Wrighting Paul?

During a recent study break I set myself a goal of reading N T Wright’s 2 volume magnum opus Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

At heart it is a vast, ambitious project to articulate Pauline theology in terms of a grand unified narrative from creation, through the story of Israel, her Messiah, the promised Spirit and the new creation to come.

In such a humongous work, there are going to be positions taken and judgments reached that fail to convince other scholars. Here are a two major push-backs that have been appearing, especially from Tom Wright’s buddy Ben Witherington :

1)      Israel in Exile?

NTW has long argued that the Jews of Jesus’ day thought of themselves as living in Exile, longing for the final promised rescue by God. Witherington thinks not – the reality was far less extreme. They felt at home, even if vulnerable in their own land. Most Pharisees and Sadducees had much invested in the temple system. Better to see it in terms of Israel living under a cloud of judgement and looked forward to a better day. Wright’s exile idea ignores the Maccabean period and how for many Jews they had returned home. Yes there was something not right, but it is doubtful that the Maccabean victory was seen only as a false dawn, prefiguring return from Exile to come. The best that can be said is that some Jews saw themselves as still experiencing the lingering effects of Exile.

This seems valid criticism to me.

2)      The place of Israel in God’s purposes: one story or two?

This is the bigger pushback: NTW has Jesus ‘being Israel’ in himself; Israel is incorporated in her Messiah. He stresses how Jesus is therefore the ‘true Israelite’ who alone fulfils Israel’s vocation to be a light to the nations. The whole story of the OT, from Abraham to Christ has been a story of failure of Israel until the birth of the Messiah. Now, with his coming, those who have faith in him, whether Jew of Gentile, are united and represent the fulfilled promises of God to Israel. And Israel in this sense is the whole story of the OT people of God.

Witherington doubts Jesus ‘is’ Israel. He comes to free Israel. He argues that in Romans 9-11, Israel refers to non-Christian Jews which God still has a plan to free, in and through Christ, at the eschaton. So Witherington agrees that Jew and Gentile believers in Christ are united in Christ, but he argues there is still an Israel ‘outside of Christ’. The church is the ‘ekklesia’ but Paul refrains from equating it with Israel. It is after the full number of Gentiles have been brought in, then that ‘all Israel’ will be saved – in other words, a future date when a large number of Jews turn to Christ.

Put simply, Witherington’s criticism is that NTW over-emphasises the one overarching story, where the church, in effect, becomes the fulfilled promise of a renewed Israel. Witherington says there remain two stories – that of Abraham and Moses. NTW fails to draw adequate distinction between the story of Israel (and Mosaic covenant) and the story of Abraham. Witherington puts it like this:

In other words, the story of Abraham is one thing, the story and subsequent tale of Israel is related to and dependent on the story of Abraham in various ways, but it is a subsequent story. Abraham, it should be noted, already lived in the promised land, he did not need to be rescued from bondage in Egypt. His story is not a story of Exodus and Sinai frankly. Nor is it the story of the Mosaic covenant, which Paul deliberately contrasts with the Abrahamic covenant in Gal. 4. Here I would say that Wright, for all his insightful analyses of the subplots, has one too few subplots— we need a subplot about Abraham, and we need another subplot about Israel. (my emphasis)

… Followers of Christ, not only don’t have to keep the badges of the Mosaic covenant (circumcision, food laws, sabbath), they aren’t under the Mosaic covenant at all– period!

This of course is not Tom’s view of things, but rather mine (and others), and I would say it is in some ways the most fundamental mistake Tom makes in his otherwise brilliant reading of Paul. Jesus is not Israel, he is Israel’s messiah, and as Paul says—he is ‘the seed of Abraham’ not the Israel of God.

So BW wants to highlight Paul’s radical contrast between the Mosaic and new covenant. The new covenant does NOT fulfill the old Mosaic one through life in the Spirit. So BW says that while NTW is “perfectly comfortable in saying that Paul could call any and all Christians ‘the Jew’ as well as ‘the seed of Abraham’ and ‘Israel’”, he is not. For BW, Israel still has a future – to be rejoined to the largely Gentile people of God (re-grafted into the olive tree). Witherington puts it this way,

the story of non-Christian Israel is not finished yet, and was not completed by the first coming of Jesus or his death and his resurrection. Rom.11 says otherwise. It is a story still awaiting a better resolution, when it is enfolded into the story of the ekklesia when Christ returns and ‘all Israel is saved’.

Now these two are among the most prolific and published NT scholars around, so commenting on this feels daunting – remember, these are blog thoughts being worked out! And I hope that I’ve summarised things accurately.

My amateur reading of Paul comes out more on Wright’s ‘one story’ (without necessarily being convinced about Jesus ‘being Israel’).

It seems to me that Witherington is drawing too sharp a disjuncture between how Paul links Abraham and Moses. Yes, the Mosaic covenant has come to a decisive end, but the Torah is fulfilled by life in the Spirit. Yes, the period of law (Israel from Moses to Jesus) is over and was temporary, but the law itself pointed to a broader inclusive time beyond the borders of Israel – as foreshadowed by the faith of Abraham.

I do see those who have faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile as God’s reconstituted ‘people of God’.  Repeatedly the new community of the Spirit is talked about in terms that applied to the OT people of Israel (eg temple).

Those who hold to ‘one story’, read the NT in a linear, unfolding narrative. The ‘time’ of OT Israel is complete. [This tends to mean that there is no particular special significance for the state ‘Israel’ today or the politics of the Middle East.]

Yes, Jewish people have unique and special significance since theirs is the Messiah and story of God’s OT people. And yes, it is entirely possible that Paul looked forward to a future ‘re-ingrafting’ of his fellow Jews – but they would be finding their rightful place within the one story, in which Gentiles believers are now included. The basis for inclusion would be the same as for anyone else – faith in Jesus the Christ.

 

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