Sunday, 29 April 2012

Was the Apostle Paul Anti-Law?

     In the context of Pauline studies, much discussion has been generated in recent years about Paul’s view of the law in the setting of first-century Judaism. Early Protestant reformers, advocating a doctrine of justification by faith "alone" in reaction to the converse extreme of Roman Catholicism, tended to view the law of Moses as a legalistic system of meritorious works. In the late 1970s, the notion of Jewish works-righteousness legalism was convincingly challenged by E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism) and was essentially replaced in majority scholarship by the concept of "covenantal nominism" (i.e., Jewish observance of the law, not to gain salvation but to maintain covenantal status as God’s people). While this "new perspective" has significantly gained in popularity, many are now calling for a more balanced position that recognizes elements among first-century Jews of both "personal legalism" and "ethnic exclusivism" and Paul’s responses to them.
     If the Mosaic law were truly a system of meritorious works, and if it is not possible to be saved under such a system (Galatians 3:11; Romans 3:20), then no one adhering to the law of Moses could have been saved – not even Moses himself! However, the foregoing syllogism is built on a faulty premise. During the fifteen centuries that the law of Moses was in force, provisions were made for atonement and forgiveness (Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:13, 16, 18), salvation was attainable (1 Samuel 2:1; 2 Samuel 22:51; 1 Chronicles 16:23; Psalm 3:8; etc.), and one could even be counted "blameless" (Luke 1:6; Philippians 3:6). Faith, love and mercy were essential components (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 10:12-21; Micah 6:8; Habakkuk 2:4; Matthew 23:23; etc.), and it was beneficial to all who submitted to it (Deuteronomy 6:24; 10:13; cf. Psalm 78:1-7; etc.).
     Contrary to what is commonly assumed, Paul was not anti-law. In fact, he concedes faith’s reinforcement of the law (Romans 3:31), the holiness and righteousness of the law (Romans 7:7, 12), the spirituality of the law (Romans 7:14), and the advantages of Judaism (Romans 3:1-2; 9:4). Does Paul, then, contradict himself in passages like Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16 and 3:11? To borrow the apostle’s own words, certainly not! Instead, his emphasis is consistently on the importance of understanding the law in terms of faith rather than dependence on meritorious observances (cf. Romans 3:27-31; 9:30-32).
     Paul was in favor of the law and its precepts with respect to those for whom it was an important part of their cultural heritage (i.e., within the context of ethnic Judaism), as long as it was not at variance with the Christian faith (cf. Acts 16:1-3; 18:18; 21:20-26; 1 Corinthians 9:20; also Romans 15:4). On the other hand, he was vehemently opposed to the enforcement of the law’s ritualistic ordinances on those for whom these practices had no relevance (i.e., non-Jewish Christians), especially if the imposition of such created division in the church and supplanted the "faith of Christ."
     Foreshadowing the atoning sacrifice of Jesus (Romans 3:25-26; Galatians 4:4-5; Hebrews 9:15, 26), persons were saved under the old Jewish law by God’s grace through faith (Romans 4:3-16; cf. 3:25; 9:31-32), i.e. a faith that submitted to the divine will in humble (albeit less than perfect) obedience. Despite the fact that a number of first-century legalistic Jews misconstrued the law’s intended purpose (Luke 11:37-42; Romans 2:23; 10:3), it was never meant to be a cold-hearted structure of meritorious works. While the old-covenant system was not faultless (Hebrews 8:7), it successfully functioned as a temporary measure to keep faith alive until the advent of the promised Messiah and the establishment of his superior new-covenant system (cf. Galatians 3:16–4:7; Hebrews 8:6-13).
--Kevin L. Moore


Related Posts: Is the Law of Moses Still Binding?, James and the Law of Moses, Fulfilling the Law

Sunday, 22 April 2012

James and the Law of Moses

     Does James affirm the current relevance of the entire Mosaic law for New Testament Christians (2:8-13; 4:11)? It is important to keep the epistle of James in its proper setting. The letter appears to have been written early in the church’s history, while Christianity was still within the general circle of Judaism. It is addressed "to the twelve tribes in the dispersion (diaspora)" (1:1, author’s own translation), with no hint of any conflict between Jewish and non-Jewish believers (i.e. prior to the discord of the early 50s). Around the year 33, Jewish Christians were "scattered" (diaspeirō) from Jerusalem by persecution (Acts 8:1, 4) and traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, "speaking the word to no one except Jews only" (Acts 11:19).
     The readers’ place of meeting is described as a sunagōgē ("synagogue") (James 2:2), Abraham is referred to as "our father" (2:21), and there is extensive use of the Old Testament and Jewish metaphors. Since no other New Testament document had been written at this time, casual reference to "the law" is understandable, with much emphasis on the outward workings of faith (1:22-27; 2:14-16; 3:13; 4:11). Remember that the ministry of James appears to have been primarily among Jewish communities, in contrast to Paul who labored predominantly among the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-9)
     When James writes, "For [the one] who keeps all the law, yet stumbles in one thing, he has become guilty of all" (James 2:10), he is addressing the issue of certain ones claiming to be faithful to the law yet inconsistently violating the law by discriminating against the poor. James is simply calling for consistency. However, to construe these words to broadly affirm that the law of Moses in its entirety is permanently binding on all Christians of all time is to remove the argument from its original context. The allusions to "the perfect law of liberty" and the "royal law" (1:25; 2:8, 12) show that even these early Jewish disciples were living by a new standard.
     What about the apparent disharmony between the teachings of James and Paul on justification, faith, and works (e.g. James 2:21-24 vs. Romans 4:1-5)? This question led the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther (a strong advocate of the concept of justification by faith "alone") to regard James as "an epistle of straw" (see C. M. Jacobs, trans., Works of Martin Luther 6:444). But the discrepancy that Luther perceived is more apparent than real. The "works" in Romans relate to the meritorious observance of the Mosaic law, while the "works" in James pertain to non-meritorious demonstrations of faith. With the right perspective, these teachings are not at variance and readily harmonize.
--Kevin L. Moore

Related Posts: Is the Law of Moses Still Binding?Was Paul Anti-Law?

Sunday, 15 April 2012

When did Jesus annul the Jewish ceremonial food restrictions?

     The Pharisees and scribes, who regarded unwashed hands as being defiled or ceremonially unclean, took issue with Jesus when they saw some of his disciples violating the tradition of the elders by eating bread without having washed their hands in the customary manner (Mark 7:1-5). The Lord responds by confronting the hypocrisy of these critics, who were paying lip service to God without dedicated hearts and were elevating their traditions above God’s word (vv. 6-13). Jesus then assures a crowd of listeners that "there is nothing from outside a man entering into him [i.e. food allegedly contaminated by ritualistically unwashed hands] which can defile him; but the things coming out of a man [i.e. sinful words and actions] are the things defiling him" (v. 15).1 When the disciples asked for further clarification, Jesus explains: "everything from the outside entering into a man cannot defile him, because it does not enter into his heart but into the stomach and goes out into the latrine" (vv. 18-19a).
     The difficulty is determining the significance of the next phrase, katharizōn panta ta brōmata, lit. "purifying all foods" (v. 19b). The first problem concerns a variant in the text. The favored reading of most text critics is katharizōn, the masculine participial form of katharizō (to "cleanse" or "purify"), thus connoting "[he] purifying all foods." However, the majority of Greek manuscripts have the neuter form katharizon, conveying the sense of "[it] purifying all foods." This raises the question: is the participial clause to be understood as a continuation of Jesus’ statement (N/KJV) or as Mark’s parenthetical commentary on the implication of what Jesus has said (ASV, ESV, etc.)? In other words, is it Jesus or is it the process of waste elimination that ceremonially purifies?
     If the neuter katharizon is the correct form, in what sense could defecation purify all foods? Perhaps this was the Lord’s commonsense way of showing that irrespective of how one views food as it enters the body (whether eaten with washed or unwashed hands), it is all the same on the other end. In fact, according to rabbinic opinion, excrement was not considered ceremonially impure (m. Maksh. 6.7; t. Miqw. 7.8; y. Pesah. 7.11; Sifra Mes. Zab. § 1.12-13). Jesus was merely illustrating that the pharisaical emphasis on traditional hand-washing rituals is not the determining factor for whether or not food is kosher.
     But what if the masculine katharizōn is the correct reading? Did Jesus disavow and set aside the Mosaic dietary regulations? We must be careful not to stretch these words beyond their original intent. In the context of this discussion, the topic is not clean versus unclean foods (as per Leviticus 11, etc.), but rather the ceremonial washing of hands, cups, copper vessels, etc. derived from human traditions (Mark 7:1-5). When Jesus speaks of "nothing from outside a man entering into him which can defile him" (v. 15), and "everything from the outside entering into a man cannot defile him" (v. 18), and "all foods" (v. 19), he is speaking of all the foods that the Jews in general and his disciples in particular were accustomed to eating. The context limits the "nothing," "everything," and "all foods" to what the Pharisees were claiming to be defiled because of contact with unwashed hands or containers.2
     Jesus was not setting aside the law of Moses (cf. Matthew 5:19; 8:4; 19:17-19) but rather the traditions of the Pharisees. Apparently this was understood by Peter, having personally heard the Lord speak these words, since he later declares: "I have never eaten anything common and unclean" (Acts 10:14). It was not until Christ’s new covenant was instituted that the Jewish dietary laws were abrogated.
--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     1 All scripture quotations in English are the author's own translation.
     2 For example, later in the chapter when it is said of Jesus, "he has done all things well" (v. 37), would this literally include all things universally, e.g. theft, lying, murder, etc.? The context limits the "all things" to only the activities in which the Lord had personally been engaged.

Related Posts: Is the Law of Moses Still Binding?

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Is the Law of Moses Still Binding?

     In Matthew 5:17-18 Jesus said, "Think not that I came to nullify the law or the prophets; I came not to nullify but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until the heaven and the earth pass away, one iota or one pen stroke by no means will pass away from the law, until all things come to pass" (author’s own translation).
     The Lord spoke these words to a Jewish audience early in his ministry, at least two years before his new covenant was ratified. He assures his listeners that his purpose was not to nullify (destroy, overthrow, abrogate) the law or the prophets. Jesus himself was an Israelite who was amenable to the Jewish law (Galatians 4:4; cf. Matthew 8:4), and he kept it perfectly. Rather, his purpose was to fulfill [plēroō = to fill up or make full] all that the law and the prophets had said concerning the promised Messiah. In fact, one of the primary aims of Matthew’s Gospel is to establish the fact that Jesus and all that was accomplished in his ministry were in fulfillment of the prophetic scriptures (Matthew 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9, 35). Accordingly, these things were not to remain unfulfilled for millennia after the Lord’s death, resurrection, and ascension. Once Jesus accomplished his mission on earth, the role that the law and the prophets had served for centuries was complete (see Galatians 3:16-25; Hebrews 8:6-13). In other words, when the intended purpose was fulfilled, that purpose then became obsolete.
     Contrary to what many have inferred, the Lord did not say that the Mosaic law was to remain binding until the end of time. Twice in this passage Jesus uses the expression heōs an ("until"). From the standpoint of his contemporary Jewish audience, heaven and earth could pass away at any time. Yet the Lord affirms that until that happens (whenever that might be), nothing will fail from the law or the prophets until all things come to pass. It is a statement of assurance, i.e., the law will unquestionably be vindicated and will have served its purpose when Jesus has completed his personal mission on earth (cf. John 4:34; 5:36; 17:4; 19:30).
--Kevin L. Moore

Related Posts: Jewish Food Restrictions, Tithing, James & Moses' Law, Was Paul Anti-Law?

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Biblical Authorship: Challenging Anti-Conservative Presuppositions (Part 4 of 4)

Assumption # 5: "Ancient eastern authors were reclusive individualists, solely involved in the production of their works with no outside influences or contributors."
Paul by Rembrandt

     If a writer’s unique literary habits can be identified, a seemingly objective standard is then available to discern between authentic and spurious works produced in his name. However, the entire focus of this popular analysis is limited to the individual author, while no consideration is given to any number of significant external factors. Were biblical writers as solitary and confined as current critical scholars seem to imagine?
     The concepts of solidarity and individuality may be relevant to modern literary cultures and westernized thinking but are viewed quite differently in the context of oral cultures and ancient eastern practices. The more common procedure in the ancient east was to orally dictate information to a skilled amanuensis who was then responsible for putting it into writing. Note, for instance, that Baruch wrote for Jeremiah (Jeremiah 36:1-32), Tertius wrote for Paul (Romans 16:22), and Silvanus wrote for Peter (1 Peter 5:12). The intriguing question is, how much compositional freedom was the trusted scribe allowed in the writing process? While a definitive answer is beyond determination and would no doubt have varied from one situation to the next, the reality of tandem compositions makes the appraisal of an author’s literary features much more tentative if not contestable, particularly when more than one secretary may have been involved. 
     Beyond the secretarial component and of even greater consequence is the issue of joint-authorship. Consider, for example, the book of Psalms, which is universally understood as the product of multiple authors. David, Asaph, Korah’s sons, Solomon, Moses, Heman, Ethan, and various anonymous writers all contributed to this collection of poetic compositions. Would it then be legitimate to isolate the authorial peculiarities of only one of these contributors and then critique the entire volume with this restrictive focus? In light of conventional literary procedures in the historical-cultural settings of biblical writings, how should the compositional features of a given text be evaluated? The idea of a lone author producing his work in solitary confinement is a fairly modern, westernized concept that does not fit the ancient eastern/biblical model.
     Probably more than anyone else the apostle Paul has been victimized by this anachronistic misrepresentation. The real historical Paul comprehended, executed, and communicated his mission in the context of a community of fellow believers and co-laborers. Not only is this demonstrated in the Acts narrative, where Paul is rarely depicted alone, but even in his own writings we find copious references to co-senders and co-workers, prolific use of exclusive "we" terminology, and allusions to collaborative ministry. He was undoubtedly an influential leading figure in his group of associates, but "Paul the individualist" is an unfounded misconception. Collective responsibility appears to have been the norm. To speak of "Pauline theology," for example, fails to effectively appreciate that the theology of Paul was something mutually formulated and shared within a cooperative environment. Far from being a lone maverick, the apostle understood his calling, his message, and his work as an integrated part of a whole, never discounting the indispensable partnership of trusted companions.
     Seeing that most of the New Testament documents were written in letter-form, a unique insight into the production of a first-century apostolic manuscript is provided by the letter embedded in Acts 15:23-29. The context reveals that after a group discussion and consensus among the Jerusalem apostles and elders under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (v. 28), a letter was commissioned to convey their decision. Two of their number, Judas-Barsabbas and Silas, served as amanuenses (note v. 23, graphō = to "write"). These two men were further authorized to verbally communicate the contents of the letter to the recipients (v. 27). Upon its completion, Judas and Silas delivered the letter to the Antioch congregation by publicly reading it, while they (as prophets) also imparted additional instruction (vv. 30-32).
     In view of current critical analysis, how would one go about assessing the language and style with which the contents of this apostolic missive were conveyed, and to which of the multiple contributors would the whole enterprise be ascribed? Even though a negative case against the traditional authorship of a number of biblical books has been carefully constructed by generations of liberal scholars, the foundational premise is invalid. The presumption of an author’s virtual independence is contrary to what the evidence supports. Notwithstanding the prophetic instrumentality and influence of a prominent figure, the legitimacy of any objection that focuses on the literary features of a solitary writer must therefore be called into question.
--Kevin L. Moore

Related PostsAuthorship of Ephesians, Biblical Authorship Part 1, Biblical Authorship Part 2, Biblical Authorship Part 3