Thursday, December 20, 2007

Paul as a Jewish Believer

I finished reading Donald Hagner's article in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries ("Paul as a Jewish Believer--According to His Letters" [96-120]) and I thought that I would share a summary and analysis of it here. Sometime soon, hopefully later today, I'll post my thoughts about Mark Nanos' slashing critique of Hagner's essay that was presented at this year's SBL.

To begin with, it would be good to underscore Hagner's methodology in this essay. Basically what he is doing is trying to uncover the continuity or discontinuity that Paul's post-Christ religious experience has with regard to his Jewish past. In order to do this Hagner utilizes material almost exclusively from Paul's undisputed letters (he does include a few references to the disputed letters both parenthetically and in footnotes). Also, Hagner pays careful attention to the scholarship regarding this issue, both the writings from Jewish and gentile scholars.

The thesis of the essay appears to be that while there is much continuity between Paul's pre-Christ Judaism and his post-Christ religious experience, there is also much discontuity; and the latter should not be ignored because of the former.

In the first section ("The Changing Understanding of Paul"), Hagner gives a nice overview of scholarship on the Jewishness of Paul, paying special and close attention to Jewish works, the Hellenistic Judaism/Palestinian Judaism distinction, and the New Perspective on Paul. His grasp of the development of this issue is impressive, both in its breadth and depth.

The second section ("Studies in Continuity and Discontinuity"), which comprises the bulk of the essay, is a detailed examination of the connectedness of Paul's thought and experience had with first-century Judaism. In most instances Hagner assumes the traditional interpretations while nuancing them when needed as a result of new findings or historical developments. For example, Hagner argues that Paul was not merely called to be a missionary to the gentiles, but that Paul's post-Christ experience "involves a dramatic enough shift that conversion is also an appropriate word" (102). He does not summarily dismiss the notion of Paul's call with regard to his conversion, he simply qualifies it.

Hagner continues in this section by arguing that Paul's soteriology has changed (102-114). Perhaps the best passage in the entire essay is found in sub-section 2.2.1, "Paul and the law," where Hagner highlights the fact that Paul can make both negative and positive statements concerning the law. Hagner's conclusion regarding this seeming problem is fascinating: "If we take the negative statements regarding the law as referring to the commandments, it is possible to take the positive statements as referring simply to the righteousness that is the goal of the law" (108). In other words, according to Hagner, Paul can speak of believers in Christ not being under the law, while the original intent of the law, righteousness, is spoken of positively.

This may lead one to think that Paul (and Hagner!) thinks that right living is no longer that important for the believer in Christ. Hagner argues exactly the opposite in sub-section 2.2.3, "The ongoing importance of righteousness for Paul." Hagner encapsulates his position well in the following sentence: "The paradox can be summed up by saying that those who are free from the law are now in a position to, and called to, pursue a righteousness that remarkably corresponds to the goal of the law" (111). In so doing, Hagner preserves for Paul freedom from the law, as is certainly espoused in his letters, while also accentuating Paul's clear concern for ethical living.

The third and final section ("Old and New in Paul") is the conclusion to the essay. In it Hagner states the following:

Furthermore, the old and the new are not present in an equal balance. We do not have a situation in which a variety of new perspectives are added to the staple of old things that constitute Judaism, causing only minor readjustments. On the contrary, the new that comes is an eschatological turning point in the ages, of such great consequence that we must be prepared for dramatic shifts. (118)

These two sentences describe Hagner's basic position quite well -- while there is "old" present in Paul, the "new" is so important that something different is created that is colored by what came before, not vice versa.

As already mentioned, Hagner presents his readers with traditional understandings of Paul in this essay. However, he does not do so without regard to new developments in the study of Paul and Judaism or the repugnant history of violence against Jews, especially in the twentieth century. As important as these two things are (and they are very important indeed!), Hagner does not allow them to control his reading of Paul. Instead, he attempts to read Paul faithfully while softening some of previous scholarship's rough edges where needed. In my estimation, Hagner's essay is convincing and even-handed.

I was left wanting in a specific area; I wish there had been more interaction with the texts of Second-Temple Judaism. Hagner is not to blame here, however, since this sort of essay cannot possibly cover all the bases. There are several places where the reader is left wanting to actually read what Jews of this period thought about these various issues. But again, this perceived deficiency in Hagner's essay has more to do with its scope than with its actual content, as the subtitle of the essay makes clear -- "According to Paul's Letters." In almost every instance of this phenomenon, however, the reader is pointed to more complete treatments of the issues in other works by Hagner or others. Thus, while every "i" could not be dotted and "t" crossed in this one essay, Hagner responsibly gives the reader ample opportunity to discover more on his/her own.

In my opinion, the greatest strength of Hagner's essay is the large amount of material quoted from Paul's letters themselves. Perhaps this is not necessarily a strength of Hagner's essay but of the traditional reading of Paul in general. In the work of a New Perspectivist, there are often many terms and phrases which are not taken to mean what they plainly seem to mean (e.g., "my own righteousness" in Phil 3.9 not pointing to a righteousness that Paul at least had a part in obtaining, but instead to some sort of national righteousness). Thus, when one is reading Dunn, Wright, etc and has the New Testament in hand, it is often difficult to see how they have arrived at the positions for which they argue so strongly. In Hagner's essay, however, Paul is often allowed to speak in his own voice and his words are allowed to carry what appear to be their plain meanings.

Nanos on Hagner
Hagner on Nanos on Hagner

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