Friday, February 02, 2007

The Impossible Yoke: Part I

In recent discussions in my class on Paul and the Law we have considered whether or not first-century Jews (in part or in whole) thought of the Law as a burden that no one could bear. A passage that is important to this issue has to be Acts 15:1-11, specifically verse 10, which says: "Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" This is, of course, from Peter's speech in the so-called "Council at Jerusalem." The "you" refers to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem generally and to those who were formerly Pharisees specifically and the "disciples" refers to Gentiles who were following Jesus.

The first question worth investigating is what exactly is this yoke that is being placed on Gentiles? Is it circumcision only as 15:1 seems to indicate? Or is the more immediate context of Peter's speech to control this term; which would mean that the yoke indicated circumcision and the rest of the Law of Moses as well (15:5). The latter seems most convincing. Thus, Peter claims that the observance of the Law (including circumcision) is a yoke that neither he, his fellow Jewish-Christian brother, nor their ancestors could bear (15:10).

But was this the case in reality? There is other biblical support for the idea. Matthew 23:4 reveals Jesus talking to the crowds about the scribes and Pharisees. He says that they "tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders." In Galatians 5:1 Paul contrasts the freedom believers have in Christ with what the Judaizers are trying to force on them, namely a yoke of slavery. Romans 7:7-25 could also be called upon here, but many say the testimony there "is expressed in terms of his now Christian backward look at his life before Christ" (Fee, Philippians, NICNT, 309n.20), which has sufficiently altered his judgment.

There is also support for the opposite, i.e., that the Law could be fulfilled. In Philippians 3:6 Paul claims that he was blameless when it comes to righteousness which is in the Law. This means that as far as his pre-Christian interpretation of the righteousness with regard to the Law was concerned, Paul had complete legal rectitude. He was (literally) faultless in his completion of the Law. There is a major issue to clear up however. In Romans 7 Paul appears to admit to coveting, which is against the Law. So how could he state in Philippians 3 that he was blameless in accordance to the Law? It should be remembered that the Law not only pointed out sin (as is clear in Romans 7) but that it provided a way for restitution...through sacrifice. So Paul is not claiming in Philippians 3:6 that he was sinless, only that as far as the Law was concerned he had insured that all his ducks were in a row. As Bruce says "To conform with the righteousness required by the law called for infinite painstaking, but (as Paul had proved) it was not impossible" (Philippians, NIBC, 110).

From a reading of the major commentaries, it also appears that except for a few examples (1QS and 4 Ezra, notably) the Jewish literature of the time presupposed the ability to fulfill the requirements of the Law. This is a particular subject that I hope to delve into with more zeal over the next few weeks and months. I will start by finishing a book called Paul and Judaism: An Anthropological Approach by Timo Laato. In the book he basically argues that Judaism's anthropology was quite optimistic and Paul's was pessimistic. Perhaps I will discover some more primary literature there which will shed light on this subject. If I do or if I don't, I will post my findings here!

The Impossible Yoke: Part II
The Impossible Yoke: Part III
The Impossible Yoke: Part IV
The Impossible Yoke: Part V
The Impossible Yoke: Part VI
The Impossible Yoke: Part VII
The Impossible Yoke: Part VIII


Chris Spinks said...

Matt, nice to see another Truetteer at Fuller and blogging to boot! Thanks for the comment on my blog. I thought I would reciprocate. You might be interested in my less frequently updated but more academic blog, katagrapho. See you around campus and in the blogosphere.


Matt said...

Awesome, I'll check out your other blog as well!

Patrick George McCullough said...

Hey Matt,
I'm finally getting a moment to read these posts of yours and give them some thought. I was a little oversaturated with new perspective stuff in that class.

On the contradiction in Paul: Couldn't that just be his hyperbolic rhetorical nature? When he's proclaiming himself blameless, couldn't he just mean, "well, I was as faultless as you can be"?

And, in general, couldn't a positive attitude toward being able to fulfill the law in Judaism mean something different from what we think of as "perfection"? I think of perfection and I think in terms of absolute totality, maybe the idea of being "faultless" or "blameless" even "perfect" (I don't know if they used that word), in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Jewish mindset, could've meant something more like being "faithful" or "trying your best" (as kindergarten-ish as that sounds).

I'm sure you dive into this kind of stuff with the rest of your series, I will keep reading.

J. Matthew Barnes said...


Next quarter I am doing an independent study on the in/ability to fulfill the Law in the Second-Temple period. My hunch is that most of the literature presupposes that one has free will but the question remains for me whether or not Paul's view of being blameless (whatever that might mean) was common or not.

As far as the what blameless means, a good equivalent word for it would be "unmixed." I think that they only way that Paul, a Pharisee, could say this was that he did his best to fulfill the Oral Law (thus fulfilling the Written Law) and when he failed to the Law had structures in place for atonement.

Patrick George McCullough said...

The independent study sounds cool. I look forward to hearing about it.

I'm a little confused about your last paragraph there, though. "Unmixed" meaning committed only to the law and not, say, other idolatrous forms of living? And I think you're saying that whatever that means, it doesn't refer to any "atoning" qualities of his "blamelessness" or "unmixedness." Am I right?

So maybe (or maybe not) Second Temple and/or Rabbinic Jews thought it was possible to follow the law... but did they see this as related to "atonement"? Is that part of the question?

J. Matthew Barnes said...

I think that what you are asking is the entire point of my research starting next week. What does "blameless" mean in a Pharisaic context? Does it mean that Paul did not offend the Oral Law and therefore he was always innocent of offending the Written Law? Or does it mean that when Paul did offend the Law (even the Written Law) there where structures in place to make him "unmixed" again?

To put it another way: Did Paul believe that he never offended the Law or did he think that he always made proper atonement when he did offend the Law?

My somewhat-educated guess is that the latter is the case.

But we shall see...hopefully.