Ben Witherington has been doing a thorough and informative series of posts on N.T. Wright’s new/forthcoming book Paul and His Recent Interpreters, starting here—in itself a good overview of recent Pauline scholarship. I haven’t been tracking with it too closely (I have been persuaded to read the book), but a remark in part nine gave me pause.
It comes up in a discussion of Wright’s reliance on Wayne Meek’s The First Urban Christians. Witherington quotes Wright’s explanation of why at certain points he finds Meek’s sociological analysis inadequate:
Why then do I find it less than fully convincing? Because though Meeks does indeed note the christological and eschatological interpretation of scripture, I do not think he gives sufficient weight to the theme which, as I have argued elsewhere, drills down below this. Scripture, for Paul, is not merely a miscellaneous, ahistorical source of guidance. It is the earlier, and in some ways determinative, stage of the narrative in which Paul believes that he and his communities are still living. This narrative has indeed been broken in the Messiah’s crucifixion; but it continues in its new cross-shaped form, and when Paul appeals (for instance) to the exodus story in 1 Corinthians 10.1–13 he does so not simply to pick out an example from long ago but in order to stress that the erstwhile pagan converts in Corinth are part of the same, single family that was once rescued from Egypt. (Paul and His Recent Interpreters, 273)
That is, while Meek’s approach usefully explains the present experience of the Gentile churches, it does not do justice to the narrative shape of Paul’s thought. Witherington, however, is dissatisfied with Wright’s dissatisfaction, unconvinced by his explanation of why he is unconvinced:
This is where I personally find Wright least convincing. The example in 1 Cor. 10 has nothing to do with the Corinthians being told they belong to that story. It is about telling them that since we are talking about the same God, that same sort of behavior will produce the same sort of judgment. There is a big difference between using the OT as typology or moral example as Paul does here and suggesting a continuing family story. The Corinthians were never part of the Mosaic story or covenant. They were grafted into the patriarchal story and the Abrahamic covenant now fulfilled in Christ and in the new covenant.
Here we have two basic ways in which we may construe the relation between later events and the biblical narrative. Wright argues for narrative continuity: the conversion of Gentiles is part of Israel’s story. Witherington thinks that the relation between the exodus story that Paul tells in 1 Corinthians 1-10 and the situation of the Corinthian church is analogical: there is a structural similarity, but they are not the same story. He appears to think, on the basis of Romans 11:17, that Gentiles have been included in the story of the patriarchs, while the story of Israel has been reduced to a sort of digression.
I have to say, I’m with Wright in this. Here are a few reasons why.
- Jesus is not explained in the New Testament solely in terms of the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant. The terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man”, for example, both invoke core Jewish narratives that have to do with the historical existence of the people all the way through to the current occupation of Israel by Rome. Paul draws, directly or indirectly, on these narratives. Similarly, Jesus’ death makes no sense apart from the story of Israel’s sin. For Gentiles to be “in Christ”, therefore, must entail an engagement with the Old Testament narrative about judgment, restoration and kingdom.
- The Jewish scriptures and writings of second temple Judaism foresee some sort of involvement of Gentiles in God’s saving activity, and it becomes apparent that this will come about as a consequence of judgment upon rebellious Israel and a renewal of the covenant. As Paul says: “through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:11). The salvation of Gentiles is part of the story of Israel’s catastrophic failure.
- Paul’s argument about the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24 allows for the possibility that the natural branches—the natural heirs to the promises to the patriarchs—may at some point be grafted back in. My view is that Paul hopes that his people will repent after the coming judgment against Israel, but in any case, the assumption would appear to be that Jews and Gentiles would then share a common identity as the same tree, and a common identity would mean a common story. (See my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, 13.)
- In Romans 15:8-9 Paul argues that i) in order to “confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” ii) Christ became a servant to Israel; therefore iii) the Gentiles should glorify the God of Israel for his mercy towards his people. Between the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant and the response of the Gentile is Jesus coming as a servant of the Lord to Israel.
- From Ephesians 2:11-22 it appears that through the death of Jesus Gentiles are not merely engrafted into the root of the patriarchs but included in the “citizenship” (politeias) of Israel.
Obviously this does not mean that the Corinthians were part of the “Mosaic story or covenant”, but I don’t see how we can account for their “faith” apart from the whole Old Testament narrative. The Abrahamic covenant does not explain why it was necessary for Gentiles to turn to the living God from idols and “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-10). Even if the argument in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 is typological, the rhetoric operates within a larger assumed narrative about Jesus and the nations which is firmly rooted in the whole story of Israel.
Finally, I would argue that the same applies to our use of scripture today. Yes, we can make typological or analogical or even allegorical use of the Bible, but we should do so, as Paul did, within a clearly understood, continuous, overarching narrative framework that doesn’t treat the story of Israel—or the story of the church, for that matter—as a massive hiatus.