Paul as a Jewish Cultural Critic
I read Paul as a Jewish cultural critic, and I ask what it was in Jewish culture that led him to produce a discourse of radical reform of that culture. This question, moreover, raises two closely related but different points: What was wrong with Jewish culture in Paul's eyes that necessitated a radical reform? And what in the culture provided the grounds for making that critique? The culture itself was in tension with itself, characterized both by narrow ethnocentrism and universalist monotheism. I thus contend that Paul's motivation and theory were genuinely theological, but that his practice and preaching were directed toward radical change in Jewish society.
My fundamental idea, similar to Dunn's—and, as I have said, ultimately going back to Baur—is that what motivated Paul ultimately was a profound concern for the one-ness of humanity. This concern was motivated both by certain universalistic tendencies within biblical Israelite religion and even more by the reinterpretation of these tendencies in the light of Hellenistic notions of universalism (Hengel 1974). Paul was, therefore, troubled by, critical of, the “ethnocentrism” of biblical and post-biblical religion, and particularly the way it implicitly and explicitly created hierarchies between nations, genders, social classes. Despite this powerful, nearly irresistible concern for universal “Man” and critique of “Judaism,” Paul nevertheless remained convinced that the Hebrew Scriptures contained God's revelation and that the Jews had been at least the vehicle for the communication of that revelation. In addition, moreover, to his plight having been motivated by a Hellenistic notion—one, I would emphasize, common to him and many other Jews—of the One or the universal, the solution for him was also generated by this idea. That is, Paul came to see, literally—via his vision on the road to Damascus—that the dual structure of outer, physical reality, that which he refers to as κατὰ σάρκα, which corresponded to and signified an inner, higher, spiritual reality, that which is κατὰ πνεῦμα, provided the answer to his sociocultural problems. He could preserve both the significance of Israel and the Book, as well as include everyone in the People of God. This correspondence and signification holds on many levels at once: It explains the relation of the Jewish People to the Israel of God; it explains the relation of outer works to inner faith; it explains the dual nature of Christ; and it empowers the two-tiered theology of sexuality and the body which is characteristic of Paul as well. Following the view of Angus Fletcher that allegory and allegorical reading systems are not just literary but represent profound ontological or metaphysical commitments, I call this dualist ontology, anthropology, hermeneutic, and christology, “allegory” (Fletcher 1970).
How does my view, then, relate to Dunn's, and how does it answer objections to his interpretation? The crux of the matter is the interpretation of the much contested “works of the Law,” ἔργα νόμου. In my opinion, the entire context of Pauline thought strongly supports Dunn's understanding that this phrase refers precisely to those observances of the Torah which were thought by Jew and gentile alike to mark off the special status of the Jews: circumcision, kashruth, and the observances of Sabbath and the holidays. These are the three items which are mentioned by satirists ad nauseam as emblematic of Jewish cultural practice, of Jewish difference (Gager 1983, 56–57). As Dunn so elegantly puts it, “If an unbaptized Christian is for most of us a contradiction in terms, even more so was a Jew who did not practise the works of the law, circumcision, table regulations and sabbath” (1990, 194). Moreover, it seems likely that for many Jews of the first century, not only did these practices mark off the covenant community exclusively, but justification or salvation was dependent on being a member of that very community. At any rate, Paul seems to have thought so and expected Peter to assent to the proposition as well that gentiles are ipso facto sinners, as we learn in Galatians 2:15. The road to salvation for gentiles, according to such first-century Jews, lay in conversion and acceptance of the covenantal practices. Recent scholarship has made abundantly clear that conversion was a real political and cultural option for many gentiles in the Roman empire (Gager 1983, 77). Nevertheless these practices remained essentially the rituals of a particular ethnic group. The doors were open, not closed, but one was saved by becoming Jewish. This is not, then, exclusiveness in the sense that it excludes, in principle, anyone, but neither does it conform to any Greek sense of the universal, of the One. It remains, after all, a valorization of difference. Now, on my hypothesis, this is precisely the motivating force behind Paul's entire conversion experience and mission, to transcend that very covenantal difference. As Dunn puts it: “The decisive corollary which Paul saw, and which he did not hesitate to draw, was that the covenant is no longer to be identified or characterized by such distinctively Jewish observances as circumcision, food laws and sabbath. Covenant works had become too closely identified as Jewish observances, covenant righteousness as national righteousness.…God's purposes and God's people have now expanded beyond Israel according to the flesh, and so God's righteousness can no longer be restricted in terms of works of the law which emphasize kinship at the level of the flesh” (1990, 197, 200).
Dunn's analysis has recently been challenged by Thomas Schreiner (1991), but I think that the particular turn that I have been giving to the thesis goes a long way toward answering Schreiner's arguments. Schreiner has rightly pointed out that there is in Paul a theoretical and theological attack on the doing of works of the Law, and not merely a critique of specific works of the Law as identity markers. On the other hand, Paul repeatedly makes distinctions between circumcision and “keeping the commandments.” 1 Corinthians 7:19 is an excellent example of this: “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.” There is, accordingly, no doubt but that Dunn is also correct in assuming that Paul singles out circumcision (and to a somewhat lesser extent the other “identity markers”) and opposes them to the commandments of God, or even to the Law, which should be kept. How then can these two seemingly contradictory moments of a general, theoretical attack on “works of the Law” and a specific set of oppositions between certain works and “the commandments of God” or “the precepts of the Law” be reconciled—at least if we do not intend to adopt Räisänen's notions of an incoherent Paul? I suggest that the two can be read as two sides of the same coin, because it is in the doing of the Law, that is, in the focus on the corporeal, that the identity of the ethnic group is marked and established. On the other hand, in the spiritual Law, the Law of faith (Romans 3:27 and see below), there are no ethnic distinctions. Accordingly, when works of the Law are what is emphasized by the theology, then the focus is on the doing, on the external practices and especially on those which mark off the Jews from other peoples. In both Romans and Galatians Paul emphasizes circumcision and kashruth as the two most blatant examples of this. When, however, the theological emphasis is on “faith working through love,” there will still remain room for that faith to be expressed in works—and indeed it must—, but only such works which are indeed an expression of such faith and love (cf. Romans 2:6). Accordingly, Schreiner is right that “works of the Law” refers to the whole Law and not just the particular ethnic markers, and the question is indeed not one of a mistaken attitude toward the Law (229–30). Nevertheless, Dunn is also right. Emphasis on the doing, on the corporeal and literal doing of the Law, leads inevitably to the exclusion of those who have not shared that Law and the history which produced it, while emphasis on faith (as the allegorical interpretation of the Law) allegedly creates a universal People of God.
Dunn has got this just right in my opinion: “It is two ways of looking at the law as a whole which [Paul in Romans 3:27] sets in opposition: when the law is understood in terms of works it is seen as distinctively Jewish and particular features come into prominence (particularly circumcision); but when the law is understood in terms of faith its distinctive Jewish character ceases to hold center stage, and the distinctively Jewish works become subsidiary and secondary matters which cannot be required of all and which can be disregarded by Gentiles in particular without damaging (indeed thereby enhancing—v 31) its faith character” (Dunn 1988, 186–87). Watson has also emphasized this point: “‘Works’ refers to the way of life confined to the Jewish community, and ‘faith’ refers to a response to God which is open to Gentiles” (Watson 1986, 165). Watson and Dunn fail to ask how Paul would have justified his position hermeneutically—how he would have explained his “kind of understanding of the law,” a point which is crucial considering that he and his interlocutors held the Torah to be revealed by God. To my mind, the thesis being put forward in this book, namely that Paul understood “works” as the material signifier of “faith,” that is, his essentially allegorical appropriation of Scripture, solves this problem. This, then, leads once more to a reading of Paul which is in line with the traditional understanding of 2 Corinthians 3:6, namely, that the letter which kills is the literal meaning, while the spirit which gives life is the spiritual meaning of the text.
This connection between the keeping of the Law and ethnic particularity as Paul's main concern has been especially well made by Richard Hays, who summarizes Paul's concern (in Romans 3) as, “Is God the God of the Jews only (as he would be if justification were contingent upon keeping the Law)? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also?” (Hays 1985, 84). Since the emphasis is on the universal, many (if not most) works remain valid, insofar as they are universal. Although physical circumcision is excluded entirely, alms giving, for example, is not. The contrast is then not between the legalistic and the moral but between the particular and the universal, which corresponds to the flesh and the spirit. This is particularly poignant in that the alms that were meant to be given were from gentile Christians to Jewish Christians, thus once more emphasizing both in form and in content the unity of all in the community of the new Israel.
The obsession with Jewish difference, so characteristic of western discourse until the present, finds one of its fountainheads in Galatians and Paul's oppositional emplacement of works and faith. Paul's expression of this opposition, particularly the famous passages in Galatians 3 that seem to refer to the Law as a curse, has been the foundation stone of anti-Judaic discourse and practice in the Church, as well as of accusations that Paul was an “anti-Semite.” In this book, I am reading Paul otherwise.