Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Impossible Yoke: Part VIII

This will be my last post in this series in which I have examined Timo Laato's portrayal of Second-Temple Judaism's anthropology in the book Paul and Judaism: An Anthropological Approach. Here I will interact with his summary (found on pages 72-75) and I will make a summary of my own. A note for the future: I will hopefully post more about the Philippians 3 passage as well as the Jewish literature surrounding the NT in the months to come, seeing that I am working on a project now regarding both of them.

Laato begins his summary by stating that soteriological free will is the "opinio communis" of the literature from the Second-Temple period, except for the documents from Qumran, which he categorizes as representing "an absolute fatalism" [he does note EP Sanders' hesitation with this distinction in the footnotes] (72). He continues by saying:

On the basis of free will man has not only the capacity always to choose good instead of evil. He has also the power always to do good (cf. the earlier quotations). Apparently everyone has an inborn propensity, but no hereditary compulsion to disobedience. It is fully conceivable to the very end to be obedient to the law. Otherwise God would bear at least to some extent responsibility for sins committed, since he would have created creation deficient. In view of a painful conclusion such as that it is self-evident that the Jews generally hold fast to human power of decision in the area of soteriology (73; emphases original as well as the unnecessary gender-specific language).

I can agree with Laato that the literature he examined stressed the free will of individuals. Where I cannot agree is that the literature did not state unequivocally that individuals had the "power to always do good." This is simply not the case. The same could be said about Laato's insistence on an individual's ability to be obedient to the law "to the very end." As I have intimated many times now, admitting free will does not make a positive anthropology by default. The support for Laato's claim is that otherwise God is on the hook for sin by not creating creation fully sufficient. This is a weak support at best and it certainly reveals that Laato is anachronistically reading the Calvinism/Arminianism debate into this literature.

That God granted free will to individuals, as the literature of Second-Temple Judaism almost unanimously avers, should be viewed as a gracious move on God's part. And the fact that an individual chooses death instead of life in no way falls back on God; that choice is the sole responsibility of the one that did the choosing. In other words, Laato's support for his complete-law-obedience claim is unfounded.

Laato then goes on to link the purity of the soul (found in the Babylonian Talmud [Berakhot 60b]) with free will, though this is not evident from the quotation he provides (which seems to be more about resurrection than anthropology) (73). He later claims that this idea of the purity of the soul is "a fundamental principle of rabbinicism and respectively of Judaism" (74), though no primary sources are cited. Instead Odeberg, on whom Laato heavily leans, is the only reference.

Laato continues by stating that sin may taint the soul's purity temporarily but will never make it "definitively corrupt" (74), again with only Odeberg cited. Laato also rightly indicates that "[w]hen a person acts lawlessly, the whole human being sits in judgment" (74).

He ends with two paragraphs about Second-Temple Judaism's reading of Genesis 3. "The fall into sin worked neither a total loss nor a partial limiting of the free will and respectively the purity of the soul," which can be seen in the fact that Adam and Eve are said to have the same capability of obeying God before and after eating from the tree of knowledge (74). "Human nature went through no delimitation of essence by sin" and thus "[t]he rebellion in Paradise serves as one (well typical) example of disobedience" (74-75).

Because of all of this, Laato claims that "[t]he gulf to the Pauline way of thinking...appears unbridgeable" (75). I cannot comment on this fully here, but I can say that when compared to the slanted and forced picture of Second-Temple Judaism that Laato has presented I have to agree. If we let these texts speak for themselves instead of reading later theological developments over them, then perhaps we can make more sense of these Jewish texts as well as those found in the Pauline corpus.

In my final analysis, Laato is guilty of the same thing as EP Sanders - namely, reading their presuppositions onto the texts. Both claim that the other side of the theological fence is not reading the texts faithfully, while they each are doing exactly that!

Thus, to wrap this series up, it does appear that free will was a major part of Second-Temple Judaism, but this fact does not equate to a positive anthropology. Perhaps one could say that the anthropology of the literature that we have examined is more positive than that of, say, Calvin, but that is not what Laato is claiming. Laato is claiming that the texts which we have looked at present us with a polar opposite view of human capability than that for which Paul argues. To fully evaluate this we would have to look more in depth at many Pauline texts, but I feel that we can say that Laato's reading of Second-Temple Judaism was not fully sympathetic.

The Impossible Yoke: Part I
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

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