Monday, October 29, 2007

What Does the New Perspective on Paul Look Like?

I like little books that pack a punch, and Jouette M. Bassler's new, Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts (Westminster John Knox, 2006), stands among the best examples I can find. In just a few short (10-15 page) chapters, Bassler surveys the current conversation on topics such as grace, the law, and faith. Though anyone with an introductory grasp of Paul will understand her -- I assign this book for a 100-level course -- Bassler's discussion includes diverse points of view from across the exegetical and theological spectra. Her footnotes would make a goldmine for a doctoral student preparing for a qualifying exam on Paul: read those works, and you'll be fine.

So please read Bassler. Just the same, I'm often asked about what's called the "new perspective" on Paul. What does it look like? In short, the new perspective is a movement that began in the 1960s and continues to spark controversy. Key figures include Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright, though each of these scholars has his own distinctive point of view. In this post I'll simply list some common characteristics of the movement.
  1. Paul and Judaism. Influenced by Augustine and Luther, scholars once assumed that the pre-Jesus Paul carried a heavy burden of sin. Romans 7 and 1 Timothy 1:15 (in which Paul calls himself the foremost of sinners). In the 1960s and 70s scholars began listening to ancient Jewish texts on their own terms, rather than through the lenses of Christian reception. Texts like Galatians 1 and Philippians 3 reveal that Paul did not struggle under a burden of sin; rather, he remained proud of his faithfulness to the law throughout his life.
  2. Paul's "conversion." Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity, as in leaving one religion for another. Instead, he received an "apocalypse" (Paul's word) from the God of Israel, that revealed the risen Jesus to him. From that point Paul began proclaiming the death, resurrection, and return of Israel's messiah.
  3. Law, grace, and faith. Paul's gospel was not the announcement of salvation by grace through faith. This theme occurs almost exclusively in two of his letters, Galatians and Romans. These happen to be the letters in which Paul deals most directly with the relationship of Gentile and Jewish followers of Jesus. Paul believed passionately in grace and faith, as did other Jews of his day. What marked his mission was the inclusion of Gentiles without requiring them to observe Israel's Torah. Paul's gospel proclaimed God's decisive saving action in the death, resurrection, and return of Jesus. "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."
  4. Romans. In the "older perspective," Romans outlines Paul's theology. This is essentially accomplished in chapters 1-8. Chapter 7 represents an autobiographical reflection on Paul's struggles under the law and his deliverance by Christ. Chapters 9-11 are a "great digression" on the question of Israel, while chapters 12-16 are merely an ethical afterthought. Romans' story is the story of how individual souls find themselves lost in sin but redeemed in Jesus Christ. In the new perspective, Paul is not sketching his full theology. Instead, he is defending his gospel over against objections that were already circulating. Chapter 7 is a case study in what happens to Gentiles who hope the law will justify them, chapters 9-11 represent one of Paul's most critical defenses against his opponents, and chapters 12-15 instruct Gentiles and Jews (but especially Gentiles) as to how to get along. Romans' story proclaims the righteousness and power of God, demonstrated through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (not simply "faith in" Jesus) to save humankind and the cosmos.
What's at stake in the new perspective? Among other things, Jewish-Christian relations benefit when Christians seriously try to understand Judaism on its own terms. Pastorally, consider the implications of the "older" and "newer" perspectives. Following the older perspective, Christians sought to duplicate the experiences of Augustine and Luther. Some have said, "You gotta get 'em lost before you can get 'em saved," centering the Christian experience around individuals who feel the weight of sin and who find freedom in Christ. The new perspective, while it takes sin seriously, instead announces God's liberative acts on behalf of individuals, communities and all of creation. While the old perspective calls people to repent and find forgiveness, the new perspective invites people to participate in the ongoing work of God.

Friday, April 20, 2007

How Did Jesus Get Himself Crucified?

How did Jesus get himself crucified?

I pose this question, aware that many might find it odd if not offensive. After all, conventional church talk has it that Jesus was an innocent victim, executed by cruel people in a miscarriage of justice. In this view, one wonders, "Why did people kill Jesus?"

To ask how Jesus got himself killed is to turn the question around entirely. I am assuming that Jesus was not "innocent" in the sense that his execution makes no sense. On the contrary, Jesus performed actions and uttered pronouncements that made his execution entirely predictable. Jesus died because of the things he did and said. He was executed by the authorities of his day for acts he actually committed.

One could dodge the question altogether by saying Jesus died due to divine necessity. In this view God planned Jesus' crucifixion all along as a means of bringing salvation to humankind. I do not subscribe to that view, as I think it makes for horrid theology, but I won't argue that case here. Instead, I'll focus on something else. To say that God caused Jesus' death is to make a theological claim -- not an historical one. Historically, the question remains, what did Jesus do that provoked people to kill him?

When we read the Gospels carefully, we see that they portray Jesus' death in two ways. The more familiar way involves the corruption of the temple authorities and of Pontius Pilate. Jesus is arrested out of jealousy and fear, for the crowds are responding positively to his ministry. The authorities trump up false charges, and present Jesus before Pilate. Pilate smells something fishy, so he avoids passing judgment on Jesus. However, the temple authorities rouse the crowds, pressuring Pilate into the fatal verdict. This view represents a composite of the Gospel narratives, which vary in some particulars. Nevertheless, it represents one side of the Gospel portraits.

But there's another side, one just as true to how the Gospels portray Jesus. If one takes the stories seriously, they describe several provocative acts on Jesus' part that would have grabbed the authorities' attention and led to his death. I am not suggesting that the Gospels relate a straightforward and historically accurate chronicle of Jesus' last days. But their overall picture sketches a plausible scenario.
  • Context: Jesus arrives in Jerusalem during Passover week, when the city is exceedingly overcrowded, political tensions are particularly high, and the Roman authorities are on "Level Orange" alert.
  • Procession: What we call Jesus' "triumphal entry" amounts to a royal procession into the city. The crowd's acclamation interprets this action as a messianic moment. Outside observers would regard it as dangerous at best, openly seditious at worst.
  • Temple Action: The Gospels likely exaggerate Jesus' rampage through the temple. Nevertheless, more and more interpreters recognize this action as a condemnation of the temple and the authorities who run it. An action like this during Passover time is extremely dangerous.
  • Anti-Temple Speech. Jesus delivers several speeches against the temple during his last week. Many are familiar with the apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13 (and parallels). But also the cursing of the fig tree, the saying about prayer to cast a mountain into the sea, and the story of the widow's mite all function as condemnations of the temple authorities, and probably the temple itself.
  • Rejection of Tribute to Rome. Pressed by his enemies as to whether it is legal to pay tribute to Caesar, Jesus' reply indicates that when one calculates what "belongs to God," nothing is left over for Caesar.
Both sides, the innocent victim and the condemned troublemaker, carry truth. Jesus does not seem to be plotting a military revolt against either the temple or the empire. In that sense his crucifixion may be traced to the violent suppression of dissent on the part of the local and Roman authorities. At the same time, those authorities had every reason to regard Jesus as a threat to public order. In that sense, in arresting and then executing Jesus, they were simply doing their job.

I develop these ideas more fully in the Sinners volume. At the same time, all of the ideas presented here have been articulated in some form or another by multiple scholars.

What's at stake in asking how Jesus got himself crucified? Beyond the matters of biblical interpretation, historical reconstruction, and dogmatic theology, there lies the realm of discipleship. If being "innocent" means never confronting authority, never violating the law in performing acts of compassion and justice, never causing trouble for others, then maybe followers of Jesus should rank "faithfulness" above "innocence."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers

Jesus was notorious for the company he kept. He ate with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. In fact, this is one of the major criticisms Jesus' opponents weighed against him. Just look up "sinners" and "tax collectors" in the Gospels, and you'll be amazed how often this theme appears.

A careful look at the Gospel stories reveals something even more remarkable: in not one story does Jesus criticize these people -- or even call them to repent. Instead, Jesus invited himself to share meals with them. He enjoyed their company, and he brought them blessing with his presence. It's that simple.

This basic insight lies behind a book project I'm taking on for my current sabbatical. It's called Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers. When early Christians remembered Jesus, they repeated the stories that Jesus enjoyed the company of sinners. They told the stories of Levi the tax collector-apostle, the anonymous sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears, and Zacchaeus the tax collector.

They also recalled the "scandal" -- that's what Paul calls it -- of Jesus' crucifixion. Crucifixion indicated Jesus' condemnation as a criminal by the legitimate authorities of the day. Jesus was crucified because of his own teachings and actions. He stirred up a popular demonstration during the politically tense Passover celebration. During that same celebration he created chaos within the temple complex. He dismissed the authority of the empire to collect taxes and demand obedience. So the authorities arrested him and executed him.

Early Christians also knew they were "sinners" in the eyes of their neighbors. They were accused of a variety of offenses, but the main problem was, their values sometimes clashed with prevailing social and religious values. As a result, they found themselves toeing a very fine line between acting respectable in the public eye and celebrating their distinctive values. As 1 Peter tells it, they lived as "strangers and aliens" who avoided public scorn as much as possible.

As I look back upon the "sinfulness" of Jesus and his earliest followers, I realize that my own heroes of the faith were "sinners" too. As a single parent when that wasn't cool, my Mom made tremendous sacrifices so that I could have opportunities as a young person. Faithful white Christians who followed the African American Civil Rights Movement -- people like Clarence Jordan and Ed King -- were widely reviled as sinners in their own day. I think those models are the real inspiration for this project.

First Post

Welcome to NTGeeks, the blog spot of Greg Carey, Associate Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Over time, this spot will feature discussion on a variety of topics related to biblical studies. I'll try to keep the conversation timely and relevant.