And God saw that it was good part III – the Christ event and supersession

Continuing the theme of divine intervention (or the lack of it) from the last two posts, in which I am jamming on a theme of “God saw that it was good”, I suppose I should advance somewhat beyond Genesis 1-3.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been working through Douglas Campbell’s “The Deliverance of God”¬†. It’s a source of some embarrassment to me that I haven’t finished it yet, but in my defence I should point out that Campbell quotes extensively in Greek without transliteration or translation, and significant parts of his argument rest on fine points of Koin√© Greek grammar. When I started, I couldn’t even reliably transliterate Greek text! That has changed, but much of my reading has been progressing with a parallel text Greek and English translation open on my laptop. It’s going to take a few more weeks yet, even though I’m into the closing stages of his argument.

I should mention that when Campbell uses the term “Deliverance of God”, he means deliverance effected by God, not God being delivered from something.

Campbell subtitles his massive (1200 plus pages) book “An apocalyptic rereading of Justification in Paul”. To summarise, Campbell attacks the accepted understanding of Romans, and in particular Romans 1-8. A brief overview is here, Richard Beck’s 12 part blog is here. Neither of them gets to the end!

The alternative reading of Romans which Campbell proposes is that Paul’s gospel is participatory and liberative and not, as is commonly put forward, a scathing critique of Judaism coupled with “salvation by faith only”, that faith being commonly understood as accepting Jesus as… and at that point, what you accept him as is debated.

I’ve engaged a little with Romans previously, in which I chiefly focused on Rom. 3:25b-26 “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” as the NIV translates it. Campbell would not translate it that way, having a different concept of Paul’s thrust in the whole section. I previously noted that, far from concentrating on our righteousness, and saying that we were, though faith, deemed to be righteous, Paul is saying that it is God who is in need of being shown to be righteous; Campbell allows me to advance the idea that “he himself” still refers to God, and that the balance of the passage should read “is righteous and is justified by the faithfulness of Jesus”. Thus the passage would be “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that God is righteous and is justified by the faithfulness of Jesus”.

This agrees well with Beck’s version of Rom. 22: “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

God is not therefore in this passage, in the “event” which is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, delivering us. He is delivering himself from our misconceptions.

But Campbell would also argue that Paul is saying that by participating in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we have a route to God; in this God is also delivering us. This fits extremely well with Paul’s “Christ in us, us in Christ” language elsewhere in his writings.

Campbell’s rereading is itself an attempt to deliver us from misconceptions, which he spends the early chapters of his book outlining in detail as problems with the conventional reading. What he then proposes as a solution is radical; significant parts of the text of Romans become his reciting of (and lampooning of) the arguments of another preacher, one whose gospel Paul disapproves of, and who he thinks either is in Rome or may shortly be there. Campbell sees Romans 1-8 in particular as an ongoing exchange between Paul speaking with his own voice and Paul’s voicing of a version of his opponent’s teaching.

This gets me to the nub of a really major problem I have always had with Romans, the apparent denigration of “the Law” throughout Romans 2-8. To read this using the “orthodox” reading of Paul is to view the Torah, the law of Judaism, as a snare and a delusion, to be overcome by faith in Christ and left behind. My problem is this: if we are to accept that the Torah is God-given as “the Law”, if we then turn round and say that it is ineffective as anything other than a “stumbling block”, we are either saying that God has tricked his chosen people by advancing it or that God failed to realise that no-one could actually follow it (as Paul appears in the standard reading to allege in Rom. 3:9-20).

[In passing, I would say that Rom. 3:9-20 should not be read as indicating that it is not possible for an individual to follow all of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah. Apart from anything else, this is patently untrue, as almost any committed adherent of Judaism will be happy to assure us. What has not been practically possible is that ALL Jews follow all of the commandments; this is a statement about a nation, not a statement about individuals. Judaism, incidentally, would agree with this interpretation today; there is a hope that at some time in the future, all Jews will be observant.]

On the standard reading of Romans, I am left with three options; either the Hebrew Scriptures were a fraud or product of non-Godly inspiration (a Gnostic, Marcionite interpretation), or God was a trickster, or God was frankly not very far-sighted, let alone not omniscient, and made a mistake in giving Israel the Torah. None of these is acceptable, and this is another example of my arguments from “and God saw that it was good”.

Ascribing those parts of Romans 2-8 which seem to give this impression to Paul’s lampooning of his rival preachers teaching is a very attractive alternative!

I am not keen on supersessionism in any form, however, and I do not think that Campbell, or Beck interpreting Campbell, manages to avoid this. I take it that in giving the Law, God proposed an adequate way of approaching him, albeit for Judaism only. If it were not adequate (which is at the root of all supersessionist concepts), we would again be faced with the trichotomy of false revelation, trick or failure of foresight. It’s for this reason that I assume in interpreting New Testament Scripture that it doesn’t generally seek to set aside the Hebrew Scriptures, but to build on them and extend them (notably, to non-Jews without the need for prior conversion to Judaism, which need for conversion Campbell thinks is the essence of Paul’s adversary’s gospel). If it does set anything aside, it is either (as circumcision and dietary law) something which his audience were not obligated to, not being Jewish, or it is something which was situational and not of eternal validity (which Christianity generally holds to be the case for, for instance, the whole sacrificial and ritual system of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and a substantial amount of other law, for instance not mixing fibres in cloth or crops within a field).

This is, for me, a general principle. I do not hold (I cannot hold, in the light of my personal experience) that Christianity is the only valid path to God. All major religions, I have found, have their own way of expressing the root experience of God which is commonly described by the term “mysticism” and with which I am familiar. This clearly includes Judaism, quite independently of the absurdity of regarding the system in which Jesus himself operated and on which all the New Testament writers based their own writings as being inadequate. If Paul were genuinely being completely supersessionist, I would be forced to say that in that, he was in error.

However, I don’t actually think he was, at least not in this instance. I note the words in Rom. 3:1 “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way…” and despite where Paul then proceeds to take the passage, I think he may have meant that bit in respect of himself. He does, after all, boast elsewhere of being an observant Jew, indeed a Pharisee, a student of Gamaliel. Equally clearly, he thought that for him, at least, Christ was the answer rather than just his Judaism.

Not based on Campbell (at least not obviously), another radical treatment of Paul has been written by Daniel Boyarin in “A Radical Jew”. In that, Boyarin takes Galatians as offering the “primary” statement of Paul’s theology and interprets much of the remainder in the light of that (quoting Dunn rather a lot). It’s a different route to reinterpreting Paul, but one which is broadly compatible with Campbell’s. It also is at some pains to try to avoid any suggestion that Paul is being supersessionist, and, I think, succeeds reasonably on the first level reading of the text.

[I thoroughly recommend reading Boyarin in this book and also in “Border Lines”, which deals with the progressive separation of Christianity and Judaism. I have to admit that when reading him, I have occasionally thought of the “Goodness Gracious Me” sketches with the character deciding that lots of things – well, pretty much everything we might regard as “English” (or anything else) is, in fact, Indian. Here’s a clip where he decides the Queen is Indian; elsewhere the same is said of Superman. In Boyarin’s case, he’s deciding that everything in Christianity is, in fact, Jewish. While I think he goes a little too far, I think this is a good corrective to those of us who are tempted not to read the New Testament as the product of Jewish writers writing about a Jewish Jesus; he shows very well how New Testament ideas flowed naturally out of Judaism, taking one path from there, and how modern Judaism flowed equally naturally taking a slightly different path.]

However, Boyarin eventually arrives at the verdict that Paul was, in fact, being supersessionist not in discarding Jewish Law, but in eliminating any difference between Jews and non-Jews; in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28). Paul was not in Boyarin’s eyes being supersessionist in any other way. Boyarin’s complaint was that the “chosenness” of Jews was effectively demolished by Paul’s inclusivity, and with that I cannot argue.

And if you’ve been reading between the lines, you’ll have noticed that I may have earlier been advancing something like a variant of Paul: “in Christ” there is neither Christian nor non-Christian.

Does that shock?

It probably should, bearing in mind the exclusivity found so often in Christianity, generally based on a few passages in the Fourth Gospel. It probably doesn’t shock so much as Paul’s “neither Jew nor Greek” might to Jews, as the elimination of their chosen status and of their distinctiveness in following the Torah is in Jewish eyes tantamount to elimination of Jews – in other words a form of genocide.

At least I’m not proposing genocide!

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