Apostle Paul and Justification

Views on what Paul meant by the term Justification subject to debate

Simon Gathercole, recently appointed to a lectureship at the University of Cambridge has been adding to his repetoire of interests by writing and speaking out about some of the understandings generated by the New Perspective on Paul.  Known for his recent book on the self understanding of Jesus Christ as the Son of GodThe Preexistent Son, Gathercole is now arguing for a return to the earlier understanding of Paul's ideas of Justification.  An example of Gathercole's writing on this subject is available in the Tyndale Bulletin.

On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal has recently posted an opinion piece on the writings and influence of Tom Wright, who as the Bishop of Durham in the UK is one of the foremost proponents of the New Perspective on Paul, which sets out some of the areas of discussion.

Tags: Paul, New Perspective on Paul, Justification, Gathercole, Tom Wright

Josephus and Jesus Christ

Insights into Josephus and the knowledge of Jesus from the First Century

On Thoughts on Antiquity, the writer has put together a useful survey of the information known about Josephus' reference to Jesus Christ.  Known technically as The Testimonium Flavianumit represents what is attributed to Josephus, and what can be deduced as Josephus's original comments.  Full details of the material together with an interface to compare different documents relating to the statement from Josephus are given on thiswebsite.

Our thanks to the author for the considerable work he has undertaken to put this material together in the public domain.

Tags: Jesus Christ, First Century, Josephus, James the brother of Jesus

That Talpiot Tomb Again

New information on first century burials

Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land, Jerusalem has been blogging about the Jesus Family Tomb video, showing how much was staged in this supposed “investigative journalism.” In the third installment he references an online paper he has written about a first century ossuary found on the Mount of Olives in the early 1950’s which was inscribed “Simon Bar Jona”. In an article entitled Has St. Peter Returned to Jerusalem? The Final Resting Place of Simon Peter and the Family of Barzillai”, Pfann uses his skill as an epigrapher to examine the claim that this could have been the ossuary of the apostle Peter, also known as Simon Bar Jona.  Pfann concludes that Franciscan Father Bellarmino Bagatti misread certain letters in the inscription and that it should read, Simon Barzillai. 

When it was first discovered, it was almost a matter of embarrassment to the Vatican, as it was Catholic archaeologists who both discovered and deciphered the ossuary inscription almost immediately after the Pope had been announcing the discovery of Peter’s sarcophagus in the Vatican, located under the high altar. Simcha Jacobivici’s reference to this Jerusalemdiscovery in the Jesus Family Tomb video brought the inscription back into the public sphere again.

Pfann’s material, while well documented, lacks one point to give it credibility. It appears to be self published on the web only and has not been subjected to peer review in a professional journal.

Notwithstanding, one factor appears to have escaped the minds of most associated with the death of Jesus or his apostles and others in the early church. There appears to be no early tradition of their burial sites. We know that Stephen was the first martyr of the church and within a few years, James the son of Zebedee was also killed by Herod Agrippa.  Yet no tradition remains as to the burial sites of these men.  One rare exception is that of James the brother of Jesus. Hegesippus, a writer from the second century, records that James was buried where he was slain in the Kidron Valley 


Tags: jerusalem, Jesus Family Tomb, Apostle Peter, Simon Bar Jona

Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition, San Diego

A really useful afternoon in San Diego

Sunday, I spent several useful hours in the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition hosted by the San Diego Natural History Museum.  While I am reasonably well acquainted with the history, issues and details of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Qumran, I found the exhibition to be a profitable exercise.  A wide range of material is provided to help put the Scrolls into an appropriate context.  In developing the exhibition, care has been taken to make the issues of the Scrolls relevant to the present day.  

The exhibition is in three parts, starting with a general photographic and video introduction toIsrael and the general area of the Dead Sea.  Coupled with this is a series of exhibits dealing with pottery and its importance to archaeology.  Moving downstairs into the Gallery, one is introduced to the archaeology of Qumran and the discovery of the scrolls.  Photos of early participants in the recovery, purchase and translation of the Scrolls are presented.  Then one moves into the area where the Scrolls are displayed. 

The museum has naturally anticipated that some periods will have a larger attendance than others.  Monday, for instance, is a low attendance period while Sunday afternoon is peak.  I’d recommend that you try to attend in one of the low periods.  A helpful timetableis provided on the official museum site. The museum has wisely sought to control the number of viewers at any one period, but on a Sunday afternoon, there were just too many people to do justice to viewing.  On the other hand it is great to see so many from Southern California spending a Sunday afternoon in a museum rather than on the beach! 

I speak of numbers mainly because it is desirable to get as close as possible to the enlarged photographs and documentation of the fragments.  The documentation frequently poses a question of the viewer, but unless you can get close enough, it is a forlorn hope to respond. I also question what may have happened to the lighting of the scrolls when I was there.  No lighting effectively illuminated the scrolls themselves with the exception of the Copper Scroll.  Now, I appreciate that the lighting has to be controlled and limited for the preservation of the documents themselves.  But the lack of direct lighting meant that the Scrolls couldn’t be fully appreciated in their own right given the subdued ambient light available in the room.

The Natural History Museum has joined forces with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Dead Sea Scroll Foundation to assemble this display.  What is fascinating is that fragments held by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan are also part of the exhibition, an encouraging sign of co-operation.  Further materials are on loan from the Russian National Library of St. Petersburg as well as from local collections. 

UCLA’s virtual Qumran was also on display, but that highlights another concern about numbers.  The flat screen panels for displaying videos and the virtual display could have been larger. Given the crowds of people wishing to view the media, the size of the display screen in critical.  To any readers who plans to visit the exhibition, my advice would be that you avoid rushing the experience.   

The exhibition ends with a focus on the interests of those who wrote the scrolls some two thousand years ago.  Those issues as to humanity and its place in the universe are as relevant today as they were then. Here at Vision, we seek to address many of those issues.

Tags: Dead Sea Scrolls, Qumran, San Diego Natural History Museum

Perspectives on the Apostle Paul

What is the New Perspective all about?

Readers of Vision will realize we talk frequently about the apostle Paul. In the field of Pauline studies, we would appear to support what is known as the “New Perspective on Paul.” Yet for many, understanding the differences and the implications is not readily accomplished. It could take a book to effectively contrast Pauline perspectives. 

Last week, Bruce Fisk posted a preliminary hand-out on his blog site “Crossings” showing the basic differences of the two approaches. Bruce is preparing this for use in his class New Testament Theology and Ethics at Westmont College Santa Barbara, California, where he is Associate Professor of New Testament. Good work Bruce.

Obviously, any table such as this can only represent an overview at a particular juncture. Both arguments continue to develop and change as a result of interaction. But as one reader commented to Bruce, despite the scholarly interchange in these areas, few commentaries provide this information and the laity, as a result, have little if any real conception of the differences. With acknowledgement to Bruce, his table is reproduced below. The color coding is supplied by Bruce. Names supplied are principal contributors to the discussion.


Lutheran / Traditional Perspective 
The “New Perspective”

Central Concern

Justification: how can sinners be made right before God?

Gentile inclusion: on what terms may Gentiles join God’s people? 

State of 1st Century Judaism

Burdened by the Law; dead in sin; marked by hypocrisy and legalism; bound up with sin, death & law (in contrast to grace, life & faith).

Vibrant, dynamic, diverse; a religion of grace; pattern of religion: “covenantal nomism*” (Sanders); in (spiritual) exile (Wright)

*"Covenantal Nomism” (according to Sanders): the notion that the Israelite’s place in God’s plan is determined by the covenant which God established with Israel, and that obedience to the law is Israel’s proper response to God’s initial act of grace.

The Law in Judaism

Onerous burden for those who broke it; cause of boasting for those who kept it.

A gracious, delightful gift from God, “holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12Ps 119:97)

Paul’s problem with Judaism

Legalism: it promotes legalistic works righteousness; merit theology; pride in accomplishments; faulty view of grace and works

Nationalism / racism / exclusivism / particularism: the role of the Law in establishing boundary markers, Jewish privilege (Dunn); “It is not Christianity” (Sanders)

Paul’s condition prior to conversion

A frustrated, guilt-ridden sinner who valued works over faith, and who struggled unsuccessfully to measure up to the Law’s demands (Rom 7:14-24). 

A Law-keeping (blameless) Pharisee who denied Jesus was God’s Messiah (Gal 1:14Phil 3:4-8). Images of a distressed Paul are projections of the West’s “introspective conscience.”

Paul’s conversion

Paul leaves his now-dead ancestral religion and its Law to trust and follow Christ. Paul rejects Law-keeping as impossible and/or pride-producing.

Paul is not “converted” from Judaism but “called” within it to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Stendahl). Paul didn’t so much convert from Judaism but to Christianity (Sanders). See 2 Cor 3:4-18Phil 3:3-11.

Justification by faith

The center / organizing principle of Paul’s Gospel: God’s gracious declaration that a sinner is right before God through his faith in Christ’s work. God’s response to human failure / pride. 

A “subsidiary crater” in Paul’s thought (Schweitzer); a polemical / apologetic doctrine developed to defend the full status of Gentile converts and to refute Jewish-Christian efforts to impose circumcision, etc. on them. 

Paul’s Gospel

Repent of dead works and trust in Christ’s atoning work to be justified / saved (Rom. 3:21-24). Key antithesis: Law versus Gospel.

Jesus is the anointed, risen and exalted Lord over all nations (Wright; Rom 1:1-5). Salvation comes by transfer to the realm of his lordship, by union with / participation in Christ (Sanders; 2 Cor 5:17Rom 6:3-7). 

Paul’s reasoning

Forward: from plight to solution: Law-sin-guilt à faith in Christ à justification apart from Law

Backward: from solution to plight (Sanders): Christ à various (unsystematic, inconsistent, incompatible) assessments of sin & Law (Gal 2:21; 3:19, 24-25; Rom 3:20; 4:15; 10:4)

Or: From plight to solution to plight (Wright): exile à Christ à sin / law

Theme of Romans

A “compendium of Christian doctrine” (Melancthon). 
A theological treatise on justification by grace through faith.
Romans 9-11 are a parenthesis.

An occasional document defending the faithfulness of God (to the nations, to Israel) and the co-equal status of Jews and Gentiles.
Romans 9-11 are the climax of the letter.

Works of the Law (erga nomou, e.g. Rom.3:28)

Striving to do good; good works performed for salvation

Observing Torah; what pious Jews do; only bad when imposed on Gentiles; passé because it excludes Gentiles.

Pistis Christou (e.g., Ga.2:16)

Faith in Christ (objective genitive; anthropological reading) (Dunn) 

Faith(fulness) of Christ = subjective genitive; Christological reading (Hays)


Tags: First Century, Paul, New Perspective, Luther, New Testament Theology

Is the Bible Irrelevant to the Modern World?

Professor of Religion poses ultimate question

In his God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, like others before him, has denied the place of religion in our lives: we as adults should not teach matters of faith to our children. This idea has now been taken up by Hector Avalos, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa StateUniversity. Avalos has just published a book entitled The End of Biblical StudiesAs a professor, Avalos opines that the Bible is irrelevant to the modern world and therefore should not have any impact upon our lives. Teaching the Bible as a book of any value to a modern student should cease! Amazon’s editiorial description of his book states:

In this radical critique of his own academic specialty, biblical scholar Hector Avalos calls for an end to biblical studies as we know them. He outlines two main arguments for this surprising conclusion. First, academic biblical scholarship has clearly succeeded in showing that the ancient civilization that produced the Bible held beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of the world and humanity that are fundamentally opposed to the views of modern society. The Bible is thus largely irrelevant to the needs and concerns of contemporary human beings. Second, Avalos criticizes his colleagues for applying a variety of flawed and specious techniques aimed at maintaining the illusion that the Bible is still relevant in today's world. In effect, he accuses his profession of being more concerned about its self-preservation than about giving an honest account of its own findings to the general public and faith communities.

The arguments that can be ranged against such an approach are probably fewer than people might think. Most Christian religions only pay lip service to the Bible. Any detailed study of Christianity shows that most of its major doctrines have no relationship to and are often in stark contradiction to the biblical instruction. So the majority of “Christians,” before reacting viscerally to the ideas of Avalos, should perhaps stop and consider that their belief systems and actions support his argument.

One respondent to Avalos takes the opposite approach. John F. Hobbins in his Blog Ancient Hebrew Poetry highlights the biblical instruction to care for the poor and fatherless and shows how far society is removed from Scripture. To Hobbins, and to this writer, society would be greatly enriched by applying the biblical commands.

The Bible is not old-fashioned and irrelevant to modern circumstances. Living the life of caring for others would be a witness against the rationality of Dawkins and his colleagues. In fact it is the dissonance between biblical injunctions and the way society operates that gets to the very heart of modern problems. But following "The Way" of caring espoused by the Bible would mean obeying commands established in another day and time. And obedience sits uncomfortably with our post modern age, for it implies someone else dictates our lives.

If only we could appreciate how ephemeral our ideas of liberty really are and that we are held in captivity to a destructive system. The first followers of Jesus Christ understood this connection. They showed their allegiance to the way of life He taught by their concern for the other members of their society.

Tags: first christians, Hector Avalos, Religious Studies, The End of Biblical Studies

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