February 23, 2010

We follow only the Torah!

When James & Paul wrote about "works of the law", they each meant "the law" according to their own interpretation of it. Or according to the traditional interpretations through which they'd come up. So says Martin Abegg, according to David Stark.

I gasped audibly when I made the following connection. This sounds exactly like when christians say "We follow only the Bible!" What they always mean, of course, is the Bible according to them.

Suddenly I'm re-reading Paul's critiques on "works of the law" as if he were attacking "only the Bible". That's fascinating, and fun, but I don't know how well it fits in the first century. So if anyone who's read Abegg would respond to my sudden apostrophe, I'd be glad for the feedback. Or just try it on with me and see what you think...


J. David Stark said...


I think I must have seen "Hook" a few too many times because "apostrophe" actually made sense when I read it, and I initially wondered why you had linked it to a page about that movie ;-).

In any case, I'm glad you had one and found the post valuable :-). Abegg's statements are more geared toward observing how the Qumran literature works, but I'd certainly agree that sentiments like the ones he has expressed there have relevance for more objectivist and less nuanced articulations of sola scriptura, or whatever cognate language one might use to describe that principle (for a recent critique of some of these articulations, see Neufeld, "Can the Bible Be Alone?"). I'd also agree with you that sola scriptura, while perhaps interesting, is probably not the most contextually appropriate lens through which to view Paul's critique of "works of the law." Instead, we might try reading this critique in the context of opposing understandings of what it means for the people of Abraham's God to be faithful. The Qumran community certainly had an idea of what it meant, as did other Jewish sects. These other Jews might say they were adhering more closely to the Torah in which this God had revealed himself (e.g., John 9:28), but in good measure, Paul seems to be at pains to show—in conjunction with the acts of God in Jesus—that such an understanding of the people of God fails to do justice to the biblical texts upon which this understanding is based.

I may be mistaken, but for what it's worth, these are some of the interconnections that I have been pondering recently. Thanks, again, for your post and for raising this issue!

Bill Heroman said...

I blog to serve! And please accept my deep gratitude for your wonderful reply here, also.

It sounds like you're saying Paul's critique against "works of the law" was indeed against "wotl" as interpreted by human beings.

What I'm wondering is, does that make Paul's critique semi-tautological (in a good way)? In other words, his point was partly that doing WHAT YOU THINK it says to do isn't really the idea.

J. David Stark said...

I comment to serve as well :-).

Your first summary point does sound much like what I've been thinking. I would perhaps rather say "as wrongly interpreted by human beings." I'm sure that sentiment is implicit in the summary, but I find myself just wanting to mention that point because of some understandings of Paul's rhetorical relationship to the churches in which Paul's ethos carries such weight that opposition in the churches to Paul's viewpoint in the churches is immediately foreclosed and Paul can proceed simply to assert an understanding of the church's relationship to the law or Israel's scriptures that ought to be accepted purely because Paul said it. By contrast, there seem to be good reasons to suppose that Paul's arguments in his epistles are very much geared toward making other human beings see the reasonableness of Paul's Christian perspective on the law and the rest of Israel's scriptures.

That small adjustment being made, things do appear to flow even better into what you mention as Paul's arguing against a reading of Torah that seems valid from another perspective because that perspective is out of accord with what Paul knows that God has done in Jesus. So, like all firm, worldview commitments, there does appear to be some circularity on this point—Jesus causes Paul to read scripture in a different light, and scripture read in this light witnesses to Jesus and those connected with him (cf. Hays, Conversion of the Imagination; Wright, Climax of the Covenant). At the same time, this circularity does appear to avoid becoming viscous insofar as Paul really does seem to take on board arguments from alternative perspectives and attempt to show as best he can how his view is really the one others ought to adopt rather than having some kind of consistent "Of course, you are idiots if you don't agree with me" response, although that kind of thing itself can also find a valuable place in a larger argument at times (e.g., Gal 3).

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