Rewriting the debate: resurrection and Romans

My friend Hilary has been reading The Future of the People of God and had a question about a paragraph on page 49. Since it has reference to one of the critical arguments of the book – that the parameters of Paul’s theology in the Letter are to be historically defined – I thought perhaps it would be worth responding at some length here rather than on Facebook. Here is Hilary’s question:

…you argue first that belief in the resurrection of Jesus ‘provoked a radical re-evaluation’ of the way in which the Jews understood their faith, but at the end of the same paragraph, you write: ’Is the resurrection of Jesus a matter of such theological and metaphysical novelty that it rewrites the terms of the whole debate?’ – obviously expecting the answer ‘no’. Surely for Paul more than anyone, the resurrection of Jesus WAS such a novel way of God demonstrating his purposes that the whole debate did have to be rewritten – isn’t that what Romans is?

The issue here, I think, is the degree to which Paul departs from the Old Testament narrative or Jewish worldview. Modern theologies have tended to assume that Jesus instituted such a radical break from Judaism that the historical structures of Jewish thought (such as the idea of ‘wrath’ as judgment through the circumstances of history) were discarded as being effectively irrelevant. If Jesus is a universal Lord and Saviour, then we have little use for the remote contingencies of ancient history. Yes, we still enjoy telling the story, or random bits of it, largely rewritten to serve the interests of modern dogmatic bias; but the story itself has no real theological significance.

My argument, however, is that Paul is still thinking very much within the historical structures of the Jewish narrative – at least, that he has not departed from them to anything like the degree that modern theology supposes. Indeed, the point I make in the book is that the resurrection of Jesus ‘provoked a radical re-evaluation’ not of how the Jews understood their ‘faith’ but of the ‘various narratives by which Judaism sought to explain how the God of Israel was dealing with the plight of his people with respect to the religious and political hegemony of Greco-Roman paganism’. The point is precisely that we have not somehow shifted from history to ‘faith’ – ‘faith’ is a function of a people’s engagement with the challenging circumstances of history.

The resurrection of Jesus was certainly unexpected, but it was not in principle such a novelty for Jews. There is a prominent background to the hope that Israel under judgment would be raised from the dead, or that those who were killed out of loyalty to YHWH would be resurrected and vindicated. Paul’s problem as a Pharisee was not that Jesus was raised but that Jesus did not look like a person who was loyal to YHWH – nor did his followers.

Jesus’ resurrection forced Paul to reconsider the means by which Israel would be saved from destruction, but the basic narrative-historical framework remains operative. The central issue in Romans, it seems to me, is something like: How will Israel inherit the nations? That points to a very concrete, public, politically construed expectation. Paul traces it back to Abraham (Rom. 4:13). He believes – as Jesus believed – that Israel according to the flesh, the people of God qua nation, now faced destruction, condemned by the Law which should have set the Jews apart as a righteous people, as a benchmark of righteousness amidst the nations. YHWH could not with integrity judge the pagan world without first judging his own people, who were no better, morally or spiritually, than the pagans: wrath against the Jew first, then against the Greek. So how, under these terminal eschatological conditions, would YHWH remain true to his promise (cf. Rom. 9:6)? How will he be proved to be righteous?

The answer is by way of an alternative narrative of ‘faithfulness’ (pistis), which is a way of suffering and martyrdom, a way pioneered and perfected by Jesus (cf. Heb. 12:2), for which the resurrection served as divine confirmation. The significance of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus was that the bands of contemptible, renegade, Lawless Jews which Paul was bent on persecuting to extinction constituted the only true hope for the people of YHWH. In effect, the death and resurrection of Jesus presupposed the emergence of a likeminded community of people who were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But the outcome envisaged was still essentially the same: the descendants of Abraham, redefined as a people of faithfulness rather than of Law, would eventually inherit the nations – the moment at which the Greek-Roman oikoumenē would finally come under judgment, when the pagan world would finally confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

 

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Hilary | Fri, 08/20/2010 - 16:53 | Permalink

Andrew, thanks for your comments about my somewhat anachronistic use of the word 'faith' - I can see how this suggests an intellectual set of beliefs rather than a complete worldview or 'various narratives by which Judaism sought to explain how the God of Israel was dealing with the plight of his people with respect to the religious and political hegemony of Greco-Roman paganism’.

I am still not convinced that the cross was not a big problem for the Jews. Of course it was not a novel idea for God- and in hindsight we can look back at the Old Testament and see the themes of suffering etc. writ large. But Israel has repeatedly ignored these hints - so we have Jesus telling the parable about the vineyard in Luke 20:9 ff. Paul himself was evidently an intelligent, earnest Jew who wanted to understand God, and he had completely missed the significance of Jesus until he was so dramatically converted on the way to Damascus. So he writes in 1 Cor 1:18-25 about the foolishness of the gospel-'We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews...'

You describe Jesus as having pioneered the way of suffering and martyrdom- and I would agree, not that he as a human pioneered it, because the Jews were familiar with this idea, but that he pioneered the idea that God might suffer and die. I think this idea was as novel- and offensively novel- to the Jews as it still is today - witness the ongoing atonement debate.

I thought we were talking about the novelty of the resurrection rather than the novelty of the cross. The resurrection, I guess, would have been problematic for Paul only really because it was the resurrection of one who was rejected by official Judaism and crucified as a false messiah. But the broader question which we started out from was the extent to which this unexpected development transformed the whole debate about the wrath of God and the renewal of Israel.

I have a question about your final point, though. I’m not sure I understand how the New Testament expresses the specific thought that in the cross God suffered and died. It seems to me that theologically at the heart of the cross lies Jesus’ identification with sinful Israel, alienated as Israel was from the Father (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’), rather than his identification with God. Where exactly does this idea come from that God himself suffered and died?

I'm still thinking about your question, but maybe it has something to do with trinitarian theology, which I know you are posting about elsewhere. As far as Paul is concerned in Romans, was Jesus God or not? If he was God, then would his suffering and death not be also God's suffering? Or in the moment that he died, and quoted Psalm 22, did he stop being God? 

Apart from the very unclear Rom. 9:5, Paul’s argument in Romans, I would suggest, presupposes only that the Jesus who suffered and died was raised and appointed Son of God in power (cf. Rom.1:1-4). The significance of ‘Son of God’ in this context is not that Jesus is God but that he has been given authority to judge and rule over the nations. The interpretive background is to be found in Pss. 2 and 110. Nothing, as far as I can see, requires the thought that God suffered and died: Jesus suffered and died, and God raised and exalted him.

Paul traces it back to Abraham (Rom. 4:13). He believes – as Jesus believed – that Israel according to the flesh, the people of God qua nation, now faced destruction, condemned by the Law which should have set the Jews apart as a righteous people, as a benchmark of righteousness amidst the nations.

What is referred to as "the Law" was known to the Jews as "the Torah," "the Teaching," and it did set the Jews apart by virtue of their receiving it as the terms of the covenant. What failed was the Jews faithfulness to the covenant relationship. Those who appeared most faithful were exposed by John and then Jesus, the Jewish prophets, as following a legalistic interpretation of the letter of Torah, which produced death and hypocrisy, rather than the Spirit, who gives life—Romans 10:4-5 quoting Leviticus 18:5.

YHWH could not with integrity judge the pagan world without first judging his own people, who were no better, morally or spiritually, than the pagans: wrath against the Jew first, then against the Greek.

The Jews brought judgement upon themselves for forsaking the covenant. The Romans / Greeks through their oppression of God's covenant people. Both judgements were concerned with God's covenantal purposes, rather than 'moral' judgements in the terms we normally consider morality today—i.e. in response to some breach of universal, platonic type laws.

So how, under these terminal eschatological conditions, would YHWH remain true to his promise (cf. Rom. 9:6)? How will he be proved to be righteous?

For YHWH to be righteous = YHWH to "keep covenant." How would he be proved faithful to the covenant? How could he condemn Israel for its faithlessness to covenant, unless he proved faithful to it and the eternal purpose it 'proclaimed'…

The answer is by way of an alternative narrative of ‘faithfulness’ (pistis), which is a way of suffering and martyrdom, a way pioneered and perfected by Jesus (cf. Heb. 12:2), for which the resurrection served as divine confirmation.…

It was more than an alternative narrative, though it most certainly was that. It was by means of a new covenant, in which the Spirit of God would "write Torah upon the hearts" of the covenant community. Pentecost was the celebration of the giving of Torah at Sinai, the "first covenant with the house of Israel." Pentecost marked a parallel outpouring of grace, the "new covenant with the house of Israel." Both were the grace of God.

The new covenant, however, was inaugurated by Jesus, Son of David, High Priest of the order of Melchizidek etc, superior in every way to the covenants that had gone before. It was the ultimate expression of the "eternal covenant" (Hebrews 13:20).

the outcome envisaged was still essentially the same: the descendants of Abraham, redefined as a people of faithfulness rather than of Law,

Both the first and the new covenants called for faithfulness. The redefinition was to do with the charismatic gift of the Spirit, which gives life—empowering the covenant community to an unprecedented experience of faithfulness—over against "the letter" (legalistic interpretation)…

would eventually inherit the nations

Indeed, the inheritance of the Spirit by the gentiles, meant that they inherited the blessing of Abraham (Galatians 3): therefore, they were now blessed to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth…they began to share in the formerly solely Jewish covenantal promise of "inheriting the world":

For the promise to Avraham and his seed that he would inherit the world did not come through legalism, but through the covenantal faithfulness (righteousness) that trust produces—Romans 4:13

Thus, in a majestic and unforeseen fulfilment of the ancient covenant purposes, those formerly cut off from covenant, devoid of hope, without God in the world (Ephesians 2), the gentiles, are now invited into the covenant community to become not merely recipients of the covenantal blessing of Abraham, but its new distributors!