Rereading Dunn

In the last post we looked at Douglas Campbell’s critique of Sanders’ strategy of reframing Paul in the New Perspective. Now we’ll look at his critique of Dunn’s rereading strategy.

After acknowledging a certain gain from Dunn’s approach — the focus on social issues in Paul’s conflict with the law — Campbell sees four major problems with it:

1. Some textual evidence contradicts Dunn’s proposal that Paul was targeting ethnic customs by the term “works of the law”. Rom 4:4 describes a worker who receives wages in accordance with obligation, in other words, desert, or appropriately earned reward. (DOG, pp 450-451)

True. But to be fair, Paul often had ethnic customs in mind.

2. Dunn tends to confuse rationale and effect in his analysis, and doesn’t understand the dynamic of ethnic distinctions. (DOG, pp 448, 453)

You bet he does, and you bet he doesn’t. On the first point, as Campbell notes, ancient groups rarely argued for religious practices explicitly on the basis of sociology. Practices with social consequences were justified on scriptural and theological grounds, even if “social arguments” peek through on occasion (as in Gal 3:14 and Rom 3:29-30). On the second (and more important) point, Jews wouldn’t have understood themselves primarily in terms of “boundary markers” (nor would pagans have obligingly characterized them this way if that were true). As Campbell points out, they delineated themselves from pagans on issues of homosexuality and idolatry as much as (if not more than) circumcision, food laws, and holy days. But on top of that — and Philip Esler has made this especially clear — Jews thought of themselves in terms of value orientations as much as overt signals, even if outsiders played on the latter in terms of hostile stereotypes. What this all adds up to is a hyper-focus on ethnic issues on Dunn’s part, and in a wrong way which leads to inaccurate and ugly implications (on which see #4 below).

3. Paul seems to be flexible on the issue of boundary markers. In I Cor 8 & 10 and Rom 14-15, he addresses two key ethnic issues, dietary practices and temporal observance, and actually tells believers to abide by these “works”. (DOG, p 453)

A good point, though I would underline the reason for these accommodations. Paul urged believers to abstain from idol food (in Corinth) and meat (in Rome) so as either not to give the wrong idea (that Christianity might encourage idolatry) or offense (to Jewish sensibilities), and in each case it was primarily unbelievers who were to be accommodated in order to make their conversion easier. Paul was an instrumental missionary, believing that outsiders should be massaged — even deceived for their own good (I Cor 9:19-23) — and insiders held to unbending standards. He was flexible with non-Christians in order to win them to the gospel effectively.

4. Like scholars of the old perspective, Dunn seems committed to a progression in Paul from plight to solution, the plight being redefined in racist rather than legalist terms. (DOG, p 452-455)

Objection sustained! Dunn has played the “boundary issues” card to the extent that Paul emerges — like the Paul of the old perspective — as one who found Judaism intrinsically defective. The defect is now nationalism instead of legalism, and the result is an apostle who preaches a suitably anti-racist gospel for the late 20th century. We should take heed of the further irony noted by Campbell: that this effectively accuses Judaism of something worse than ever before. Legalism is at least an ethical system (one gets what one deserves by working for it) — though that’s hard to get through our heads, brainwashed as we’ve been to think that legalism is about the worst theological crime imaginable. So there’s a serious problem with scholars like Dunn and Wright who on the one hand champion Sanders’ model of covenantal nomism as reflecting a great and noble religion, yet turn around and imply that the very same model was monolithically intolerant to non-Jews.

So Campbell’s critique of Dunn is pretty solid on all counts, though we could be more generous about the first, and should be clear about the reason for the third.

Rereading strategies would seem to be the ones which have gotten the New Perspective into trouble, and Campbell’s own rereading, I believe, has as many problems. Reframing strategies may leave room for improvement, but they at least have the right idea.


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