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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Christ became a servant of circumcision

For I say to you that Christ has become a servant of circumcision for the sake of the truthfulness of God, in order to confirm the promises of the fathers…

What we are faced with here is a basic dilemma regarding the structure of the story about salvation in Jesus. On the one hand, we have a conventional view, according to which Jesus is sent into the world in order to save humanity from its sins. On the other, we have the argument that Jesus “came” to save Israel from its sins, an event which subsequently came to have radical implications for the Gentiles. This was the tenor of the posts on the true-meaning-of-Luke’s-Christmas. In relation to Romans 15:8 there is the further particular issue of how the significance of the salvation of Israel is pertinent for the nations.

My argument in The Future of the People of God is that Paul is thinking in rather consistent Old Testament terms of the nations praising YHWH for his mercy towards Israel. What prompted this inconsiderately lengthy re-examination was some comments by Peter Wilkinson disputing this reading of the text. His argument is essentially that the “blessing” of the nations as the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham is much more directly in view in Paul’s argument.

The phrase “servant of (the) circumcision” (diakonos… peritomēs) is ambiguous. Moo argues quite emphatically that it does not mean “servant from (the) circumcision”: Jesus is a servant to the Jews, just as he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 15:24).1 Dunn, on the other hand, thinks both senses are relevant, so that Jesus is a servant both to Israel and to the Gentiles.2 Although Paul undoubtedly believed that the Gentiles were beneficiaries of Jesus’ servant action, a number of contextual factors strongly weigh in favour of Moo’s opinion and are listed below.

It is probably important, however, not to obscure the form of the phrase. What Paul is saying is that Jesus was a servant within the sphere determined by circumcision. Paul’s statement about his own ministry in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 may also be pertinent. He made himself a servant (edoulōsa) to all, becoming a Jew in order to win Jews, as one under the Law in order to win those under the Law, and as one outside the Law in order to win those outside the Law. This cannot be said about Jesus, who was only a “servant of circumcision”. The phrase defines the boundaries of Jesus’ servant action.

1. The statement about Christ occurs in a passage dealing with the practicalities of community relations: Jesus is put forward as an example of how the weak and the strong should welcome one another. In this respect it is very similar to Philippians 2, where Paul calls the community to have the particular mind of Jesus in order to maintain their unity in the face of persecution. Jesus took the form of a servant (doulos), with the outcome being that the nations would bow to YHWH and acknowledge the righteousness of the God who had saved his people Israel (Is. 45:22-24). The point is that Jesus the “servant of (the) circumcision” is put forward as a model for internal relations, which makes it much more likely that Paul is thinking of Jesus’ servant-attitude towards his fellow Jews.

2. The verse connects with a major argument about the righteousness or vindication of Israel’s God that runs right through Romans. The most important point of reference is Romans 9:6. Having affirmed that the promises (epangeliai) and the patriarchs (among other things) belong to the Jews, Paul insists that “it is not as though the word of God has failed….” The question arises because the Jews are now “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (9:22). If national Israel is destroyed, what has become of the “truthfulness” or faithfulness of God? What has become of the promises to the fathers? The argument then in 15:8 is that these promises have been confirmed or guaranteed through Jesus’ servant action. That is, by becoming a servant of the circumcision Jesus has confirmed the righteousness of Israel’s God at the point when it has been brought into question by the prospect of national destruction. His “servanthood” is oriented not towards the nations but towards the salvation of the people of God.

3. Given the place of 15:8 in Paul’s argument, it is appropriate to compare the verse with verse 3: ‘For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”’ The argument is basically the same: put others first, welcome one another, because Jesus did not please himself, Jesus became a servant to others. The quotation from Psalm 69, however, is telling. The Psalmist has become alienated from his brothers, reproached for his zeal for the temple, but he prays to the God who will save Zion for deliverance. Paul, therefore, is thinking of Jesus as one rejected by the Jews because of his zeal for the sanctity of God’s presence in the midst of the people. The thought of Jesus as “servant of (the) circumcision” presumably belongs to the same narrative.

4. I think it is unlikely that the phrase “promises of the fathers” is meant to recall the specific point that the nations would be blessed. The overall argument in Romans suggests that two other thoughts are more relevant. First, there is the issue of the continuity of election: in Romans 11:28 the emphasis is on the election of the Jews “for the sake of their forefathers”. Parenthetically, in the Benedictus of Zechariah—a significant text given the immediate origins of this debate—these promises had to do with the salvation of Israel and the preservation of the people from their enemies (Lk. 1:72-75). Secondly, Paul speaks in Romans 4:13 of the “promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world”. This is also the argument in Galatians: the Gentiles have come to have a share in the promise of inheritance (Gal. 3:18). I’m cutting a long story short here, but “inheritance” introduces ideas of sovereignty and rule (cf. Ps. 2:6-9)—we are in a more complex realm of ideas than the simple notion of Gentiles being saved or blessed by believing in Jesus.

5. The biggest difficulty with the argument that Paul simply has the blessing of the nations in view here lies with the quotations in 15:9-12. Peter says:

The Gentiles glorified God for his mercy (Romans 15:9) because they were the direct recipients of that mercy, through believing in Him.

But the context of the quotations runs counter to this interpretation. The first two texts (Ps. 18:49; Deut. 32:43) speak of God being acknowledged or praised among the nations or by the nations because God has delivered his people from their enemies. The nations are not blessed in these texts; they are roundly defeated—just consider Psalm 18:43-48:

You delivered me from strife with the people; you made me the head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me. As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me; foreigners came cringing to me. Foreigners lost heart and came trembling out of their fortresses.

The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation—the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me, who delivered me from my enemies; yes, you exalted me above those who rose against me; you rescued me from the man of violence.

Psalm 117:1, which is cited in verse 11 explicitly urges the nations to praise the Lord because “great is his steadfast love towards us”—that is, towards Israel. This strongly suggests that the mercy shown in Romans 15:9 is not towards the nations but towards Israel. Finally, Paul quotes Isaiah 11:10 in verse 12: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” Again the story being told here is of the restoration of Israel. When God brings peace to his holy mountain (11:9) and prevails upon the nations to gather together the dispersed of Israel (11:11-12), the nations shall be ruled by and shall hope in the root of Jesse.

So unless we suppose that Paul was indifferent to the context from which he drew his texts, we have to accept that any eventual blessing of the nations (this conclusion is not in dispute) comes about by way of a story about the deliverance of Israel from its enemies, the defeat of those enemies, and the establishment of YHWH’s reign over the nations.

It seems to me that this story culminates, in fact, in the historical victory of Christ over the gods of the Greek-Roman world. From the perspective of the New Testament this is a victory of Israel’s God. What Gentiles have received through the Spirit and through simple faith in the transformative action of YHWH is a share in this eventual inheritance—the promise not so much that the nations would be blessed but that the descendants of Abraham would inherit the world (cf. Rom. 4:13). Paul does not say this much in Romans 15:8, but his use of scripture keeps the larger narrative of the conflict between YHWH and the nations in view.

  • 1. D. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (1996), 877.
  • 2. J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (1988), 847.

Comments

If the kind of OT framework which Andrew proposes is adhered to, it would be far more likely that what the nations saw was not God’s mercy to Israel, but his judgement on a nation which was unfaithful to its (g)God(s). Even then we would have to ask in what sense Israel was unfaithful. Was it a failure of spiritual devotion to YHWH? Or more likely, was it in her rejection of YHWH’s purposes towards those very nations that she had come to detest and despise?

Paul addresses these questions head on in Romans, from the first chapter where he outlines the sins of the nations (Romans 1:18-32), which turn out to have various direct echoes of the sins of Israel herself, as taken from her own scriptures! By Romans 2:1, we can no longer say with certainty who is passing judgement on whom, and in all probablity, the criticism of Israel continues, for making judgements on those who commit precisely the same sins as herself. 

For Andrew’s argument to make sense, the gospel he proposes would have to mean that although national Israel was judged, faithful Israel continued, albeit in exile, without anything like a nation state in which to live, unlike the blessings for obedience promised in Deuteronomy. This Israel-in-exile now lived alongside unfaithful Israel-in-exile, of whom the Roman empire was well populated (sometimes estimated as comprising up to 25% of the total population).

So somehow, the puzzling phenomenon of a people blessed by God but in exile from a nation state would have to be differentiated from a parallel people living in exile from a nation state, not blessed by God, the latter persecuting the former. By now, any Gentile listening to this strange explanation of God’s mercy would be as confused as I am.

Fortunately, confusion is unnecessary. This was not Paul’s message. Paul never supports a view of the continuation of Israel outside its nation state - or tries to justify such a totally non-Old Testament idea of God’s blessing. From the time of Jesus’s resurrection, Paul understood that Israel’s history had reached its fulfilment, and that Israel’s destiny was in terms of the nations being led to serve Israel’s God, who was not the God of national Israe alonel, but the God of the whole earth. There was no longer a people called Israel in whom this fulfilment would be observed, but a totally new phenomenon of a people not identified by ethnic, slave/free, or even gender distinctions.

In Romans 15, Paul has not simply an internal community of Jews in view, but an internal community of Jews and Gentiles, having experienced the new identity of becoming one people through Jesus, but reverting to their national identities through unresolved disputes, which found their expression in disagreements over food. Romans 15:7 could be taken as the theme of the whole of Romans, with regard to the disputes which may have given rise to the letter. This theme is given historical and theological grounding in verses 8-9, where Jesus’s servanthood as a member of ‘the circumcision’ leads directly in verse 9 to the Gentiles praising God for his mercy.

So is Paul really reverting to an OT pattern of national conquest by warfare in the verses cited in Romans 15? It’s highly unlikely, given the circumstances which totally contradict a pattern of OT blessing. The people of God are now in exile, their nation state and temple destroyed, and are persecuted by another branch of the people of God in exile, as well as being persecuted by the pagan empire through which they were now scattered.

More likely, Paul is doing what most Christians do when they read the OT, Torah, Prophets and Writings (of which the three quotations provide an abbreviated summary). Paul, and they, read the OT with the fulfilment of Israel’s history and destiny in view, as it transpired, especially in the light of the life of Jesus (which was on-going through the church).

From the first of these quotations, 2 Samuel 22:50, Psalm 18:49, we can understand that Paul and all followers of Jesus can praise God among the Gentiles because of the victory which subdues nations: the new life of the people of God as the nations, or members of the nations, participate in it, and to which the nations are directly invited. This is now how Psalm 18 may now validly be interpreted, as far as it relates to Israel’s history fulfilled. A phenomenon of a Christian empire subduing and including nations was never envisaged, and never expressed the vision of the life of God’s people among the nations, which continued as persecuted groups within the ‘Christian’ empire and sporadic reflections of the vision through the empire itself.

From the second of Paul’s references, we can understand that the fulfilment of the Deuteronomic covenant was not simply vengeance on the nations, for in Deuteronomy 32:43 the nations rejoice ‘with his people’. Was this because the nations saw the vengeance of God on the nations? That would be completely contradictory. Rather, it was because, following the national exile of the people of God predicted in Deuteronomy 29 and 30, that exile became the very means by which the nations could participate with the people of God, as one people, through the circumcision of their hearts -Deuteronomy 30:6, which Paul argues in Romans was the very purpose of God for Jew and Gentile alike all along, that there should be one people of God across the earth who are restored to him through the new covenant which Jesus brought about.

Isaiah 11:10, the third summary quotation of Torah, Prophets and Writings which Paul invokes, makes the fulfilment of Israel’s history in Jesus even clearer through the LXX reading. Jesus, the one who rises up from the root of Jesse as the root of Jesse will ‘rule over the nations’. But this is not primarily a rule following the OT pattern of conquest through vengeance, and certainly not Christian empire. Rather it is so that ‘the Gentiles will have hope in him’.

The kind of rule which Jesus has brought is not at all like the rule through conquest which was the pattern of OT victories. But Paul is able to maintain that Jesus’s rule in the church and through the gospel freely responded to was nevertheless the fulfilment of Israel’s history in relation to the Gentiles, which must include the promises of blessing and descendants which were made to Abraham, which were foreshadowed as promises to all people by Moses, David and the Prophets.

What Andrew has not done in his exegesis of these verses in Romans 15 is to allow his exegesis to dialogue with the striking discontinuities which Jesus brought to Israel’s history, in its relationship with the past. There are too many contradictions in Andrew’s version, once we start looking at them, to make it credible. A more credible alternative is at hand however. It makes better sense of the issues which Andrew validly raises. Unforuntately, it is the conventional interpretation - albeit rather more carefully textually grounded.

 

Peter, I don’t want to get dragged into a repetitive argument over details. I appreciate the fact that you don’t agree with me—you have made that very clear and on numerous occasions. But I think the hypothesis makes sense and is worth pursuing: Paul constructs his theology narratively and on thoroughly Jewish grounds.

I don’t see the problem with thinking that Paul understood what was going on as a clash of cultures or nations or civilizations—other than the fact that it sits ill with our modern privatized, ahistorical spirituality. And given the seriousness of the conflict between the migrating people of God and the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, it seems to me highly likely that he drew on Old Testament narratives in order to articulate his confidence that the churches would not ultimately be defeated by the superior pagan power. Jesus’ death and resurrection have certainly changed the means by which that victory would be achieved, but the basic narrative structure remains in place.

That constitutes a major paradigm shift in how we read Paul, but I think it does justice both to the rhetoric of a Letter such as Romans and the historical context.

So my argument is that Paul is not as “Christian” as you suggest.

More likely, Paul is doing what most Christians do when they read the OT, Torah, Prophets and Writings (of which the three quotations provide an abbreviated summary). Paul, and they, read the OT with the fulfilment of Israel’s history and destiny in view, as it transpired, especially in the light of the life of Jesus (which was on-going through the church).

I think he was actually much more Jewish in his outlook, that he did not share our hindsight, that he had to make sense of the narrow gully of his own historical context, that he intensely felt the precariousness of the circumstances of his people according to the flesh, that he read the Old Testament as a Jew, that he would not have allegorized the Psalms in the way that you suggest, that he interpreted the resurrection of Jesus within the frame of the story of the crisis facing Israel, that he interpreted the inclusion of Gentiles not as the fulfilment of Old Testament expectation (it wasn’t) but as a sign that YHWH was laying claim to the empire and beyond that to the whole world, that he saw the instatement of Jesus as Son of God in power as principally a challenge to the pagan order… and so on.

Andrew - I don’t want to drag this our needlessly, but as you will have seen from my previous post, I was simply asking, in particular, what is entailed by adopting fully the Jewish narrative, unamended, from the three passages (and their contexts) referred to by Paul in Romans 15:9-12. Am I wrong in thinking you have been very selective in what you take to be the Jewish narrative they reflect?

I don’t think Paul was allegorising the Psalms; I think he was asking how the Psalms can be read in the light of what actually happened to the Gentiles, given their inclusion in the people of God by the Spirit and their response to the gospel. I do think there are problems with your framework for viewing things, which I don’t think you have looked at.

But I guess a major disagreement is whether Paul really saw faith in Jesus primarily as a challenge to the Roman Empire. I see all sorts of ways in which there was a challenge, but I don’t think Paul was either seeking this out, or that from his point of view this was the primary issue facing the early church. I think that distorts Paul enormously.

I’m genuinely interested to know how you respond to what I see to be inconsistencies in your approach. I certainly won’t be put in a box of “modern privatized, ahistorical spirituality” by you or anybody. And though I don’t think your approach fully stacks up (I keep finding more problems with it), “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.”

And I’ve no idea how ‘have’, ‘death’ and ‘right’ formed themselves into links. There was no cryptic message encoded within the words or the links. Very odd.

By the way, thanks for your patience with all the comments I’ve made over the years. I think my responses would benefit from being balanced out by rather more supportive ones.

You can get your own back in the new year when a website appears which I’m designing, provided in the first place for Guildford Community Church, but with open borders, which will invite contributions from across the theological spectrum on issues of interest - including your own.

The ethos, if not the stated aim, will be what I’ve learned from Open Source Theology. And to stop your Comments section getting cluttered up with mail from me, you are welcome to delete this post after you have read it.

But I guess a major disagreement is whether Paul really saw faith in Jesus primarily as a challenge to the Roman Empire. I see all sorts of ways in which there was a challenge, but I don’t think Paul was either seeking this out, or that from his point of view this was the primary issue facing the early church. I think that distorts Paul enormously.

This is a good question to consider. Yes, I think I would argue that Paul’s theology is worked out for the most part within the frame of his understanding of the historical place of the people of God in relation to the predominant pagan culture of Europe—the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.

I would not make this an absolute statement. First, I’m sure that if you put the question to him whether the resurrection of Jesus had significance beyond this historical context, I’m sure he’d say yes. But no one at the time put that question to him. As it stands, I think his vision—much like John’s vision in Revelation—culminates principally in the victory of Christ and of the churches in Christ over the pagan power that opposed YHWH and sought to destroy the people of God.

Secondly, I think Paul—again like John—believed in a cosmic renewal that would transcend all history. Contrary to Greg Haslam’s misreading of The Coming of the Son of Man, I don’t think that all the future gets sucked out of the New Testament just because we prioritize, on what I believe to be good exegetical and historical grounds, the more pressing concerns that Jesus and Paul had regarding the survival of the community of renewed Israel. But the cosmic hope is in the background: as far as New Testament theology goes, the historical matters more than the ultimate because what fundamentally counts is the concrete presence of a righteous worshipping community in the midst of the nations.

Again, I disagree over the place and presence of cosmic renewal (in both Paul and Revelation) in relation to pressing concerns of the first immediate future in the first century. There is certainly plenty of the latter, as you have pointed out, but I think Paul’s and John’s vision was much more taken up with the bigger picture of God’s plans for the universe to allow them to be only a distant speck on a far horizon. Revelation, for instance, never exclusively associates the judgement on Babylon with Rome, nor refers to the destruction of the temple, though I’m sure some sort of connection with contemporary events would have been made in its time.

I did read Greg Haslam’s comments on COSM in a previous post, and as with many throw-away remarks, I thought they seemed both casually dismissive as well as lighting on a weakness in the interpretation - which not only does suck much of the future out of the New Testament, but makes our own ‘present’ as part of the world addressed by the New Testament very disconnected also. But then I’m allergic to Greg Haslam, and his circle. I’m really quite a prejudiced person at heart, but only when I’m not being reasonable and open-minded.

Revelation, for instance, never exclusively associates the judgement on Babylon with Rome…

Somewhat by-the-by, I have been reading through the Jewish-Christian Sibylline Oracles, and it is striking how consistently Rome is depicted as Babylon and judgment prophesied against it, either for its destruction of the temple or for its general wickedness.

What irks me a little about Haslam’s comment is that my argument takes very seriously the future as seen from the perspective of the New Testament. Jesus, Paul and others were greatly concerned with future events—it’s just a question of where the prophetic flightpath terminates.

But I still don’t understand why people feel they have somehow been short-changed because they are left with only a final judgment, a final renewal of all things, a final defeat of death and satan, and a final reunification of heaven and earth.

All I have done is take the coming/parousia motif and pinned it on certain critical moments in the formation of the renewed people of God within the European context.

What was the situation of Jews who were righteous through faith, but transgressors of Torah? Were they in need of Christ dying on the cross because of their transgressions of Torah, but otherwise not in need of Christ dying on the cross because they had faith?

Simply put, the argument is that Jesus died—in the primary atoning sense—for the sins of Israel. Israel has failed to demonstrate the righteousness required by the Law, therefore the Law condemns Israel to destruction. Jesus is put forward as an alternative way of being righteous, and those Jews who believe or have faith or trust in that option are justified—they will escape the condemnation of the Law.

To address your question directly: Jesus died because Israel sinned and faced destruction; some Jews had faith in that solution.

But because this is a salvation for Israel apart from the Law, the door is opened for Gentiles to become members of Israel that is being saved. The requirement is that they believe or have faith in the fact that Israel’s God really has done this for the sake of his people—and more importantly that the resurrection really does mean that Jesus has been made judge and ruler of the nations.