I have been considering the opposition to Paul since reading Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul: A Critical Life. Although I could not totally agree with his theory of Paul’s opponents, his treatment did make this a bigger issue in my mind. Some kind of a counter mission seemed to be going on. Murphy-O’Connor makes a good case for the “thorn in the flesh” being Paul’s recurring opponents.
Of course, all the opponents were not the same. Those in Thessalonica, Colossae, and at least some of those at Corinth were probably local. But those who came to Galatia and those mentioned in Philippians seem to be people engaged in a counter mission against Paul. Murphy-O’Connor adds the external opponents of Paul at Corinth.
The majority opinion among scholars is that these were Judaizers, a term which usually means a party that wanted Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes in order to be welcomed by Jewish Christians.
One of the things John Barclay brought up in his lectures on Paul and the gift of God, is that Paul went back to Abraham to argue that Jews as well as Gentiles were acceptable to God without regard to worth and prior to the Torah. Abraham lived before the Torah and God called him with a surprising and incongruent grace. So God calls Jews and Gentiles both on the same basis.
Important for Paul was the statement that the “righteous shall live by faith.” He recalls this in both Galatians 3:11 and Romans 1:17. It is a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4, which is one of those verses that recent translations change for PC purposes because older translations used the generic male.
Behold, his soul [which] is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith (KJV)
.The newer translations tend to use the plural:
Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith (NRSV)
Actually it is singular and Paul interpreted the singular righteous person as Abraham: Here is my attempt to capture it in paraphrase:
Look at a self-important person whose desires are not right–contrast that with the person (Abraham) who is right with God because of faith (or fidelity).
Paul apparently applied this to the reference to Abraham in Genesis 15:6:
And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness (KJV).
So for Paul the “just shall live by faith” refers to a gift that comes before law or other human systems of value.
But we have another interpretation of Habakkuk from the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is the closest interpretation of Habakkuk 2:4 to Paul’s time that I know of. The commentary on Habakkuk explains the “just shall live by faith” this way:
Interpreted, this concerns all those who observe the Law in the House of Judah, whom God will deliver from the House of Judgment because of their suffering and because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness (see here).
For them the verse does not go back before the Torah to Abraham’s faith to accept God’s gift, but is for the House of Judah. In this binary view your choice is between the House of Judah and the House of Judgment. For the various views about who the Qumran sect’s “Teacher of Righteousness” was see the Wikepedia article here.
What I am wondering though, is whether some in New Testament times might have followed Jesus–or Jesus plus James– as teachers of a renewed oral Torah. Thus faith for Paul’s opponents might have meant, not faith in an unmerited divine grace mediated by Jesus for all, but faith in Jesus as the mediator of a new Law calling all people into the House of Judah.