Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Raisenen and the Degree of Contradiction

I started Heikki Raisenen's Paul and the Law.

A few months ago, I wrote about Stephen Westerholm's summary of Raisenen's approach to Paul and the law in my post, Raisenen Calls a Spade a Spade. From Westerholm's summary and from other things that I read about Raisenen's book, I walked away with the impression that Raisenen saw Paul as confused and inconsistent in his view on the law, but I did not know how exactly Raisenen accounted for that confusion and inconsistency (which is not to say that these books did not address that, but I don't remember how, if they did).

After reading some of Raisenen himself, however, I get slightly more of a feel for how a human being like Paul could come up with inconsistent thoughts, without being "feverish in mind" (which, according to Raisenen, the third century Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry accused Paul of being). To account for how Paul could present the law as being only for Israel yet binding on Gentiles as well, for example, Raisenen says that Paul had a clear conception of the solution (Jesus Christ), but his thoughts were muddled as he sought to define the precise problem that Christ came to correct. Raisenen also mentions possible analogies to Paul's approach to the law. Raisenen compares Paul to the Hellenistic Jews whom Philo criticizes, the ones who said that people had to obey the moral laws but not the ritual laws, since the ritual laws had a moral meaning that one could follow instead. Raisenen says that this is essentially the position at which Paul arrives, for Paul thought that some laws were normative but not others (even though, according to Raisenen, Paul also presents the law as temporary and now obsolete). But Raisenen is also clear that Paul does not define his position in this way, for Paul himself does not compartmentalize the law into "ceremonial" and "moral". For Paul, the law was the law, and even the commands of the law that we label "moral" had an ill effect because they were conducive to condemnation.

Personally, I'd like for Paul to make a degree of sense and to have some order in his thought, even if I do not impose on him the burden of having to be completely consistent (as many fundamentalists do when they treat Paul's words as God's words). None of us is entirely consistent or logical, for we're human beings. But I think that there should be at least some degree of consistency, for I have a hard time believing that even human beings are overly contradictory in their thoughts.


  1. When people talk about Paul and the law, one thing I don't see discussed a lot is the fundamental reason that the law was important to a first-century Pharisaic Jew.

    In the fundamentalist climate I was raised in, the logic went something like "before Jesus died, you had to keep the law to go to Heaven instead of Hell" or something along those lines. However, this rather ridiculous afterlife-centric theology does not resemble the theology of the early church nor of mainstream Second Temple Judaism.

    It seems to me that the original intent for producing the Torah was primarily to codify the legal and religious framework of Judea (perhaps during the Persian period). Later on, under Roman imperialism, it would have taken on a salvic aspect in that keepers of the law could be expected to be victorious over the gentiles and other lawbreakers during the restoration of Israel (see the War Scroll, for example).

    However, Second Temple Judaism was diverse, and Pharisaic Jews (of which Paul was one) were constantly producing new ideas and innovations based on Jewish law and tradition. So, leaving aside for a moment the question of who has to follow the laws and which laws, if any, are valid, what is the purpose of them in the first place for Paul and the Jewish diaspora? Did they expect some kind of judgment when Christ returned (something they anticipated during their own lifetimes)? Would less faithful adherents be accorded lesser status in Christ's new kingdom?

  2. I think Paul was probably contradictory and inconsistent at times but anybody would be if writing over the amount of time to the various people he did. Of course this becomes a problem if you're trying to base your theology on a systematic reading of Paul and the Bible that requires everything to be consistent and noncontradictory. However if your willing to throw some stuff out then there's no problem.

  3. You raise good questions, Paul. I think that the Pharisees and Qumran did believe that obedience to the law would vindicate a person in the eschaton, whether that be conceptualized as the last judgment or as God dramatically intervening to punish the wicked. As far as "Which laws?" goes, the Pharisees did not seem to believe that there could be no difference of opinion, for they allowed difference, and the sons of Hillel could have some interaction with the sons of Shammai. But I think that Qumran had a more "our way or the highway" sort of approach.

  4. It seems to me that the NT points to the completeness of the walk that is illustrated in the life of Jesus. (see Psalm 15, 18, 26 and others where these two words are used together - הלך and תמם)

    The Torah is complete (Psalm 19). The individual walking there is happy (119.1). And so on. The completeness is not contained in a form of words, but these words of life point to the author of such completeness. All the so called contradictions in the words are resolved when the object of faith is not the consistency, or logic of the words themselves, but the one to whom they testify. Even if some ultimate contradiction - like death and life - was to be found in the words, it too is resolved in the one who is the author of life and the Lord of both the living and the dead.

    Bravo for the extent of your study - keep it up.

  5. Thanks Bob! I like what you said about how the object of faith should not be the consistency of the words.

    I also appreciate Bryan's statement: "Of course this becomes a problem if you're trying to base your theology on a systematic reading of Paul and the Bible that requires everything to be consistent and noncontradictory."


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