Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Chris VanLandingham interview Part 1 of 3

In three posts I will share Chris VanLandingham's response to a number of questions I sent him last week about his book, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. In part 1 I will share his answer to my questions. I attempted to be more general in my questions, as the really interesting questions of substance were best posed by Mike Bird, I thought, especially as he has just written a book on Paul and justification, and written a lengthy review article of Chris' book. Chris' response to Mike's questions will appear in part 3. In part 2, Chris responds to a couple who left comments on my blog review of his book.

Chris VanL: First of all, Chris, I am delighted that you have found my book worthy of some attention.  It is a pleasure to answer a few questions about it.  

Chris Tilling: 1) What or who was the biggest influence in the development of your thesis? Was there any passage of scripture that promoted an 'ah ha!' moment for you?

Chris VanL: As you probably know, Judgment and Justification is simply the published form of a dissertation I wrote at the University of Iowa under the supervision of George Nickelsburg. For years I intended to write a dissertation in the area of Christology, but just as I was preparing a proposal, I discovered a recently published book by Larry Hurtado that already stated everything I was thinking.  Feeling pressured to find another dissertation subject so that I could take my comprehensive exams on schedule, I decided almost by default to do something along the lines of what E.P. Sanders did in Paul and Palestinian Judaism.  For some time I had been troubled by Sanders's reading of the post-biblical Jewish texts as well as his approach to the earlier Second Temple texts from the vantage point of later Rabbinic texts.  As I recall, I decided to include a treatment of Paul simply because this is what Sanders did in his book.  In this regard, I was troubled by how easily Romans 2 was ignored by interpreters of Paul, and so decided to treat the Pauline judgment texts in light of similar Jewish texts.

Chris Tilling: 2) What do you hope your thesis will achieve?  

Chris VanL: When I sent the manuscript to Hendrickson four years ago, I had hoped that a book-length publication on my résumé would lead to an interview for a tenure-track position teaching in my field of early Judaism and Christian origins.  By this time I had applied for over 250 such positions, but had not been invited to a single interview.  I am still waiting for that first interview.  So, my hopes are actually quite mundane.  Otherwise, my book is one of 100,000 published this year, so in reality I don't expect my thesis to achieve anything of significance.  Personally, though, it sure feels good getting one's thoughts down on paper.

Chris Tilling: 3) How has your thesis affected your own religious and theological life?

Chris VanL: Although my studies have affected my religious/theological life a great deal, the research and writing of this book has not changed it at all.  My approach is entirely secular; I write as an historian, not a theologian.  Nevertheless, I don't think my conclusions are anti-Jewish or anti-Christian at all.  But, and this is an important point, if my conclusions happened to be anti-Jewish or anti-Christian, I would still be willing to let the chips fall where they may.  I do exegesis as if nothing is at stake.  If I can't do this, then I need to find another occupation.  I intend to seek the truth despite the consequences of what that truth may hold.  Such intent doesn't mean I will find the truth, but my chances of finding the truth are better than those who think they already know the truth before they seek to find it.  By analogy, the archaeologist who a priori is unwilling to admit that the bones he or she may find belong to Jesus is not really an archaeologist, but a blind apologist.  I am aware that many who read my book cannot do history or exegesis as if nothing is at stake because they are being paid by a church or religiously-oriented university that mandates certain theological positions.  Thus when a professor signs a "statement of faith" as a precondition for employment, one wonders how credible that person's research is that always supports that signed "statement of faith."  When our livelihoods depend on us not seeing the moons of Jupiter through Galileo's telescope, how can we expect to have 20/20 vision?

Chris Tilling: 4) Are there any issues you would like to address in response to the second part of my blog review of your book? (It was posted here)

Chris VanL: As you suggest, allow me to respond to the points you make in Part 2 of the review of my book. First, the theses in Chapters 1 and 2 are about post-biblical Judaism, not the Hebrew Bible.  As I state on page 65 where I admit Ezekiel 16 may be an exception, the purpose of discussing the Hebrew Bible is to establish a pattern, that is, the Deuteronomic formula as I put it.  Elsewhere I cite the Hebrew Bible in order to compare it to later Jewish texts, as for example what I do when I show what post-biblical texts do with the call of Abraham.  (Chris, you also mention 1 Esdras, but don't explain how this text is problematic for my thesis.  Perhaps after I read Michael Bird's review, I can respond.  For now, I should state that even though 1 Esdras is a post-biblical text, I treated in depth only those texts that deal with the Last Judgment or the assigning of a certain eternal destiny in the afterlife.  The compiler of 1 Esdras doesn't show a belief in the afterlife or the Last Judgment.)  Second, "being made righteous" in response to faith is a gift from God based on Jesus's sacrificial death.  It is not that Paul disagrees with the Jewish milieu, but that Paul treats Jesus's death as a sacrifice on behalf of others.  Let's be clear: good deeds are a rewarded with eternal life at the Last Judgment—good deeds are not rewarded with righteousness at the time of faith. On this point, Chris, I think you misread my argument.  Alas, I wish that Paul was clearer on the difference between "works of the law" that don't lead to righteousness and good deeds that do lead to righteousness, but he wasn't.  Third, after this, Chris, you have quite a bit of theological reflection to which I'm at a loss as to how to respond without going on for pages.  Obviously, however, I find being made righteous (i.e., "justification," which I find is a gross mistranslation) by faith and judgment by works impossible to reconcile if "justification" refers to an acquittal at the Last Judgment (as most scholars assert) and if the purpose of judgment by works is to assign an eternal destiny (which I think Paul believes).  Fourth, you question whether I really explain the fierce nature of Paul's rhetoric against 'works of the law' in Galatians (Gal. 2.6; 3:2, 5, 10, 12). For Paul, the issue with regard to 'works of the law' was a de facto way of negating the purpose of Jesus's death.  Jesus died to make people righteous.  If it is possible to be made righteous by 'works of the law' as some asserted, then why did Jesus die?  Paul's fierce rhetoric is explained because he does not believe Jesus died in vain (Gal 2:21).  Last, with regard to 1 Cor 5:5, you will need to explain your point further.



At 6/19/2007 8:56 PM, Anonymous Michael Barber said...

Chris and Chris,

This is a great service. Thanks for doing this interview. I'm enjoying this tremendously.

I'm afraid I'm in the thick of writing a dissertation on Jesus and restoration eschatology so books on Pauline studies are being shelved for the time being. But this is the first book I plan to read on the topic when I'm done. It is clearly an important work.

At 6/20/2007 4:31 AM, Anonymous dan said...


I echo Michael Barber's comment (well, except for the part about working on a dissertation on Jesus and restoration eschatology), this is really great stuff!

Thanks to both of you for doing this.

Grace and peace.


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