Five Current Views
The Gaston-Gager Hypothesis
A very stimulating and moving attempt to totally revise our understanding of Paul was produced by Lloyd Gaston and developed further by John Gager. The basic outlines of this view are that Paul never intended to replace “the Law” as the means of salvation and justification for Jews but only to add Christ as a means of salvation for ethnic gentiles. Paul's “attacks” on the Law are not directed at Jews at all but at Judaizers, that is, at missionaries who contend that gentiles must convert to Judaism and keep the Law, including circumcision, in order to be saved by Christ. Paul had no essential critique of Judaism at all but only a desire to produce “Moses for the masses.” Gager has even written that “Jews of Paul's acquaintance resisted him on the mistaken assumption that he urged other Jews to abandon the Torah for allegiance to Christ” (1983, 200–201). This approach to Paul, termed by Gaston himself an experiment, is certainly a moving effort to rescue Paul from charges of anti-Semitism and thus save him for modern Christians. Ultimately, however, it has proven exegetically unconvincing. I need not rehearse here the objections to this view, since Thielman (and others) have already done the job (Thielman 1989, 123–33). It should be noted that while the thesis as a whole has been rejected, certain of its elements have stimulated valuable rethinking of Paul on various issues. Thus I would argue that there is something useful in the above-quoted proposition: Paul did not urge other Jews to abandon the Torah—except, of course, Peter. On the other hand, as I will suggest in Chapter 9 in my discussion of Romans 11, Jews who did not accept allegiance to Christ were considered by Paul to be lopped-off and abandoned branches of the People of God. Keeping the Law was for Paul adiaphora; faith in Jesus was most certainly not! Romans 14, especially if the “weak” and the “strong” are the law-abiding and the not-law-abiding, supports both halves of this proposition eloquently.
E. P. Sanders: The Christological Interpretation of Paul
Recently, Frank Thielman has presented the current state of Pauline scholarship in the following fashion:
The most prominent representative of this position is E. P. Sanders. Sanders argued that Judaism was not and had never been a religion of “worksrighteousness,” by which is meant a religion in which meritorious works automatically “earn” one's salvation (Sanders 1973, 1977). There had always been a recognition both of God's freedom and of God's mercy in judgment. Judaism was rather a religion of Covenantal Nomism through which salvation had been granted to Israel by a free act of grace, the Covenant, to which the proper response was obedience to its terms. Jews were saved through this grace unless their disobedience was such that it marked them as having renounced the Covenant. This seems to me a fairly accurate broad statement of “the Jewish pattern of religion.” Note its crucial point that in Judaism no one has ever completely fulfilled the requirements of the Law, so God's justification will always have to be informed by mercy or grace. Such a Judaism is clearly much less amenable to treatment as a foil or background for a spiritual revolution by which “legalism” was replaced by grace and spirituality in Paul. For Sanders, Paul leveled no attack on Judaism at all, indeed hardly even a critique. One way of summing up Sanders's position would be to say that the traditional contents of a putative Pauline critique of Judaism cannot be accepted because they would make Paul a fool or a liar. Judaism was particularly marked neither by self-righteousness nor by legalism, if by the latter we understand a dry, nonspiritual or commercialistic religious attitude.
Most interpreters, at least in the last decade, have concluded that Paul's view of the law can only be explained if we assume that he had abandoned Judaism and looked back on his “former way of life,” including his devotion to the law, wholly from the standpoint of his experience with Christ. (Thielman 1989, 1–2)
Therefore, claims Sanders, Paul's own soteriology can hardly be described as universalistic, since it was entirely dependent on faith in Christ, a matter which is as particular as membership in (or conversion to) the Jewish People (1983, 23). For Paul, argues Sanders in a famous formula, the only thing wrong with Judaism was that it was not Christianity (1977, 552). On Galatians 3 (a text which will be discussed at length below) Sanders writes:
In the midst of a sometimes bewildering series of arguments, quotations, and appeals, there seem to be only two sentences in Galatians in which Paul states unambiguously not only what his position is (which is never in doubt) but why he holds it. These statements are [2:21 and 3:21]. Put in propositional terms, they say this: God sent Christ; he did so in order to offer righteousness; this would have been pointless if righteousness were already available by the law (2:21); the law was not given to bring righteousness. That the positive statement about righteousness through Christ grounds the negative one about the law seems to me self-evident. (1983, 27)
Not quite self-evident, Sanders's interpretation depends (as all do) on the choice of particular texts on which to hang the rest. One could just as easily suppose that in these verses Paul is arguing further for his view of the Law, which is grounded, however, elsewhere. On my view, the elsewhere is, of course, the issue of salvation for all: Jews and gentiles alike. Sanders's position in Paul and Palestinian Judaism requires that we assume that there was nothing in Paul's position, thinking, or affect vis-à-vis his prior Judaism that led to his experience on the Damascus Road.
Nor has Sanders substantially revised his position on this question. In his Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, he writes:
One of the most striking features of Paul's argument is that he puts everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, in the same situation. This is best explained by hypothesizing that he thought backwards, from solution to plight, and that his thinking in this, as in many respects, was governed by the overriding conviction that salvation is through Christ. Since Christ came to save all, all needed salvation. The fact that Paul can equate the status of Jew and Gentile is explicable on this hypothesis and is simultaneously the best proof that Paul did not begin by analyzing the human condition. (1983, 68)
This account, however, entirely begs the question of what brought Paul to his recognition that salvation is through Christ. What happened to him was either a psychological or a supernatural miracle. If we, however, reverse the logic, as I do, then he was prepared for his experience by a deep sense of plight—not personal, but theological. We can account for Paul's putting everyone in the same situation by assuming that this was exactly what was bothering him about Judaism, namely that it did not “equate the status of Jew and Gentile.” Since, then, all need salvation, Christ came to save all. The nature of the plight is derivable from his letters and (as Sanders himself recognizes) it is consistent with what we know of first-century Judaism in its several varieties. Accordingly, the view of Paul presented in this book accepts all of Sanders's claims above except the “solution-to-plight” direction and the argument that Paul's cannot be a universalist position because of its requirement of faith.
Sanders has produced another powerful (but not irrefutable) argument for his position. He argues that there is a contradiction within Paul between repeated statements that the Law condemns and kills and also-repeated statements that the Law (or the “old dispensation”) was “glorious” (both together in 2 Corinthians 3). This apparent anomaly is explained by Sanders as a case in which the contrast is not between evil and good but between good and greater good:
The simplest explanation of this dual form of contrast seems to be that [Paul] came to relegate the Mosaic dispensation to a less glorious place because he found something more glorious and that he then, thinking in black-and-white terms, developed the death/life contrast. I cannot see how the development could have run the other way, from an initial conviction that the law only condemns and kills, to a search for something which gives life, to the conviction that life comes by faith in Christ, to the statement that the law lost its glory because a new dispensation surpasses it in glory. (1983, 138)
As I have already said, this seems like an ineluctable claim. There is, however, another possible solution. Paul, while feeling that the Law was sweet and good (glorious) in his former life, was nevertheless deeply disturbed by its exclusive and ethnocentric implications. Having discovered Christ as the solution to this plight, i.e., as the way to render Torah salvation for all, he now perceives that the former condition not only is less glorious than he thought and less glorious than the present condition but, in the absence of a turn toward the Lord, can only bring death and not life. When the Torah is read as a signifier for that which it truly signifies, its lesser glory is then apparent. When, however, it is read only for the letter, then that letter itself brings death and not life.
Thus even in the 1983 book, where he considerably clarifies his interpretation of Paul and definitively argues (to my mind) that the major thrust of Paul's thought on these topics was the salvation of all in Christ, Sanders still does not allow this to be the motivating force behind Paul's ministry. Sanders's book contains the best single demonstration of the thesis that Paul's critique dealt not with individual self-righteousness on the part of Jews but with “their own righteousness,” righteousness that is reserved for Jews, namely, the Law (1983, 36–43). But Sanders's ultimate understanding of Paul still wavers between two (partially incompatible) positions: According to one Paul was primarily motivated by christology, and according to another his primary motivation was the question of inclusion of the gentiles. Thus Sanders writes:
This gives us another way of defining Paul's attack on the law—more precisely, what he found inadequate in it. I said just above that it is the notion of Jewish privilege and the idea of election which he attacks, and I have elsewhere written that his real attack on Judaism is against the idea of the covenant and that what he finds wrong in Judaism is that it lacks Christ. (1983, 47)
Which is it: the notion of privilege, or the lack of Christ? Here, I think, Sanders tries to harmonize his previous claims that the only thing wrong with Judaism was that it was not Christianity with his newer understanding that there is a genuine critique of Judaism in Paul's work, although on an entirely different basis from the Lutheran slander. “The argument is that one need not be Jewish to be ‘righteous’ and is thus against the standard Jewish view that accepting and living by the law is a sign and a condition of favored status. This is both the position which, independently of Paul, we can know to have characterized Judaism and the position which Paul attacks ” (1983, 46). This is just right, but despite mighty efforts to harmonize—“What is wrong with the law, and thus with Judaism, is that it does not provide for God's ultimate purpose, that of saving the entire world through faith in Christ”—Sanders still leaves the christological and universalist aspects insufficiently integrated. Thus he can still write, “Paul's view of the law depends more on the exclusivism of his Christology than on anything else” (1983, 57, n. 64). Sanders still seems to hold that Paul came to Christ, realized that faith in the cross was God's plan for salvation, and then disqualified the Jewish Law for salvation; he does not argue that Paul realized that the Jewish Law could not be the means for salvation because it was only for Jews and came to Christ to solve that problem.
Sanders has forever changed the way that Paul will be read by scholars and interpreters of his work. In his masterwork, he finally achieved what several Christian and Jewish scholars (including Davies) had tried for decades to achieve—to demonstrate that the slander of early Judaism promulgated by interpreters of Paul was simply and finally just that, a slander. Pauline studies will never be the same, at least on English-speaking soil. New commentaries on the corpus advertise themselves as “the first full commentary on the Epistle” since the advent of the new paradigm (Dunn 1988; Barclay 1991). And indeed, Sanders has achieved a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense. Whatever criticisms have been leveled against Sanders's work, he has accomplished a gigantic breakthrough, which, I think, will never be reversed: He demonstrated that descriptions of the Judaism against which Paul is allegedly reacting must be based first and foremost in realistic and accurate descriptions of actually known Judaism and cannot be simply “reconstructed” from the Pauline texts themselves. Let me repeat this point: Whatever any interpreter ends up saying about Paul and Judaism from now on starts from actual Jewish texts and not from Paul. Judaism must not be treated as an unknown to be reconstructed by Pauline scholarship. Whether or not one agrees (and I often do and as often do not) with the details of Sanders's own interpretations of Paul, he has laid the foundations for a reading which neither slanders Judaism nor slanders Paul by making his account of Judaism a slander. As a professional and confessional student of rabbinic Judaism, I find Sanders's descriptions of my religious tradition unfailingly apposite to my own intuitions about this tradition. This is the gigantic advance which Sanders has wrought. The following brief quotation is exemplary of Sanders's clarity, accuracy, and intellectual integrity:
The correct exegetical perception that Paul opposed Judaism and that he argued christologically becomes—without argument or exegetical demonstration, but on the ground of basic theological assumptions— an assertion that he opposed the self-righteousness which is typical of Judaism. This step has doubtless been facilitated by more than a century of reading Jewish literature as evidencing self-righteousness. But the supposed objection to Jewish self-righteousness is as absent from Paul's letters as self-righteousness itself is from Jewish literature. (1983, 156 [final emphasis added])
A Neo-Lutheran Reading Which Is Not Anti-Judaic: Stephen Westerholm
In his Israel's Law and the Church's Faith, Stephen Westerholm is a Pauline scholar who essentially maintains the view of Paul that Luther promulgated, without, however, allowing it to be or become a slander of rabbinic Judaism. He accepts Sanders's principle that we cannot describe Judaism on the basis of our reading of Paul, cannot assume that Judaism is in every way the antithesis of Pauline theology—e.g., cannot conclude that if Paul says that Christ excludes boasting, then Jews boast. Westerholm provides, however, an important counter-corollary, “The basis for Paul's rejection of the law must not be determined solely by asking what his foes were proposing any more than we may see Judaism's own perspective of the law in Paul's rejected version of it” (1988, 150). This is well put and means that the initial reasons for Paul's rejection of the Law and his later reflections and amplifications are both equally important. Westerholm argues that Luther understood Paul well but that Paul was representing not Judaism but Christian theology:
There is more of Paul in Luther than many twentieth-century scholars are inclined to allow. But the insights of the “new perspective” must not be lost to view. Paul's convictions need to be identified; they must also be recognized as Christian theology. When Paul's conclusion that the path of the law is dependent on human works is used to posit a rabbinic doctrine of salvation by works, and when his claim that God's grace in Christ excludes human boasting is used to portray rabbinic Jews as self-righteous boasters, the results (in Johnsonian terms) are “pernicious as well as false.” When, moreover, the doctrine of merit perceived by Luther in the Catholicism of his day is read into the Judaism of the first Christian centuries, the results are worthless for historical study. Students who want to know how a rabbinic Jew perceived humanity's place in God's world will read Paul with caution and Luther not at all. (173)
Westerholm goes on to say, “On the other hand, students who want to understand Paul but feel they have nothing to learn from a Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy.” The point is well taken, if exaggerated, and Westerholm has made a strong case for reading Paul as motivated by a sense of the universality of sin and a conviction that only grace can save. The important shift in his work from the neo-Lutheran interpretations of the Bultmann school is that for Westerholm it is not keeping of the Law which is sinful in Paul but failure to keep the Law. There is no doubt in my mind as well that Luther's emphasis on faith is a pivotal Pauline theme, once it is deprived of its anti-Judaic slander as Westerholm has done, but I am convinced that Luther (and Westerholm) have missed a major issue in Paul (perhaps the major issue). The issue of re-creation of Universal Israel was central for him, and justification by grace was a necessary condition for this; for Westerholm, the issue of universal sin and salvation by grace is the central point, and the salvation of the gentiles is almost epiphenomenal. While I am entirely in sympathy with Westerholm's sense that theological issues are central in the interpretation of Paul, I disagree strongly with his suggestion that the issue of unification of Jews and gentiles was a “sociological” and not a theological issue for Paul (122). This was no practical matter of “the promotion of the Gentile mission” but rather the very motivation for the gentile mission! It is this difference between us that ultimately determines, I think, the different emphases of our readings of Paul. Westerholm concludes his book by writing, “What influence Paul's discussions of the Gentile problem had in Galatia or Rome in the first century remains a mystery; their later effects in Hippo, Wittenberg, and Aldersgate are better known.” Indeed, but I trust I will be forgiven the observation that this is a rather selective list of Christian “giants.” Westerholm's interpretation is neither pernicious nor false but, I think, not sufficiently grounded in Paul's particular historical situation and that of first-century Judaism. What would have happened, on Westerholm's account, had the Jews been able to keep the Law? The question is, however, one of interpretative emphasis, not absolute disagreement.
The “Sociological” Interpretation of Francis Watson
Westerholm's Paul is quite different from that of Francis Watson in Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach (1986). Indeed, one might suggest that Watson would represent for Westerholm the classic candidate for a career in metallurgy. For him, the Jerusalem church was a reform movement, because it did not call for a radical change in Jewish self-understanding or practice, while Paul's was a sectarian and not reformist move. Watson not only dismisses the theological tradition and interpretation associated with Luther but seems to do away as well with the tradition of interpreting Paul as universalist that goes back to F. C. Baur, in spite of having very complimentary things to say about Baur at various points. He writes, “Thus, the origins of Paul's theology of the law are to be found in a specific social situation, and not in his conversion experience, his psychological problems or his insight into the existential plight of humanity” (28; see also 88–89). The possibility that Paul was a social and cultural critic (to use anachronistic terminology)—i.e., that the origins of his theology of the Law have to do with a critique of its social effects and meanings—seems not to have occurred to Watson as a real option at all.
There is much in Watson's work that I find useful. For instance, his reading seems entirely salutary in its clear recognition that Paul was breaking with the self-understandings of what constituted Jewish community on the part of most Jews (63–69). There is much also that is quite similar to the interpretation given here in the understanding that what was at issue in “works of the Law” was membership in historical Israel. The fundamental difference between our interpretations lies in this: Where Watson over and over sees Paul's objective as causing maximal separation of Christians from Jews, I see his objective as creating maximal unity between Jews and gentiles. For Watson the unity is epiphenomenal to the separation; for me, the separation is an unfortunate consequence of the drive to one-ness (130). According to Watson, the threat from the “men from James” was mirabile dictu a threat “to break down the barrier he had built up between his congregations and the Jewish community” (77)—not, that is, a threat to rebuild the barriers that he had broken down between Jewish and gentile Christians in his congregations! On my view, the mission to the gentiles constituted the very essence of Paul's Christianity—just as Paul tells it in Galatians 1; for Watson it is the product of disappointment at the failure of the Jewish mission.
Watson can write, “The Gentile Christian congregation does not observe the law, and to accept its legitimacy is to abandon the cardinal belief of the Jewish community, the absolute divine authority of the law of Moses, even if one continues to observe it oneself. The antithesis between faith and works is thus not a clash between two great opposing theological principles. It must instead be interpreted sociologically; it expresses the sectarian separation of Pauline congregations from the Jewish community” (134). I find this statement quite astonishing. I agree entirely with Watson that the antithesis between faith and works had nothing to do with achievement versus grace and further that it had everything to do with the question of Jews and gentiles in salvation. What I fail to understand, however, is why this is not to be considered a theological issue par excellence in its own right and why it is not understood by him as the primary motor of Paul's work. What, after all, could possibly be more theological than abandoning a cardinal belief? I find that Watson's formalist sociological explanations of sectarian behavior beg precisely the question of what motivates the break with the original community altogether. As Watson himself remarks, “Once again, it is clear that Paul's use of antithesis asserts the separation of church from synagogue, but does not explain theologically why such a separation is necessary” (69). This seems to me, however, a singularly unsatisfying hermeneutical result. Watson's interpretative schema is also curiously non-historical in its apparent assumption of a typology of sectarian behavior which always obtains in all historical, cultural conditions. Thus, for example, his typology of reform movements as distinguished from sects seems to me seriously inapt for the situation of first-century Judaism, in which sects were the norm and there was no formal hierarchical and hegemonic structure of either theory or practice to reform.
James Dunn: Paul as Culture-Critic
James Dunn accepted that which I have identified as Sanders's unimpeachable achievement, namely the insistence that any descriptions of the Judaism from which Paul came and to which he reacted have to be based on Jewish texts and not on Paul himself and that they may not distort Judaism in order to provide Paul with an effective backdrop. He awarded Sanders, moreover, an extraordinary tribute, writing that while there had been much interesting Pauline scholarship in the last years, “None have succeeded in ‘breaking the mould’ of Pauline studies, the mould into which descriptions of Paul's work and thought have regularly been poured for many decades now. There is, in my judgement, only one work written during the past decade or two which deserves that accolade. I refer to the volume entitled Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E. P. Sanders” (Dunn 1990, 184). In spite of this extraordinary and well-merited praise, Dunn was unhappy, however, with one of the apparent consequences of Sanders's interpretation, namely, that it left Paul appearing weak and self-contradictory: “But this presentation of Paul is only a little better than the one rejected. There remains something very odd in Paul's attitude to his ancestral faith. The Lutheran Paul has been replaced by an idiosyncratic Paul who in arbitrary and irrational manner turns his face against the glory and greatness of Judaism's covenant theology and abandons Judaism simply because it is not Christianity” (1990, 187).
Dunn's own understanding represents a tremendous advance over the previous “Lutheran” reading of Paul, but it also corrects, in my opinion, excesses of Sanders's (earlier) approach as well, for now we have a rational basis for Paul's distress with Judaism, one that would lead him precisely to the point where he would have a “conversion” experience but one that does not slander Judaism, for there is no doubt that one of the major problems with Jewish theology is to account for the gentiles in God's plan. This is not to say that there were not Jewish thinkers before, contemporaneous with, and after Paul who also confronted this problem. Indeed, the opposite is the case; I would claim that many Jews of late antiquity dealt with this issue, from Philo or the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, on the one hand, to the Rabbis, on the other—the Rabbis, especially, with their notion of the righteous of the nations. This view takes Paul as a critic of Judaism and a reformer but not as an anti-Judaic thinker. Nor does the fact that this problem of Jewish theology implicitly raises a critique of Judaism itself render its author anti-Judaic. Judaism, like any culture, is obviously not above or beyond criticism from within or without.