"Paul and the Law" Pick List

Three years ago I posted a Historical Jesus Pick List, which I’ve meaning to follow up with a list for “Paul and the law”. These are my rankings of Galatians and Romans treatments. As before, I choose scholars not to endorse everything they say (though again my #1 choice comes close), but because they make contributions I personally think are important. Also as before, a certain N.T. Wright fails to make the cut, though ironically it’s the recent release of his Paul and the Faithfulness of God which prompted me to post a list of far better treatments.

The first three are my crown jewels, (1) Esler for the imperative frameworks of honor-shame and social identity, (2) Sanders for obvious reasons, (3) Nanos for a persuasive alternative to Esler. The next three also make a strong tier, (4) Watson by decimating both the old and new perspectives, (5) Tobin by combing through all of Paul’s contradictions and tensions, and (6) Given by calling Paul on his lies and deceptions. I couldn’t leave off (7) Wrede, and the final three have important insights while missing the mark on whole.

1. Philip Esler. Galatians (1998); Conflict and Identity in Romans (2003). Esler’s books provide everything I look for. They ground Paul in the honor-shame framework of the Mediterranean. They account for dramatic shifts in thought between the two letters. They explain why Galatians is sectarian favoring Gentiles, and why Romans bends over backwards to favor both ethnic groups. They tease out murky backgrounds, suggesting that Antioch was about treachery instead of mere hypocrisy, and that Rome was about a church situation on top of Paul’s personal conflict with the pillars of Jerusalem. They reject the old Lutheran perspective, while being unafraid to acknowledge Paul’s offensive similarities with Luther. For the law was obsolete, and the best it promised but never delivered was now available by a different route (the spirit). Between the times of Abraham and Christ was a long period of gloom and doom; righteousness was anticipated by figures like David and Moses, but no one had the righteousness of Abraham, who was an exception to the rule in a faithless era. Esler’s work is the best treatment of Galatians and Romans to date.

2. E.P. Sanders. Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977); Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (1983). He’s the Schweitzer of the quest for the historical Paul. He smashed Protestant interpretations to smithereens. He ushered in a new era of study, which in turn prompted break aways, spin-offs, and rebellions. No matter what fads creep in, sensible critics return to his basic premise: that Paul broke with Judaism by shooting down the law and Israel’s special place in the divine cosmos. Not because he found these inherently wanting; not because they implied an inferior way of religion; and certainly not because he couldn’t keep the law himself. But because Christ’s bizarre victory over evil made everything else trivial that nothing was sacred anymore. As a result, Paul began digging himself into holes explaining why the sacred used to be — and then desperately out of these holes, the steepest slopes being those of Rom 7 and 11. Sanders work remains the place to start, and the place you return to in varying degrees, for a solid understanding of Paul.

3. Mark Nanos. The Irony of Galatians (2002); The Mystery of Romans (1996). The opposite of Esler can be just as persuasive. There was a time I found myself nearly convinced by Nanos’ work. Unlike other “Jewish-friendly” reconstructions (Gaston, Gager), these books never go off the rails or abuse your trust. Parts of them I still agree with, especially the key argument of the Romans book, which clarifies the identity of the weak in Rom 14-15. These Jews are weak for the same reason Abraham would have been weak in Rom 4:18-25, had he failed to trust in God’s ability to create life out of death in a stupendous context. In other words, the Roman Jews were weak for being non-Christian (failing to confess the resurrection), not for being Jewish (since they should be fully confident in their beliefs about diet and holy days). As far as the Galatians book goes, it’s always going to be a tall order to milk a Jewish-friendly apostle out of this letter, but Nanos’ theory of ironic rebuke never seems forced or strained, whether or not you can accept it. Nanos makes the strongest and most persuasive case for a Jewish-friendly Paul who remained part of the synagogue.

4. Francis Watson. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (2007). This revised critique of the Lutheran perspective is just as smoldering as it was in the ’80s, and its thesis remains intact. We get the same sectarian Paul who divorced himself from the synagogue and said the law was obsolete. But Watson calls us to move “beyond the new perspective” too — which is effectively a plea to move backwards and forwards at the same time. Backwards to Sanders’ view of Paul (which he has always approved) but forwards beyond Sanders’ view of Judaism (which he now only half-approves as a corrective to Lutheran caricatures). Backwards also, in acknowledging that Sanders basically had it right before scholars like Dunn and Wright tried improving on Sanders in the wrong way — over-emphasizing Gentile rights at the expense of Paul’s radical breed of exclusive Christology. Watson’s only major liability is his sectarian model, which works fine for Galatians but not for Romans, where Paul is trying to reinforce at least some ethnic distinctions in the body of Christ. Watson skewers the old and new perspectives without mercy, and leaves us a more alien Paul to ponder.

5. Thomas Tobin. Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts (2005). For a long time, this was the book I was waiting for: an exhaustive catalog of Paul’s revisions in Romans, which correct his claims made in Galatians and also the Corinthian letters. Abraham is no longer the ancestor of primarily Gentiles, but rather Jews and Gentiles in equal measure. Paul’s freedom language is no longer from the law, but from the power of sin. The law is no longer active in confining people under sin, but passive in relation to it (the power sin is the real culprit). And much more. Esler accounted for some of these shifts in terms of audience; Sanders thought Paul was having a genuine change of heart as he struggled with his Jewish heritage; and Given claimed that Paul was just covering up his offensive views with deceptive polish. I think there are elements of truth to all of these, but Tobin offers perhaps the most obvious reason of all: Paul evolved to clean up his image. His nasty reputation was killing him.

6. Mark Given. Paul’s True Rhetoric: Ambiguity, Cunning, and Deception in Greece and Rome (2001). This is the kind of book we need to see more of, that treats Paul like a real person instead of a theological architect, who lied to make his offensive views digestible. It suggests that in Romans Paul’s views on the law and Israel hadn’t softened at all. He was shrewd and sophistic, saying things he really didn’t mean, patronizing the Jewish people with platitudes hither and yon. When he credits them with having “adoption”, “the covenant/law”, “worship”, “the promises”, and “the patriarchs” (Rom 9:4-5), that’s empty credit, because we know what he really thinks: that real adoption comes from being liberated from the law and being led by the spirit, that there are two covenants, an old and a new, the former of which has been superseded by the latter, and that real worship takes place “in Christ” (the temple of one’s body) rather than the Jerusalem temple; etc. A book like this forces interesting questions about the nature of one’s “gospel truth”, and given how often everyone lies, it’s a treatment that needs more attention. Given knows (and shows) too well what Paul really thought under his greasy arguments about Israel and the law.

7. William Wrede. Paul (1904). This short classic does Paul more justice, and with less tools, than many of today’s sophisticated treatments. Like Schweitzer, Wrede was a genius and his summary on redemption alone was ahead of its time: liberation for Paul was not deliverance from the torment experienced by guilty souls, but rather a complete change in the nature and conditions of people’s existence. Paul spoke in terms of external powers, forces, and dominions, not internal states of being. Redemption went beyond forgiveness of sins; it involved a dramatic switch of allegiances, a bondage, slavery, to new powers. As for Paul’s Gentile mission, it had to be free of Jewish ethnic customs and broadcast the superiority of Christianity in all ways, and “the doctrine of justification was nothing more than the weapon with which these purposes were to be won”. Wrede is still right after all these years: “righteousness” was not central to Paul’s thinking.

8. Douglas Campbell. The Deliverance of God (2009). This reminds me of a math textbook I used in an Advanced Calculus class. It was all over the map, its proofs unwieldy, and it even bungled some theory. None of us could understand why the professor chose the damn thing, but he explained that its failures were its strengths: it forced students to come to terms with the math concepts through the author’s illuminating deficiencies. That’s a perfect description of Campbell’s tome. It makes us wrestle with two competing schemes of salvation in Paul’s thought — justification and transformation — and tease out their full implications. But Campbell jumps the shark in reshaping the former into the latter. That kills the patient. Justification theory is certainly present in Paul (Rom 2-4), even if only as a weapon to claim ground in a Jewish-pagan context. It’s subordinate to transformation theory (Rom 5-8), granted, but not a mirage. The even greater value to this book is its correctives to the new perspective, especially in the way it rehabilitates legalism in the Jewish framework when understood properly. Campbell’s compulsive project assesses the old and new perspectives against a huge canvass of justification and transformation.

9. James Dunn. Romans (1988). I throw this bone to the hyper-New Perspective. It argues that Paul affirmed Judaism more than he opposed it. He affirmed covenant faithfulness and claimed the law should be fulfilled. He only opposed the way the covenant confined the scope of salvation to the Jewish people. Paul didn’t oppose the law, only the works of the law, since ethnic observances (like circumcision, food laws, sabbath) confined the grace of God to the chosen people — they were covenant badges signaling Israel’s favored status. Faith-righteousness did away with these badges and opened salvation to Gentiles on an equal basis. Like Wright, Dunn has a perfectly valid point about about the meaning of “works”, and this interpretation works well enough in a context like Rom 2-4. But not in Rom 5-8, where Paul goes on to contrast faith with the law on whole. Paul says he destroyed the law in its entirety, and Jewish “works” are nowhere in view in Rom 5-8. But where works are in view, Dunn has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that Paul was speaking of ethnic observances characterizing one as Jewish, and not good deeds in general.

10. J. Louis Martyn. Galatians (2004). Here’s another commentary with problems but massive strengths to make up for them. It assesses Paul’s most affronting letter in terms of a dramatic apocalyptic divide between two ages. Martyn sees Christ and the Spirit as invasive entities that wipe out ritualism, sacramentalism, pseudo-possession and false empowerment — indeed nothing less than the whole of “religion” itself. If the case is overstated, it perhaps needs to be in order to appreciate how dark Paul thought the age of Moses and the law really was. (Aside from Martyn, Esler is a rare scholar to clearly grasp this point.) It doesn’t make for a pleasant view of Paul, and I think that’s why so many resist it. Certainly those advocating a Jewish-friendly Paul will never accept it; nor will those like Tom Wright who want to see Paul in covenant-climaxing terms within the framework of their own Christian supersessionism. The unpleasant fact is that Paul was a hard-core supersessionist — far more so than most are willing to give him credit (or blame) for. Marytn underscores the black-and-white contrast of ages in Paul’s thought.


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