My teachers of New Testament in seminary back in the 1970s were existentialists with backgrounds in the school of Bultmann. However, in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls among other things, they were beginning to ask new questions. I felt that the existentialist perspective did not take the Jewish context seriously enough, was too individualistic and was, mostly, just too vague.
So C. J. Beker’s book Paul the Apostle was a breath of fresh air to me. His apocalyptic understanding of Paul was in conversation with the school of Bultmann, but brought in many new insights that pointed to a better understanding. He recognized that Paul’s letters were contingent–occupied with actual situations in first-century communities. But he also found a coherence around a gospel of “the triumph of God”.
But there were still a lot of echos of older interpretations from Augustine, to Luther, to the existentialists. I would characterize these as a tendency to set the gospel over against a Jewish legalism. This is what the New Perspective on Paul has tried to question.
Beker, though, was very valuable for the questions he asked. He asked this question about Romans:
If Romans is a treatise evoked by historical circumstances, why does the letter address itself to a Jewish issue and present itself as a dialogue with Jews rather than with Jewish Christians–because they, and not Jews, are members of the Roman church? . . .If Paul’s concern is the unity of Jewish and Gentile Christians in the church, why does he carry on a dialogue with synagogue Jews in Romans? (Paul the Apostle, p. 89).
Beker’s answer is that Romans in largely about the specialness of Israel and how the heritage passed on through the synagogue blesses the Gentiles. Paul acknowledges that official Israel has been faithless and rejected the Messiah. However, the faithfulness of God to all people depends on God also keeping his promises to Israel regardless.
God’s righteousness in Christ now vindicates his unswerving faithfulness (Rom. 3:1) to his promises to Israel (Romans 11), and it promises the imminent salvation of God to his created world (Rom. 5:1-11; 8:17-39). (Paul the Apostle, p. 92).
This has been the basis for sermons I have preached stressing that everybody’s salvation is at stake in God’s faithfulness to Israel. And I have come to think that this really is a major theme in Romans.
We know there was a lot of anti-semitism in Rome. This especially targeted Torah observance which made the Jews odd for keeping a special day and not eating what other ate. Romans, it seems to me, must have partly targeted a disrespect for Jews. Had this become an issue because Claudius had kicked Jews out of Rome for a few years and now they were returning?
Mark Nanos has given a more radical answer to Beker’s question. In his The Mystery of Romans he understood that calling the Roman community a church is anachronistic. What probably existed in Rome were enclaves of Jewish and Gentile adherents of Christ who had never broken with the synagogues. Paul argues for a Torah-respectful and a synagogue-respectful attitude among messianic Gentiles. He also addresses synagogue Jews who did not accept Christ and thought Paul was a libertine. But these Jews were also part of the community.
I do not totally agree with Nanos. (I find Nanos hard to read, so I probably don’t fully understand him.) But he and others have taken the discussion in a new direction. It seems to me very likely that views of Paul today get skewed by reading the division between Christianity and Judaism back into the mid first century.
There is a book of articles from this perspective called Paul within Judaism. I will take it up in some future posts.
Douglas Campbell’s bold proposal that Romans 1-3 is Paul’s dialogue with a particular opponent has promise and has certainly contributed to a useful conversation. Campbell, himself, put up comments on a couple of my posts last week. I am honored.
Campbell seems close to Beker in understanding the essence of Paul’s gospel. It is not so much about saving us from our individual sins, as about delivering a world that has become subject to the power of death. I have preached that sermon myself.
However, I have caveats. The discussion in Romans seems to me to have moved beyond the one in Galatians. Paul does seem to address Jews rather than Jewish Christian opponents.
Furthermore, I worry about the pressure that things like Barth’s problem with natural theology and the social conservative use of Romans 1 in gender politics put upon exegesis. There are reasons why Romans 1:18 ff. is an inconvenient text. But I bet Paul had some inconvenient views. Heck, look at Karl Barth’s views on gender, and that was just last century.