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Carbon-14 and Palaeographical Dating of Papyri

I returned yesterday from an invitational conference in Oklahoma City on dating papyri (sponsored by the Green Scholars Initiative, hereafter GSI).   Out of respect for the presenters of papers, I won’t pre-empt publication by giving details.  But I can say that I found the presentations on Carbon-dating especially informative and also of some significant import.

Essentially the GSI has access to the Green Collection of manuscripts & Bibles, and several papyri were chosen for rigorous Carbon-dating.  The papyri in question had been dated first palaeographically, and then very small snippets were submitted to three respected laboratories in the USA for independent dating by Carbon-14 processes.

Many major libraries (e.g., the British Library) have a policy that does not permit any destruction of an item in any measure.  So, since Carbon-dating requires that a tiny piece of an item be cut off and burned, hardly ever are we going to have Carbon-dating of items in these major collections.  This is what makes the Green Collection policy so useful, not only for their own items, but also for the fields of papyrology and palaeography more widely.

To summarize results of the tests reported on in Oklahoma City, the results from the three labs were basically/broadly in agreement, which gives some assurance about the reliability of the process.  But also, these results were broadly in agreement with the prior/independent palaeographical dating of these items.  And this (as I see it) is the really larger import.  It means (contrary to the reported comment by a distinguished papyrologist, who is not himself a palaeographer, that palaeographical dating is “bullshit”), that palaeographical dating (using today’s standards and practices) by competent palaeographers can be treated as broadly reliable.

And that means that collections that don’t allow Carbon-dating can take some further basis for confidence in the practice of palaeographical dating of their items as well.

Now, you must understand that Carbon-dating can, at best, offer a date-span of X plus/minus 50 years or so, e.g., X dated ca. 150-250 CE.  That’s no more narrow than responsible palaeographers would date an item.  But, as I say, the Green Collection’s tests do give us a second basis for some confidence in palaeographical dating practice.

Would Paul Have Circumcised His Son?

In the course of explaining in his prologue why he bracketed Paul out of the discussion in his book, The Birth of Christianity (HarperCollins, 1998), John Dominic Crossan makes one of his characteristically punchy statements:  “But, to put it bluntly and practically, if Paul had had a son, he would not have circumcised him” (xxv).  In reading this years ago, my own immediate response was the opposite.  Moreover, over the last fifteen years I’ve often asked colleagues in NT/Christian Origins how they would respond to the question:  Would Paul have circumcised his son?  And the response overwhelmingly has been “Yes, of course!”  (So, as I often said to students, I may be wrong, but I’m not idiosyncratic!)

The larger issue pithily put in Crossan’s memorable statement is what continuing place Torah may have had in Paul’s view as “apostle to the gentiles.”  As I read Paul, his critical comments about Torah are typically in the context of refuting those fellow Jewish believers who thought that gentile believers should take up Torah-observance fully (i.e., effectively, become Jewish proselytes) as a requisite part of their conversion, in addition to faith in Jesus.  So, e.g., his discussion of Torah in Galatians seems to me clearly in this context.

Paul does also bemoan the many fellow Jews who rejected Jesus in the name of Torah, and acted (ignorantly in his view) as if Torah-observance continued to be the sufficient basis of a relationship with God (esp. Romans 10:1-4).  Certainly (Paul held), now that Jesus the Messiah has come, it is not possible to be “justified in God’s sight by deeds of the Law” (Rom. 3:20).  For now, “apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed” in Jesus (Rom. 3:21ff.), and he is now the revelation that must be acknowledged in trust/faith.

But in other statements the same Paul affirms Torah as a genuine revelation of God.  For example, he asks (rhetorically) does this new development (Jesus) “overthrow the law”?  And his immediate response is “Absolutely not!” (Rom. 3:31).

So, Paul vigorously opposed the demand that gentile believes must adopt Jewish Torah-observance as a condition for their salvation.  But what did he likely hold with regard to Jewish believers?  So far as I can tell, Paul had no problem with fellow Jewish believers remaining Jews, and that includes remaining Jewish in observing Torah as a marker of their Jewish identity.  So long as they didn’t treat Torah-observance as a universal requisite of believers, it was OK for Jewish believers.  So far as being part of God’s redeemed people is concerned, especially so far as gentile believers are concerned, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything” (Gal. 6:15).

But does this mean that Paul was guilty of the charge ascribed to some zealous Jewish believers in Jerusalem that Paul taught “Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs” (Acts 21:21)?  I doubt it.  I can’t find any Pauline text in which Paul addresses fellow Jews and tells them to “forsake Moses” and the Torah.

Instead, in passages such as Romans 14 Paul seems to treat with equanimity fellow believers who do or do not observe customs that appear to be expressions of Torah.  (And, as commentators typically note, Paul’s use of “weak” and “strong” in this chapter is likely ironic, reflecting the outlook of some in Rome who thought of themselves as “strong”.)  And, it’s interesting that Acts claims that Paul did have Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:1-3; because his mother was Jewish, an early witness to the view expressed later in rabbinic texts that Jewish descent is traced through the mother).

So, in my view (and contra Dom’s), if Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, had married (a nice Jewish woman) and had a son, I am pretty sure that he would have had him circumcised.  As I’ve noted before, Paul’s readiness to undergo repeated synagogue floggings is a strong indication that he continued to feel strongly his Jewishness, and was willing to pay with his own flesh to remain a member of his ancestral people.

“Israel” and the People of God: Wright & Response

In this posting I query another of Tom Wright’s major emphases in his mammoth new work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (see my previous postings on the work here and here).  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.  I’ve queried this stance in a previous posting here, responding to a couple of his essays published earlier.  But, given the importance of the matter in his big opus on Paul, I think it worthwhile to return to it.

Wright’s treatment is set within what he regards as one of the three main foci in Paul’s theology, in this case “election” (or the divine choosing of God’s people).  Indicative of the importance of the topic for Wright, Chapter 10, “The People of God, Freshly Reworked,” is by far the largest chapter in the two-volume work, amounting to 268 pp.  But, in addition, some 140 pp. or more are also given to the subject in Chapter 11, (this chapter entitled “God’s Future for the World, Freshly Imagined”).  In short, there is far more on this topic than on Paul’s Christology, or his understanding of God, or . . . well, pretty much anything.  So, clearly, Wright considers it pretty important to make his case.

Repeatedly, Wright takes the view that Paul saw one family of Abraham, one redeemed people as the outcome of God’s redemptive work in/through Jesus.  Wright argues against those who propose that Paul held a “two covenant” theology, such as offered by Pamela Eisenbaum (in her book, Paul Was Not a Christian, HarperOne, 2009).  On both these counts, I think that Wright is correct.  I agree that for Paul Jesus is now the eschatological mediator of salvation and that Paul regarded a refusal to confess Jesus as Christ and Lord (by Jews or gentiles) as spiritual blindness and disobedience to God (e.g. 2 Cor 3:12–4:6).

But my problems with Wright’s particular view stem in part from his accompanying notion that this one family/people of Abraham/God must be homogenous, and that for Paul the historic special significance of ethnic “Israel” as a people is now dissolved in God’s plans.

Now the notion that ethnic Israel has lost its former significance in God’s purposes and that the church has inherited all that once was attached to the people of Israel is a venerable Christian one, going back to the second century or so.  But the question I have is whether Paul shared this view.  I don’t think so.

Wright knows that this sort of view is often labelled “supersessionist” and he strenuously denies the charge.  In his scheme, it isn’t so much that Israel is simply cast aside.  Instead, Wright refers to a “reworking” of “Israel” in Paul.  Briefly, here is how this works.  First, he claims that ethnic Israel was called by God for the purpose of bringing God’s revelation to the world.  Indeed, Wright repeatedly claims that Israel was chosen by God to be the vehicle of redemption.  This is crucial in Wright’s argument.  

Second, Wright claims that Israel failed in this calling.  Instead of opening out to the world and bringing God’s revelation to it (Wright contends), Israel grasped its chosen-ness selfishly.  Israel/Jews held themselves aloof from gentiles (he says) priding themselves in their elect status and so failing in their elect purpose.

Jesus (in Wright’s view) took up the baton, however, and fulfilled Israel’s responsibility in his own obedient life and death.  “Israel” (as the elect people) effectively became a status/calling that shifted onto the shoulders of the one Jew, Jesus.  (This actually reminds me of Cullmann’s “salvation-history” scheme, but Wright doesn’t acknowledge any similarity.)

Finally, because of Jesus’ faithfulness to God, now all those who trust in Jesus are made partakers of the same status/calling as well.  And “Israel” as the elect people of God are now all those who trust in Jesus, the church.

But, to consider the Pauline data, I don’t see any evidence that he saw Israel as having failed in the way that Wright alleges, that Israel failed in bringing redemption to the world, that Israel’s problem was keeping God for herself.  In fact, the only references in Paul to a failure on the part of ethnic Israel that I know of are references to a refusal to recognize Jesus as Messiah and Lord, a failure to embrace the gospel.  This seems to be the gist of 2 Cor 3:12–4:6, where Paul refers to Israel (fellow Jews) as having a veil over their eyes, preventing them from recognizing “the glory of the Lord.”  And in Romans 9–11 as well, Paul grieves over the refusal of the main body of fellow Jews to recognize Jesus as Lord, referring to them as having “stumbled” over the gospel (e.g., 9:32: 11:11), and as “hardened” (e.g. 11:7, 25).

That is, ironically, in Paul’s view it was the appearance of Jesus and the preaching of the gospel that produced any failure on the part of Israel.  The failure was specifically to refuse to acknowledge Jesus as God’s new eschatological revelation, and in this way their “zeal for God” is “not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2).  So, I don’t see anything in Paul that supports Wright’s grand narrative of the national failure of Israel that Wright posits.  And that means that I see no basis in Paul for Wright’s notion that Jesus assumed the role and responsibility of Israel.

To my view, when Paul refers to Jews he means Jews, and when he refers to “Israel” he means his fellow Jews in their identity before God.  So, despite Wright’s extended effort to make his case that in Romans 11:25-26 the Israel afflicted with a “hardening” (v. 25) was the ethnic body of Jews, but the “all Israel” that Paul says will be saved (v. 26) is the church, I am unpersuaded.

I reiterate that one of the reasons that Wright takes his view of matters is that he thinks that the unity of the family of Abraham in Paul’s thought requires a uniformity, a homogeneity, with no continuing significance for Jews as such in God’s plan.  It’s clear that for Wright his reading of Romans 2:25-29 is crucial to this notion that the oneness of the people of God cannot accommodate a continuing ethnic entity of “Israel”.  Indeed, a check of the index of references shows that these verses are by far the most frequently cited in the two-volume work, indicative of their place in Wright’s thinking.

Wright takes Paul here as saying that the term “Jew” no longer has an ethnic meaning, that gentiles who observe God’s law from their heart are in fact the true Jews.  I tend to see these verses, however, in the context of the preceding material (Rom. 2:17ff.), where Paul rhetorically addresses fellow Jews to emphasize that their ethnic identity means little unless they obey God, and that the true Jew is one who acts accordingly.  Mere ethnic identity isn’t enough, says Paul.  But these verses hardly seem to me to justify Wright’s sweeping notion that for Paul “Jew” and “Israel” no longer held their traditional ethnic connotations.

So, as I’ve indicated in a previous posting a few months ago, it still seems to me that Paul holds out the divine secret (“mysterion“) that the present, distressing (to him) situation of the main body of fellow Jews (their refusal to acknowledge Jesus, a “hardening”) will not ultimately prevail against God’s purposes.  Instead, when God’s present purpose with gentiles has been completed (the “pleroma“/’fullness’ of the gentiles,” Rom 11:25), God will then obtain the corresponding “pleroma” of Israel as well (11:12), and “all Israel” too will be “saved” (11:26).  Having consigned all (Jews and gentiles in their turn) to disobedience, God will show mercy to all (in their turn, Rom 11:32).

This isn’t a “two covenant” notion such as Eisenbaum espouses (Jesus the redeemer of gentiles, and Torah the salvation of Jews), for Paul seems to me to have held that all must come to God via Jesus.  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).

The Ancient Book (William Johnson)

In preparation for an invitational conference on early papyri coming up late next week in the USA, I read William Johnson’s excellent contribution, “The Ancient Book,” in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (ed. R. S. Bagnall).  I first “encountered” Johnson in reading his PhD thesis, “The Literary Papyrus Roll” (Yale, 1992), and later his essential book, Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).  I regard anything by him as worth my time, to say the least, and this contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Papyrology fulfils expectations.

It’s a model of concise, fully informed, soundly-based description and analysis.  He first discusses the “Bookroll” (or “scroll”), noting its supremacy as the form of the ancient book until the “codex” (leaf-book) became dominant (after the 4th century CE, and even then only progressively).  Johnson is the guy on bookrolls, believe me, his 2004 book mentioned above the place to go on the subject.

Then follows a section on “The Codex” (the early form of the leaf-book as we know it).  I’ve studied and written about these matters myself, and am encouraged to find that my own views largely tally with his.  He notes, for example, “Coincident to the changeover from roll to codex is a shift in book content from classical literature to Christian texts” (266), and offers the “historical supposition” that “Christians appear to be instrumental in the [wholesale] adoption of the codex” (267).  Against some other proposals, he judges (rightly, I think) that “early Christians deliberately adopted the different codex format for their scriptures” (267).

In the next section of his essay, “Books and their Content,” drawing on the important Leuven Database of Ancient Books, LDAB), he notes the (pagan/classical) authors and texts that seem to have been copied and circulated most frequently, somewhat similarly to my tabulation of relative numbers of extant copies of Christian texts (in Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 15-41).  Homer (Iliad) wins by a country mile, Demosthenes a distant second, followed by the Odessy, Euripides, Hesiod, Plato, 22 authors listed in all.  Interestingly, Aristotle comes last/least frequent.

Finally, in a section I found particularly informative, “Books and Society:  The ‘Scholars’ of Oxyrhynchus,” he analyses the various annotations found in copies of various pagan literary texts.  These include things as simple as a chi (X) in the margin, likely to mark portions regarded as particularly interesting (likely, the X from the Greek word “chrestos” = “useful”).  But it is the more substantial annotations that really draw interest.

These give hints of how books circulated, how copies were made, how readers exchanged texts, likely in informal networks of like-minded individuals.  But we also see hints that some readers exhibited a scholarly-type interest in noting variants in their texts, and in seeking to judge the more original readings.  I found particularly informative Johnson’s discussion of how this latter work was done.  From the notations, it appears that two or more copies of a given work (on rolls) were likely compared in social settings where two or more interested individuals collaborated in the comparison.  We’ve often wondered how ancients made such text-critical comparison, how they coped physically with bulky rolls.  Johnson seems to me to have provided the answer:  It wasn’t likely done by an individual trying to consult multiple copies on rolls, but by a small circle of people, each consulting a copy and the group making comparisons and judgements collectively.

My only quibble is in Johnson’s discussion of the Christian preference for the codex, especially for texts that functioned as scriptures.  Johnson there states “Only five of one hundred New Testament papyrus fragments listed in the LDAB are written on bookrolls” (266), but, to my knowledge, all of these are actually re-used rolls, none of them NT texts on fresh/unused rolls.  That’s important, as we know that re-used rolls were typically copies of texts for personal/private reading, not for public/liturgical usage.  So, these few copies of NT texts on re-used rolls are valuable artefacts of the personal/private reading of Christian texts, along with other copies in codex-format likely intended for reading in churches.

Johnson’s essay and the others in this volume are highly recommended.

Messiah and Worship

In Tom Wright’s new opus on Paul, there is a section headed “Jesus as Risen and Enthroned Son of God” (pp. 690-709), where he offers a proposal for how Jesus came to be regarded as in some sense “divine” so quickly after his execution.  To cite his own words:  “. . . the resurrection, demonstrating the truth of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion messianic claim, joined up with the expectation of YHWH’s return on the one hand, and the presence of the spirit of Jesus on the other to generate a fresh reading of ‘messianic’ texts [in the OT] which enabled a full christological awareness to dawn on the disciples” (692).”

In this discussion, he accuses me (and Carey Newman too) of making “far too little of the resurrection itself, collapsing it in effect into the concept of ‘glorification’, and supposing that the early Christian awareness of the latter came through visions and revelations” (693).  But, he continues, “without the theme of YHWH’s return on the one hand, and the Messiahship of Jesus on the other, demonstrated by the resurrection, they would not have generated that early christology which we find already in Paul” (693).

In response, my first comment is to reiterate (from an earlier posting) the point that, in fact, it is difficult to find in Paul’s letters any explicit reference to Jesus as “the personal, embodied return of YHWH.”  One can see something like this, perhaps, in Mark 1:1-3, as argued, e.g., by Joel Marcus, The Way of the Lord:  Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).  But Wright doesn’t actually identify Pauline texts where this idea is evident, which raises a question about just how crucial/central it was in the very earliest moments of christological reflection.

My second comment is that there is no disagreement between us over the importance of the conviction that Jesus had been raised from death, and specifically that this likely served as divine vindication of Jesus and the basis of the messianic claim of earliest believers.  (Indeed, in understanding Jesus’ resurrection as also involving glorification, I fail to see how I/we “make far too little” of it!)  Wright’s project seems to be to develop a coherent representation of Paul’s theology.  But my work has been directed mainly to the historical question of how it was that Jesus (even a messianic Jesus) came to be treated as “divine” and came to be included so programmatically in the devotional/worship practice of early Christian circles.  “Messiah” doesn’t get us there.   To put it concisely, I don’t see that the conviction that Jesus is Messiah could readily have served as a sufficient basis for the radical “mutation” in devotional practice that I’ve repeatedly pointed to (and itemized its specifics) over some 25 years now.

So, if a “return of YHWH” isn’t evident in Paul (our earliest evidence) as a central factor, and if Messiah isn’t a sufficient category, then how to account for the remarkable “dyadic” devotional practice in question?  My own proposal has been that earliest believers treated the risen/exalted Jesus as they did only because they felt required to do so by God.  Note that the typical way that reverence of Jesus is justified in various NT texts is to invoke God’s action of exalting him and requiring that he be reverenced:  E.g., Philippians 2:9-11; 1 Cor 15:20-28; Hebrews 1:1-4; Acts 2:36; John 5:22-23, et alia).

How then would the conviction have been formed that God had done such an astonishing thing, and now required this novel development in devotional practice?  Well, my own proposal is that this conviction was formed through an interaction of powerful “revelatory” experiences (e.g., visions of Jesus in heavenly glory, etc.), prophetic oracles (declaring his exaltation), and intensive and creative interpretation of certain biblical texts (e.g., Isaiah 45:22-23; Psalm 110:1).  (For further discussion, see, e.g., my discussion of the “Forces and Factors” in Lord Jesus Christ, 27-78).  But, whatever the means/process, the key point is that earliest believers seem to have come quickly to the conviction that Jesus had been exalted to a unique heavenly status, had been given to share in the divine name and glory, and must now be reverenced in obedience to God.

In short, we have to reckon with two distinguishable convictions:  Jesus as Messiah and Jesus as rightful recipient of cultic devotion.  Both erupted early, perhaps simultaneously.  But resurrection, by itself (i.e., restoration to life and a vindication of Jesus as Messiah), didn’t suffice for the latter conviction or the devotional practice in question.  For that, a “glorification” of Jesus seems to me to have been necessary, a glorification understood as by God and requiring that Jesus be reverenced.

So, given that my own work was focused on trying to examine the eruption of the dyadic devotional pattern reflected already in Paul’s letters, I hope that it’s clear why I’ve underscored the “glorification” of Jesus and not simply (so to speak) his resurrection.  The two were obviously linked for earliest believers, but we should avoid collapsing either into the other.

“Paul and the Faithfulness of God”: 2nd Posting

Yesterday, I posted on Tom Wright’s 2-vol opus on Paul, and in this and  a couple of subsequent postings I’ll offer further comments about some features of this work.  My first observation in yesterday’s posting was that it’s massive, 2 volumes, over 1600 pages.  Wright seems to have taken this opportunity to lay out extensively his views, not only on Paul, but on a wide panoply of other/related matters as well.  For those who haven’t seen the work yet, I’ll sketch its contents.

In Volume 1, Part 1 (chapters 1-5), “Paul and His World,” in a leisurely fashion Wright discusses Paul’s Jewish context, the Greek cultural/philosophical setting, the wider religious environment, and the Roman political context.  In Part 2 (chapters 6-8), “The Mindset of the Apostle,” Wright sets forth his approach, which involves his emphasis on the “storied worldview” that he sees as framing all that Paul did and thought.  Parts 1 & 2 comprise some 600 pages.  Granted, Wright’s emphasis that we should take a historical approach, respecting Paul’s historical context, is commendable.  But I wonder if it really required this much preparatory discussion before we get down to the exposition of Paul’s theology.  (One acquaintance, somewhat impatient with how much space is given to these matters, grumpily complained about the several hundred pages of “throat-clearing”.)

Volume 2 comprises Part 3 (chapters 9-11, “Paul’s Theology”) and Part 4 (chapters 12-16, “Paul in History”).  In Part 4, Wright returns to the Jewish, Greek and Roman contexts proposing how Paul’s thought and work relate to them.  But it’s obviously “Part 3″ (chapters 9-11) that form (in Wright’s own words) the “fulcrum” and crucial core of the work.  And so it’s to these chapters that I’ll direct my own observations and engagement in this and subsequent postings.

In Chapters 9-11, Wright organizes Paul’s theology under three main topics:  “The One God of Israel,” “The People of God,” and “God’s Future for the World.”  Wright contends that in each of these three topics, Paul presents a “freshly reworked” and “freshly imagined” treatment.  So, to start with the first topic, Wright proposes that Paul both affirmed “classic Jewish monotheism of his day” and also redrew it “around Jesus.” To quote Wright:  “That robust monotheism has been, for Paul, fully rethought around Jesus the Messiah,” producing a “Messiah-shaped monotheism” (687).  Indeed, Wright urges, “for Paul, Jesus is seen as the second self (so to speak) of Israel’s God” (696).

Wright engages at various points the work of other scholars who have explored what seems to have been a veritable explosion of christological affirmations in the young Jesus-movement in the earliest observable period after Jesus execution.   These others include in particular Richard Bauckham, Carey Newman, and myself.  Though appreciative of this work, Wright bids to surpass it in offering what he sees as a more adequate account of things.

So, e.g., citing Bauckham’s proposal that in earliest christological claims Jesus was included within “the divine identity,” Wright bids to subsume this idea within his own proposal that “the early Christians believed that Israel’s one God had returned in person.  In the person of Jesus” (654).  Indeed, Wright contends that in Jewish tradition of the time, this idea of a personal return of YHWH was well-known, and so became the crucial category by which Jesus’ divine status was understood and articulated in earliest Christianity.

By contrast, Wright doesn’t seem to like quite so much my proposal (originally in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism) that earliest (Jewish) believers drew upon (and radically adapted) what I called “chief agent” traditions (in which God is pictured as having this or that figure who serves as God’s vizier) in accommodating the exalted Jesus while also maintaining the uniqueness of the one God.  But it seems to me that Wright hasn’t really engaged my argument, for his references to it appear to me more a caricature than a fair description.

To be sure, as others have noted earlier (including David Capes on Paul’s christological use of YHWH texts; Larry Kreitzer’s Jesus and God in Paul’s Eschatology; Carl Davis, The Name and Way of the Lord; Carey Newman, Paul’s Glory Christology; et alia) there is a remarkably close linkage of Jesus and God in Paul’s letters.  But, at the same time, there is an almost equally emphatic affirmation that there are two– God and Jesus– and Jesus is consistently described with reference to God, not replacing God but serving as the one sent forth by God and acting as God’s unique agent of redemption.  That is, we have what I call a “dyadic” emphasis, two figures posited and a clear relationship between them.

Indeed, as I have observed in my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010), in NT writings throughout we have a “triadic” shape to the “God-discourse” involving references to “God”, Jesus, and the Spirit.  So, I agree with Wright’s discussion in Chapter 9 about how in Paul we see both a “christological” and a “pneumatological” emphasis in the view of God.

But, to engage critically some specifics, I really don’t see evidence in Paul’s letters of an explicit emphasis that Jesus is the “return of YHWH” embodied and in person.  To be sure, there are statements in some OT passages and subsequently in other Jewish texts that YHWH promised to renew Israel and come to Israel in eschatological redemption.  But my question is what evidence there is in Paul’s letters that this specific idea and these specific texts were particularly cited and central.  Granted, Paul cites Psalm 24:1 in 1 Cor 10:26 (to make a point about freedom to eat meat sold in the marketplace).  And, granted, later in Psalm 24, there is the reference to “the LORD, strong and mighty” who will come in through the “ancient doors”.  It may well be that Paul would have read the latter verses as referring to Jesus (as Wright proposes, 670), but such possibilities are one thing, and explicit evidence that for Paul the idea of Jesus as the embodied, personal return of YHWH to Israel is another.

Granted, in Colossian 1:15-20 we have the statement that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (v. 19).  If, as Wright presumes (and as I’m ready to accept as well for the purposes of argument) Colossians is taken as composed by Paul, this is surely an important text.  But isn’t it also the case that the passage defines Jesus’s significance with reference to God, linking God and Jesus but, at the same time, distinguishing them?  Jesus is pictured here as the unique vehicle (so to speak) or agent of God’s purposes and redemptive actions (esp. v. 20).  Is that, however, the same thing as Wright’s claim that for Paul Jesus was the “personal return of YHWH” to Israel?

There are other points that one might engage as well, but one further matter will suffice for this posting.  I agree that in Paul’s letters we see what I have termed (from as far back as my 1988 book mentioned above) a significant, apparently novel “mutation” in Jewish “monotheism” and in the typical devotional pattern/practice of Jewish tradition of his time.  As I have proposed (and as Wright, too, urges), in its earliest expressions, this “mutation” appears to be a novel development within Roman-era Jewish tradition (e.g., How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, pp. 31-55), and Paul certainly reflects this remarkable development.  Wright’s treatment seems to me, however, to credit Paul with a lot in the formulation of this “mutation”.  But I wonder if this is misjudged.

To be sure, Paul appears to have been a pretty intelligent and articulate fellow, and was perhaps particularly skilled in scriptural study and interpretation (from his Pharisee background).  But, so far as I can see, the only claims that Paul makes about any distinctiveness or originality concern (1) his conviction that he was specially called by God to conduct a mission to gentiles, and (2) his view of the terms on which gentiles were to be received as full co-religionists with Jewish believers (baptism/faith in Jesus without taking on Jewish observance of Torah).  So, was Paul really the creative figure that Wright seems to posit in developing the “high christology” that we see reflected (really presumed) in Paul’s letters?  Or, instead, do we have in his letters essentially the sort of claims about Jesus and the sort of devotion to him that Paul acceded to subsequent to the “revelation of his [God's] Son” (Gal. 1:15) that changed him from persecutor to proponent of Jesus?  Indeed, as I’ve proposed, was it these claims and devotional actions that (at least in part) provoked the zealous Pharisee, Saul, to feel obliged to “destroy” (his term) the young Jesus movement?  (Something certainly got up his nose!)

Wright’s discussion can be seen as a classic “great man” treatment of a historical figure.  Now Paul can be thought of as a “great man” I guess.  But Paul himself seems to have been quite ready to acknowledge that he had predecessors in his faith, and that he shared basic faith with them and others.

“Paul and the Faithfulness of God”: Wright’s big Opus

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.

I want to indicate right away that Tom and I are on friendly terms.  So, if/when I include critical comments these reflect honest questions, reservations and/or disagreements.  But before any of that, I want to register my admiration of the massive labour and learning, the obviously prolonged pondering of texts and issues, Tom’s passion and fervour for the subject, and the accessible (often conversational) writing style demonstrated throughout the massive opus.  The work obviously reflects decades of previous publications on Paul and his letters, and incorporates the results of those publications (with references to Wright’s prior publications at numerous points).  But Paul and the Faithfulness of God is clearly Wright’s magnum opus on Paul, and should be now the key reference point in engaging his views on Pauline matters.

I found his discussion of a number of particular matters incisive and helpful.  As an example, I found stimulating his emphasis that in Paul the “justification” of believers is essentially God’s eschatological judgment, extended now to those who put faith in Jesus’ vindication expressed in God raising him from death and exalting him to heavenly glory.  Even in cases where I remain unpersuaded, Tom’s views justify the time to engage them.

But, for this first posting on the work, perhaps the first thing to comment on is its size.  It is, to my knowledge, the largest single-author work on Paul in print, likely the largest ever published.  When J.D.G. Dunn published his big book, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), which weighed in at some 800 pages, there were comments about its bulk.  So what are we to think of Wright’s work coming in at twice that size?  I have to say that I found it off-putting.  It’s a huge demand on readers, even if Wright’s writing style makes it readable. For writing on Paul, we have a handful of his epistles and Acts of the Apostles from which to work.  To produce from these a work of 1600 pages is, shall we say, impressive.

But I wonder if it’s misjudged.  For one thing, the sheer bulk of the work runs the risk of taking centre-stage more than its subject, Paul.  Wright seems to require so much space in which to lay out his approach and the framing notions that he makes essential to his reading of Paul that all this intellectual “machinery” can get in the way.  Was it really not possible to set out relevant matters much more concisely, and foreground more Paul himself?  It isn’t till chapters 9-11 (of 16 total) that we really get down to serious and in-depth discussion of Paul’s beliefs, and to extended consideration of Pauline texts.  By Wright’s own account, chapters 9-11 form the crux, the fulcrum of the larger work.  I found myself impatient to get into them (but I’ve been accused of impatience often).  It appears that Tom can’t get enough of pondering Paul and writing about him.  But as a busy reader I confess that I found myself restless with the frequent digressions, and the leisurely pace taken, especially in the first few chapters.

In so far as others may share some of my impatience, I suspect that they will read selectively in this massive work.  Chapters 9-11 are essential, to be sure, and these chapters alone comprise some 660 pages (roughly the amount of space that I devoted to the first 150 years of Jesus-devotion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ)!  But beyond that, I suspect that at least some readers will survey the rest of the work to choose portions that they judge important.  Tom will likely find that a shame, and will hope that it doesn’t characterize too many readers.  But I fear that the decision to produce such a sprawling work will have this result.   More on the contents of the work in subsequent postings.

Earliest Corrections in Codex Sinaiticus

The latest issue of The Bulletin of the American Society of Payrologists includes a valuable study (by Peter Malik) of the earliest corrections in Codex Sinaiticus, as evidenced in the Gospel of Mark:  Peter Malik, “The Earliest Corrections in Codex Sinaiticus:  A Test Case From the Gospel of Mark,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 50 (2013):  207-54.

Malik identifies two key scribes in the text of Mark in Sinaiticus, whom he labels “Scribe A” and “Scribe D,” and gives detailed analysis of the nature of their respective corrections in the text.

So, for example, Malik identifies corrections made “in scribendo” (i.e., made in the process of copying the text), and those made subsequently.  Those corrections ascribed to Scribe A and made “in scribendo” tend heavily to correct “nonsensical” readings accidentally made by the scribe.  “Scribe A’s tendency to create nonsensical readings has been well documented, and it seems that precisely these readings also caught his attention during the copying process to a greater extent than other errors” (p. 249).

Malik also shows that the correcting process was far from thorough.  Instead, even in corrections made after the Markan text was copied, “the overall impression is that of a rather hasty, almost cursory proofing of the text with an exemplar” (p. 251).

Interestingly, he detects only five corrections made toward a manuscript other than the one copied, all of these corrections from Scribe D.  He can find no clear pattern of textual affinity in the corrections (p. 252).

In his conclusion he states, “Regading the earliest corrections in Sinaiticus, we must conclude that they reflect a genuine attempt of scribes to free their work from error. Just as in copying, however, their quality was not always adequate to carry out this intention fully, and most errors were left uncorrected [although the errors in question are all rather small things, such as accidental omission of one or two words].  Moreover, we have detected no signs of theologically motivated revision in Mark of Sinaiticus. . . . Thus, at least in this respect the scribes of Sinaiticus may be viewed as disciplined, though imprecise.” (p. 254).

Malik’s study seems precise, his conclusions carefully based and sound.  And the article is a model, especially perhaps for other emergent scholars

“A Polite Bribe”: The Screening and Discussion

After considerable technical difficulty arising from the lack of fit between our projection equipment and Orlando’s movie as formatted, we managed to find a way to screen “A Polite Bribe” last Friday afternoon here in New College.  (It appears that our projection equipment is a bit too old for the type of formats he uses.)  Thanks to one of our PhD students with a spiffy, up-to-date laptop, however, we were able to get it going.

As mentioned in previous postings, the film (ca. 85 minutes length) narrates the life of Paul as apostle, with lots of “talking heads” comments by a galaxy of scholars (some of them obviously enjoying a lot the chance to perform before a camera!).  The focus, however, is on the tensions between Paul and Jerusalem believers over the terms on which gentile believers in Jesus were to be treated as full co-religionists by Jewish believers.

Some in the Jerusalem church insisted that gentiles should effectively complete their profession of faith by adopting Jewishness also, involving a commitment to Jewish Torah-observance in addition to their faith in Jesus.  Paul, however, insisted equally firmly that this was wrong-headed, and that, instead, God was now welcoming gentiles into Abraham’s family as gentiles, without them having to become Jewish.

Paul could be quite pointed in his view of those Jewish believers who demanded that gentile believers “Judaize”:  e.g., calling them “false brothers” (Gal. 2:4), and (mockingly) “super apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5) and (quite bitterly) “false apostles, deceitful workers” and even ministers of Satan (2 Cor. 11:13-15).  We should, thus, suppose that these people likely referred to him in negative terms too, which must have helped to generate Paul’s own ire toward them.

But Paul was also obviously concerned to maintain a genuine mutual recognition and acceptance between him and his churches on the one hand and the Jerusalem leaders and Judean churches on the other hand.  The largest indication of this was his prolonged project to take up a financial collection from his churches that would be presented to the Jerusalem church, as an expression of religious solidarity.  Paul refers to this project in several letters (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1–9:15; Rom. 15:22-33; and, as I hold, also in Gal. 2:10), indicating how much it meant to him.  He likely spent several years on the project.  It is intriguing that in his final reference to it, in Romans 15:22-33, he expresses some anxiety over what may happen when he goes with the offering to Jerusalem.

The “unbelievers in Judea” (or “disobedient ones,” ἀπειθούντων) were likely Jewish religious zealots who rejected the gospel (similarly to his own zealous opposition to Judean churches prior to the “revelation” that turned him around).  But Paul’s anxiety included also worry that his “service for Jerusalem” might not be accepted by the church there.  The reason for this is that acceptance of the offering would mean the Jerusalem church accepting fully Paul’s churches, and Paul’s gentile mission.  Given the tensions in the Jerusalem church at that time, Paul didn’t know what the outcome would be.

I won’t spoil the film for you by giving out too much more about the line taken in it.  But it does serve to underscore the tensions in earliest Christian circles over the terms of gentile inclusion into the early Jesus-movement, and over Paul in particular.  The film takes a particular line on some matters, expressing (in my view) more confidence in some things than may be warranted.  But it certainly makes vivid the figure of Paul and the issues that he faced.

The film will likely provoke some good questions, and is best shown with an opportunity for discussion after the screening (preferably with one or more competent to offer informed comment).  One question that emerged in our screening illustrated how the film can be used to teach:  One person in our audience expressed puzzlement that the film portrayed Paul in conflict with, and in danger from, some who were effectively fellow “Christians,” whereas the questioner thought that Paul’s conflict was with “Jews”.

This afforded the opportunity to clarify some important things.  Among them, Paul was, and remained, a Jew in his ethnic identity, and the Jerusalem believers likewise were Jews, who continued to identify themselves as members of their nation.  Of course, Paul and Jerusalem believers were absolutely convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, and that confessing him as God’s Messiah and unique “Son” is requisite of all, including fellow Jews.  But their Jesus-devotion didn’t erase their self-identity as Jews as well.  As for Paul, his repeated willingness to submit to synagogue floggings (2 Cor. 11:24) powerfully demonstrated his determination to remain a member of his nation, and makes his professions of concern about the rejection of the gospel by fellow Jews in Romans 9–11 entirely genuine.

As I’ve indicated, among fellow Jewish believers-in-Jesus were some who regarded Paul’s gentile mission as wrong-headed and against what they saw as scriptural teaching and God’s purposes.  Indeed, they may also have feared that Paul’s gentile mission would exacerbate (for them) tensions with the larger Jewish community in a period when religious-zealot attitudes seem to have been hardening.

So, all in all, for “lay” viewers, “A Polite Bribe” can be an informative and provocative film.  It will certainly help today’s Christians to realize that sharply different views of God’s purposes, different theological perspectives among Christians, are nothing new!

“A Polite Bribe” in Edinburgh

We’ll screen the provocative film about the Apostle Paul, “A Polite Bribe:  An Apostle’s Final Bid,” here in New College, Friday 7 March, 4 pm (Martin Hall).  Admission free.

There will be a discussion following the film, involving the director/writer/producer, Rob Orlando, my NT colleague Dr. Matt Novenson, and yours truly.

I’ve mentioned the film in one or two previous blog-posts.  It combines a dramatic storyline focused on Paul’s apostolic mission and his concerns to maintain some kind of unity between Jerusalem/Jewish believers and his (largely) gentile churches with numerous short clips featuring a galaxy of scholars expressing views on various matters connected with the narrative.  The climactic element is Paul’s last journey to Jerusalem with the financial collection gathered from his churches as an offering to the Jerusalem church.


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