Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Identity and Theology of Paul's Jewish Opponents

In my previous posts entitled “The Apostle Paul’s Understanding of the Old Testament View of the Law” and “The Apostle Paul’s Understanding of the Old Testament View of the Gospel” I have presented some thoughts regarding the first aspect of the Jewish context of the theology of the Apostle Paul, namely, the theological context of the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament) in which the Apostle Paul operated. The second aspect of Paul’s Jewish context is the identity of his Jewish opponents.

Here are some quotes from my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell from the sub-section that discusses the identity of Paul’s Jewish opponents:

“Paul’s Jewish opponents in general were not ignorant of the Old Testament doctrines of grace, sin, or faith. Their key characteristic was that they were fierce advocates of Mosaic covenant theology. They believed that this system of theology (which was based on the Old Testament) was still normative. Paul, however, no longer viewed Mosaic covenant theology as normative in the way that it had been previously. Since his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, he had come to view Mosaic covenant theology in effect as old covenant theology (2 Cor 3:6-14). That is to say, the system of Mosaic covenant theology, which had been valid during the old covenant age, had now been rendered obsolete through the coming of Christ and the establishment of the new covenant, a situation that had been foreshadowed in the Mosaic law itself. Paul’s Jewish opponents had more or less correctly understood the way that things were under the old covenant, but they had failed to see how the old covenant would be surpassed or exceeded (2 Cor 3:9-10) by the new covenant in Christ. The fundamental issue for Paul, therefore, was upholding, in the face of opposition from the advocates of traditional Mosaic covenant theology, God’s new covenant arrangement in Messiah Jesus” (p. 133).

“The non-Christian Jews of Paul’s day rejected Jesus and the Christian gospel primarily in the name of faithfulness to Moses and traditional Jewish teaching (see John 5:16, 18; 7:14-24, 45-52; 9:16; 16:2; Acts 22:3; Rom 10:2), while the Christian Judaizers sought to change the universal Christian gospel (which offered salvation to Gentiles on equal footing with Jews) into a Jewish gospel, where conversion to Judaism and keeping the law of Moses were viewed as being necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1, 5). In this way, the Judaizers were attempting to make Christianity fit snugly into the framework of the Mosaic covenant” (p. 133).

In other words, I agree here with William Dumbrell’s assessment of the Antiochene Judaizers as being Jews who “probably endeavoured to fit Jesus into the Sinai compact, which they saw as continuing … By their demand for the imposition of the Mosaic Law on Christian converts, they were in fact making demands for Christian incorporation into the Mosaic and Sinaitic structure” (William J. Dumbrell, Galatians: A New Covenant Commentary [Blackwood: New Covenant, 2006], 38–39).

“The dispute between Paul and his Jewish opponents, therefore, fundamentally revolved around the proper interpretation of the Mosaic covenant in God’s plan of salvation. At stake between Paul and his Jewish opponents was the proper interpretation of the Old Testament” (Coxhead, “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm,” 134).

In general, Paul’s Jewish opponents were advocates of orthodox Mosaic covenant theology, which defined righteousness in terms of obedience (i.e., commitment or faithfulness) to the Mosaic covenant and its stipulations (i.e., the law of Moses) in accordance with the teaching of Deut 6:25. The Jewish nature of the theology of Paul’s Jewish opponents needs to be understood correctly before we can truly understand the significance of the Christian doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law, which Paul strongly defended in his epistles to the Galatians and Romans.


Jeff said...

This simple description, with some work, makes sense of the New Testament situation. As we overcome objections to this description of Paul's opponents, we gain a reward...a much better understanding of all Paul's Epistles.

I hope you get a chance spend more time blogging on this topic.


Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Jeff, for your comment, and for your encouragement.

In the end, we have plenty of evidence from the New Testament itself (without having to resort to studies of first-century Judaism in a big way, although such studies can undoubtedly be helpful if done well) concerning the basic theological motivation of Paul’s Jewish opponents.

They were zealous for the law of Moses (Rom 10:2; Gal 1:14; Phil 3:5–6; see also Acts 21:20; 22:3), and sought to be faithful to Moses by following the Jewish customs regarding the law (Acts 10:9–17, 28; 11:2–3; 15:1, 5; Gal 1:14; see also Acts 21:21).

And rather than being a negative, I take it that being zealous for the law (properly understood) was actually Israel’s covenantal obligation under the Mosaic arrangement. Being zealous for God’s law is good, provided that it is a zeal with knowledge. And zeal with knowledge in the new covenant age means seeing Christ as bringing to an end the rule of the law of Moses per se, with covenant righteousness now defined in terms of submission to Christ (i.e., faith) rather than in terms of submission to the law of Moses (Rom 10:4). This christological “dethroning” of the law of Moses was precisely what Paul’s Jewish opponents were reacting to (Acts 21:21).