Tag Archives: New Perspective on Paul

Book Review of “Paul within Judaism: The State of the Questions”

I may not be inclined to agree with the late Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything, but in the case of Pauline studies it could, however, easily be argued that research discipline has indeed been negatively affected by Christian normative theology.

-Magnus Zetterholm
from the Introduction of his essay
“Paul within Judaism: The State of the Questions”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

This is how Zetterholm begins his contribution to the Paul within Judaism book, and no doubt it could be a disturbing statement for many Christian scholars, Pastors, and laypeople within the Church. How can “Christian normative theology” negatively affect Pauline studies? At least that’s probably the question they’d ask.

But the common thread running through the different articles within this book is removing Paul from within that normative Christian theological paradigm and inserting him (or re-inserting him) into a first century Jewish context, the context in which the Apostle lived, taught, and wrote.

Zetterholm points out that it’s primarily Christians who study the New Testament (or Apostolic Scriptures as I prefer to think of them) using (naturally) a classic set of Christian traditions. This includes a body of traditions used to study the letters of Paul. But tradition isn’t always the best basis to perform scientific and historical research. Zetterholm suggests something called “methodological atheism” as the preferred method, which isn’t to necessarily divorce our faith from our scholarly endeavors, but to set aside our tradition-based biases and to examine the text on its own terms.

From a methodological point of view, the Christian ideological perspectives that continue to characterize much of the ostensibly historical work done in New Testament studies is problematic.

The original understanding possessed by the first Jewish and non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) was a specifically first century Jewish (and largely Pharisaic) perspective on the teachings of Paul and, of course, the earlier teachings of Messiah. However, during and certainly after the particularly gruesome divorce the Gentiles required from their Jewish mentors, the theological landscape within the newly minted non-Jewish religion known as “Christianity” was significantly altered from what came before it.

Anti-Jewish propaganda started promptly within early Christianity.

But beginning in the early second century we find harshly critical statements from non-Jewish followers of Jesus that seem to indicate that some form of division based on ethnicity has taken place.

Zetterholm quoted from Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, and his Letter to the Magnesians (8:1) for emphasis:

“…not [to] be deceived by strange doctrines or antiquated myths, since they are worthless. For if we continue to live in accordance with Judaism, we admit that we have not received grace.”

Or the even more damning statement (from the same letter, 10:3):

…”utterly absurd [atopon estin] to profess Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism.”

What was born in the second century has had a lasting impact on how the Church views Christianity and Judaism today:

The binary ideas that Christianity has superseded Judaism and that Christian grace has replaced Jewish legalism, for example, appear to be essential aspects of most Christian theologies.

two-roads-joinMore than that, we have the fixed notion that Christianity and Judaism are wholly separate things with, at this point in history, nothing in common besides a distinct shared “ancestor,” that is, the Torah and the Prophets.

Zetterholm’s goal is:

…what we herein prefer to call Paul within Judaism perspectives–believe and share the assumption that the traditional perspectives on the relation between Judaism and Christianity are incorrect and need to be replaced by a historically more accurate view. It is Christian theology that must adjust…

As history progressed in those first few centuries after the death of Paul, “Christian propaganda” against the Jews and Judaism only increased and diversified. Along with that, Paul’s central focus was also purposefully changed:

While Paul’s problem seems to have been how to include the nations in the final salvation or how the categories “Jew” and “non-Jew” would be rescued from their respective constraints, the interest changes to the salvation of the individual.

This is precisely the matter I was attempting to address yesterday. I believe it’s possible that nearly two-thousand years of inadvertent and deliberate distortion and corruption of Biblical interpretation has resulted in not only a fundamental misunderstanding of Paul the Jew and Pharisee, but confusion about the nature of his mission to the Gentiles. As I read Zetterholm, I believe that Paul was not “preaching” about saving individual souls from Hell, but attempting to reconcile the nations with the blessings of the New Covenant and integration into Jewish religious and social community.

Even within the early Gentile Christian community, there was still a “tug of war” going on between the Jewish and Christian perception of many theological issues. Zetterholm cites the example of a monk named Pelagius who “appeared in Rome around 380…”:

Pelagius also denied any form of original sin that had so corrupted the human soul that it was impossible for one to choose to do what God commanded. Against this, Augustine claimed the opposite: humans can in no way please God, even choose to want to please God, and are…incapable of doing what God demands.

This fourth century Monk seemed to possess a decidedly Jewish perspective of “the fall” in Genesis, and yet it was Augustine’s opinion that became “Gospel,” so to speak, and is staunchly believed in the Church today. But if our faith had remained Jewish and retained Paul’s original teachings faithfully, what would we believe today?

Many Christians, and I used to go to a church just like this, hold fast to the Reformation, to Martin Luther and those like him, who saw the corruption in the Catholic Church, and founded Protestantism as the solution. It would have been nice if they could also have corrected the many flaws that had crept into the Church’s theology and doctrine since the second century onward, but such was not the case. In fact:

During the Reformation, the already wide gap between Judaism and Christianity would widen even further and find new theological bases upon which to build. While the church had adopted a modified form of Augustinianism…Martin Luther returned to Augustine’s original doctrine of justification. Luther, however, developed several dialectical relations that would result in an even sharper contrast between Judaism and Christianity.

Luther
Martin Luther

In this aspect of theology, Luther and his peers reformed nothing. Actually, they took the misunderstanding of Paul’s teachings and amplified them.

Zetterholm referenced Luther’s infamous On the Jews and Their Lies, mentioning:

…that synagogues and Jewish schools should be burnt, rabbis should be forbidden to teach, and Jewish writings should be confiscated.

And from this, the 21st century Church has inherited:

Luther’s interpretation of Paul became established as an indisputable historical fact.

It’s small wonder that when questioning the traditional Christian view on Paul among Pastors and parishioners, it is as if you are questioning the existence of God. From Augustine to Luther, it has been the Church Fathers and Men of the Reformation who have manufactured how Christians understand Paul today, not Paul, not his Apostolic peers, not his Jewish and Gentile students, and not his original historic and cultural Jewish context.

During the nineteenth century the idea of a distinction between Judaism and Christianity was theologically well established. This dichotomy would eventually develop a kind of scientific legitimacy, predominantly within German scholarship.

I’m sure you see where this is going. With Holocaust Remembrance Day beginning this evening at sundown, the terrible legacy of Augustine, Luther, and so many others, reached its bloody climax in Shoah and the memory of six million Jewish deaths we continue to live with and must never forget.

Zetterholm didn’t make this point, at least not very strongly, but I felt it necessary to do so. No, it was not the intent of anyone, any Christian scholar or leader over the many long centuries to create the horrors of Hitler’s camps, but they were the inevitable result.

We can’t allow the possibility of another Holocaust to exist by allowing the traditional Christian misinterpretation of Paul to continue.

The solution is this:

Sanders did what Weber had done, but not so many after him–he reread the Jewish texts in order to see if he could find a religious pattern, common to all texts from 200 BCE to 200 CE.

This is what we should do. This is what the Church should do. Break from tradition and go back to the source material, reconstructing its meaning without twenty centuries of mistakes and disinformation getting in the way.

This revision of ancient Judaism changed the rules of the game quite significantly for New Testament scholars. It now seemed apparent that previous scholarship on Paul was based, not on an adequate description of ancient Judaism, but on a Christian caricature.

Paul the Christian Caricature.

The Jewish PaulNo, I can’t assign malice or any other ill intent upon modern Christians. Those who did create our traditions, some of them with malice, lived many centuries ago. With the passage of time, we’ve forgotten that these are the interpretations of men with a theological ax to grind, and we have forgotten that our understanding of “truth” and “fact” is in fact, a set of traditions, and that those traditions resulted from a hermeneutic that was specifically designed to remove every last vestige of Jewish learning and Jewish legitimacy from our devotion to the Jewish Messiah and the Jewish King of Kings, ruler of the Jewish nation Israel, and Son of the God of Israel.

Don’t worry, the article has a happy ending.

Zetterholm covered the “birth” of the new and even radical perspectives on Paul, citing Sanders, Dunn, Gaston and others. From them, he concludes:

The search for the historical Paul cannot be limited to finding a Paul who makes theological sense for the present-day church, but one who makes sense in a first-century context, before Augustine and Luther entered the scene.

Paul (must be) firmly rooted within Judaism.

A Paul within Judaism would not have taught that Jews and Gentiles in Messiah left their nationality and ethnicity behind and became a “third race,” a “one new man”. A Torah observant Paul within Judaism, still faithful to Judaism, faithful to the Temple, faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, needs to be read within that context. His letters are the same, but the lens by which we view them creates a dramatically different perspective.

One thing to consider given what I just wrote, is that:

…all Paul’s authentic letters seem to be addressing non-Jews might give us a hermeneutical key. Is it possible that Paul only objected to non-Jews observing the Torah or to non-Jews becoming Jews and thus under Torah on the same terms as Jews?

Zetterholm goes on to state (and I’ve said this before as well) that there were different ideas on the table about how the Jewish disciples of the Master were supposed to integrate the new Gentile disciples. They ranged from a sort of open-arms acceptance of Gentiles coming into community with Jews to absolute rejection, the very idea of Gentiles in synagogues being loathsome.

There is also ample evidence indicating that many non-Jews were attracted to Judaism and imitated a Jewish life style, probably as a result of interaction with Jews who believed that also non-Jews would benefit from observing the Torah.

Or at least some of the Torah. Zetterholm considers the existence of some “non-Jews who could be regarded as partly Torah observant” in ancient times. This may have implications on modern “Messianic Gentiles” and what sort of praxis we might maintain as an expression of our faith.

But that creates what Zetterholm calls a “complex social situation” between Jews obligated to the mitzvot and Gentiles taking on at least some of the commandments as a matter of preference and a natural consequence of being part of Jewish community, sharing a common table.

The problem this young movement had to overcome was how to incorporate non-Jews, not only to find ways of socializing safely with non-Jews, but how to include non-Jews in the eschatological people of God. Paul evidently believed that non-Jews should remain non-Jewish, and that they should not observe Torah, which possibly meant that they should not base their relation to the God of Israel on the Torah but on Jesus-the-Messiah.

messianic judaism for the nationsYesterday, I quoted from a sizable block of Colossians 1 in which Paul emphasized the centrality of the Messiah specifically for the Gentile. Given Zetterholm, Paul’s meaning takes on additional dimension.

However, he also cited the Didache which includes an injunction for the Gentile disciple to voluntarily take on as much of the Torah as possible or reasonable, yet remaining a Gentile.

I maintain that this all speaks to the nature of Jewish and Gentile relationships in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements today, as does the following:

It is quite natural and most likely that the process of self-definition was complicated and led to harsh conflicts.

Unfortunately, those conflicts ultimately resulted in Gentiles and Jews taking different trajectories in their expression of Yeshua-faith and finally the invention of Christianity, which split from its Jewish predecessors entirely.

While Paul believed that he represented the perfection of Judaism, the church quite swiftly became a religious movement opposed to the practice of Judaism.

Even those modern Christians who express a love for the Jewish people and for Israel continue to oppose the practice of Judaism, both in normative Judaism and for Jews in Messiah.

I’ll continue with my reviews soon.

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Precious Assumptions

If you believe certain words, you believe their hidden arguments. When you believe something is right or wrong, true or false, you believe the assumptions in the words which express the arguments. Such assumptions are often full of holes, but remain most precious to the convinced.

from The Panoplia Prophetica

Be warned…you can be immersed in the Babel Problem, which is the label we give to the omnipresent dangers of achieving wrong combinations from accurate information.

The Mentat Handbook

Both of the above-quoted paragraphs come from the original 1976 hardback edition of Frank Herbert’s novel Children of Dune (pages 250 and 259 respectively). I’ve been criticized before for quoting from this series, since Dune and the indigenous people, the “Freemen” are based on Arab tribal culture, which some consider offensive. I apologize if anyone is distracted or dismayed by my choice of literature, but I think these quotes say something very important.

For the past few days, I’ve been monitoring the conversation on Derek Leman’s recent blog post Responding (Belatedly) to Gene. This is a debate, primarily between Derek, a person who has converted specifically within the context of Messianic Judaism and subsequently was educated as a Rabbi, and Gene Shlomovich, a Jewish person who was previously Messianic but who exited the Messianic framework and is currently affiliated with normative Orthodox Judaism (I apologize if these descriptions are inaccurate and am quite willing to be corrected).

The discussion between them is whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, whether or not the Messiah must be God, and whether or not it is proper for people to worship the human Jesus as a God. It’s actually a lot more complicated, but I don’t want to replicate all of the details here.

There have been plenty of other people who have chimed in with their opinions in the comments section of Derek’s blog. I choose not to participate because I don’t think I can contribute anything within that particular context. One more voice, more or less, isn’t going to change the outcome.

At the start of his blog post, Derek did wisely state:

I do not expect logical arguments and text-based discussions will in and of themselves persuade me to abandon faith in the divinity of Messiah or Gene to take up faith again in Yeshua. Such a naive view of dialogue overlooks two things: the complexity of persons (we are not logic computers) and the nature of evidence (what we believe about almost any topic, like which brand of automobile is best, is rarely just logic).

In other words, don’t expect the final, definitive statement on this important matter to issue forth from this conversation. It won’t.

But it does get people to thinking. It got me to thinking but not necessarily about the specific topic at hand.

Actually, this thought occurred to me last Sunday at church. I don’t know what inspired it exactly. I think I was mentally comparing general revelation, that is the revealing of God in the nature of our created universe, and specific revelation, that is, the Bible.

I expect general and specific revelation to be complementary rather than competing. But when someone tells me that the universe is ten to twelve thousand years old max, and all of our scientific observations tell us that the universe is reliably estimated to be about 13 1/2 billion years old, that’s nowhere near any sort of agreement. And that puts the Bible (or certain interpretations of it) at odds with the observable universe, and all sort of Christian and Jewish rationalizations have to be created to explain away tons and tons of evidence that all point to an old universe and an old earth.

Most of those rationalizations make otherwise highly intelligent and educated people sound kind of dumb.

More than 1,700 years in advance, the author of the Zohar predicted a revolution of science and technology around the year 1840. There he describes the fountains of wisdom bursting forth from the ground and flooding the earth—all in preparation for an era when the world shall be filled with wisdom and knowledge of the Oneness of its Creator.

From this we know that the true purpose of all technology and modern science is neither convenience nor power, but a means to discover G‑dliness within the physical world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Scientific Revolution”
Chabad.org

Curious Tales of TalmudSome of my Christian acquaintances might have a problem with me quoting from Jewish sources, and the vast majority of them would have trouble with anything to do with the Zohar (and I don’t think the Zohar is nearly as old as advertised above). Nevertheless, Rabbi Freeman is saying something important. He’s saying that the observable universe reveals God, and that scientific pursuits fill the world with “wisdom and knowledge of the Oneness of its Creator.”

Some people relate to their religion as if it contains the complete totality of all knowledge of God and complete comprehension of everything in the Bible, and based on that, they believe their conclusions on complicated theological, doctrinal, social, political, and scientific issues are all correct 100% of the time. Other people relate to science and technology in exactly the same way. Both types of people are wrong.

Stars ejected by the black hole have a different composition from that of the newly discovered stars. The 20 new stars have the same makeup as normal disk stars do, so the team doesn’t think these newly discovered stars came from the galaxy’s core, halo or some other exotic place.

“None of these hypervelocity stars come from the center, which implies there is an unexpected new class of hypervelocity star — one with a different ejection mechanism.”

Precise calculations require measurements taken over decades, so some of the stars may not actually travel as fast as they appear to, Palladrino said. To minimize errors, the team performed several statistical tests.

“Although some of our candidates may be flukes, the majority are real,” she said.

What might have provided the needed galaxy-fleeing kick, however, is still a mystery.

-by Nola Taylor Redd, January 27, 2014
“Strange, Hypervelocity Stars Get Ejected from the Milky Way”
Space.com

I love astronomy. The first time I was an undergrad, I took a few classes and fell in love. Unfortunately, my total ineptitude in math prevented me from pursuing astronomy as a degree and a career. But I still like to peruse the popular astronomy publications from time to time.

As you can see, the universe still has plenty of surprises available, and new observations can challenge the assumptions and hypotheses built on previous observations. Astronomy in particular, and all of the scientific disciplines in general, are undergoing a constant state of growth. This isn’t to say that science, which is just a formal method of observation, and scientists, who after all, are only human beings, are perfect and that bias, for a variety of reasons, is incapable of entering into perceptions and conclusions, but such conclusions cannot or at least on principle, should not be considered forever static, immutable, and settled for all time.

ReformationNow let’s turn to what we understand about the Bible. In Christianity, although continual research is being conducted into the New Testament as well as the rest of the scriptures, many believers, including clergy and even some scholars, behave as if all is said and done. Much of what the normative Protestant church believes today hasn’t changed much since the Reformation, and some of what we believe today, even though Protestants think they are wholly separated from Catholic influence, has actually been inherited, almost unchanged, from the very first days of the Eastern and Western (Roman) churches of the first few centuries of Christian history.

Since the Protestant Reformation (c. 1517), studies of Paul’s writings have been heavily influenced by Lutheran and Reformed views that are said to ascribe the negative attributes that they associated with sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism to first-century Judaism. These Lutheran and Reformed views on Paul’s Writings are called the “old perspective” by adherents of the “New Perspective on Paul”. Thus, the “new perspective” is an attempt to lift Paul’s letters out of the Lutheran/Reformed framework and interpret them based on what is said to be an understanding of first-century Judaism, taken on its own terms. (Within this article, “the old perspective” refers specifically to Reformed and Lutheran traditions, especially the views descended from John Calvin and Martin Luther, see also Law and Gospel.)

Paul, especially in his Epistle to the Romans, advocates justification through faith in Jesus Christ over justification through works of the Law. In the old perspective, Paul was understood to be arguing that Christians’ good works would not factor into their salvation, only their faith. According to the new perspective, Paul was questioning only observances such as circumcision and dietary laws, not good works in general.

“New Perspective on Paul”
-from Wikipedia

This “new perspective” isn’t popular among many Christian NT scholars precisely because it challenges the old assumptions, but it’s important to remember that the original assumptions that were the foundation of the development of early church theology, doctrine, and tradition, were motivated by a strong attempt to separate the Gentile church from Jews, Judaism, and Jewish origins. Those original assumptions, based on Supersessionism, also known as Replacement Theology or Fulfillment Theology, were completely anti-Semitic and derived less from an objective study of the canonized or soon to be canonized texts about the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and more on a heavy bias toward burying any connection to the persecuted normative Judaism of that day, and establishing that God, through Jesus, killed dead the Torah, the Temple, the Priesthood, and replaced them with rituals, traditions, and doctrine that resembled the practices of the church’s Jewish forefathers not in the least.

Unfortunately, plenty of Jewish people have been buried in bloody graves as a direct result of the church’s requirement to demonize Jewish people and Judaism in order to establish and elevate the “Goyishe Christ.”

I think it’s time for a change. I think it’s time for some new observations. Who knows? Maybe like certain astronomers have recently reported relative to hypervelocity stars, we’ll also find something unexpected. Astronomers observe a universe that is all around us and that has been all around us for over 13 billion years. You’d think that even in the mere few centuries we’ve been seriously studying the stars, we’d pretty much know all that there is to know by now.

sky-above-you-god1Except the universe is vast and our first stumbling efforts into astronomy have been slowly improving over time. Our methods and techniques for observation and information gathering and processing are becoming more accurate, bringing into focus a greater understanding of the mysterious universe that people have been staring into since man and woman stood together in Eden. Thus we continually collect data about the observable universe and add to, amend, or outright change our knowledge based on each new finding in order to sharpen our vision.

But it’s difficult to do that in religion, at least for some folks, because we are really reluctant to let go of obsolete dogma. I recently quoted a portion of a sermon delivered by John MacArthur in which he said:

When Jesus came, everything changed, everything changed.… He didn’t just want to clean up the people’s attitudes as they gave their sacrifices, He obliterated the sacrificial system because He brought an end to Judaism with all its ceremonies, all its rituals, all its sacrifices, all of its external trappings, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, all of it.

I believe MacArthur to be sincere, well-educated, and very intelligent, but he is definitely “old school” and I suspect highly resistant to re-examining any of the evidence and conclusions regarding what Paul said, why he said it, and what it all really means (to the best of our ability to arrive at “really means”).

It would be the moral equivalent of MacArthur, if he were an astronomer, ignoring the pesky mystery of the “Strange, Hypervelocity Stars Get Ejected from the Milky Way” or somehow explaining that what we appear to plainly see in our observations must be wrong because it disagrees with established scientific “canon”.

What does all this mean for Derek and Gene’s discussion of the past few days, and how Christianity and Judaism have been banging heads over who and what Jesus is for many, many centuries?

As one of my quotes from Herbert’s aforementioned book states, we can still put together “wrong combinations from accurate information.” The universe is the universe and the Bible is the Bible. General and specific revelation are available to all of us and they’ve been available for a long time. The universe changes slowly and the Bible changes not at all, and yet we argue and argue and argue over what they both mean and how someone must be right and everyone else must be wrong.

According to the gospels, a veil was torn when Yeshua breathed His last upon the cross. Scripture says, “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38) The tearing of the veil is often wrongly understood as a sign that the old covenant, the Torah and the Temple system were all rendered defunct by the cross.

-from “Thought of the Week”
Commentary on Torah Portion Terumah
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

John 14:6 (NASB)

We were studying the lives of King Saul and King David in Sunday school last week (“a man after God’s own heart”) and the teacher said something I found odd. He said the fact that God took His Spirit away from Saul did not necessarily mean Saul lost his salvation. It depended on how Saul was in relation to the Messiah; to Jesus.

MessiahI know that a lot of Christians have to retrofit John 14:6 into the ancient Hebrew Scriptures in order to make the Christian concept of “salvation” work, but it’s completely anachronistic. There is nothing wrong with Saul, David, or any of the other Hebrews or even Gentiles of those days being wholly devoted to the God of Israel and Him only.

Jesus did something new (though not what most Christians think) and revolutionary. First of all, he gave the entire world access to God without Gentiles having to enter into the Sinai covenant by converting to Judaism. I got what I’m about to say next from a comment made on my blog, but let’s think of Jesus as a doorway. When we open the door and walk through, what do we find inside but God. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (emph. mine)

This doesn’t negate the vital role of Messiah and his mysterious and even mystic relationship to Hashem and God’s Spirit, all somehow Echad (and I don’t believe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are just identical and interchangeable components like so many spark plugs), but it does maintain a continual Biblical focus on the God of Heaven from Genesis, through the apostolic period, and beyond.

The FFOZ commentary continues:

According to the gospels, a veil was torn when Yeshua breathed His last upon the cross. Scripture says, “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38) The tearing of the veil is often wrongly understood as a sign that the old covenant, the Torah and the Temple system were all rendered defunct by the cross.

In the book of Hebrews (10:19–20) we are told that the veil symbolized Messiah’s body. He is the veil. Just as the life was rent from His body, so too the curtain was rent with the result that we might have access to the most holy place through Him. This is not the same as abrogating the Temple worship system; rather, it is a vivid dramatization of what the death of Messiah accomplished: access to God.

Embroidered upon the veil were two cherubim. The cherubim invoke the imagery of the Garden of Eden and the way to the tree of life, as the Torah says in Genesis 3:24, “And at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.” The cherubim on the veil stood sentry in front of the Holy of Holies like the two cherubim that guard the way to the tree of life (immortality) and the Garden of Eden (paradise). As the curtain was rent into two pieces, a way between the cherubim was created.

We learn something new every day. I just did.

I’m not going to debate a “right or wrong” relative to Derek and Gene. I am going to say that just because someone zealously maintains a firm conviction in something doesn’t necessarily make that “something” factual. There are many mysteries left in the universe and many mysteries left in the Bible and in God. I happen to believe the “New Perspective on Paul” as related to the “Messianic Jewish” approach (and I realize that there are a ton of variations within those two general categories of study and knowledge) is the right way to go to re-evaluate all of the old assumptions which were based on some pretty bad motivations.

Discussions such as the one between Derek and Gene are, in my opinion, necessary, as long as they can be conducted without personalizing conflict, because they act as a crucible in which we can burn away many of the flaws in our beliefs and at least allow ourselves to question the “assumptions (that) are often full of holes, but remain most precious to the convinced.”

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.”

-Jean de la Fontaine, French writer and poet

Blessings, Curses, and Works of the Law

torah-nailed-to-the-cross…those who support the New Perspective on Paul, such as J.D.G. Dunn…and N.T. Wright…maintain that “works of the law” focuses on the boundary markers that separate Jews and Gentiles. The boundary markers, or identity badges, of Judaism were circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath. The problem with the Judaism in Paul’s day, then, was not legalism but exclusivism. “Works of law” highlights the nationalistic spirit of the Jews by which they excluded Gentiles from the promises of God. According to his interpretation, Paul does not indict the Jews for their failure to obey the law. Their fault was not inability but separatism.

-Thomas Schreiner from his book
40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law
Question 5: What Does the Expression “Works of Law” Mean in Paul? pg 42

My previous review on earlier chapters of Schreiner’s book can be found in this morning’s “meditation,” Captured in the Glass. Please read that article before proceeding here.

It took me until this fifth chapter, uh…question to realize that Schreiner was writing this book primarily, or at least significantly, in order to refute the “New Perspective on Paul.” The New Perspective on Paul is actually a formal, academic interpretation of the writings of Paul, supported by a number of New Testament scholars. It also seems to dovetail nicely into the viewpoints of some commentators on Messianic Judaism, particularly those to support the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah relative to covenant signs (circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath).

But according to Schreiner, these scholars are dead wrong. I suspect that’s why my Pastor gave me this book. It really is a compelling book, but not in the way Pastor may have intended it.

Here’s Schreiner’s point of view on “works of the law.”

…”works of law” refers to the entire law and the actions that are required by the law. This is the most likely reading of Romans 3:20 (“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin”) and Gal. 3:10 (“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them'”).

-ibid

As noted above, I wrote about earlier “questions” in Schreiner’s book in my previous blog post and apparently the subsequent questions form the foundation for later parts of the text. Unfortunately so do the errors that were previously established as well. As I mentioned before, Schreiner himself states that observing the Torah mitzvot was a perfectly acceptable response to obeying God after He redeemed the Israelites from Egypt and apparently it was OK until the coming of Jesus.

Look up Deuteronomy 30, Psalm 19, and Psalm 119 as just a few of the many examples of how the Torah was upheld, esteemed, thought beautiful, a source of wisdom, on, and on, and on, how wonderful the Law of Moses was.

How did it get morphed in the late Second Temple period to be such a pain in the neck for the Jewish people?

Even Schreiner acknowledges that Paul sincerely believed that the Torah was the authoritative word of God for the Jewish people. So what’s Schreiner’s beef with “works of the law?”

A number of arguments support the idea that “works of law” refers to the entire law and the deeds commanded by it…”Works of law” most naturally refers to all deeds commanded by the law. There is no reason to think that it is limited to or focuses on only part of the law, or that it refers to “evil works,” or that it refers to legalism.

-ibid, pg 43

So what? So what if “works of the law” refers to the Torah as a whole? I still maintain that Paul was talking about Jewish and Gentile people who believed that one needed to keep the whole of Torah without error in order to be saved. If you believe keeping the mitzvot will save you instead of faith in God, then you’ve got a problem. I agree. No matter how many of the mitzvot you perform and no matter how well you perform them, those acts are not what saves you from sin and death. Abraham had faith and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3).

If the mitzvot was a perfectly good response of obedience to God after Israel’s redemption in the days of Moses, why is it a problem in the days of Paul?

I know what you’re thinking. Schreiner thinks the same way.

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.

James 2:10 (NASB)

jewish-repentanceSchreiner’s argument from Question 7: Is Perfect Obedience to the Law Mandatory for Salvation? states that the law is impossible to keep perfectly and therefore no one can be saved by keeping the law. He’s rocketing toward the supersessionistic conclusion that in order to be saved, Jews must abandon the Torah (which he erroneously believes Paul did) and cling to Jesus and grace in order to be saved. He is correct in that God expected Israel to observe the mitzvot, but he forgets that God established provisions for the Israelites when they sinned. He uses examples such as Proverbs 20:9 and Ecclesiastes 7:20 to demonstrate how the “Old Testament” Jews couldn’t keep the law and of course, he uses Romans 3:10 to indicate how the “New Testament” Jews couldn’t keep the law either.

But he is building his argument on sand or rather, on a false premise.

Those who do not do everything the law commands are cursed.

Galatians 3:10b

Schreiner’s problem is that he assumes it was God’s intention that Israel keep the law perfectly in order to be saved…salvation by works. Would God really expect that? He didn’t seem to in Genesis 15. He redeemed Israel before He gave the Torah at Sinai (see my review of the FFOZ TV episode Exile and Redemption for the actual, Biblical definition of “redemption,” which is much more than how Schreiner understands the term), so obviously that redemption or salvation was not based on the Israelites keeping the Torah, being obedient, or any other form of “works-based salvation.”

So what was Paul complaining about, then? What was his problem with the law? His problem was with people, both Jews and Gentiles, who erroneously thought just keeping the law would save them. That’s why he was against Gentiles converting to Judaism (see the Book of Galatians), since they were laboring under the false teaching that they had to keep the law in order to be saved.

That wasn’t Paul’s understanding of the law and it certainly wasn’t God’s.

But if Paul is saying that those who convert to Judaism and thus who are bound to the Sinai covenant and its conditions, the mitzvot of Torah, don’t keep the law perfectly, and not keeping the law perfectly doesn’t cause them to lose their salvation, what is this curse Paul’s talking about?

You’ll find the blessings the Israelite were to receive for observing the mitzvot and the curses they were to suffer from for disobedience in next week’s Torah Portion Ki Tavo: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8. The actual actions that must be committed in order to be cursed are listed in verses Deuteronomy 27:15-26 and 28:15-19. So what are the consequences of being cursed?

The Lord will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be utterly wiped out because of your evildoing in forsaking Me. The Lord will make pestilence cling to you, until He has put an end to you in the land that you are entering to possess. The Lord will strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish. The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.

The Lord will put you to rout before your enemies; you shall march out against them by a single road, but flee from them by many roads; and you shall become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off.

The Lord will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover.

The Lord will strike you with madness, blindness, and dismay. You shall grope at noon as a blind man gropes in the dark; you shall not prosper in your ventures, but shall be constantly abused and robbed, with none to give help.

Deuteronomy 28:20-29 (JPS Tanakh)

gerizim_ebalThat’s not the entire list, of course. You’ll have to read the rest of that chapter to find all of the curses. None of them says that the Children of Israel will lose their salvation and go to Hell when they die if they don’t keep the law perfectly.

Whenever Israel has been unfaithful to God and to their sincere, faithful obedience to the mitzvot, what consequence has God delivered to Israel? What consequence do we always see in the Tanakh (Old Testament)? What effects of these consequences do we see to this very day?

The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, whom neither you nor your ancestors have experienced. Yet even among those nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest. The Lord will give you there an anguished heart and eyes that pine and a despondent spirit. The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival. In the morning you shall say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening you shall say, “If only it were morning!” — because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see. The Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you should not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy.

Deuteronomy 28:64-68 (JPS Tanakh)

War, famine, destruction of the cities of Israel, and exile to the diaspora.

What was Paul’s problem? Did he know what was coming? Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire. At a thought, the Romans could swoop down on Israel, destroy the Temple, raze Jerusalem, and remove the Jewish people from their Land. If you were born Jewish in the late Second Temple period, there must have been an exceptional sense of being responsible for performing the mitzvot, since they knew the consequences of failure. But how could Gentile believers and God-fearers who were only somewhat familiar with the Torah, truly understand he horrendous consequences of converting to Judaism, being bound by the Torah, and what would happen if they weren’t obedient? The lived memory of all of the previous disasters that had befallen Israel, including the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Babylonian exile, were imprinted on every single Jew. But how could the Goyim who had recently come to faith in Messiah even begin to understand?

Was this Paul’s motivation? Probably not entirely, but it must have factored in. The other motivation is that it simply wasn’t necessary for Gentiles to convert, since, as I’ve been trying to hammer home, keeping the law does not save you!!! Any Christian who states this as the reason Paul “rejected” the law is barking up the wrong tree. Not only does a Gentile converting to Judaism and taking up the mitzvot not save that Gentile (and it doesn’t save Jewish people, either), but it makes that Gentile and lots of others like him/her a loaded gun pointed at the head of Israel. A bunch of Gentiles who don’t know squat about a experiential Torah lifestyle abruptly converting to Judaism on the mistaken notion that it will save them (and that Jesus isn’t enough) means a whole pool of “newbies” have just been primed to lead Israel into the next disaster because they don’t realize the tremendous responsibility they possess.

As it turns out, that disaster happened anyway, but I can see Paul’s point in saying that anyone who doesn’t keep the law perfectly brings a curse upon themselves and Israel. No, one little screw up wouldn’t do it, but lots and lots of Jews (including converts) over a sustained period of time who were being disobedient always resulted in exactly those curses being delivered by God upon Israel (and please understand that after each exile, God always redeemed and restored the Jews to their Land).

the-divine-torahWhen Paul said that anyone who does not keep the law is under a curse, it has nothing to do with salvation and going to Hell. It does not mean the Torah is bad. It does not mean Jews in Messiah should give up the mitzvot. It does not mean Jewish faith in God and performance of the commandments are mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite. Jesus gives the mitzvot their full meaning. He was the only Jewish person to ever keep the mitzvot perfectly. He’s the poster child for Torah obedience. He also takes away the curses of failing to be perfect and remember, even Jesus said, Be perfect for your Father in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

Did Jesus expect his Jewish disciples to keep the law perfectly? How could he? We have a Biblical record that no one ever kept the law perfectly. What is being perfect? Works? Heaven forbid! What justifies us before God? Works? Not a chance. It’s faith. It’s always been faith. If a Jew keeps the law, no matter how imperfectly, are they instantly sent to Hell, are they sent to Hell when they die, or are they even instantly exiled from their Land? No. The consequences are for a faithlessness, corporate Israel, and faithlessness leads to lack of obedience. Lack of obedience is the symptom, the indicator of lack of faith. That’s the trigger for the consequences, the curses.

In Messiah, the curses are redeemed, removed, done with.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

Galatians 3:13-14

Yes, if Jesus removed the curse of the Law, then why would believing Gentiles converting to Judaism be a threat? Because, as we see from Paul’s argument in Galatians, the Gentiles were under the mistaken impression that keeping the Law justified them. In the end, if Israel believed observance of the mitzvot also justified them apart from faith, then that’s the recipe for exile.

Jesus died to redeem us from sin. He paid the price. He died for us. As Paul told the churches in Galatia, Jesus opened the door so both Jews and Gentiles could come to faith and thus be justified before God. In his death and resurrection, he fulfilled that part of the Abrahamic covenant that says he is the “seed” that blesses all the nations.

But also, in Messiah, Jewish believers are free from the curses and the obligation to be perfect, for only in Messiah is anyone considered justified before God. In Acts 15:10 Peter called the law a “burden.” Why would he say that? On some level, maybe it was. Maybe part of what Messiah brings to the table for the Jewish people is the freedom from the curses of the Law so that they are free to observe the mitzvot without a “burden.” This sets the stage so the Jewish people can ultimately be returned to their Land, to Israel, by Messiah.

For the Jewish people, faith and observance go hand in hand, Jewish observance of the mitzvot is the outward response and indicator of faith.

I have to thank Schreiner and my Pastor for this book. My brain is still percolating, I’m shooting from the hip, and half-rambling in this blog post, but I think I’m coming to a better understanding of Paul, the law, and maybe even Galatians. I think I’m getting closer to the Christian puzzle of “the law is bad.” I hope as I continue reading Schreiner’s book that my brain will be opened up and God will provide more illumination. I feel like He’s flipped the switch. Maybe it’s just a night-light so far. But the dawn is coming.

For more on this, see the commentary “Blessings Over Curses” at JewishJournal.com.

The next review in this series is Schreiner’s Law of Torah and Sin.