Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Paul on the Cross, take 2

I've just finished David Brondos' Paul on the Cross. I have to say I'm really enamored with it right now. I think I conveyed a generally positive attitude about it in my previous post, but right now I feel like I sold it short.

The tagline on the back cover says "Drawing the theological consequences of current scholarship on Paul". I'm pretty sure that sells it short too.

Admittedly, I have only limited knowledge of the New Perspective on Paul, but I'm pretty sure Brondos' work goes beyond of the typical edges of even the New Perspective, though he's definitely in that tradition.

My impression is that the New Perspective scholars have, for the most part, tried to keep one foot in the traditional church and keep the New Perspective in touch with and to some extent compatible with traditional doctrine, even as it points out the fallacies that led to the formulation of the traditional doctrine. Brondos, near as I can tell, harbors no such sacred cows.

And that's what I think is such a remarkable achievement in this book. Although he is certainly building on the substantial groundwork of the New Perspective, he has managed to produce a fresh reading of Paul's writings, disentangling himself from all of the traditional meanings that have been attached to the key terms and phrases in Paul and reimagining Paul's meanings in terms of the story he thinks Paul is telling. It's a breath-taking accomplishment.

Brondos says that the early Christian story of redemption, envisioned as a fulfillment of the general Jewish story of redemption of the time, was this: Israel was awaiting a Messiah who would vindicate them and their God and bring about a new age of peace and general well-being. Israel's God, being all powerful, could make this happen at will. There were no obstacles preventing God from accomplishing this redemption (no required sacrfice, no justice to be meted out). It was strictly at the will of God. However, God was seen as waiting for something. Typically, the idea was that God was waiting for the people of Israel to be living out the Torah. Enter Jesus. Jesus is God's promised Messiah, and he has come not because the Torah is being fulfilled but in order to gather to himself a community whom he will teach to keep the Torah, according to the spirit rather than according to the letter. Jesus' way of acting and committing himself entirely to fulfilling the will of God brings him into inevitable conflict with the authorities, but Jesus chooses obedience over safety. God raises Jesus from the dead as a sign and seal of approval on Jesus' mission. Finally, God pours out the Holy Spirit upon the community to enable them to live out Jesus' teachings.

That may not be exactly the traditional interpretation of Jesus' life, but I don't think anything there is particularly novel there. A lot of scholars see it that way, I think. But it doesn't seem to fit the traditional interpretation of Paul where Paul's thought is broken (even in the New Perspective) into the two categories of sacrificial/cultic language, where Jesus died for our sins, and participatory language, where we find salvation by being "in Christ," neither of which map to the story above. What's remarkable about Brondos' book is the way he uses the early Christian story of redemption outlined above and works it into both the sacrificial language and the participatory language in Paul.

Jesus died for us in that he was willing to give his life in obedience to the work that he had to do as teacher of the Torah and gatherer of the community whom he would make righteous. We are "in Christ" when we also commit to obedience, following the teaching that Christ has given us and living as he lived. You're probably not buying this without hearing a serious explanation of an awful lot of individual texts. Read the book! He may not be exactly right, but I think he's definitely on to something.

I'm actually very anxious to re-read this book very soon, which I hardly ever do. I would be going back into it again right away to try to absorb the ideas more fully except I've committed to teaching a class on the fulfillment texts in Matthew during Advent and I need to get me attention focused on that. Expect me to return to this in January.

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