Sunday, July 03, 2005

Frank Thielman on Paul's opponents in Galatians

It has often been pointed out that the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is a misnomer, as it really is a new perspective on Second Temple Judaism. Much of the debate is about whether the Judaism of the time was legalistic, or more grace-driven (so-called Covenantal Nomism). However, on the bus to Edinburgh yesterday I read the following, which, it seems to me, should shake up that discussion:

In Galatians, where this contrast [between faith and works] first occurs historically, Paul is arguing not against Judaism generally but against Jewish Christians who have added to faith in Christ the requirement that the law must be kept. For Paul, adding this requirement implies that human effort, in the form of keeping the Mosaic law, justifies. Paul is convinced that this implication is thoroughly un-Jewish, and therefore urges the Galatians to return to the gracious religion of his – and his opponents’ – ancestors: “We who are by nature Jews and not Gentile ‘sinners’ know,” he says, “that a person is not justified by works of the law” (2:15-16). Far from misrepresenting Judaism, Paul calls the Galatians back to a truly Jewish understanding of the human need for God’s eschatological mercy.

In Romans Paul attacks Jewish boasting in keeping the law (3:27-4:8), but this is not an argument against Judaism generally. It targets only those Jews who believed that their own works cooperated with God’s grace to guarantee their right standing before God.

(Frank Thielman, The Law and the New Testament: The Question of Continuity, p.38, New York:The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999)

This point has probably been made before, but it is the first time that I have read it, or at least the first time that it has come out of the page at me. I think we often forget that Paul is addressing Gentiles in Galatians and not Jews, as only they would be uncircumcised to start with. So Judaism itself is not the alternative ‘gospel’ for them, rather it is what Paul shows to be a nonsensical mixture of both Judaism and Christianity that is a perversion of them both.

Thielman rightly deals with Romans separately, as there the opponents are not as concrete, and Paul is dealing with the nation of Israel. It seems to me that the ‘Lutherans’ in the NPP debate have generally adopted the correct understanding of Judaism, in rejecting a legalistic view of Second Temple Judaism in favour of one that sees more variegation (see the title of Carson et al’s mighty tome). The point that Jewish legalism (however prevalent it was) is a perversion of OT religion properly understood is I think a key point for bible-believing Christians.

PS I do think, and so post, about the NPP quite a lot. But I am quite a poorly educated layperson compared to many other people, so no one should put much stock by what I write. However, I do think it is a subject worth thinking about carefully by all thinking Christians.

PPS The Amazon Page contains a enthusiastic review by the blogger Justin Taylor. I am slightly surprised by this as Thielman has some slight NPP leanings, although he in general does reject it, whereas Justin Taylor is steadfastly conservative. He was once a student of NT Wright's and follows him on the importance of the exile to First Century Jews, but I have a feeling that he has drifted away from the NPP over time. That may be another example of me rushing into conclusions and posting them when I have no evidence as this is the only book I have read by him.


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