Interview with William Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas: Part Two (Skinner)

Arnal 2Here’s the second installment of my interview with Bill Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas. Those who are both interested in and skeptical of “Q” will be interested in what he has to say here. Enjoy.

(CWS) 3. You are widely recognized for your work on Q. As you well know, there is a strand within North American scholarship that sees Q and Thomas as the earliest strata of the Jesus-sayings tradition. However, opposition to Q has been growing in recent years (largely due to the work of Mark Goodacre) and much of the recent work on Thomas insists that Thomas was familiar with the Synoptic tradition (viz., Gathercole, Goodacre, Meier). I am interested in hearing your reflections on and responses to these two currents within Q and Thomas studies.

(WA) I have a very hard time taking Q denial seriously. It’s easy to poke holes and find weaknesses in any source-critical theory whatsoever; to find this exception, that problem, and so on. What’s harder is to find an alternative theory that doesn’t suffer from just as compelling problems (or worse problems). And there’s a reason for this: the actual process of composing Mark, Matthew, and Luke (and Thomas) was necessarily and undoubtedly more complicated than any useful source hypothesis will reflect – source theories are maps, not territories, and they do not and should not include or encompass all of the literary details of the texts they discuss. But this means that there will always be material that a source theory does not quite grasp, and thus that any source theory can be criticized from this perspective. How to deal with this problem? By assessing source theories in terms of their overall persuasiveness, and in terms of broad patterns, rather than in terms of individual and isolated problems. Does a hypothesis offer a compelling and realistic overarching explanation of the general shape of things, or does it force us to rely on ad hoc explanations that appeal to facts not in evidence?

Since Q denial has mainly taken the form of simply throwing criticisms at the Q hypothesis (many of which turn out to be wrong [Q’s genre is unattested], or not logically sound [“Q is hypothetical!”], or are easily accounted for [many of the “minor agreements”]), without developing a strong alternative hypothesis, it strikes me that Q denial, in the long run, doesn’t have legs. Yes, of course, the main contender (but not the only one!) for an alternative hypothesis these days is FG [=Farrer-Goulder], but the real question must be: is FG a strong and better-evidenced hypothesis than 2DH [= Two Document Hypothesis]? Does it raise fewer problems than Q? And the short answer is no. Indeed, FG multiplies the problems we have understanding synoptic relationships. As just one simple example, it defers the problem Q is invoked to solve: if Mark was the first gospel, where did Matthew get his additional (i.e., the stuff we currently regard as M and as double-tradition) information from? We’re still forced to hypothesize some sort of non-extant source for Matthew (even if it’s just oral tradition). And we’re left with Luke’s use of Matthew as a source, which per FG requires us to imagine that Luke treated his two sources (Mark and Matthew) in completely different ways, and for no persuasive reason. The 2DH is the more compact and economical of the two hypotheses: it explains where double tradition (and maybe a very small amount of M and L stuff) comes from, and it imagines that Matthew and Luke are consistent in their treatment of sources. Aside from that, the 2DH, and specifically the postulation of Q, has an astonishing degree of what I like to call experimental validation. That is to say, we posit Q on the basis of the double tradition. Then we subsequently discover, independently of the grounds for hypothesizing it in the first place, that this material hangs together, that it has a coherent ideological perspective, that it consistently lacks certain types of concerns or vocabulary, that it has coherent reasons for lacking those concerns and consistent alternative vocabularies, that it represents a known ancient literary genre, and so on. Meanwhile, Q scholarship continues to produce interesting work on, especially, Q’s social context, including important forthcoming books on Q and peasant societies by Sarah Rollens, and on Q and scribal ideologies by Giovanni Bazzana.

In the case of Thomas, things are more complicated. We are dealing here – and everyone agrees, even if they don’t put it that way – with a redacted document. So we need to achieve some clarity on what is at issue here: is it that our manuscripts of Thomas show knowledge of the synoptics? Or that the final form of Thomas (insofar as we can accurately reconstruct it, given our dismal MS evidence) depends on the synoptics, and does so globally and exclusively? Or that our final text was influenced by the synoptics, but without global or detailed dependence? Or that, perhaps, an initial collection of chreiai were independent of the written synoptics, and later redacted from a synoptic perspective? Or that some initial chreia collection was dependent on the synoptics, and redacted from a non-synoptic perspective? And then there is the question – a question of importance no matter what one thinks of the sources for Thomas’s synoptic-like material – where did all the other stuff come from? The simplistic either-or approach to the question of sources strikes me as evidence that both sides are guilty of making thinly-disguised value judgments. What really seems at stake is whether Thomas is good (= early and independent) or bad (= late, dependent, Gnostic). Of course none of this follows: we recognize the canonical Gospel of Luke to be late, dependent on the synoptic(s), and agenda-driven, but no one takes this to mean that Luke isn’t worth studying, or is easily dismissible, or the like.

A more serious source-criticism of Thomas would not peck through the document looking for strings of synoptic-like wording, or, conversely, strings of wording that (somehow) couldn’t be synoptic; it would look at overall patterns, and try to understand what kind of constellation of sources, and what kinds of uses of those sources, best account for such patterns. After all, even if we could show that Thomas knew (one or more of) the synoptic gospels, that hardly proves that they were his only sources, even for material paralleled in the synoptics. Indeed, a clear case for dependency would raise a whole of fascinating ancillary questions about Thomas’s literary techniques, about his other sources, and about the dissemination and circulation of synoptic tradition in the late first or second centuries. In this sense, I think that John Kloppenborg’s rejoinder to Gathercole and Goodacre in the recent JSNT is exemplary. It identifies, among other things, many of the weaknesses in their arguments. But more importantly, it suggests an alternative that is productive, socially grounded, and sophisticated. Given the complexity of Thomas’s traditions, and the complexity of their relationship with their synoptic parallels, Kloppenborg suggests a context for Thomas drawing on a fairly extensive commentary tradition on the sayings of Jesus. This suggestion allows for the possibility of some synoptic influence on Thomas (as we have it), but at the same time recognizes that many of (I would say, the vast majority of) Thomas’s versions of this material do not appear to be drawn from the synoptics, and that there is a host of material on Thomas that cannot come from the synoptics (because it has no synoptic parallels). Whether he’s right or not, this argument has the virtue of taking Thomas seriously as a historical and textual datum, rather than either dismissing it or valorizing it.

But in the end, I don’t think these kinds of questions matter as much as people think they do. Yes, the idea of Q, and of an early Thomas, are mutually reinforcing; but neither requires the other. If you get rid of Q, it has no direct bearing on Thomas. And if you say that Thomas is a late document, and/or that it used the synoptics as sources, we are still left with a real document that both requires explanation, and that provides us with a host of new data for antiquity.

(CWS) 4. Not too long ago, you reviewed my book, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas? (JAAR 4 [2012]: 1113-1116), and along with your comments about the book, you also spent an entire paragraph lamenting the current state of Thomas research. Specifically, you suggested that scholars have been spinning in circles for years, asking the same questions over and over. To your mind, what areas are most in need of further research and what questions need to be raised that aren’t being asked by scholars? What are the most interesting or substantive areas currently being investigated, and in what other directions would you like to see Thomas research move?

(WA) Off the top of my head, there are two questions being addressed in current scholarship that are of serious interest, and that I would like to see pursued further. One of them is the interest in Thomas and middle Platonism – and especially Jewish traditions informed by Middle Platonism – which has in the past been flagged, inter alia, by Elaine Pagels, Arthur Droge, and others. Steve Patterson is currently investing a lot of energy in this question. Such an investigation will shed light not simply on the ideology and philosophical presuppositions undergirding Thomas, including insight into its treatment of Adam, androgyny, and the material world (none of which can be accounted for via synoptic parallels); but will also illuminate Thomas’s parallels with Paul and with the Gospel of John; and will allow Thomas to serve as additional evidence for the impact of Middle Platonism on Jewish mythological speculations. This in turn can help illustrate the cultural cross-fertilization between Greek materials and indigenous ANE traditions in places like Judea, Egypt, and Syria.

A second area of interesting research is basically into the social conditions of possibility for a text like Thomas. We have here a document whose genre is strongly associated with teaching, and with the inculcation of morals, a document packed with proverbial wisdom, and governed by an insistence on transformation, a document that contains at least one extensive elaboration of a saying (21), extensive glosses on others (45), and clusters of proverbs (e.g., 31-36). It is a literate document, and, more than this, a literary document, i.e., one that assumes proficiency in both reading texts and in interpreting them. So the most straightforward supposition is that Thomas is an ancient school product. The implications of this social setting for understanding Thomas, and for comparing it to other ancient social practices, is especially being pursued right now by Ian Brown, one of John Kloppenborg’s doctoral students. I think there is tremendous potential here for making sense of Thomas.

And then there are other areas that I wish received more attention than they do. For instance, the circulation and transmission of Thomas merits serious attention. The text is quite widely attested, so it is definitely worth trying to determine just who was interested in this document, and why. I also think that the parallels we find in Thomas with materials in Philo, in Paul, and in the Mishnah, among others, suggest that Thomas was participating in a conversation that some Jews were having in the first or second centuries. It would be very intriguing to try to work out the nature of this conversation, albeit without invoking a putative Aramaic or Syriac Thomas for which there is little evidence (on which point I am thoroughly persuaded by Gathercole).

Of even more importance, to my mind, is the esoteric character of Thomas. We need to understand this much better than we currently do. The document’s esotericism is quite obviously artificial and manufactured by the redaction of the text. “A man cannot mount two horses” is quite clearly not a mystical saying, and requires no great insight to make sense, nor does it seem to have any metaphysical ramifications. So it’s not the inclusion of stuff like this that makes Thomas esoteric. Thomas’s opening, of course, imposes an esotericizing framework on all the material that follows, but the actual substance of that following material reinforces the sense that this teaching is all mysterious, metaphysical, and in need of fairly serious interpretive skills. How does Thomas accomplish this? This is something that I think is a sine qua non of making sense of Thomas as a document, and that I’ve tried to contribute to in more recent work, including my contribution to Stowers’ FS, where I look at a variety of ways Thomas imposes an esoteric sensibility on his material, and so shapes both the document as a whole and its constituent units. This in turn raises the issue of, again, the economic, social, and cultural conditions of possibility for a text like Thomas. We can contextualize it in terms of both the social circumstances of ancient schools, and the production and the treatment of esoteric texts in antiquity, thus placing Thomas within a range of relatively ordinary ancient practices and wider human doings than is afforded by the very restricted comparisons available to “Christian theology.” To a considerable degree, I think Thomas was as popular as it was simply because it made possession of a fairly basic knowledge of Middle Platonic tropes feel like a big deal. It thus addressed the social aspirations of the recently- or modestly-literate.

There’s another piece I published some years ago, that I don’t think gets nearly the attention it deserves. It’s called “The Rhetoric of Social Construction” (in Rhetoric and Reality in Early Christianities, 2005), and in it I argue – I would say, I show – a literary feature of Thomas that does not seem to be widely recognized. Thomas uses metaphors copiously, and he uses them in loaded ways: that is, a given notion, say, “poverty,” has a particular negative or positive connotation. What several analysts of Thomas have noted is that sometimes, these metaphors are applied in contradictory ways. The clearest example I can think of is Thomas’s use of “drunkenness.” In saying 13, being drunk is a positive metaphor for having the capacity to grasp Jesus’ teaching, whereas in saying 28, it’s a negative metaphor for lacking the capacity to receive Jesus’ words. This kind of thing is sometimes held up as evidence of Thomas’s incoherence, or of layers of tradition. But it turns out that this inconsistency is thoroughly consistent across the Gospel of Thomas: nearly every single metaphor used in the text is used multiple times and with opposite valences. This is true, for instance, of: drunkenness, poverty, wealth, merchants, usury, duplicity, thieves, maleness, and others besides. The inconsistency of Thomas is so extraordinarily consistent that it indicates a very clear redactional perspective that unifies the document across a wide range of sayings. This article has been cited a couple times, but to the best of my knowledge, no one has engaged it directly, or indicated whether they find my explanation of the phenomenon to be adequate or not. But what I think is especially interesting here and perhaps fodder for additional strands of research, is how this literary feature of Thomas plays in connection to theories about Thomas’s sources, or stratification hypotheses. It seems to me that this phenomenon of opposing metaphors could be used to confirm, or disconfirm, those hypotheses by seeing how this feature is distributed across the putative sources or layers of the text. Take April DeConick’s stratification of Thomas, for instance. We actually have a means to test this thesis: do one set of metaphors appear consistently in her kernel, and the opposing metaphors in a particular accretion layer? Or perhaps all of them stem from one set of accretions? Or at least, does positive usage of a specific metaphor consistently dominate one accretion layer, with a negative use dominating the other? Such observations would tend to confirm DeConick’s thesis. Or again, take the stratification I proposed in 1995: same questions. And if the metaphors do not line up by strata, or appear to stem from one stratum in particular, this would tend to disconfirm my thesis. The same kind of thing applies to source theories: does the pattern of conflicting metaphors mesh somehow with the shape of the putative sources, or not? So I would really like to see someone run with this, although I have no plans to do so myself.

Again, I really appreciate the substantive and detailed way Bill has answered these questions. Stay tuned for part three!

Interview with William Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas: Part One (Skinner)

Bill ArnalFor the past several years, while blogging over at PEJE IESOUS, I’ve been interviewing scholars who have done important work on the Gospel of Thomas. Today I am posting the first installment of my interview with Dr. William Arnal, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Regina. I am extremely pleased that Bill has taken so much time to answer my questions in such great detail. This means that I will most likely be forced to break up the interview into three posts. Enjoy!

(CWS) 1. I have posed this question to every scholar I have interviewed thus far: What initially sparked your interest in studying the Gospel of Thomas?

(WA) I’m hesitant to admit it, because of what I’m going to say in response to some of your other questions, but the truth is that as an undergrad as I was absolutely fascinated by the development of the sayings-tradition, and especially by what might be called “form criticism” or, better, “tradition-history.” This was in my second year as an undergrad, and I had a wonderful teacher named Michel Desjardins (at the time at University of Toronto, now at nearby Wilfrid Laurier University) who made this material come alive, mostly by really effectively demystifying it all. And I just thought it was fascinating the way you can actually see presentations of Jesus’s teaching being changed before your eyes, whether (most clearly) by the evangelists themselves, or (less clearly but even more intriguingly) in seams and breaks and strange connections within given sayings or among variant versions of sayings. It’s this set of interests that initially got me into Q. But Michel was no respecter of canon, and had done his dissertation on Valentinian Christianity, so he was quite comfortable throwing the Gospel of Thomas into the synoptic mix. And it just blew my mind. Here was exactly what someone interested in tradition-history would have asked from a fairy-godmother: a whole, new (from my perspective, that is) list of over a hundred ancient variant versions of sayings of Jesus, with an obviously independent perspective on the character of those sayings. Basically, Thomas was a fourth synoptic gospel. For someone fascinated by the patterns of agreement and disagreement among the synoptics, Thomas is simply a wonderful text, adding data and complexifying the problems. So I’ve basically been struggling to understand it and make sense of it ever since Michel first introduced me to it way back in 1987. (Incidentally, while I learned Greek as an undergrad, I didn’t have the chance to learn Coptic until grad school, whereupon I took introductory Coptic from the amazing Egyptologist Donald Redford. The class only had two students: me and Nicola Denzey.)

(CWS) 2. You have well-formed (and well-known) opinions about Thomas’s genre and theological outlook. Would you articulate these views to our readers and provide a rationale for why you argue as you do?

(WA) In terms of genre, Thomas conforms perfectly to a known, and common, type of ancient writing, the chreia collection. If you read it side by side with something like Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, especially the material on Diogenes of Sinope (VI.20-81), the similarities are too striking to ignore. While Thomas lacks the biographical and bibliographical skeletons provided by Diogenes Laertius, the “meat” of the life of Diogenes, especially, is simply of list of scattered quotations introduced by “he used to say,” or “in response to such-and-such person saying x, he said,” and the like. And it’s not alone. There’s a ton of this stuff in Plutarch, including “sayings [apophthegms] of kings and commanders,” “sayings of Romans,” “sayings of Spartan women,” and others besides. There’s Lucian’s Demonax. Among Jewish writings, there’s Mishnah’s tractate Aboth. And Quintillian describes and defines the chreia, and indicates grammatical exercises that students can be asked to perform on chreiai. So Thomas exemplifies a known, and quite common, ancient literary genre. Moreover, the content of Thomas’s chreiai often conform to proverbial wisdom: “if a blind man leads a blind man, they will both fall into a pit”; “it is impossible for a person to mount two horses”; and so on. But alongside these chreiai with proverbial wisdom sayings, we also have chreiai whose content is more developed, elaborated, and metaphysical: “Adam came from a great wealth and a great power”; etc. In any case, Thomas is clearly a form of what is sometimes called wisdom literature, and, very specifically, a chreia collection.

As for the theology of Thomas, I have argued in the past that it developed over (at least) two stages: an initial stage marked by aphoristic wisdom, and a redaction of that initial collection marked by – as I describe it in a 1995 HTR article – a reorientation of the wisdom material in a more “Gnostic” direction, mainly as a rationalizing effort. But that was an argument I made a almost twenty years ago. I still do think that Thomas offers us at least two stages of literary development: a stage in which fairly traditional, proverbial Jesus-aphorisms were collected; and a second stage in which these sayings were embedded in a larger literary framework that presented the aphorisms as having a “secret” meaning with a more metaphysical point of reference. Or to put it differently, and perhaps more plausibly: Thomas in its current form has an authorial perspective, and it has source material that it has shaped to conform to that perspective. This view stands whether one regards Thomas as dependent or independent of the synoptic gospels. If you think Thomas drew from the synoptics, then they are the pre-Thomas source of the aphoristic wisdom, subsequently redacted to conform to Thomas’s perspective. If you think that Thomas is independent of the synoptics, then their parallel materials (at least) must be accounted for by some common source (including perhaps oral tradition), and it is that common source that Thomas redacted. I also note that such a process would hardly be unusual within the synoptic tradition: it’s what we posit for Matthew and Luke as well (i.e., they are redactions of Mark with additional material thrown in).

Where my opinion on Thomas now differs from that earlier perspective is in how I would describe the document’s redactional perspective. I have been thoroughly convinced by Michael Allen Williams and by Karen King, among others, that we need to be more careful and self-conscious about how we use the term “Gnostic,” if we use it at all. I certainly no longer think there are any demiurgical references in Thomas. Steve Davies and I went around on that years ago, and in retrospect it’s clear to me that he had the better part of the argument. In any case, throwing such a loaded label on Thomas’s ideological agenda is not helpful at all. So while I maintain that Thomas is redacted from a more or less mystical and metaphysical perspective, I’d want to characterize that perspective today, with Stephen Patterson (and Elaine Pagels, and Arthur Droge, etc.), as Middle Platonic, and as esoteric. Not everything with esoteric pretensions needs to be viewed as “Gnostic.”

And anyway, it’s funny, once you have Thomas’s generic parallels in view, talk of seeking after Thomas’s theology begins to sound a little weird, and perhaps a tad over-specific. Do we really want to know the theology of Demonax, or even of Aboth? When confronted with these documents, instead, what springs to mind are much more ordinary questions: why did people write documents of this sort? What sorts of techniques, agenda, literary sources, etc. were used in their construction? What were these texts used for? What kinds of people read them? Some of my more recent work on Thomas has tried to address precisely these questions. Unfortunately, it’s been published in collections that have little to do with Thomas (one in a book on ancient rhetoric, another in the Festschrift for Stan Stowers [The One who Sows Bountifully, 2014]), so it’s easy to overlook. But my point is that speaking of Thomas’s “theology” really directs our attention to very specific questions, and to a considerable degree also pre-determines the answers to those questions. Worse, it directs our attention away from questions like the text’s function and use, and from questions about the base capacities, that is, the cultural, physical, and economic resources, needed to produce or to make sense of a writing like this.

In the next installment, Bill talks about Q and interesting prospects for future research on Thomas.

Six Interesting New Fall 2014 Books from WJK (Gupta)

Carol A. Newsom, Daniel (The Old Testament Library) – November

Richard Lischer, Reading the Parables (Interpretation, Resources) – September

Daniel Migliore - Philippians and Philemon (Belief) – August

Kevin Vanhoozer - Faith Speaking UnderstandingPerforming the Drama of Doctrine - September

Ellen Davis - Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry (Interpretation, Resources) - October

Christopher B. Hays, A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East

(I found out about these through Twitter: @wjkbooks)



“Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” More Likely to Be Ancient (Skinner)


Both the New York Times and the Boston Globe are reporting that the Coptic papyrus fragment deemed, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is more likely to be ancient than a modern forgery. This decision is based upon recent tests conducted on the fragment. When the fragment was initially unveiled in September 2012, there was a firestorm of controversy over whether it was ancient or represented a modern attempt at forgery. Among the more prominent scholars to weigh in and suggest the document was a forgery were Francis Watson (see here and here) and Mark Goodacre (see here).

I think it’s important to note that, even if the document is ancient, it likely hails from the 8th century CE and has very little relevance for discussions of the historical Jesus (though it may tell us something about the controversies and conversations taking place within Christian circles during that period). It’s also important to point out that even though the fragment has been deemed *ancient*, it may still be an ancient forgery.

Varia on NTW’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God #4 (Gupta)

ntwright8I am a little embarrassed that it has been two months since I last did a varia post on N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (see here1, here2, and here3), but now I am ready to press on!

In the first three posts I worked through the first volume of Paul and the Faithfulness of God. The book is so rich and multi-faceted  - it powerfully pushes forward like a gigantic textual glacier – that I could only make random comments (hence, varia). I will continue to do so throughout volume 2, though when I have finished the book I plan on writing a 2000-word book review that will be published in Interpretation.

Quick summary: in volume 1, Wright treats the key aspects of Paul’s world (including Greek philosophy, religion, and the Roman empire), and he also discusses the “mindset” of Paul which involves key symbols as well as how Paul’s “storied worldview” was constructed.

In the second volume, Wright addresses the huge subject of Paul’s theology (chs. 9-11). Then he returns to reading Paul and his ministry in historical context (chs. 12-16).

When it comes to Paul’s theology, Wright handles it quite differently than Jimmy Dunn or Thomas Schreiner. Instead of working from one topic of “theology” to the next (Christology, eschatology, pneumatology, etc…), Wright focuses on a three-fold core: “The One God of Israel, Freshly Revealed; The People of God, Freshly Reworked; and “God’s Future of the World, Freshly Imagined.”

Today I am just going to jump into chapter 9 on “The One God of Israel.” Here are eight random ideas of interest.

#1: Wright does a great job of talking about how the “oneness” Jewish theology of God was about more than having a single deity. It pervaded their whole life and gave it a central focus and unity in terms of vocation and mission: “To affirm the ‘oneness’ of Israel’s God meant, in practical terms, a cheerful and guiltless partaking in and celebrating of the world as a good gift to humans, a world full of strange beauty, massive power and silent song. In particular, and following from the vocation of human beings to reflect God’s wise order into the world, this kind of monotheism included the vocation to humans in general to bring God’s justice to the world: justice is to human society what flourishing order is to the garden” (628); also “monotheism is not a bare belief, but an agenda” (734).

#2: Is there a discernible evolution in how the earliest Christians thought about Jesus’ status as divine (from low to high)? Wright thinks it unlikely. Paul never states anything like “How then can some of you be saying that Jesus was simply a wonderful human being and nothing more?” (p. 648)

#3: Chris Tilling gets a positive nod of approval from Wright (p, 651), though Wright finds most helpful Richard Bauckham’s notion of a “Christology of divine identity” (651ff.), especially where what is asserted of Jesus by the early Christians was traditionally a prerogative of only the one God – sole creator and sole judge of all things (651-652).

#4: Wright puts special emphasis on Paul’s eschatological monotheism – Jesus accomplished what the God of Israel promised to do in restoration and in his covenantal righteousness – return to Zion to reclaim his kingship and restore and fulfill the vocation of Israel (p. 681-683; see also 705).

#5: What made Paul rethink his understanding of monotheism? It is simple, yet profound: “the fact of Jesus – his messianic life and death, and particularly his resurrection and exaltation, without which, of course, his life and death would not have been seen as messianic in the first place” (685; on 693 Wright works this out more fully)

#6: On the subject of evil, Wright gets into the question of whether Paul saw a “problem” with Judaism before he met Christ. Wright says that Paul would have been concerned with a problem, but not the same one Luther argued for. Rather, “It was the problem generated by creational and covenantal monotheism: why is the world in such a mess, and why is Israel still unredeemed?” (p. 749). Paul would have received a special epiphany on the road to Damascus because it would be revealed to him that “[the problems] had all along been far worse than anyone had imagined” (749). Here is a great chart that depicts this:

pfg chart

#7: With this new revelation, Paul had to rethink salvation – not just salvation from enemies, but salvation from sin. Here, Wright wants to note that we are not back to Reformation categories. Wright accuses the “old perspective” view of Pauline soteriology as (1) individualistic and (2) gnostic (754).

#8: The people of God and the redemptive mission of God are connected in this chapter – already Wright is anxious to link God’s salvific plan with the vocation of the people of God. He asks why it is that only Jesus rose from the dead  - why not all God’s people instantly restored? Here is his answer (previewing more to come in the next two chapters): “The creator always intended to accomplish his purpose through human beings. But only through ‘the end’ somehow being brought forward into the present could that aim be fulfilled, could this renewed humanity be generated” (760).

NB: last semester we read a couple of works within the wider missional theology category and one of my students brought up the treatment of “sin” in these texts. If we can see sin from two perspectives, one where the person is the criminal (the conscious, willing, doer of wrong), and the other of person as victim (where sin is an infection, disease, or monster that corrupts or troubles the person), there is a tendency in missional literature to see sin almost exclusively as the latter (person as victim). I have to spend more time thinking about this, but I think that student was on to something. Even Wright doesn’t really map out in PFG (at least, not yet as far as I can tell) what “sin” actually is and how it works as both power and human choice. I am beginning to think we need someone to write a little book exploring and pondering Paul’s theology of sin in all its dimensions and features.


Doug Moo’s Galatians Commentary – Review Pt1 (Gupta)

Moo GalDouglas Moo, a top-notch conservative evangelical New Testament exegete, has recently published a major commentary on Galatians in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series (~450 pp.; Baker, 2013).

I will spend the next six weeks or so working through this commentary as I teach an intensive Galatians course at Northeastern. In this first installment, I will only discuss the introduction (pp. 1-64).

The commentary commences with your standard preliminary issues: Paul is author, Moo prefers the South Galatia recipient theory but favors it only slightly, and he dates Galatians to about AD48, “just before the Apostolic Conference of Acts 15″ (p. 18).

What is the occasion of Paul’s writing of Galatians? Moo argues that it was written to “combat people who are pressuring the Galatians to undergo circumcision and submit to the law of Moses as a means of completing their Christian experience” (19). Is the focal point the question of how one is saved? Moo thinks so, but with the qualification that it is not initial salvation that is in view, but rather “ultimate vindication in the judgment” (20).

From pp. 21-31, Moo explores how various interpreters have understood Paul’s argumentation in Galatians. He briefly surveys E.P. Sanders’ perspective and also includes James Dunn. In a footnote, Moo discusses N.T. Wright as well. Moo notes that he does not intend to argue extensively against the New Perspective in this commentary because he has done so elsewhere. But he makes three points on p. 24n. 32: (1) NPP is commended for trying to contextualize Paul’s theology within first-century environment; (2) Sanders’ covenantal nomism theory is contested as a theory – Moo thinks there is evidence of Jewish legalism; and (3) the “staying in” focus of covenantal nomism still points in the direction of works-righteousness.

I am not sure Moo’s two critical points are that harmful to the NPP since not everyone follows Sanders on covenantal nomism (e.g., Wright rarely uses this language). Also, Wright and Dunn fully recognize that final judgment is a judgment of works, yet neither of them think that Paul’s reinforcement/articulation of this is legalistic.

Moo also challenges readings of Galatians by John Barclay and Francis Watson. Moo lumps both of them together insofar as they both argue for readings of Paul’s Christ/Torah antithesis rooted in “specific and unrepeatable historical circumstances” (p 26). Moo casts both scholars as critical of “a long tradition of theological interpretation of the biblical text” (26). Moo characterizes Barclay as someone who denies that we should move to “abstraction” in Paul’s concerns in Galatians. I found this remark from Moo a bit baffling – I think Barclay is quite good and strong at thinking broadly and theologically about Paul’s concerns in this regard (e.g., see all of Barclay’s work on Paul in the last 8 years)! What seems to be Moo’s concern is not that Barclay or Watson do not make broader theological claims – they certainly do! Rather, Moo wants to read Paul’s concern in Galatians as a problem with “human ‘doing’ in general” (p. 27). So: “A distinction between human doing and human believing, while not the focus in the letter, does underlie the argument of Galatians” (31). But (and this is important, folks), Moo has to make his case for this with Galatians 1-4 primarily in mind. Even if this proved to be true, then he must qualify that this concern (doing vs. believing) underlies part of the letter. He simply cannot make this case for the letter as a whole, since “doing” is quite central to chs 5-6, as Barclay has argued.

For most of the remainder of the introduction, Moo treats (briefly, but sufficiently) several majordoug-moo1 themes.

Salvation History and Apocalyptic (31-32). Unlike Martyn, Moo does not seen Salv-Hist and Apoc as mutually exclusive. Moo (I think rightly) sees the “apocalyptic” tone appear in Galatians where we see the victorious and climactic work of Christ. Paul thinks the epochal work of Christ is far more “disruptive” to life than Paul’s opponents recognize (p. 31). But Moo thinks Martyn goes too far: Moo states “The OT is not just a negative foil for the gospel, but also prepares for it in certain central ways” (32).

The Gospel (pp. 32-33) – a helpful section.

Christ (33-33) – also good.

The Spirit (34-35) – fine.

The Law (35-37) Here is where Moo’s Luther-like sensibilities come through. Moo recognizes an eschatological dimension to Paul’s concern with Torah – its time is over. But the end of Torah is not arbitrary. Rather, Torah cannot make one right with God because it is a matter of doing and not believing (p. 35). I don’t feel like Moo really answers the why question - why is “doing” such a problem?

Another subject Moo treats here is the ongoing Christian use of the OT Law. Moo does emphasize that the OT is Scripture for all believers, but “The OT law has no direct authority over the believer but continues to be an indirect source (under the authority of NT teaching) for the moral life” (37). I think I know what Moo is trying to say, but I am wary of (1) using the word “indirect” and (2) setting the authority of the OT at one removed from the NT or, worse yet, under the authority of the NT! Does that mean the NT authorizes the OT as authority (and then what does it mean in practice that it is ‘indirect’)? Or does it mean that the NT only establishes as authoritative those parts of the OT that are clearly held as continuous for the moral life? This sounds to me like a pick-and-choose approach, which makes one wonder what it means to consider the entire OT authoritative for Christians? [sidenote: I think Brian Rosner is on much, much, much more secure ground in his new work, Paul and the Law where is sees Paul as re-characterizing Torah as 'wisdom' for the Christian, rather than law].

The Christian Life (37-38) – fine, but surprisingly short.

“The Faith of Christ” (38-48) – a nice overview and helpful reaffirmation of the “faith in Christ” view.

Justification/Righteousness (48-62) – probably the most useful section of the introduction. It  won’t surprise you to know Moo argues against Wright on the meaning of dik* language in Galatians. Moo thinks that it doesn’t mean covenant membership, but “right standing with God” (with a primary forensic sense). I think Moo is seeing the double-sided nature of the issue when he writes, “Membership in God’s people and justification are closely related, but they are not identical. One entails the other, but they are not the same” (p. 55) – I think this is about right. However, Moo goes on to say that Paul’s main focus is “status before God” (58) – I am not quite sure that is the main focus. (sidenote: on the question of the center of Paul’s theology, Moo says it is “union with Christ,” but justification “is a critical and important means of explicating his gospel”; see 57).

Before Moo concludes the introduction (with his textual outline), he gives a very brief discussion of rhetorical approaches to Galatians. I agree with Moo when he states that “Galatians does not appear to fit neatly into any of the major rhetorical categories” (63). Paul may have used some rhetorical conventions of his time, but finding a larger rhetorical framework is only of very limited value.

OK, that is the introduction. I was not surprised that I disagreed with Moo on the value of the work of James Dunn, N.T. Wright, John Barclay, and Francis Watson. I also did not find his introductory statements about Paul’s criticism of human doing (vs. human believing) convincing – but I will suspend my complete rejection of his view until I see all his exegetical comments!

Overall, though, I found the introduction pretty standard. His discussion of Pistis Christou is commendable and his extensive study of justification/righteousness is worth reading as well.

More to come! Stay tuned!