CAS: The contemporary reader finds the text of Paul's letters divided into verses, chapters, and, frequently, headings. But the oldest manuscripts do not contain these divisions or even some punctuation (something which, by the way, is common to many other authors). They don’t have spaces between sentences or even between words in the same sentence. That means when we read Paul today—whether we consult the original Greek text or consult a translation—what we read is always an interpretation to some degree.
Therefore, there is ultimately nothing that guarantees one reading of Paul over another that is equally possible; in other words, nothing exists outside of one’s interpretative parameters that determine, sometimes too far, our readings: each represents a possible interpretive position, a hermeneutical decision, and ultimately a position sponsored by this or that selection of focal points of interest, problems, and concepts regarding a series of texts that are inseparable from their interpretations. Such decisions always speak to the texts, which endow them with a range of meanings from one context to another and delimit the conditions of how they can be understood.
There are basically three major interpretations of Paul. According to the first, Paul gave his final push to Christianity, thereby, trying to surpass Judaism. This is the traditional interpretation. The second interpretation maintains that Paul did not intend to overcome Judaism, but to reform it. This, in turn, is the position of those who defend what is now called the "New Perspective on Paul", associated with scholars like James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright. And, finally, there are those who think that Paul did not seek neither the one nor the other. In other words, Paul did not intend to found a new religion, namely Christianity, that would be distinct from Judaism; he was not trying to correct or amend the latter, questioning Judaism’s supposedly more nationalistic aspects, but merely proposed, in continuity with the prophetic tradition and Jewish apocalyptic, that the Gentiles be incorporated with Israel before the end of the world, which is imminent. This is the perspective of what’s called the "Radical New Perspective on Paul."
What is the specifically Christian interpretation of Paul? Actually, there’s not one. In other words, there is no such thing as a one specifically Christian interpretation of Paul. The traditional Christian interpretation coincides with the first of the interpretations listed in the previous paragraph. And it can range from the idea that, in order to found a new religion, Paul would have sought to break with Judaism, all the way to the idea that Paul tried to take his teachings to their logical conclusion as some sort of purely spiritual key. But many Christian authors today prefer the interpretation of the "New Perspective on Paul", something that developed in its own way out of the last of these two ideas. Moreover, we must also note that the argument that Paul tried to found a new religion is not only characteristic of traditional Christian interpretation of the Apostle: indeed, the History of Religions School also contends that Paul tried to found a new religion, only in the image and likeness of the mystery religions of Hellenism.
And to these are added such interpretations that view Paul, on the one hand, Paul as an ideologue of the Roman Empire and those that consider him, on the other hand, to be a critic of the Roman imperial ideology.
As shown, the picture of the possible interpretations of the Pauline message is extensive and rich with nuances. The problems faced by each are very complex. And when you think about it, everything about Paul has been said from the beginning, once and for all.
With this in mind, my purpose in this post and those that follow will be to briefly present the reader with some of the issues about which Antonio Piñero and I have talked more intensely in recent months as we tried to outline the contents of a book called A Guide to Paul that we are both preparing. The interest and difficulty of the issues justifies, in my opinion, our decision to write down here a sort of remnant from our dialogue.
Is it possible to read Paul literally or is it necessary to interpret what we read? Moreover, is it really possible to read Paul without interpreting?
CAS: My answer is no: we can’t read Paul without interpreting what we read, and we can’t read it literally. In fact, Paul's interpretation begins with the development of the Pauline corpus: we have the Paul that others have wanted us to have, not Paul as he existed. In this we differ, because if I have understood you correctly, you think that there are Pauline passages that can be read according to their most immediate and apparent meaning, and that the work of the true scholar is, by definition, free of presuppositions ("the philologist adheres to the letter"). For me, however, there exists no such letter.
AP: I refer to repetitions of words and ideas, to the accumulation of texts in different contexts that point to the same thing. In other words, I’m looking for the atmosphere that is repeated throughout, which basically makes one interpretation mandatory. Once you have a pretty strong interpretation, it is necessary to check that other occurrences are consistent with what appears almost completely sure in the passage you’re studying. That we have the Paul others have wanted us to have is no argument. I am speaking of the interpretation that is actually there in the text.
TWH: Before turning to the question, let me share with you the opening words of Francis Watson's book Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007):
"According to the account bequeathed by the Reformation, Paul opposes the idea that salvation can be earned by acts of obedience to the law, as held by his Jewish or Jewish Christian opponents. He himself preaches the gospel of salvation solely by the grace of God, and the idea that salvation is to be earned by human achievement is therefore anathema to him. Judaism is here understood as a religion of 'works-righteousness,' a form of Pelagianism according to which God has given us the law so that we might earn salvation by fulfilling it. Paul's gospel opposes this self-sufficiency by insisting on grace and faith alone. On this view, Paul and his opponents debate the merits of two rival answers to the question of how the human being can be accepted by God. Many scholars still believe that this interpretation of the Pauline texts is essentially correct.
But others are dissatisfied with this approach. The fundamental question is whether or not it can do justice to the socio-historic context in which Paul was writing. Paul understood himself as the apostle to the Gentiles, and the problem of the status of the Gentiles dominated his life and work. Can theological interpretations stemming from the Reformation give due weight to this highly specific historical situation? Or do they issue in a distorted view both of Paul and of the Judaism he opposed? It will be the argument of the present work that the latter is the case: the Reformation tradition's approach to Paul is seriously flawed." (Watson, 27).I think this introduction gives us a pretty good example of the issue Carlos, Antonio, and many others are talking about. So, have we gotten it wrong? And is the only reason some of us ascribe to this interpretation of Paul's theology is because we are now looking at it through skewed and scratched lenses? I simply disagree. We all have presuppositions and biases, but it's our task in exegesis to evaluate even those that we have and filter everything through sound principles for interpreting the Word of God.
It's important for us to note that Paul did not become anti-Jewish. Rather, he became pro-everything God was doing with the New Covenant and the hope found in Jesus' substitutionary sacrifice. After all, isn't that why he took the gospel to the synagogues regularly wherever given the opportunity? The fight for the truth, as it pertains to Judaism, in which Paul was engaged was against the common Judaism of the first century, which had energized and extended works-based righteousness in a serious way. And the fight had taken on a new twist as that Judaism sought to slip its way into the communities that were receiving the gospel.
That's not to say that people did not have justification experiences in the first century like that of Abraham's in Genesis 15. They did. Jesus even gives a parable exemplifying how someone in the first century was justified (Luke 18:9-14). He gives specific circumstances that fit first-century Palestine, from which everyone who listened to him could get the point. That Jesus gives such a parable says two things: (1) People could be justified if they had the same disposition toward God as the publican; (2) people needed serious instruction on what was necessary for justification to take place (or else Jesus would not have needed to give such a parable). And it must be remembered that even Jesus pushed against the works-based hope, which was actually no hope at all, that was being promulgated during that period of time (see e.g., Matt. 5:20; 23:1-39).
In my opinion, when E.P. Sanders put forth the idea that the first-century Judaism was not a works-based, self-attaining system of righteousness, at least generally speaking, he couldn't have been more wrong.