My friend Hilary has been reading The Future of the People of God and had a question about a paragraph on page 49. Since it has reference to one of the critical arguments of the book – that the parameters of Paul’s theology in the Letter are to be historically defined – I thought perhaps it would be worth responding at some length here rather than on Facebook. Here is Hilary’s question:
…you argue first that belief in the resurrection of Jesus ‘provoked a radical re-evaluation’ of the way in which the Jews understood their faith, but at the end of the same paragraph, you write: ‘Is the resurrection of Jesus a matter of such theological and metaphysical novelty that it rewrites the terms of the whole debate?’ – obviously expecting the answer ‘no’. Surely for Paul more than anyone, the resurrection of Jesus WAS such a novel way of God demonstrating his purposes that the whole debate did have to be rewritten – isn’t that what Romans is?
The issue here, I think, is the degree to which Paul departs from the Old Testament narrative or Jewish worldview. Modern theologies have tended to assume that Jesus instituted such a radical break from Judaism that the historical structures of Jewish thought (such as the idea of ‘wrath’ as judgment through the circumstances of history) were discarded as being effectively irrelevant. If Jesus is a universal Lord and Saviour, then we have little use for the remote contingencies of ancient history. Yes, we still enjoy telling the story, or random bits of it, largely rewritten to serve the interests of modern dogmatic bias; but the story itself has no real theological significance.
My argument, however, is that Paul is still thinking very much within the historical structures of the Jewish narrative – at least, that he has not departed from them to anything like the degree that modern theology supposes. Indeed, the point I make in the book is that the resurrection of Jesus ‘provoked a radical re-evaluation’ not of how the Jews understood their ‘faith’ but of the ‘various narratives by which Judaism sought to explain how the God of Israel was dealing with the plight of his people with respect to the religious and political hegemony of Greco-Roman paganism’. The point is precisely that we have not somehow shifted from history to ‘faith’ – ‘faith’ is a function of a people’s engagement with the challenging circumstances of history.
The resurrection of Jesus was certainly unexpected, but it was not in principle such a novelty for Jews. There is a prominent background to the hope that Israel under judgment would be raised from the dead, or that those who were killed out of loyalty to YHWH would be resurrected and vindicated. Paul’s problem as a Pharisee was not that Jesus was raised but that Jesus did not look like a person who was loyal to YHWH – nor did his followers.
Jesus’ resurrection forced Paul to reconsider the means by which Israel would be saved from destruction, but the basic narrative-historical framework remains operative. The central issue in Romans, it seems to me, is something like: How will Israel inherit the nations? That points to a very concrete, public, politically construed expectation. Paul traces it back to Abraham (Rom. 4:13). He believes – as Jesus believed – that Israel according to the flesh, the people of God qua nation, now faced destruction, condemned by the Law which should have set the Jews apart as a righteous people, as a benchmark of righteousness amidst the nations. YHWH could not with integrity judge the pagan world without first judging his own people, who were no better, morally or spiritually, than the pagans: wrath against the Jew first, then against the Greek. So how, under these terminal eschatological conditions, would YHWH remain true to his promise (cf. Rom. 9:6)? How will he be proved to be righteous?
The answer is by way of an alternative narrative of ‘faithfulness’ (pistis), which is a way of suffering and martyrdom, a way pioneered and perfected by Jesus (cf. Heb. 12:2), for which the resurrection served as divine confirmation. The significance of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus was that the bands of contemptible, renegade, Lawless Jews which Paul was bent on persecuting to extinction constituted the only true hope for the people of YHWH. In effect, the death and resurrection of Jesus presupposed the emergence of a likeminded community of people who were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But the outcome envisaged was still essentially the same: the descendants of Abraham, redefined as a people of faithfulness rather than of Law, would eventually inherit the nations – the moment at which the Greek-Roman oikoumenē would finally come under judgment, when the pagan world would finally confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.