree with each other and strongly debate key principles of Christian theology and doctrine. It is more comforting for traditional church goers to believe that everything is settled and has been for many centuries. Christianity is what it is. All the questions have long since been answered. There are no mysteries. Sunday school is merely to discuss what everybody already knows (except perhaps the “baby Christian” who has just come to faith). Even seasoned Pastors tend to believe that, though their knowledge base is usually much broader than that possessed by their flocks.
The implication of Hurtado’s statements upon Messianic Judaism is interesting and encouraging. In Messianic Judaism and the somewhat related movement of Hebrew Roots, we talk to ourselves all of the time about the Torah not being “dead” or “nailed to the cross” with Jesus. We talk (and sometimes argue) about Jewish distinctiveness and uniqueness of obligation within the wider Messianic body.
But having a conversation with yourself isn’t very illuminating and that dialogue most often stays within our particular silos, rarely escaping into normative Christianity (or Judaism), at least in a form that can be heard or accepted by those groups.
So when a Christian and not Messianic scholar and author such as Hurtado can independently study the Bible and arrive at a conclusion which states “Jews who remained Jews, and gentiles who remained gentiles” and yet “they were all ‘one in Christ Jesus'”, it is remarkable. The significance of Israel as Israel remained in the Apostolic Era, and even unbelieving Jews were considered beloved by God and possessing gifts and a calling that are irrevocable.
One Caveat to consider is that Hurtado is defining Paul’s perspective not necessarily his own. But if this is indeed how Paul saw things (and I think it likely), then Paul, the author of much of what we think of as early Christian theology and doctrine, was setting the pattern for how we Christian (Gentile) believers should understand ourselves in relation to the Jewish people and Israel.
It’s pretty hard to ignore Paul and still call yourself a Christian.