Bible/Interpretation

Piper vs. Wright (4): First-Century Judaism

16216569wrightjustWe’re comparing the differences between John Piper and N. T. Wright on Paul and the New Perspective using helpful summaries compiled by Trevin Wax in the June 2009 edition of Christianity Today.  Today we focus on the question:

How do Piper and Wright differ on their understanding of first-century Judaism as the background of Paul’s writings?

PIPER: Many Jews in Jesus’ day (like the Pharisees described in the Gospels) did not see the need for a substitute in order to be right with God, but sought to establish their own righteousness through “works of the Law.” Whether keeping Sabbath or not committing adultery, these works became the basis of one’s right standing with God.  The inclination to rely on one’s own ceremonial and moral acts is universal, apart from divine grace.

WRIGHT: Jews in Jesus’ day believed that the Law was given to them as people who were already in covenant with God.  Therefore, the Law was not viewed as a way to earn God’s favor, but as a sign that one was already in covenant with God.  The “works of the Law” are not ways to earn favor with God, but badges of covenant identity by which one determines who is in the covenant and who is not.  Many Jews in Paul’s day were clinging to these identity markers (Sabbath, circumcision) in a way that made their Jewish identity exclusive.  Therefore, their exclusivism was keeping the promise of God from flowing to the nations.

Well, what do you think?  Do you see the monumental difference between these two views?  Here we see the watershed line of demarcation on display between (1) the Old Perspective of Paul attacking Jewish attempts to earn righteousness before God by their own religious works; and (2) the New Perspective of Paul based on E. P. Sander’s idea of “covenantal nomism” where Jews did not keep the Law in order to “get in” to the covenant, but rather kept Torah out of gratitude for being part of the covenant and as outward signs to set them apart from the nations.

Much hinges on our understanding of the specific problem Paul had with the Judaizers in Galatia.  Also, it is important to point out that there is much debate and disagreement among New Perspective proponents themselves over the religious milieux of first century Judaism.  Wright, Sanders, Dunn and others all share differences of opinion as well as broad areas of agreement.  In other words, we are currently dealing with many new perspectives (plural) on a variety of first century Judaism(s) in Paul’s day.  

Questions on the table include some of the following:

1. Were first century Jews concerned with the same questions 16th century theologians like Luther were — namely “Can I find a righteous substitute so I can be right with God?”  

2. Did first century Jews view the Law as meritorious works to earn favor with God?  Again, we are driven back to the question addressed earlier on the nature and purpose of the Law.  

3. Is Paul focused primarily on individual soteriology (how individuals could be right with God) or covenantal ecclesiology (who is in the covenant and what badges are necessary to prove it)? 

4. Is this another false either-or?  Does Paul address both in different places with different emphases?  

Again, I find these side-by-side comparisons of Piper and Wright very helpful, clarifying and stimulating.  As questions arise in your mind and drive you into deeper exploration of this issue, I highly recommend  you check out Scot McKnight’s extremely helpful 20-part series at Jesus Creed.  

NEXT: How do Piper and Wright articulate the central message and content of the gospel?  

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