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.