Thursday, February 18, 2016

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 2

51YyKVMJh L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Back in a September post I announced that my New Testament reading for this school year would be Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God, by N. T. Wright. My plan was to post on my blog with every chapter completed. I have been posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page 3 times a week, on Mon-Wed-Fri, but have not produced the promised  “once a week or so I will sum up my thoughts about it on this blog.”  I did post chapter 1 here, but I am still trying to catch up.  Each chapter is long so what you are getting here is a very brief summary of this very important book. I welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book.

Wright continues to look at Paul’s worldview through his writings and through the information we have of the cultures within which he lived. He lived within three worlds: the Jewish (religion), Greek (philosophy) and Roman (politics), and all influenced him. His goal for the whole section (of which this chapter is part) is…

We are seeking to understand the complexities of Paul’s world so that we can get as clear a view as possible of what he meant, what he hoped his hearers might understand, and what they might in fact have understood, when he wrote his famous but endlessly tantalizing letters. This means offering a historical account of how his mind, and the minds of his potential hearers, seem to have worked.  79

This chapter begins the section by focusing on Paul’s religious world of Judaism and beings with the 1st century Pharisees. they were devoted to Torah and were mainly concerned with how a Jew could maintain pure devotion to Torah in a pagan world. They hoped their faithfulness to Torah would prompt God’s faithfulness to bring in the promised Kingdom.

Torah is a symbol which by its very nature is about praxis. Torah, the greatest of all the divine gifts for a Jew, was not about grand religious abstractions but about precise patterns of behaviour. 91

The distinctive “praxis” of the Pharisee was strict implementation of the Torah. The “worldview symbol” of the Jews was the Temple. Torah became symbol as the Jews carried it out in society with its distinctive practices and ceremonies, especially Sabbath. The temple was the focal point of Jewish life.

The point of the Temple is that it was where heaven and earth met. It was the place where Israel’s God, YHWH, had long ago promised to put his name, to make his glory present. The Temple, and before it the wilderness tabernacle, were thus heirs, within the biblical narrative, to moments like Jacob’s vision, the discovery that a particular spot on earth could intersect with, and be the gateway into, heaven itself. 96

The Temple was a microcosm of the whole creation. We have enough descriptions of the Temple to know that it was quite deliberately constructed so as to reflect the whole creation, the stars in the heavens on the one hand and the multiplicity of beautiful vegetation on the other...The throne of cherubs on which YHWH’s presence was supposed to rest was designed to indicate his rule as divine king, Lord of the whole world, with cherubim and seraphim expressing the awesome power of his presence. 101

New Temple, new king, new creation: that is the combined promise of the exilic prophets. Israel’s God will return to his Temple at last, the Temple which the coming king will build. Then, and only then, will the new Genesis come about. 104–105

The next section deals with the Jews’ basic beliefs as seen in the worldview stories and questions. This, of course, is contained in the scriptures and the commentary on them that was developing in the 1st century. This where we find the great unified story of who the Jews thought themselves to be: “most Jews of Paul’s day perceived themselves, at a deep, worldview level, as living in a story in search of an ending.” (109). They were looking for a person or movement that would rise up to finish the story.

The Bible was not merely a source of types, shadows, allusions, echoes, symbols, examples, role-models and other no doubt important things. It was all those, but it was much, much more. It presented itself as a single, sprawling, complex but essentially coherent narrative, a narrative still in search of an ending. 116

The psalmist knows the story of and promises to Abraham, and sees his own generation as the time when all that will come to fulfilment. He knows the story of and promises to David, and sees his own generation as the time when the true King will emerge and do at last all that had been spoken. He was living within a larger narrative through which alone he could make sense of all the other narratives—gentile oppression, Jewish failure—that caused him so much grief. And that narrative pointed forwards to the coming worldwide victory of the Davidic king. 128

This story is retold in inter-testamental Jewish literature with the hope that God will “raise up the heroes of old” or a movement that would finish the story and fulfill the OT promises. Several movements, people, and communities made the claim to be that eschatological deliverer. This continued even after the temple was destroyed in 70AD. 

In more or less all cases the story (of Israel) being told is a story in which the writer believes that he and his readers are still participants...Examples and warnings abound in these retellings, but they are not free-floating moral lessons detached from the historical narrative. 136

The story is, again and again, a shocking and confused crashing down into the darkness. But that does not mean that the original covenants were invalid. It merely means that Israel must now determine to obey the law, and to cast itself upon the mercy of the God who might just find it in his heart to forgive. And to restore. And perhaps to send a deliverer. And perhaps, even, to exalt Israel over the nations. Thus, and only thus, can the original divine promises be fulfilled. 137

God is faithful; creation is faithful; and one day that faithfulness will be worked out through the fulfilment of the long history of Abraham’s people, of David’s descendants, and of those who in the present are faithful in terrible times. That faithfulness will result, for the author of the Psalms of Solomon, in God sending a Messiah who would embody that faithfulness and fulfil at last the ancient dream of Psalm 2, bringing the nations of the world to see the glory of the lord and to live under his rule. This, I suggest, was at the heart of the worldview of many first-century Jews, and particularly of a first-century Pharisee. 138–139

Wright is famous for referring to the 2nd Temple Period as a “continuing exile” without king and living under foreign powers. Thus, they were looking for God’s predicted Deuteronomic restoration explained Daniel 9. Jewish literature was engaged in a similar kind of speculation as we see today on the timing of the restoration.

A great many second-Temple Jews interpreted that part of the continuing narrative in which they were living in terms of the so-called Deuteronomic scheme of sin-exile—restoration, with themselves still somewhere in the middle stage, that of ‘exile’ (which, granted, could itself become quite complicated). 140

(The post-exilic Jews) knew that, despite the geographical ‘return’ in the late sixth century and on to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah in the mid-fifth century BC, something they still regarded as ‘exile’ was not yet over. And they were reading their own situation, again and again, within the single flow of national narrative which they found in Deuteronomy 27–30. 146

As long as Persia, Egypt, Greece, Syria or Rome are in charge, the ‘exile’ is not really over. And as long as that exile is not over, we are still in Deuteronomy 29, hoping and praying that Daniel’s 490 years will soon be complete, that the Messiah will come at last, and that—in Daniel’s majestic language—Israel’s God will act in accordance with his righteousness, his faithfulness to the covenant. 150

What the Jews, especially the Pharisees, were looking for was a “world transformed, not abolished.” (163) They were not hoping to go to heaven someday, but were looking for a future transformation of this world.

Of course ‘salvation’ matters. What is being said, however, is (a) that salvation doesn’t mean what the western tradition has often taken it to mean (escaping to a disembodied ‘heaven’), (b) that it is in any case not the main topic of most of the texts, and (c) that it is not the main narrative which they are trying to explicate. In the New Testament the rescue of human beings from sin and death, which remains vital throughout, serves a much larger purpose, namely that of God’s restorative justice for the whole creation. 164–165

‘Apocalyptic’ literature, whether in the second-Temple Jewish world or early Christianity, seems to be designed to give its hearers and readers an alternative frame of reference within which to live their lives, an alternative narrative to that which the world’s power-brokers are putting out, an alternative symbolic universe to reshape their imagination and structure their worldview. 175

So, the point of Jewish scripture was to tell a unified story about God and His people. The 1st century Jews saw themselves as part of this story, making it relevant in the present and being part of moving it toward its future.

The Pharisees saw themselves within a larger continuum, developing for their own day the laws which needed to be articulated to make clear, or relevant, what was not obviously clear or relevant in the biblical text, and thus doing for their own time what at least some of the biblical writers themselves had done. They were precisely living within a narrative: a worldview within which the primary legislation had been laid down but within which, in their own day, fresh work was needed.  176

So, the theology of the Pharisees tried to answer the big questions of life based on the biblical story. They were God’s people in exile who did not like the way things were and hoped, by devoting themselves to Torah, they could be part (perhaps by prayer or armed revolution) of bringing back God’s kingdom to the nation. They believed that this was going to happen soon. To live out the Shema, “God is One” they would be devoted to God and Torah. Israel then fulfills its election purpose and becomes the solution to the world’s problems and fulfills the purpose of creation.

First-century Pharisaic monotheism was creational and covenantal monotheism...The Pharisee’s one God was the God who made the world and was thoroughly engaged with it without being identified with it. The world was not just ‘good’, as though in a kind of concession, but full of his glory, charged with his grandeur, silently telling the story from day to day and night to night...This God was not far away. His presence and power could be known and felt, in and as Torah, Shekinah, Wisdom. His glory and his name were his gifts to his people as they worshipped, prayed, sacrificed, studied and obeyed. 180–181

Jewish monotheism offers, as its basic solution to the problem of evil, belief in election, in the creator’s choice of a people as his own, to serve his larger purposes. Abraham and his family are to become the means of restoring humanity, restoring the garden; hence the promise of the land. 181

Keeping the law so that God would liberate Israel is no more and no less than Deuteronomy 30 had indicated as the means by which exile would be undone at last. The question is: what counts as ‘doing the Torah’? To that, Saul of Tarsus had a thorough set of answers, which Paul the apostle restated in a shockingly and radically revised form. Through the law, he said, I died to the law, so that I might live to God… 188

The purpose of creation, with Adam and Eve told to work in the garden which was the place of the divine presence, was that they should extend that garden out into the rest of the world, taking the divine presence with them. 192

This was so important that the zealous Pharisee might be willing to do violence to keep the purity of the Jewish people to maintain the hope for fulfilling the purpose of Israel.

We know for certain, however, that Saul of Tarsus persecuted the early church and was himself persecuted. We can be sure that neither of these activities were random activities, unrelated to the structure of what Pharisees believed was required by ‘zeal’. This violence was what they were called and authorized by God to do, in defence of Torah and covenant. 194

Wright’s conclusion…

The Pharisaic worldview embraced the whole of reality. It was not simply about ‘religion’, whether in the ancient or the modern senses. It included a ‘wisdom’, an understanding of the world and of its creator, which belonged with what the ancients thought of as ‘philosophy’. It included a community-oriented agenda which belonged with ‘politics’. That is why, if we are to understand Paul the apostle, we must see him within this rich, many-sided world. 196

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