Sunday, December 21, 2014

Disputed Questions About Paul Of Tarsus: A Dialogue (Part 2a)

The following series was originally written by Carlos A. Segovia (marked CAS below). It is here translated into English and features additional responses by Thomas W. Hudgins. Part 2 of this series is entitled "The Meaning of Christ's Death."

Does Paul use sacrificial metaphors to illustrate the salvific value that he assigns to the death of Christ? In other words, does Paul understand Jesus' death as a sacrifice of the Son? And, if so, what kind of metaphors does he actually use? From where do they come? –Judaism? Paganism? Or both? More importantly, how should they be interpreted? Is it possible to establish some criteria as to why he uses them, what he hopes to accomplish by using them, and their limits with respect to Pauline Christology?

CAS: We accept that Paul makes use of such metaphors. Does he intend to replace the Temple worship and with the worship of Christ? Those who defend that view need to be reminded, first, at the very least (a) that Paul never said anything like that and (b) that out of all the arguments wielded against him, none of them include any reference to replacing Temple worship with the worship of Christ. Could the replacement of Temple worship have even made any sense in Judaism prior to A.D. 70? Moreover, what kind of metaphors did he use? Were they metaphors taken from Temple liturgy? Let’s consider this. What do we find? Immediately what we find are problems. First, purification ceremonies in the Temple were not designed to forgive sins. Second, there was never a transfer of anyone's sins to the slain victim. Third, the one ceremony that intended the transfer and atonement/removal of sins did not involve any death (sacrifice). That was the practice of the scapegoat. It is after Paul, with the imaginary Christians, where all this gets confused.

Paul uses images based on the rite of removal; no one can deny that. But it is highly questionable to draw anything based on the Christian reinterpretation of the rite intended for the purification of the Temple. To say otherwise would be anachronistic. It gets even more complicated. Paul also plays with several other images, none of which are very precise; that leads us to think of others found, for example, in pagan cults (specifically in certain mystery cults) or in the text itself (that is, if we acknowledge beforehand that the divine sonship of Jesus to which Paul refers must be interpreted in a strong sense, which is in itself an additional problem). But what we can deduce from all of this?

Quite simply, in my opinion, that Paul appeals to different images in order to refer to something whose meaning never became clear and whose definition, therefore, now escapes us. Now, what if all these images, however powerful they may seem at times, are redefined on the extremes of Pauline messiology? Is not Paul pointing out what the Christ, as the Messiah of Israel, has done and what those things that he has refused to do in accord with what the Jews expected of the Messiah? Isn’t this the focus of the Pauline message about Jesus Christ, that is, the center point of his Christology? And, if so, should not we interpret Paul’s possible sacrificial images as adjacent to a message that, fundamentally, is not yet sacrificial (unless, of course, we interpret the Christ’s “giving up” (i.e., death), broadly speaking, as a sacrifice)?

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AP: “We accept that Paul makes use of such metaphors.” When you say "we accept" it seems like some sort of benevolence on your part just for the sake of the discussion. But it is clear that he uses such imagery, and he does so in abundance. "Does he intend to replace the Temple worship and with the worship of Christ?". Is there any independent researcher with half a brain who actually defends that, using those words? " Could the replacement of Temple worship have even made any sense in Judaism prior to A.D. 70". Everything that I’ve ever said about Paul and the Jerusalem Church makes this hypothesis absolutely impossible. But no one defends that either! Such opponents are nonexistent!

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TWH: Honestly, it is pretty surprising that the first two questions are being asked. Yes, Paul uses sacrificial imagery with relationship to the death of Christ. And, yes, Paul understands Jesus' death as the sacrifice of the Son. It's important to note, first of all, that such imagery does not originate with Paul. Let's back up some years to Isaiah's day. What exactly did Isaiah say of the Suffering Servant in the fourth Servant Song (Isa. 52:13-53:12)? The whole pericope is replete with sacrificial language. We have words like "sprinkle" (נזה) in 52:15 and "guilt offering" (אשׁם) in 53:10. Isaiah 53:6 ("But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him") is without a doubt Day of Atonement language. And we can hardly say that parallels to passages like these are entirely or exclusively Pauline. (1) You can find it during the life of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist, who God appointed to be the forerunner of the Messiah, identifies him not as the Son of God, which he heard the Father declare from heaven, but the "Lamb of God" (John 1:29, 36). And no one on the banks of the Jordan would have misunderstood what John was talking about. He explicitly says that Jesus is the one who is going to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). (2) You can find this language, for example, in Peter's letters (1 Pet. 1:2; 2:24).

The Mosaic Law told people what God expected of them. It contained within it the precepts of holiness and laws governing Israel as a nation. But the law was not the solution to the curse that befell all humankind through one man’s sin. The law did not bring spiritual regeneration in and of itself. The law was not designed to bring salvation through obedience to law. In other words, God did not give the law to Israel thinking if they kept it, they would be born again and have eternal life. That’s what we would call a works-based religion. The law was given to maintain God’s standard, provide a basis for God to righteously bless the people for obedience (or curse if they disobeyed), and to show the people that they needed something much greater than their own strength and best efforts to be justified by God. They needed to surrender to God and ask him to be gracious and merciful to them, sinners before a holy God, knowing they couldn’t do anything on their own to earn his favor. That’s why God promises to one day address the spiritual need of the people on a collective scale. God is going to forgive sins and put his Spirit in his people! That's what the New Covenant is all about. The New Covenant deals with the people’s primary problem—sin. The forgiveness of sins, such as that which Abraham experienced in Genesis 15, was never awarded on the basis of anything that took place in the sacrificial systems practiced by Israel in the Temple. (For an example of how someone was saved while the Mosaic Covenant was in effect, see Luke 18:9-17.) That's exactly the point that Paul is making in Galatians, when he points out that the Law was given after that monumental and historical event in Abraham's life.

I think Carlos has it wrong when he says that we've lost whatever it was Paul was trying to show in using these sacrificial images. I think we need to look back into the Old Testament. Doing so is like drawing the horizon on a painting; it puts everything into perspective. But we have to remember that God was doing more than what took place in the Old Testament. Those were mere shadows of what was to come. Jesus is the fulfillment to all that God was pointing to in the sacrificial system–from the priests to the sacrifices. And he is better than anything exhibited in that system. For example, sacrifices for sins occurred over and over, but Jesus offered one sacrifice for all the sins of the world (Hebrews 10).

And, very briefly, allow me to just say a word about another question that was posed: "Could the replacement of Temple worship have even made any sense in Judaism prior to A.D. 70?" It most certainly would have, and it actually did–to those who were being born again. This doesn't mean that it was easy to comprehend or that everyone got it. But to say that it did not make sense to anyone prior to A.D. 70, or that it could not have made any sense, is not true. Perhaps, it would have been much more clearer if the destruction of Jerusalem came about sooner than A.D. 70; personally, I believe that God patiently allowed Jerusalem to not suffer its destruction sooner. The presence of the Temple for the first thirty years of early church served as (1) a platform for evangelism for the earliest believers and (2) an opportunity for the early church to work out the relationship of New Covenant believers (including Gentiles) to the covenant that Jesus had fulfilled and had subsequently been rendered no longer in effect. There could certainly be (and probably are) more reasons in God's divine plan. In any event, the nation of Israel should have cried out in repentance after the crucifixion. Their continued observance of the Mosaic system was just one manifestation of their continued rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

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