Saturday, January 12, 2008

"For us": Why, if Wright is right, so is Bultmann

'Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us' (Gal 3:13)

A great question was posted on the Wrightsaid discussion group today about Wright's interpretation of the 'us' in the sentence above.

According to Wright, the Torah brought the Jewish people curse, namely exile. 'Because the Messiah represents Israel, he is able to take on himself Israel's curse and exhaust it' (The Climax of the Covenant, 151, italics mine). Because of this, the covenant blessing (specifically the gift of the Spirit) is made available to Gentiles. So Christ dies directly for Jews only; indirectly for Gentiles.

While this post won't attempt to analyse the plausibility of this claim in broad terms, my thoughts were stirred as I worked on my exegesis of 1 Corinthians 8 today. In 8:7-12 Paul writes:

'It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled ... For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.' (NRSV)

That Paul is speaking of Gentile Christian believers is clear (Gentile Christians: 8:7 'accustomed to idols
until now'. Believers: 8:11 'believers'; 8:12 'brothers' – or 'family' in the inclusive language of the NRSV). Yet Paul is clear that Christ died specifically for them. There is no 'I mean indirectly', and to import it into this text is rather arbitrary (for more along these lines, cf., off the top of my head, the matter of partaking in the body and blood of Christ in the Lord's Supper in 1 Cor 10 and 11).

Now this could be taken as evidence that puts a question mark against Wright's reasoning (Jim West nods vigorously).

But if not, if Wright's reading of Gal 3:13 is accepted, such evidence in 1 Cor 8 is of hermeneutical significance. It means that Paul universalised a historically contingent event that originally indicated only death for Jews. It means Paul directly applied a story about Jewish exile and restoration to Gentiles in Corinth, without batting an eyelid, and without concerning himself with that narrative in his reasoning. Paul wasn't concerned about the historical contingency or specificity of the event, but rather with its emerging theological breadth, which sundered it from an isolated anchorage to its immediate historical concern (Jim West gives a slightly bewildered nod).

In other words, if Wright's reading is upheld in light of such evidence, doors open wide to appreciate the scriptural precedence and wisdom of something akin to Bultmann's project.

To formulate things with a slight dose of provocation: If Wright's exile and restoration reading in Gal 3 is right, so was Bultmann. :-)


At 1/12/2008 2:36 AM, Anonymous Jim said...

What you obviously meant to say was that Wright finally had the good sense to correctly apprehend one of Bultmann's far superior ideas and adopt it as his own.

So here we have again a case of even the monkey typing a sensible word one time in a million.


At 1/12/2008 10:05 AM, Anonymous Andrew Perriman said...

Chris, it's an astute observation, but I wonder whether it is really so remarkable that Paul would instinctively have regarded Gentiles as beneficiaries of Christ's death as a consequence of the fact that they have been included in, grafted into, the community of redeemed Israel.

I think I would disagree with Wright's emphasis on the exile motif as background to Galatians 3. There is some sense, no doubt, that the exile never really ended, but it seems to me that Jesus basically looks forward to the war against Rome rather than backward to the exile and that this constitutes the concrete realization of the curse of the law against Israel. Nevertheless, Galatians 3 culminates in the assertion that the distinction between Jew and Gentile has been abolished in Christ. As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. So it is such a massive hermeneutical jump to say - in a highly rhetorical context - that Christ died for the weaker Gentile brother, who has been set free from the futile worship of idols to know the one God?

The last supper texts I would see as less of a problem if a central part of the significance of the meal was the recognition that the community of disciples would share quite realistically in Christ's sufferings (as what I would call the community of the Son of man) with the hope of being vindicated with him and joining with him at the eschatological banquet. For Gentiles to be baptized into Christ during this time of eschatological transition is to enter into that fellowship and so it is quite proper for them to participate in the blood and the body of Christ, to remember that he travelled this path before them and was vindicated by his resurrection from the dead.

Arguably this provides part of the rationale for the insistence that Christ died not only for Israel but also (albeit secondarily or indirectly) for those Gentiles who had joined themselves to the covenant people. It is only a community that sees itself as participating in the narrative of Christ's death and resurrection that will survive the tribulation to come.

At 1/12/2008 6:57 PM, Anonymous Rob said...

Could this be an example of Paul's "no longer regarding Christ according to the flesh?" The specific circumstances of his death for the Jews particularly has now been universalized to the point that we don't have to rehearse the original (this makes evangelization much easier).

At 1/13/2008 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So here we have again a case of even the monkey typing a sensible word one time in a million."

But you didn't type anything sensible Jim...

At 1/13/2008 8:13 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

The cowardice of anonymity- again.

At 1/14/2008 3:03 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Jim, Jim, how often I have longed to gather you under the wings of Wright's far superior handling of the primary material and far superior epistemological approach, but you would not listen.

Hi Andrew, Thanks for your comment. Apologies for the slightly lose nature of my following thoughts. I’m a bit tired.
I think you did a good job ignoring the bits that were meant as a curve-ball in the Jim West direction, and engaging the bits that were worth a response!
And thanks for making the point about the ‘ingrafting’. I’m not sure that qualifies the observation about Paul’s hermeneutical move (if Wright is correct in Gal 3), however – it is just given a name in your response. I was, if you were not sure, being deliberately silly about the Bultmann comparison ...
As for the last supper texts, you make a strong point, and one I should have remembered. But, surely that the Gentiles can participate in Christ’s sufferings is itself a hermeneutical move away from its basic story, of Israel’s messiah’s sufferings and vindication. I.e. the ‘in Christ’ motif is as much hermeneutics as it is description of a state of affairs - if the work you and Wright have generated is correct. I need to further ponder these matters as is perhaps obvious. I am thinking of going through your Re:Mission in a lengthy blog review series to help me work through matters, actually, and I would love to hear your feedback then.

Hi Rob,
An interesting thought! And you know that Bultmann made (far too) much of the verse you mention in 2 Cor 5.

Anon 1, that is an unusual article ... Jim West will love it.

At 1/20/2008 10:31 AM, Anonymous Steven Carr said...

'According to Wright, the Torah brought the Jewish people curse, namely exile. 'Because the Messiah represents Israel, he is able to take on himself Israel's curse and exhaust it'

So that is why Paul thought the wrath of God had fallen on the Jews? (1 Thessalonians 2:17)

Or perhaps that is an interpolation, as Paul did not regard the death of Jesus as something that brought God's wrath upon Jews? (It should be remembered that Jesus forgave the Romans who sentenced and executed him, something that Paul would have been very familiar with.)


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