Paul the Pharisee
by Scot McKnight
with commentary by R.E. Slater
with commentary by R.E. Slater
Oct 3, 2013
The apostle Paul emerged into a faith in Jesus as the Messiah out of the Pharisaic way of life. What was that like? This is one of the highlight questions Tom Wright asks in his new Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and to answer that question he prepares us with a lengthy and winding discussion of the “Story” at work in Judaism, and the particular slant that Story was told by the Pharisees. Here is awesome summary, leading to this big question for us:
If this is Paul’s “background” and “past,” what do we now see in his letters we did not see before? or, what does this tell us about his theory of “justification by faith”? (More on that below, too.)
This begins with major worldview questions for the [faithful] Pharisee:
Who are we? We are a group of [religious] Jews who found ourselves dissatisfied with the way our country is being run. And with our life as a people, at home and abroad. We are therefore devoting ourselves to the study and practice of Torah, as a kind of elite corps, intending to advance the time when Israel will finally be redeemed, when our God will reveal his faithfulness to our nation.
Where are we? Mostly, it seems, in the holy land, which is where we might prefer to be; but some of us live and work in the Diaspora [(the scattered 12 tribes throughout the ancient world, primarily from Eqypt to Asia Minor)]. We are, however, mostly living under the rule of the Roman empire (some, perhaps, far out in the east, have other pagan overlords [(such as the gods of Persia)]), and we have struck a deal that we will pray for the emperor, not to him as everyone else is forced to do. 396
What’s wrong? There are not nearly enough of us who take Torah with proper seriousness, and even among those who do there are schools [of thought] developing which the tough-minded among us regard as dangerously compromised. What counts, after all, is absolute purity. We do not imagine that we never sin, or never incur impurity, but we deal with it at once according to the methods and means of atonement and purification given by God as prescribed in the law. That is what it means to be ‘perfect in the law’. But we cannot compromise or collude with the wickedness we see in the nations all around us, and that goes especially for the rulers of the nations. Ever since the days in Egypt, and then again from the time in Babylon (where some of us still are) to the present, we have known what pagan rulers are like, and what it’s like to live under them. We will not be content until we no longer have to live as, in effect, slaves under these pagans, paying them [horrendous] taxes [from our meager wages]. Behind the problem of Israel’s large-scale failure to obey Torah properly is the much bigger problem [of our grievance with God]: "When will our God reveal his faithfulness to the covenant, by judging the pagans, liberating us from their wicked grasp, and setting up his ultimate kingdom? That’s what’s wrong: it hasn’t happened yet!"
What’s the solution? To the smaller-scale problem: a campaign to persuade more Jews to take upon themselves the yoke of Torah. To the larger-scale problem: to pray (prayer is especially important; the Shema alone is the very foundation of our existence) and to wait in purity, to keep the feasts and the fasts, to study scripture . . . and perhaps, so some of us think, to join up with those who are eager for armed resistance and revolution. We have as our great models of ‘zeal for Torah’ the heroes of old, Phinehas and Elijah especially. They were not afraid to use the sword in the service of God. Nor were our more recent heroes, the Maccabaean freedom-fighters. We venerate, too, the martyrs who died cruel deaths rather than defile themselves with pagan food and practices. We are waiting for a new exodus, and perhaps a new Moses to lead it. Some of us want to hurry that process along.
What time is it? Well, there is a lot of discussion about that, because nobody is completely sure how to calculate the Great Jubilee of Daniel 9. But it has to be soon. The ‘present age’ will give way to the ‘age to come’;397 the present time is the time of continuing exile and slavery, despite various false dawns; some of us did make it back to our own land, but whether we did or didn’t we are still in the long, dark period [for didn't] Daniel 9 predicted the ‘exile’ of Deuteronomy 28? The coming age, however, will be the time of freedom, and some of us have begun to think that maybe that coming age is being secretly inaugurated as we develop and pass on the oral law and do our best to keep it. Maybe that’s the way God’s faithfulness is being revealed. Meanwhile, we are frustrated that the great biblical laws about jubilee have usually been honoured in the breach rather than [in] the observance. We who keep the sabbath very carefully week-by-week are hoping and praying for the great Sabbath, the time when our God will have completed the work of rescuing Israel, and we can enjoy ‘[a Sabbath's] rest’ like Joshua’s people did once the land was settled. It is time for a ‘messianic time’ - for a new kind of time - for the same thing to happen to our time and history as happens in space and matter when we go to the Temple: an intersection of our world with God’s world, of our time with God’s time. That’s what happens every week, every sabbath. We want all those times of rest to come rushing together as the [one] true Jubilee, the real freedom-moment, not just because we want a new exodus but because we want to share God’s ultimate rest, the joy of work complete. (177-179)
Here is how the Pharisees, according to NT Wright, saw their problem:
We have thus approached, from the theological angle, the topic we discovered at the heart of our study of the narrative world of second-Temple Jews. If Israel is chosen to be the people through whom the Creator will put the world to rights, what happens when Israel itself needs to be put to rights? The answer given by the Pharisees was reasonably clear: Israel needs to learn how to keep Torah, and how to keep it properly this time. If Israel wants the covenant God to be faithful to his promises and bring the restoration they longed for, Israel has to be faithful to this God, to Torah, to the covenant. Plenty of evidence in scripture itself indicated that something like this was the right answer. Since Paul the apostle basically agrees with this answer, though providing a radical and shocking fresh analysis of what ‘keeping Torah properly’ and ‘being faithful to God’ now looks like, we may confidently conclude that this was what Saul of Tarsus, the zealous Pharisee, had believed as well. (183)
Now what about justification by faith in this worldview?
The point can be summarized thus. First, God will soon bring the whole world into judgment, at which point some people will be ‘reckoned in the right’, as Abraham and Phinehas were. Second, there are particular things, even in the present time, which will function as signs of that coming verdict. Third, those particular things are naturally enough the things that mark out loyal Israelites from disloyal ones; in other words (remember Mattathias!) strong, zealous adherence to Torah and covenant. Fourth, as a result, those who perform these things in the present time can thus be assured that the verdict to be issued in the future, when the age to come is finally launched, can already be known, can be anticipated, in the present. This, I believe, is what a first-century Pharisee would have meant by ‘justification by the works of the law’. (184)
So here’s Paul’s basic worldview coming into view on justification:
We may therefore suppose (supposition is all we have, in the absence of direct evidence, but this is where all the lines of evidence converge) that a first-century Pharisee like Saul of Tarsus would have seen the picture like this:
a. In the ‘age to come’, the creator God will judge the wicked (pagans, and renegade Jews), and will vindicate (= declare ‘righteous’) his people (i.e. will declare that they are part of his ‘all Israel’).
b. The present marks of this vindicated/justified people will be the things which show their loyalty to their God and their zeal for his covenant.
c. These things are, more precisely, the true keeping of Torah: (a) keeping the ‘works’ which mark out Jews from their pagan neighbours, and (b) keeping the ‘works’ which mark out good, observant Jews from non-observant [Jews] – in [more] extreme cases, [from] the skeptics, and the wicked, though there might be other more fine-tuned categories as well.426
d. You can therefore tell in the present who will be ‘vindicated’ in the future, because they are those who keep ‘the works of Torah’ in this way in the present time. 187
Paul as a converted Pharisee to a Christ-follower:
That is why, if we are to understand Paul the apostle, we must see him within this rich, many-sided world. To move through the different concentric circles: the Pharisaic worldview was about the whole business of being human; of being a Jewish human; of living in a Jewish community; of living in a threatened Jewish community; of living with wisdom, integrity and hope in a threatened Jewish community; of living with zeal for Torah, the covenant and above all Israel’s faithful God within a threatened Jewish community (196).
* * * * * * * * *
Thus there is a Pharisaical emphasis on 1) divine judgment, 2) believer faithfulness, 3) strict adherence to Scriptural obedience/duty/honor, and 4) a future that vindicates God's faithful. Which becomes easily translated into today's evangelical beliefs with its own corresponding emphasis upon Jesus, in place of Torah. From which have come Christian doctrines emphasizing: 1) God's judgment over His divine grace, 2) God's austerity over His divine forgiveness, 3) blind obedience to the Scriptures without consideration for their tone and import, and an 4) emphasis upon future judgment: such as apostasy, tribulation, and apocalypse; and future reward: heaven v. hell.
When each "faith" is tallied up we then find a faith that is works-oriented, ungracious, unduly harsh, and ill-forgiving - as compared to Jesus' works of grace and compassion, which are largely met in Spirit-faith and Spirit-empowerment. A faith that emphasizes God's grace over His Torah Law (sic, Jesus' many debates with the Pharisees). That presents a compassionate covenant of inclusion over those of exclusion and hate (NT examples abound of Jesus curing the lame, the sick, helping the poor, defending the whore, and ministering the despised). Of a more hopeful future than one dipped in fear, dread and blood (where God's great salvation will be proclaimed by all His Church). And of a future that is here, now, as present in Christ's atonement and His Holy Spirit's ministry to this world of humanity - and not to a select few of God's supposed "chosen" (the mustard seed, the lost coins, new wineskins - each telling of a Kingdom that will grow disproportionately to our unbelieving thoughts and incredulity supposing it to be stingy, miserly, or ungenerous). One that envisions this present world as a heaven on earth which can become more fully a place of God's divine rule and habitation when recreated in Jesus' resurrected fullness (the idea of an upside-down Kingdom in holy tension with man's stubborn sin, and judgment to man's evil and wickedness). Which does not discount the future coming of Christ, but envisions Christ's presence now through His Church on this earth in works of compassion and justice, and ecological care and restoration.
October 10, 2013
October 10, 2013
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