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The Lord’s Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer

(Originally published in Into God’s Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, ed. R.L. Longenecker. 2001, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 132-54.  Reproduced by permission of the author.)


“AS OUR SAVIOR CHRIST hath commanded and taught us, we are bold to say: ‘Our Father. . . .’”  So runs the old liturgical formula, stressing the Pater Noster as a command and its use as a daring, trembling, holy boldness.  At one level, this is entirely appropriate.  At another level, however, it fails to catch the most remarkable thing about the Lord’s Prayer — and so fails to grasp the truly distinctive feature in Christian prayer that this prayer points us to.  For the Lord’s Prayer is not so much a command as an invitation: an invitation to share in the prayer-life of Jesus himself.

    Seen with Christian hindsight — more specifically, with trinitarian perspective — the Lord’s Prayer becomes an invitation to share in the divine life itself.  It becomes one of the high roads into the central mystery of Christian salvation and Christian existence: that the baptized and believing Christian is (1) incorporated into the inner life of the triune God and (2) intended not just to believe that this is the case, but actually to experience it.

    The Lord’s Prayer, along with the Eucharist, forms the liturgical equivalent to what Eastern Orthodox church architecture portrays and western Gothic architecture depicts — both developing, each in its own way, the central temple theology of Judaism.  The God worshiped here, says this architecture, is neither a remote dictator nor simply the sum total of human god-awareness.  This God is both intimately present within the world and utterly beyond, other, and different from it.  He is present to celebrate with his people and to grieve with them, to give them his rich blessings and to rescue them from all ills, because he is also sovereign over heaven and earth, sea and dry land, all the powers of this world, and even over the urgings of the human heart.  The Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to know this God and to share his innermost life.

    All this is so, more particularly, because the Lord’s Prayer is the “true Exodus” prayer of God’s people.  Set originally in a thoroughgoing eschatological context, its every clause resonates with Jesus’ announcement that God’s kingdom is breaking into the story of Israel and the world, opening up God’s long-promised new world and summoning people to share it.  If this context is marginalized — or regarded as of historical interest only (because, for instance, as some would suggest, the Parousia did not arrive on schedule) — the prayer loses its peculiar force and falls back into a generalized petition for things to improve, albeit still admittedly to God’s glory.  In order for it to be prayed with anything approaching full authenticity, therefore, it is necessary to be grasped afresh by the eschatological vision and message of Jesus himself, who announced the true Exodus, the real return from exile, and all that is implied by these wide-ranging shorthand expressions.  (On these topics, see my Jesus and the Victory of God [1996].)

    I begin this article, therefore, with some reflections on the rootedness of the Lord’s Prayer within the ministry and kingdom announcement of Jesus.  This will lead to a fuller exposition of the way in which the Lord’s Prayer opens up the heart of Jesus’ “New Exodus” project and invites those who so pray to become part of it.  And this will then lead to some reflections on the shape and content of Christian liturgical praying and private praying, and, finally, to some concluding remarks moving on from the “Our Father” of Jesus’ ministry to the Abba cry of which Paul speaks in Galatians 4 and Romans 8.

1. The Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ Own Prayer Life

References to Jesus’ own practice of private prayer are scattered throughout the Gospels and clearly reflect an awareness on the part of his first followers that this kind of private prayer — not simply formulaic petitions, but wrestling with God over real issues and questions — formed the undercurrent of his life and public work.  The prayer that Jesus gave his followers embodies his own prayer life and his wider kingdom ministry in every clause.

Father/Our Father

Jesus’ own address to God, it appears, regularly included “Father.”  Though the Aramaic word Abba is only found in the Gospels in the Gethsemane narrative at Mark 14:36, there is a broad consensus (1) that Jesus indeed used this word in prayer, and (2) that the notion of God’s fatherhood — though, of course, known also in Judaism — took central place in his own attitude to God in a distinctive way.  So when the prayer given to his followers begins with “Father” (Luke 11:2) or “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9; cf. Didache 8:2-3, which also begins “Our Father”), we must understand that Jesus wants them to see themselves as sharing his own characteristic spirituality — that is, his own intimate, familial approach to the Creator.  The idea of God’s fatherhood, and of building this concept into the life of prayer, was not, as must again be stressed, a novelty within Judaism.  But the centrality and particular emphasis that Jesus gave it represents a new departure.

Hallowed Be Your Name

The sanctifying of God’s name, as in the clause “hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2//Matt. 6:9), is not a major theme in the Gospels.  Where it does occur — as, for example, in Mary’s exclamation, “Holy is his name!” (Luke 1:49); or Jesus’ prayer, “Father, glorify your name,” and the Father’s response, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again” (John 12:28) — it appears as a natural, and typically Jewish, affirmation of God’s holiness and majesty.  But the hallowing or sanctifying of God’s name is thoroughly consistent with the sort of work that Jesus conceived himself to be undertaking.

Your Kingdom Come

The coming of God’s kingdom, however, as expressed by the petition “your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10//Luke 11:2), is a major theme throughout the entire Gospel tradition.  And though its interpretation has sometimes been controversial, there is no doubt (1) that Jesus made this the central theme of his proclamation and (2) that he meant by it that the long-awaited kingdom or rule of God, which involved the salvation of Israel, the defeat of evil, and the return of YHWH himself to Zion, was now at last happening (see my Jesus and the Victory of God, chs. 6-10).

    Inaugurated eschatology, or the presence and the future of God’s kingdom, was a hallmark of Jesus’ public career — as it was, probably, of the Teacher of Righteousness a century or more earlier (see M. O. Wise, The First Messiah, which is a stimulating and suggestive book, even if the argument is possibly pressed too far) and of Simeon ben-Kosiba a hundred years later.  Where the leader, God’s chosen one, was present, the kingdom was already present.  But there was, of course, still work to be done, redemption to be won.  The present and the future did not cancel one another out, as in some unthinking scholarly constructions.  Nor did “present” mean “a private religious experience” and “future” mean “a Star Wars-type apocalyptic scenario.”

    The presence of the kingdom meant that God’s anointed Messiah was here and was at work — that he was, in fact, accomplishing, as events soon to take place would show, the sovereign and saving rule of God.  The future of the kingdom was the time when justice and peace would embrace one another and the whole world — the time from which perspective one could look back and see that the work had, indeed, begun with the presence and work of the anointed leader (see Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 10).

    To pray “your kingdom come” at Jesus’ bidding, therefore, meant to align oneself with his kingdom movement and to seek God’s power in furthering its ultimate fulfillment.  It meant adding one’s own prayer to the total performance of Jesus’ agenda.  It meant celebrating in the presence of God the fact that the kingdom was already breaking in, and looking eagerly for its consummation.  From the centrality of the kingdom in his public proclamation and the centrality of prayer in his private practice, we must conclude that this kingdom prayer grew directly out of and echoed Jesus’ own regular praying.

 Your Will Be Done

The performance of God’s will, as voiced in the entreaty “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10) — whether one sees that clause as subordinate to the clause “your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10//Luke 11:2) or as distinct — chimes in with the emphasis of Jesus at several points in his recorded work.  This is particularly noticeable in John’s Gospel.  But it finds many echoes in the Synoptic Gospels, not least in Luke’s repetition of how God’s will must be fulfilled.

 Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

The prayer for bread, as in “give us today [or, ‘day by day’] our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11//Luke 11:3), awakens echoes that resound throughout Jesus’ public ministry.  The two evangelists who give us the Lord’s Prayer also give us the temptation stories, where Jesus’ hunger and his refusal to create bread for himself feature prominently (cf. Matt. 4:2-4; Luke 4:2-3).  The wilderness feeding stories suggest both a literal feeding and a symbolic act that demonstrated God’s power, operative through Jesus, to provide for the needs of the people (cf. Mark 6:32-44 par.; 8:1-10 par.).  Jesus’ own prayers of thanks on these occasions (cf. Mark 6:41 par.; 8:6 par.; see also Luke 24:30) are translated by the Lord’s Prayer into a trustful prayer for God’s regular provision.

    One of the most securely established features of Jesus’ public ministry in recent discussion, with only an occasional dissenter (e.g., D. C. Allison Jr., Jesus of Nazareth), is his frequent participation in the festive meals of his day, where he celebrated the kingdom with all comers.  One does not have to go all the way with the members of the Jesus Seminar, who have described Jesus as “the proverbial party animal,” in order to appreciate that the sharing of food, both actually and symbolically, was a central feature of his life.

    The sequence of meals in the story of Jesus reaches its climax, of course, in the Last Supper.  The bread there was — again in the context of prayer — given a special meaning, which echoes back throughout Jesus’ lifetime and on to the cross and his resurrection.  To pray for bread (whether for “today,” as in Matthew, or for “day by day.” as in Luke), therefore, is once again to align oneself with one of the most central and practical symbols of Jesus’ kingdom work.  Bread follows from and symbolizes the kingdom, both in the Lord’s Prayer and in Jesus’ own career.

Forgive Us Our Debts/Sins

The prayer for forgiveness — “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12); “forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4) — is the one instance of a prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray that they did not suppose he needed to pray himself.  The well-known scene of John the Baptist’s initial objection to baptizing Jesus (Matt. 3:14-15) and the very early tradition of Jesus’ personal sinlessness (cf. John 7:18; 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22) bear witness to the great divide at this point between Jesus and his followers.  They needed to repent and seek God’s forgiveness, but he did not.

    This exception, however, clearly proves the rule that the Lord’s Prayer was intended by Jesus to bind his followers closely to the agenda of his whole ministry.  Forgiveness, which is offered freely and without recourse to the temple system, was another hallmark of Jesus’ work — indeed, so much so that it was the cause of scandal (as, e.g., in Mark 2:5-12).  Furthermore, there is good reason to think that Jesus regarded this free offer of forgiveness as a central part of his inauguration of the new covenant, and that he saw the corresponding obligation to mutual forgiveness as a necessary badge of membership (see my Jesus and the Victory of God, 268-74).  This prayer for forgiveness, therefore, though not aligning itself with anything in Jesus’ own spirituality, belongs very closely with the total picture of Jesus’ public ministry, as his ministry is set out in the Gospel narratives.

Lead Us Not into Temptation, but Deliver Us from the Evil One

With the prayer about deliverance from temptation (peirasmos) and the evil one (ho poneros) of Matt. 6:13, we are back again with Jesus.  Again, the temptation narratives of Matt. 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 are close at hand as part of the context; and again, the Gethsemane scene and the complex of “trials” before Caiaphas and Pilate offer themselves as the wider setting.

    Jesus’ whole public career was marked by “trials” of one sort or another — by what he, and the evangelists, saw as a running battle with the powers of evil, whether in the form of possessed souls shrieking in the synagogues or angry souls challenging in the marketplace.  The fact that Jesus was not spared these trials, but had to face them at their fiercest, suggests a clue as to the meaning of this controversial clause, which we will pursue later.

    Here in the prayer of deliverance is, once again, one of the clearest overtones in the Lord’s Prayer: “Let me be as my Master.”  “You are those,” says Jesus in Luke 22:28, “who have continued with me in my trials (en tois peirasmois mou).”  So in giving this prayer, Jesus is inviting his followers to share his own struggles and to experience the same spirituality that sustained him.

    This brief survey is enough to demonstrate that the Lord’s Prayer is by no means simply a collage of vaguely suitable material culled from the liturgical culture of Second Temple Judaism.  Its shape and content remind us of the public career of Jesus at every point.  And since Jesus’ public career was solidly rooted and reflected in his own life of prayer, we must conclude that the Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to share Jesus’ own prayer life — and with it his agenda, his work, his pattern of life, and his spirituality.  The Lord’s Prayer marks out Jesus’ followers as a distinct group not simply because Jesus gave it to them, but because it encapsulates his own mission and vocation.  And it does this in a form appropriate for his followers, which turns them into his co-workers and fellow-laborers in prayer for the kingdom.

    Of course, if one thinks of Jesus simply as a great human teacher, then summoning his followers to share his own pattern and style of prayer is a reasonable commonplace.  But if we accept the early Christian assessment of Jesus — with its dramatically high, though still Jewish, Christology — what has been said so far strongly implies that here within the Lord’s Prayer we are meeting the beginnings of trinitarian soteriology: the Son is inviting his followers to share the intimacy of his own life with the Father.

2. People of the New Exodus

All of what we have set out above, however, leads us to the present, main section of this article.  In this section the theses will be proposed (1) that Jesus saw his kingdom work in terms of the much-hoped-for “New Exodus,” and (2) that the Lord’s Prayer encapsulates this vision.

The Lord’s Prayer as Encapsulating and Celebrating a New Exodus Vision

The events of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, the people’s wilderness wanderings, and their entry into the promised land were of enormous importance in the self-understanding and symbolism of all subsequent generations of Israelites, including Jews of the Second Temple period.  The geographical “return” of the nation from exile, however, had not been matched by the fulfillment of the promises that Israel would be free from pagan domination and free to serve YHWH in her own land.  When that happened, it was expected that the Exodus would form the backdrop for that much-longed-for real return from exile (see my Jesus and the Victory of God, xvii-xviii and passim; idem, “In Grateful Dialogue”).

    When YHWH restored the fortunes of Israel, it would be like a new Exodus — a new and greater liberation from an enslavement greater than that in Egypt.  There are signs of this theme scattered liberally throughout the Gospels.  The reported conversation of Moses and Elijah with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration in Luke 9:31, where the focus of their discussion is on Jesus’ “exodus” that he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem, is one prominent example of this theme.  And the Lord’s Prayer can best be seen in this light as well — that is, as the prayer of the new wilderness wandering people.

    Typological correspondences between the Exodus of Israel’s memory and the New Exodus of Christian proclamation are complex, and should not be pressed for exact one-to-one correspondences.  That is not how this sort of thing works.  Nonetheless, it may be reasonably claimed that for the evangelists — and arguably for Jesus himself — the equivalent of the crossing of the Red Sea is the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The Last Supper is the Passover meal that anticipates, and gives meaning to, the great act of liberation.  From that point of view, the wilderness wandering, led by the pillar of cloud and fire, does not occur until the post-Easter period — where exactly this theme is picked up, as we will see, by Paul in Romans 8.

    There are some signs, indeed, that Jesus saw the period of his ministry as, at least in certain respects, parallel to that of Moses at the court of Pharaoh.  Luke 11:20, for example, alluding to Exod. 8:19, portrays Jesus as saying: “If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  The parallel in Matt. 12:28 has “spirit” for “finger,” so it is, of course, possible that Luke deliberately created an Exodus allusion in a Jesus saying where it was not originally present.  But even if an accumulation of such points were held to prove that Jesus regarded his followers prior to Calvary and Easter as still “in Egypt,” I would still argue that the Lord’s Prayer was designed to constitute them as “Exodus People,” “Freedom People” — indeed, as “New Covenant People.”

    The Lord’s Prayer, in fact, was designed to encapsulate and celebrate, in the presence of God, the liberation that had already begun to take place and that had yet to be completed.  It was designed to enable Jesus’ followers to beseech the Father that they would be enabled to remain loyal to his freedom purposes through all the tribulations that lay ahead.  This can be seen more particularly as we look again at each of the clauses of the Lord’s Prayer from a New Exodus perspective.

Father/Our Father

In highlighting echoes from the Exodus tradition in the Lord’s Prayer, we must begin, of course, with “Father”: “Israel is my son, my firstborn; let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exod. 4:22-23); “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1).  Calling God “Father” not only evokes all kinds of associations of family life and intimacy; more importantly, it speaks to all subsequent generations of God as the God of the Exodus, the God who rescues Israel precisely because Israel is God’s firstborn son.  The title Father says as much about Israel, and about the events through which God will liberate Israel, as it does about God.

    Jesus’ own sense of vocation, that of accomplishing the New Exodus, was marked principally by his awareness of God as Father (cf. my Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 13).  Now in the Lord’s Prayer he invites his followers to consider themselves Exodus people.  Their cry for redemption will be heard and answered.

Hallowed Be Your Name

God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush, speaking his name and giving it as the main reason why he could be trusted to bring the children of Israel out of captivity (cf. Exod. 3:13-16).  And it was the honor and reputation of YHWH’s name that Moses would subsequently use as the fulcrum in his great prayer for Israel’s forgiveness after the episode of the golden calf — a theme that was also picked up by Joshua after the debacle at Ai (cf. Exod. 32:11-14; Josh. 7-9).  The sanctifying of God’s name, in other words, has to do once more not merely with God’s own reputation in, as it were, a private capacity, but with the fact that he is committed to and in covenant with the people of Israel.  To pray that God’s name be hallowed, therefore, is to pray that the Exodus may not only happen but be followed through to its proper conclusion — that is, that Israel be redeemed not only from the original slavery of Egypt, but also from the sin and rebellion that keeps her from arriving and safely settling in the promised land.

Your Kingdom Come

The sovereign rule of the one true God is, of course, the main subtext of the battle between Moses and Pharaoh.  As with Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the story of the Exodus is a story about which God is the stronger.  It is in deliberate evocation of the Exodus theme that Isa. 52:7-10 writes of the great return:

     How beautiful upon the mountains
             are the feet of the messenger who announces peace;
     who brings good news, who announces salvation,
             who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
     Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
             together they sing for joy;
     for in plain sight they see YHWH returning to Zion. . . .
     YHWH has made bare his holy arm before all the nations;
             all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

The Exodus is the background; the great return the foreground; the kingdom of YHWH the main theme.  This is the context of Jesus’ own kingdom announcement, the setting that gives meaning to the kingdom clause in the Lord’s Prayer.

Your Will Be Done

The doing of YHWH’s will on earth as in heaven is, of course, part of the whole apocalyptic theme in which heavenly truths and events become embodied in their earthly counterparts.  Part of the point of the whole Sinai theophany — the central part, in fact, of the Exodus story — was the meeting of heaven and earth, with Moses as the intermediary who went to and fro between the two spheres, so that laws and instructions made in heaven could be carried out on earth.  This anticipates (or, depending on one’s view of Pentateuchal origins, reflects) the temple theology in which the sanctuary was considered to be quite literally the place where heaven and earth met.  If Torah was the means by which, within Israel, God’s will was to be done on earth as in heaven, and if the temple was the place where this was embodied in cultic celebration and sacrifice, to pray that this might happen anew — within the context of the New Exodus motifs already so strongly present — was to pray not merely that certain things might occur within the earthly realm that would coincide with plans that God had made in the heavenly realm, but that a fresh integration of heaven and earth would take place in which all that temple and Torah had stood for would be realized afresh.  It was to pray both that God’s saving purpose for Israel and the world would come about through God’s personal action, and that God’s people would find themselves not merely shaped by a law, however divine, or focused on a building, however God-given, but embraced by a saving personal love.

“Thy will be done on earth as in heaven” can, of course, carry all sorts of further overtones, such as prayers for wise political solutions to world-shaking crises, prayers for bread for the hungry, and prayers for justice for the oppressed.  But at its heart lies a prayer for the appropriate integration of heaven and earth that the early Christians came to see already accomplished in Jesus himself — who was like Moses, but so much more so — and came to long for in God’s eventual future (cf. Rev. 21; see also Rom. 8:17-30, which we will discuss later).

Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

The prayer for bread has its historical background in the provision of manna in the wilderness.  God’s daily gift, following the people’s grumbling, became the stuff of legend.  Jesus’ actions in the feeding miracles alluded to the wilderness stories, as the evangelists (especially John) suggest.  In the context of the Lord’s Prayer, this clause aligns the followers of Jesus with the wilderness generation and their need to know God’s daily supply of not only literal bread but also of all that it symbolized.

Manna was not needed in Egypt.  Nor would it be needed in the promised land.  It is the food of inaugurated eschatology, the food that is needed because the kingdom has already broken in and because it is not yet consummated.  The daily provision of manna signals that the Exodus has begun, but also that we are not yet living in the land.

Forgive Us Our Debts/Sins

The story of the manna, however, was also the story of Israel’s sin and lack of faith.  The prayer for forgiveness, therefore, is quite appropriate in this context, and not merely another item in a shopping-list of spiritual needs and wants.  In the light of Jeremiah 31 and Jesus’ offer of forgiveness as the central blessing of the new covenant — that is, the great return that was happening through his work — forgiveness is raised to a new height.  If the Egypt from which the New Exodus is freeing God’s people is the Egypt of sin and all that it produces, then the prayer “forgive us our sins” becomes precisely the prayer of those still in Egypt: “Deliver us from Pharaoh!”

Matthew and the Didache, of course, present Jesus as speaking of the forgiveness of debts (as in Matthew) or debt (as in the Didache).  I have elsewhere agreed with those who see in this a sign of the Jubilee, and of Jesus’ intention being that his followers should celebrate it amongst themselves (see my Jesus and the Victory of God, 294-95).  The Jubilee provisions, of course, look back to the fact that Israel had been enslaved in Egypt and that God had rescued and delivered her (cf. Lev. 25:38, 42, 55).  They were part of the Exodus theology.  In the same way, Jesus’ demand that his followers should forgive one another belongs precisely within the same logic.  Redeemed slaves must themselves live as redemption people.  The inner connection between forgiving others and being forgiven oneself, which is so strongly emphasized in Matt.6:14-15 and 18:21-35 (cf. Sirach 28:1-7), grows directly out of this Exodus motif.

Lead Us Not into Temptation, but Deliver Us from the Evil One

In this wider context the difficulties about the clause “Do not lead us to ‘the testing,’” which are reflected in current debates about the wording for liturgical use, may be addressed with some hope of success.  Who is testing whom, with what intent, and with what result?

The normal assumption is that the prayer is asking to be spared having one’s faith tested by God.  But the tradition throughout early Christianity that sees the testing of one’s faith as a necessary part of discipleship — indeed, as a following of Jesus — speaks strongly against such an understanding.  Is it, then, as Albert Schweitzer thought, the eschatological peirasmos— the Great Tribulation, the worst moment in history — that the prayer is asking to be spared from?  A strong case for this reading can be made out, and I have myself taken this line in the past (cf. Jesus and the Victory of God, esp. 577-79).

On this view, Jesus believed that “Messianic Woes” were coming on Israel, and that it was his particular task and vocation to go out ahead and take the full weight of them on himself, so that the people would not need to undergo them.  This would explain the repetition in Gethsemane of his command to his disciples: “Watch and pray, that you may not enter the peirasmos” (Matt. 26:41; Mark 14:38; Luke 22:46) — meaning by that command: “Pray that you may be spared this great moment of anguish; it is my task to enter it alone.”  (We may note, however, that when Jesus himself prayed a somewhat similar prayer the answer was “No.”).  And such an interpretation fits well with what I have elsewhere argued to be Jesus’ perception of the moment of crisis in which he saw himself to have a central role.

But it remains somewhat strange to see this as the complete explanation of “lead us not into temptation.”  For if the early church came to believe that in some sense the great peirasmos had, indeed, happened to Jesus on the cross, why would they have continued to pray this clause in the Lord’s Prayer thereafter?  Granted, the fall of Jerusalem, which was still in the future for those who handed on the early traditions, had been spoken of by Jesus in similarly dramatic terms, as witness Mark 13 and its parallels.  But what about after that, in the period when we must assume the Didache, at least, to have been written — and most likely the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as well?

One possible answer, of course, is that in the days following AD 70 the church looked beyond the fall of Jerusalem to the final moment when God would redeem the whole of creation — and that such a futuristic vision included a final, yet-to-occur tribulation.  But this possibility, which we can see reflected perhaps in the Book of Revelation, only sharpens the question.  For then we must ask: Did the church expect to be in some sense spared the sufferings of this final tribulation? Did not salvation consist, rather, in remaining faithful within it? This, then, leads us to reconsider the Exodus tradition and to search for other possible meanings.

The most probable explanation, I propose, is that the “testing” is not God’s testing of his people but the people’s testing of God (cf. J. Gibson, “Testing Temptation”). One of the central charges against the wilderness generation was that they, in their unbelief, “put YHWH to the test” by challenging him to produce demonstrations of his presence with them (cf. Exod. 17:7).  The particular issue, of course, was YHWH’s provision of water from the rock, which followed directly on the people’s grumbling about food and YHWH’s provision of manna.  The deuteronomic memory of the wilderness “testings” echoes on in the prophetic traditions, with Ahaz using the old warning as an excuse not to look for the sign that Isaiah was offering (cf. Isa. 7:12; see also Ps. 78:18, 41, 56; 95:9; 106:14). In one of Paul’s alignments of the church with the wilderness generation, he cites this specifically as a central failing that the church must not emulate (cf. 1 Cor. 10:9).  This was, more specifically, one of the key failings of the wilderness generation that Jesus specifically avoided during his initial temptations (cf. Matt. 4:7//Luke 4:12, quoting Deut. 6:16).

The passage in Paul’s letters in which this theme finds expression — that is, 1 Cor. 10:9: “We must not test the Lord [or, ‘the Christ’] as some of them did” — also suggests that the early church had become used to taking “the peirasmos” in a wider sense than simply the sharply focused eschatological one.  For in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul draws a close parallel between the church and the wilderness generation, speaking of that earlier generation as having been “baptized” into Moses (v. 2) and as having all eaten “spiritual food” and drunk “spiritual drink” (w. 3-4).  Their testing of the Lord — or, as the preferred reading has it, of “the Christ” — was one aspect of their many-sided failure.

Nonetheless, when Paul speaks of peirasmos a few verses later, it is clear that he means not the Israelites’ testing of God but the “temptations” that come on God’s people, not least from the pagan environment in which they live.  1 Cor. 10:13 is the clearest statement of what peirasmos had come to mean in the early church and of how, with its Exodus overtones, it was being reapplied:

No peirasmos has overtaken you but that which is normal to the human race.  God is faithful: he will not allow you to be tested beyond your strength.  He will make, with the peirasmos, also the way out, so that you are able to bear it.

This can only refer to the much more general “temptation,” within which the temptation to put God to the test is one, but only one.

What we see here in this reapplication of the Exodus tradition is not so much the downgrading of eschatology into moralism, but the taking up of moral instruction into typological eschatology.  Paul will not rest content with simply telling the Corinthians how to behave and chiding them if they go wrong.  He will teach them to think of themselves as the people of the true Exodus, and within that framework show them how the moral struggles they face — including the temptation to devise tests to see how strong their Lord is — are the equivalent of the temptations which brought the wilderness generation to ruin.  They must now succeed where their typological predecessors failed.

Who, then, is the author of this “temptation” of 1 Cor. 10:13?  Paul does not say directly, but the context strongly implies that it is the evil one. Despite the apostle’s firm conviction regarding the sovereignty of God, such “testings” come from “the Satan” (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5; the word peirasmos occurs in the Pauline corpus only in 1 Cor. 10:13; Gal. 4:14; and 1 Tim. 6:9).  1 Corinthians 10, therefore, might be seen as a practical commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, particularly on its concluding clauses.  What Paul, in effect, is saying is: You are the Exodus generation; therefore trust God to lead you out of your moment of testing without succumbing to it — that is, to deliver you from the evil one.

If this is accepted, then we may understand the last part of the Lord’s Prayer (i.e., the last two clauses in Matthew’s version and the Didache) as follows: Jesus’ followers are instructed to pray that they may be spared the great peirasmos that is coming on Jesus himself and the cognate tribulation that is coming on Jerusalem and the whole world.  To this extent, the petition is similar to what Jesus urges in Matt. 24:20//Mark 13:18: “Pray that your flight may not be in winter.”

But the petition also broadens out to include all of what Paul speaks about — that is, the variegated temptations, which, coming from “the Satan,” include the temptation to put God to the test, but also include such other sins as idolatry and grumbling.  Thus “Lead us not into temptation” would then mean, in that broader context, “Do not let us be led into temptation [from which we cannot escape].”  The fact that God has promised to be faithful and to provide the way of escape does not mean, in the logic of New Testament prayer, that one should not pray for it, but rather the reverse.  Those who pray the Lord’s Prayer are designed by Jesus to be those who remain faithful to the God who intends to remain faithful to them — and who thereby constitute the true eschatological Israel, the people of the New Exodus.

The Lord’s Prayer as the Heart of the New Covenant Charter

We may now stand back briefly from this Exodus-based exposition of the Lord’s Prayer and examine the results.  Certain features from our investigation can be highlighted.  The prayer is given by Jesus to constitute his followers as the true Exodus people.  They are to succeed, not least by prayer, where the original wilderness generation failed.  The prayer moves from the disciples’ relation to God, through the honoring of God’s name and the doing of his will, to provisions for bodily needs and dealing with evil.  Furthermore, the prayer has something of the same shape — and, within the new eschatological moment, something of the same role — as the Decalogue within the Exodus narrative.  Thus the Lord’s Prayer may be seen as being to the church as the Ten Commandments were to Israel: not just something to do, a comparatively arbitrary rule of life, but the heart of the new covenant charter.

Of course, it is not quite as easy as that.  Matthew, who one might have expected to make this point, may be thought to have hinted at it by his placing of the Lord’s Prayer within the Sermon on the Mount, redolent as it is of Exodus typology.  And it would be sheer folly to think that the Decalogue has no abiding significance within the church, albeit reinterpreted in various ways — just as it would be folly to suppose that Israel BC was not also commanded and invited to pray the intimate covenantal prayer, the Shema, that Jesus himself reaffirmed (though, interestingly, as ethic rather than prayer, as in Judaism; cf. Matt. 22:34-40;Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28).  Nevertheless, there is an important point here, which is at the very heart of our investigation: If we are looking for characteristic marks of the church, the Lord’s Prayer offers itself more readily than the Ten Commandments, despite the parallel use of them in some systems of Christian education, as though they were, respectively, simply a timeless prayer and a timeless moral code.

The Lord’s Prayer takes its place, rather, alongside baptism and the Eucharist.  Both are thought of in Exodus terms in the New Testament, not least in 1 Corinthians 10.  It is, therefore, appropriate that praying the Lord’s Prayer should take place corporately and publicly within the liturgies for both baptism and the Eucharist.  But it is also the case that the Lord’s Prayer will be most fully understood and most fully “meant” within those Exodus-based narratives, which are symbolically and dramatically acted out in their new Christ-centered form.  These sacraments are precisely among those moments when — within the inaugurated eschatology through which alone Christianity makes sense — both past and future, heaven and earth, are brought together in one dramatic action.

The Lord’s Prayer is the means by which the church celebrates what has been accomplished already in Christ and strains forward for what lies ahead.  And in the course of living between the present and the future, the church prays in the Lord’s Prayer for grace and strength to remain faithful to its Lord and not to fall away from the bracing agenda of his kingdom announcement.

3. Prayers and Paradigms

The church that prays the Lord’s Prayer claims, thereby, the status of the eschatological people of God.  In so praying, it locates itself between Calvary, Easter, and Pentecost, on the one hand, and the great consummation (sometimes, by metonymy, called “the Parousia”), on the other hand.  The Lord’s Prayer is thus a marker, a reminder, to the church of who it is and why.

To locate oneself on this historical scale is, of course, to look with dismay at the many times when the church, like the wilderness generation, has betrayed its Lord, put its God to the test, and committed various idolatries and immoralities.  But it is, at the same time, also to claim that, with the cross and resurrection of Jesus behind it, forgiveness and restoration are ever-present realities as well.

A Paradigm for the Church’s Liturgy

The shape of the church’s regular worship, therefore, ought to be ordered, I suggest, in ways that highlight this identity.  All sorts of Christian traditions have been tempted in various ways to de-eschatologize themselves, and so to settle down into being simply a religion, with or without an accompanying moralism.  It is this, perhaps, that has allowed so much contemporary thought to assume, without more ado, that Christianity is simply one “religion” among many — a view that the New Testament’s characteristic eschatology would never permit.

One obvious way of keeping the church’s eschatological focus would be to allow the shape as well as the content of the Lord’s Prayer to inform its liturgy more strongly, not just in that part of the worship service labeled “prayer” but also in the structure of the whole.  Invocation of God as Father, worship and prayer that sanctifies God’s name, prayer for Jesus’ kingdom work to find its complete fulfillment on earth as in heaven — all of these might come first.  Intercession for particular blessings, of which bread is among the most basic and hence symbolic of the rest, would occur within this larger context.

Furthermore, we should note that, against the grain of some post-Augustinian liturgies, the church is not instructed by its Lord to approach its Father with “Sorry” as its first word.  Even the Prodigal Son began his speech with “Father.”  There is, to be sure, an appropriate place for penitence, both for communities and individuals.  But the normal Christian approach to the Creator God is the unfettered and delighted “Father.”  There is a time for penitence, but its location within the Lord’s Prayer suggests that it should not take pride of place in regular liturgical worship.

There are, of course, some theologies still current in which all penitence is pushed to one side as gloomy or doleful.  That this is a gross caricature should not need to be said.  The Lord’s Prayer indicates both that penitence is a regular necessity and that it is not the most important element.  Pride and paranoia are alike to be avoided.

If the Lord’s Prayer is correctly understood in its New Exodus eschatological context, a liturgy that grows up on this basis is likely to choose Scripture readings in such a way as both to celebrate God’s deliverance of his people and to remind the congregation that they belong within this overarching story.  This does not mean the avoidance of the non-narrative parts of Scripture, such as the Book of Proverbs.  But it does mean that the sequence from the Old Testament to the New has some importance, and that at some point that sequence, which gave birth to the church, should be brought into explicit focus, whether by prayer or song.

The church’s task in using the Lord’s Prayer as a paradigm for liturgy, therefore, is (1) to thank God for its identity as the people of the New Exodus, (2) to pray that God’s achievement in Jesus Christ may reach its complete fruition for both the church and the entire creation, and (3) to pray for grace and strength to remain faithful to God’s calling in the present.  In so doing, the church is explicitly identifying with Jesus himself in his own prayer and work (as we have highlighted in the first section of this article) — a stance that can only be taken without gross arrogance when it is remembered that the prayer, as given by Jesus, is not simply a command but an invitation. Like a good deal in the Gospel accounts, it requires a belief in the Holy Spirit to make full sense of this picture (which is what John and Paul, in particular, supply, as we will note later in this article).

A Paradigm for Christian Living

The Christian is also called to make the Lord’s Prayer paradigmatic in his or her own personal life.  The context in Matthew 6 includes Jesus’ command to go into one’s own room, shut the door, and pray to the Father who sees in secret (6:6).  (We might want to ask, how many of Jesus’ original hearers had private rooms into which they could retreat, with doors by which they could shut out all others?)  The life of the individual Christian is lived out between baptism and bodily death and resurrection on the same principle as the life of the corporate church.  It is true, of course, that the story of Israel’s wilderness wanderings has been more regularly applied to the Christian life than to church history, and the symbolism is well enough known: the crossing of the Jordan symbolizing death, and so forth — or, as in some “second blessing” traditions, altered so that the crossing of the Jordan signals an entry into a “higher life” of full sanctification.  Nonetheless, the Exodus story is still a fruitful source of imagery for reconstructing a genuinely Christian spirituality.

The Lord’s Prayer, as used by a Christian who is conscious of his or her pilgrimage to the eventual promised land, celebrates the great beginning of that pilgrimage when, in baptism, that individual is united with Christ in his death and resurrection.  Calling God “Father” says and celebrates all of that.  The early petitions of the prayer, with their focus on God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will, can all be used in this context as the framework for focusing in one’s private prayer on God himself, and for claiming already in the present — as, indeed, is done in the sacraments — the blessings of the future that are already secured in Christ.  And within private prayer, as with public prayer, all of the other elements take their place: intercession, the prayer for forgiveness, and the clear-eyed plea against peirasmos and against the poneros.  These all find their appropriate, though still subordinate, home.  The individual Christian is called to be a man, woman, or child of prayer as a New Exodus person.

But that cannot be the whole story.  For, as I said in the first section of this article, at its heart the Lord’s Prayer is an invitation to each Christian to share in the praying life of Jesus himself.  The early Christians were very conscious of Jesus’ exalted presence before God’s throne, where his constant task is to intercede on behalf of his people (cf. Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 9:24).  The Lord’s Prayer, therefore, by uniting Jesus’ people with their Lord in the prayer that formed the inner core of his own life, brings about the situation where those who pray it are even now, whether they realize it or not, “seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6; cf. Col. 3:1,3).

There are different ways of appropriately embodying this reality.  Precisely because we are to pray God’s kingdom into existence “on earth as it is in heaven,” it is always worthwhile exploring and reflecting on those ways — including matters of place, posture, timing, musical accompaniment, and so on.  These are not mere incidentals.  They will, of course, vary quite widely with culture, personality, and opportunity.  Such variations, however, do not suggest that there are not some more and some less appropriate outward forms and fashions.  Rather, the reverse is true.  Each individual Christian and every church community is responsible, under God, for not just maintaining a human tradition — or, for that matter, demolishing one — but for discovering the forms that the Lord’s Prayer itself prompts and suggests within a particular culture and for the particular people who are going to be using it.

4. Abba, Father: Conformed to the Pattern of Christ

It is striking that at the two places where Paul quotes Jesus’ use of Abba, the Aramaic word for “father,” he also speaks in dramatic language of the two things that have formed the underlying structure of this article: (1) the New Exodus in Christ, and (2) the incorporation of the worshiping Christian into the inner trinitarian life of God.  I conclude this article, therefore, with a brief look at these two passages and some suggestions as to what they mean for our regarding the Lord’s Prayer as a paradigm of Christian praying.

In Gal. 4:1 -11, as is fairly obvious though not always fully drawn out, Paul tells the story of the Exodus again.  Only it is not now the Exodus from Egypt, when God sent Moses and gave the Law, but the Exodus of God’s people in Christ, both Jews and Gentiles, in long-term and complete fulfillment of the promise to Abraham.  Thus in verses 4-7 he says:

When the time had fully come.  God sent forth his Son… to redeem… and because you are children.  God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba, Father.”  So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and, if a son, then an heir, through God.

As a result, as he emphasizes in verse 8-11, there can be no “going back to Egypt.”  God has now been revealed, not in a burning bush but in the Son and the Spirit — or, rather, as the One who sent the Son and now sends the Spirit of the Son.

The God of the New Exodus is the God revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit.  The only alternative is some kind of paganism, even if, paradoxically, it is hiding underneath the Jewish Torah.  And the revelation of God as Trinity is completed in the experience of Christian prayer — that is, in the Abba, which certainly refers to Jesus’ own usage and may well refer to the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer in the early Aramaic-speaking church.

Two reflections on the use of this Abba prayer by Christians may be of note.  First, just as the Lord’s Prayer is still known as the “Pater Noster” by many Roman Catholics who actually now say it in English, so perhaps — though it can only ever be a guess — the same prayer may have continued to be known as the “Abba” by those who said it in Greek.  Second, it may be asked: Is it simply a coincidence that the key prayer word of the early Christians, like some of the key prayer words of their pagan counterparts, was a palindrome (that is, a word or number that reads the same backward or forward) — indeed, one of the simplest possible palindromes?

The point, anyway, is that the Lord’s Prayer — by (1) reflecting the prayer of Jesus and inviting his followers to share it, and (2) embodying the New Exodus stance that summed up so much of Jesus’ whole agenda — is now the appropriate vehicle of a specific type of prayer.  This prayer is not shouting across a void to a distant and perhaps unknown God.  Nor is it simply getting in touch with one’s own deepest feelings and self-awareness.  Nor is it getting in tune with the wider spirit of the whole cosmos.  It is prayer that grows directly out of the Jewish experience and knowledge of the one creator God, but that finds, without leaving that Jewish base behind, that the knowledge of this one God has three intertwined aspects — not least of all because Jesus himself, as a human being, remains at the heart of it.

Rom. 8:12-30 completes the circle (see my “New Exodus, New Inheritance”).  Here we find the fully inaugurated, but not yet consummated, eschatology that so perfectly reflects Jesus’ own kingdom announcement, albeit seen now from the post-Easter perspective.  We are saved in hope; but hope that is seen is not hope.  And this salvation is precisely the New Exodus.  Led by the Spirit, who here takes on the role of the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, we are called the children of God.  We are no longer slaves, and must not dream of going back to Egypt.  Rather, because we are those who cry “Abba, Father!” we are not only children but heirs, heirs of the true promised land.

The true promised land is not a strip of territory in the Middle East or elsewhere, nor yet “heaven” as a far-off and basically disembodied final resting place.  Rather, it is the renewed creation itself.  It is God’s world restored, healed, and flooded with the Spirit, sharing in the freedom that goes with the glorification of God’s children.  Creation itself, in other words, will have its own Exodus.  Our Exodus experience in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is both the key starting point of that long project and the guarantee that God will complete what he has started.

In the midst of all of this, the characteristic Christian prayer is that which, inspired by the Spirit, catches the Christian up in the mysterious, and even painful, dialogue of the Father and the Spirit (cf. 8:26-27).  It is this that forms the Christian according to the pattern of the crucified and risen Son (cf. 8:17, 29).  And it is this that constitutes Christians as “those who love God” (cf.8.28) — in other words, those who fulfill, at last, the great Exodus prayer-command of Deut. 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one; and you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

The Lord’s Prayer, then, though not explicitly referred to by Paul, points on to what in many ways must be seen as the crown of early Christian theology and practice.  For the Abba prayer, inspired by the Spirit of Jesus, is the characteristic Christian prayer.  It encompasses within itself that celebration of God’s goodness and kingdom, that intercession for and grief over the world in pain and need, and that anguish over trials and temptations that still beset and besiege what is the normal state of Christian existence.  More than all that, however, as an invitation to share in Jesus’ own prayer life and as the New Exodus prayer, it enables the baptized and believing Christian to share — humbly, wonderingly, painfully, joyfully — in the life of God himself, Father, Son, and Spirit.

Selected Bibliography

Allison, Dale C., Jr. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

Gibson, Jeffrey. “Testing Temptation: The Meaning of Q11:4b” (unpublished paper given at the 1998 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Orlando, Florida).

Keesmaat, Sylvia C. Paul and His Story: (Re)Interpreting the Exodus Tradition. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Koenig, John. Rediscovering New Testament Prayer: Boldness and Blessing in the Name of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 1992; repr. Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1998.

Wise, Michael O.  The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ. San Francisco: Harper, 1999.

Wright, N. T.  Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

————.  The Lord and His Prayer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

————.  “New Exodus, New Inheritance: The Narrative Structure of Romans 3-8.” In Romans and the People of God: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of his 65thBirthday, ed. S. K. Soderlund and N. T. Wright.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, 26-35.

————.  “In Grateful Dialogue.” In Jesus and the Restoration of Israel, ed.  C. C. Newman.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999.

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Redemption from the New Perspective?

Towards a Multi-Layered Pauline

Theology of the Cross

Originally published in Redemption, ed. S. T. Davis, D. Kendall, G. O’Collins (Oxford: OUP) 2006, 69–100.

Original pagination is retained in bold italicized numbers.

Reproduced by permission of the author.




Calling something ‘new’ is always risky, and the ‘new perspective’ on Paul, now a quarter of a century old since it was introduced by Ed Sanders in 1977, is starting to look rather frayed around the edges. Others have written its history; some are now trying to write its epitaph.[1] I come neither to bury Sanders nor to praise him, but to do two things simultaneously: to look at Paul’s doctrine of ‘redemption’ from (one version of) the perspective Sanders proposed, and in so doing to see what if anything can be redeemed from his proposal. I am conscious that the current wave of gravediggers are making room for more than one coffin, and that some of them at least want to bury N. T. W. along with E. P. S. (and indeed J. D. G. D.). But I am inclined to believe that the rumours of my theological demise have been exaggerated, and that the modified and developed version of the [70] ‘new perspective’ (hereafter NP) which I adopt possesses not only life but considerable explanatory and exegetical power.

A few brief introductory notes on the various topics thus introduced. First, as to the NP. Sanders’s proposed reading of Paul had at its heart a massively argued proposal about first-century Judaism, in which Sanders substantially followed the protest of H.-J. Schoeps a generation before and G. F. Moore a generation before that. Judaism was not, basically, a religion of self-help moralism, a kind of early Semitic Pelagianism, but was a religion in which the keeping of the law mattered not because people were trying to earn their member-ship in God’s people but because they were eager to demonstrate it. Law-keeping was not part of ‘getting in’ but of ‘staying in’—two categories which become thematic for Sanders. Keeping the law within the ‘staying in’ mode is what he calls ‘covenantal nomism’, another thematic technical term.

This proposal cuts most deeply against the Lutheran readings of Paul which have been common coin in New Testament scholarship for a long time, and also in many non-Lutheran parts of the church which have assumed that its account of Judaism (enshrined in such monumental works as Strack-Billerbeck and the Kittel Wörterbuch) was historically accurate. Sanders is clearly motivated by the desire to do justice to first-century Judaism rather than caricature it in the interest of Christian apologetic. Painting the ‘background’ dark in order to make the jewel of the gospel shine more brightly—the very word ‘background’ has become taboo, carrying as it does the implication that one might be studying Judaism not for itself but in order to contrast it with Christianity to the advantage of the latter—must be abjured in the interests of objective study of the different ‘patterns of religion’. As in all his work, Sanders belongs within the post-Holocaust movement of scholarship, trying to get away from a polarization between Judaism and Christianity and to show their many convergences. Indeed, though Sanders does acknowledge that Paul held a critique of Judaism (in this he does better than his teacher, W. D. Davies, who in other respects paved the way for him), this critique is minimal and simply a reflex of Paul’s new experience: Paul has found salvation in Christ, and so deduces that there must have been a problem with Judaism. He begins with the solution and then postulates a plight, rather than the old theory in which Paul began with a problem (variously described) to which he found the answer in Christ. The implicit conclusion from a good deal of [71] Sanders’s work, as in many other contemporary writers, is that these two religions at least are more or less equally valid paths to salvation. Sanders is clear that Paul does not say that himself, but he constantly hints that it will not take a large step beyond Paul for us to do so.

As the subtitle of his book indicates, Sanders’s proposal is about religion, not theology. Indeed, when it comes to theology both his initial book and his subsequent ones are unsystematic, and do not address in any sustained way the major topics of Pauline theology (christology, justification, the cross, etc.). If anything, Sanders simply assumes that the big words like justification, atonement, salvation, redemption and so on all converge in meaning. His major proposal about interpreting Paul himself does not need to explore that territory too far, because the emphasis lies elsewhere: he divides Paul’s thought, in a traditional fashion, between ‘juristic’ categories and ‘participationist’ categories, and, following Schweitzer and Davies, declares that the latter are primary and central, and that the former are ancillary and more situational or polemical. Thus he regards ‘being in Christ’ as central, and ‘justification’ as more peripheral. This has obvious exegetical spin-offs (e.g. reading Rom. 5-8 as more central to Paul’s thought than Rom. 1-4), though as Sanders has published no commentaries we cannot see exactly how it might all play out. It is noticeable, however, that he has difficulty in fitting Romans 2: 1-16 into the mind of Paul, and that he is forced to dismiss the complex Romans 7 as tortured rambling.

Second, the relation of my own reading of Paul to the NP. Perhaps the most important point is this: had the dominant view of Paul prior to Sanders been Reformed rather than Lutheran, the NP might never have been necessary. I began my graduate work on Paul with just such a Reformed standpoint, and in many respects found Sanders an ally rather than an adversary. Since this will be counter-intuitive to some, an explanation is needed.

From (at least) Calvin onwards, reaching something of a climax in the Romans commentary of Charles Cranfield, exegetes in the Reformed tradition found in Paul a view of the Jewish law which was far more positive than Lutheran exegesis had assumed. I am not sure that this tradition ever did full justice to second Temple Judaism, but at least it did not start from the assumption that the law itself was basically a bad thing ripe for abolition. (Notice how this works out in exegesis of the notorious crux at Rom. 10: 4: is Christ the abolition, end, completion, goal, or fulfilment of the law? Or what?) After all, in [72] Reformed Theology the Torah was given in the first place within a historical scheme, not to enable the Israelites to keep it and so earn their membership in God’s people, but to enable them, as a people already redeemed through the Exodus, to demonstrate and work out the implications of their membership and vocation. The (at least partial) convergence of Sanders’s reading of Judaism with a Reformed view of the law makes it all the more ironic that the anti-NP movement is today centred not least in Reformed circles such as the Presbyterian Church of America and Westminster Theological Seminary; but this sort of thing is frequent in the history of ideas. What I am concerned with at the moment is to stress that there were various readings of Paul and Judaism already on offer and that Sanders’s protest was directed against one (albeit the mainstream one) among them, one which was already under attack (not that most Lutherans noticed) from the Reformed side.

I arrived at my own understanding after some years of struggling to make Cranfield’s reading of Romans fit with what Paul actually says in Galatians—something Cranfield, I think, never achieved. I was not satisfied with the shallow developmental analyses offered by various scholars, according to which Paul was opposed to the law in Galatians and in favour of it in Romans, and so on.[2] I found the clue in Romans 10: 3: Paul’s fellow Jews, he says. ‘were ignorant of God’s righteousness, and were seeking to establish their own, and so did not submit to God’s righteousness’. Their own: not a ‘righteousness’, a status of membership in God’s people, which might be obtained by assiduous and moralistic self-help Torah-keeping, but a covenant status which would be for Jews and Jews only. It would be what I called a ‘national righteousness’. Dunn followed this with his proposal, which I fully endorse, that the ‘works of the Law’, against which Paul warned in both Galatians and Romans, were not any and every legal ‘work’ done out of a desire to earn good marks in some heavenly ledger account, but were the ‘works of Torah’ which marked out Jews over against their pagan neighbours: sabbath, circumcision, and food laws. I have shown in considerable detail that this proposal works exegetically, verse by verse and line by line, through Romans, and I have sketched out the way it works in Galatians.

[73] In particular, it makes sense of first-century Judaism. A recent attempt to prove that there was a ‘variegated nomism’ in the second Temple period has indeed succeeded in bringing out various nuances which go beyond what Sanders had said.[3] But, despite the attempt in the book’s final summary to suggest otherwise,[4] it has not basically undercut the overall emphasis of his work or mine. Nobody has succeeded in proving that Judaism was after all the kind of proto-Pelagianism which it would need to have been for the normal Lutheran (and, in some circles, ‘evangelical’) understanding to be correct. In particular, remarkably, nobody in the entire project noticed that the one second Temple passage in which ‘works of Torah’ were thematic (4QMMT section C) referred not to ‘works of the law’ as something to be done in order to earn membership in the community, or salvation, or justification, but as things to be done in order to mark out in the present the community that would be vindicated in the future. The question being addressed is not: ‘How do you become a true Jew?’, but ‘How are you marked out in the present as a true Jew?’ The parameters of the discussion are eschatological, looking ahead to the last day: the assumption is that at the last day some Jews but not all will be vindicated by God; the question is, how can you tell here and now who it is that will be vindicated in the future. This has exactly the same shape and form as Paul’s doctrine of justification, but, as we shall see, different content, appropriate for his Jesus-shaped construal of both problem and solution.

But this is to run ahead of myself. Two more remarks, one on a major weakness of Sanders’s proposal, and one on a strength.

First, the weakness. Sanders declares that prior to his conversion Paul had no problem—no unquiet conscience, no difficulty keeping the law, no existential angst of the kind normally imagined within the ruling paradigm. Here Sanders, like Stendahl before him, rightly emphasized Philippians 3: 2-6.[5] As a result, he says, Paul moved not ‘from plight to solution’, first being aware of a problem and then finding Christ as the answer to it, but ‘from solution to plight’, first finding ‘salvation’ in Christ (what this word would mean if there was no sense of plight is not clear) and then deducing that there must [74] have been some kind of ‘plight’ to which this ‘salvation’ was the answer. This explains, according to Sanders, the seemingly muddled nature of Paul’s critique of Israel: he is flailing around, accusing Judaism and the Torah of various inconsistent things because this was not the real centre of his thought.

But this ignores the enormous problem, like the elephant in the living room, of which every first-century Jew—and particularly a Pharisee—would be aware. Israel was not free. The Torah was not being observed. The wrong people were running the Temple. The promises had not yet come true. YHWH had not yet returned to Zion. The Messiah had not appeared. The Gentiles were not coming to Jerusalem to learn wisdom from the true God, but were coming there instead to impose their will, their ‘justice’, their way of life. All of this is what I, drawing on many strands in second Temple Judaism, have characterized in terms of ‘continuing exile’: despite the geographical ‘return’ several centuries earlier, Israel found herself living in a story whose last major marker was destruction at the hands of Babylon, a destruction only superficially reversed in the geographical return. The main exception to this reading of the second Temple period must be Ben-Sirach, and I suspect that Saul of Tarsus would have had little time for that work, with its near-idolization of the pre-Hasmonean high priest. Thus I believe we must say that Saul of Tarsus had a ‘problem’ all right: not so much the ‘problem’ often imagined within pious Protestantism, but the problem that Israel was still unredeemed, still in exile.

This enables us to locate Sanders’s proposal about Paul moving from solution to plight as the second half of a two-stage movement of thought. I agree that Paul offers an analysis of ‘the problem’ (Israel’s problem, and the world’s problem, the problem of all humankind) which bears all the marks of retrospective understanding. He has rethought the problem in terms of the gospel, in terms of the God-given solution. (He is, to that extent, a good Barthian, learning to look at everything, including the world and sin, in the light of Jesus Christ.) But he has precisely rethought the problem. He has not invented it from scratch. Paul’s analysis of the problem of Israel, the world, and humankind is his revision, in the light of the gospel, of the problem of which he was already thoroughly well aware. He already knows that Israel was ‘still in exile’: as a Christian, he understands that in a still deeper sense, witnessed in Romans 2: 17-24 and 7: 7-25. He already knows that the Gentiles were idolaters [75] and that idolatry was destructive of genuine image-bearing humanness; as a Christian, he understands that in a still deeper sense, witnessed in Romans 1: 18 - 2: 16. What is more—and this lies close to the heart of his freshly worked theology of the cross, the main subject of this paper—he may already have glimpsed, as Jesus and the prophets before him had done, the dangerous truth that Israel’s problem was related to the world’s problem, in the sense not just that Israel was the innocent victim and the world was the guilty aggressor, but that Israel herself was composed of human beings who, despite being given Torah and Temple, were themselves still sinners. Whether he has already thought of it like that or not, this is the point he now offers as the most profound analysis: Israel too is in Adam. This is one of the driving insights that carries him forward from Romans 2: 17-24 to 7: 7-25 and on, crucially, to 9: 30-10: 21. Thus, over against Sanders’s proposal that Paul moved simply ‘from solution to plight’, I suggest that we can watch Paul as he moves from his earlier understanding of ‘plight’, to the ‘solution’ offered in Christ, and thence to a deeper, but not a totally new, understanding of the ‘plight’ of Israel and the world. And, since it is to this ‘plight’ that the cross and resurrection of the Messiah are the answer, this points us clearly on to our main theme.

Second, the strength of Sanders’s proposal. The NP enables us, at a stroke, to make sense of one area which has long been controverted in Paul. Why does Paul insist, in I Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14, that one must not divide the community over issues of what you eat and which holy days you keep, while also insisting, in several places, including I Corinthians 5 and 6, that there are certain types of behaviour for which there must be zero tolerance? This has been a problem for those who think that the key issue in his theology is ‘keeping rules’ over against ‘trusting God’. But when we line up the matter in a post-NP way, the answer is: because food and holy days are things which threaten to divide the community along ethnic lines, whereas sexual ethics (or their non-observance) would divide the community in terms of what it means to be a renewed-in-Christ human being. Personal holiness matters even more for the Christian than it did for the Jew, because in Christ we have died to sin and come alive into God’s new world; but personal holiness has nothing to do with the ‘works of the law’ by which ethnic Israel was demarcated. I thus agree with several aspects of Sanders’s proposal while differing from it in some ways and going beyond it in others. I am [76] not surprised that some conservative Christians have found Sanders’s proposal not to their taste. It contains a strong streak of relativism, and that was bound to be unwelcome. He shows little appreciation of Paul’s view of either God, Jesus, or the Spirit. But I am saddened that many have imagined they have nothing to learn from Sanders’s massive scholarship and have run howling back into the arms of Luther. In some cases—these are, I think, the saddest of all—they have been reduced to appealing over the head of the New Testament to the tradition of the sixteenth century, which is all the more ironic when we reflect that Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, and the rest would certainly have advised us to read the New Testament even better than they did, not to set up their own work as a new authoritative tradition, a fixed lens through which the Bible would have to be viewed for ever afterwards. And what has been on offer in post-Sanders scholarship, including my own, has not been a slavish following of Sanders, but an insistence on rereading Paul with our eyes and ears open to the many-sided nature of second Temple Judaism, and a recognition that none of our traditions may yet have learnt all that the apostle has to teach us.

Our present summit need not concern itself, I guess, with the detail of these debates. But it has been important to sketch them out, because the theme of redemption is clearly central to some of them at least. I hope it will be clear that a (not uncritical) post-Sanders reading will enable us to take huge strides forward in our understanding of redemption, which has itself of course been contentious in various areas, not least ecumenical discussion. (I think of the perennial squabbles about justification, and also of the echoes of the Jansenist controversy in some Roman rejection of anything approaching penal substitution.) Sanders did not himself attempt to locate and explicate Paul’s theology of redemption within his overall argument. Can we do so, and what will happen to the NP if we do?

Before I move to positive statements, though, a word about two other movements which I regard as vital for a proper, historically and theologically sensitive, reading of Paul. First, there is the narrative reading of Paul which, pioneered by Richard Hays twenty years ago, has been found increasingly fruitful, and goes with Hays’s equally important stress on Paul’s fresh reading of scripture. Basically, Paul grounds his theology again and again not in isolated prooftexts (one of Sanders’s many weaknesses was to suggest this) but in a reading of scripture which, like many second Temple Jewish [77] readings, picked up its fundamental quality as the story of the creator and covenant God with the world and with Israel. It is central to Paul’s world-view that this long story has now come to its climax in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah (another failing of Sanders is that he does not explore the significance of Christos in Paul), and that the church, not least his own apostolic ministry, is called to implement that achievement in a continuation of the same story in a new mode. This, I suspect, is one of the main things that recent anti-NP writers have objected to, which is the more ironic in that it was not part of Sanders’s platform: that when Paul is talking of salvation, he, like his Jewish contemporaries, was thinking in terms of the eschatological scheme in which ‘the present evil age’ would give way to ‘the age to come’, seen as a dramatic turn-around within a continuing history, rather than a snatching of God’s people out of the space-time world altogether. (Notice how, within the traditional paradigm, Rom. 8: 18-28, which is structurally one of Paul’s most emphatic passages, becomes marginalized in favour of a supposed message of individual salvation away from the world.) When Paul draws on scripture, whether it be Genesis, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, or Habakkuk, he is more often than not aware of, and intending to resonate with, the place of the scripture in question within a longer narrative. This is where the motif of ‘return from exile’ is so important, though still so controverted. The best example is the use of Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10: 5-8, exactly parallel to the use of the same passage in 4QMMT. Paul believes himself to be living in a story, the real story of the real world, which stretches back to creation, and comes forward, through Abraham, the exodus, the monarchy, the prophets, to the exile, which in the political and theological sense has continued to his own day. He believes that the real return from exile, which is also the new ‘exodus’, has taken place in Jesus the Messiah, and that this has brought to birth the ‘new age’, the ‘age to come’, by freeing God’s people from ‘the present evil age’.

Within this new age, there are new tasks, of which Paul’s Gentile mission, in all its many facets of evangelism, church planting, and maintaining, is a central one. The story will continue until God is finally ‘all in all’, when the cosmos itself has been set free from its bondage to decay and God’s people are finally given the new, resurrection bodies that correspond to that of Jesus himself. As I said, the real objection to the NP within certain conservative circles seems actually to be an objection to this reading of Paul as the theologian of [78] a salvation which is not away from the world but for the world. Narrative readings of Paul are thus not simply a new fad, a postmodern trick played on an ancient text, an attempt to award Paul an honorary Doctor of Letters from Yale. They reflect, at a very deep level, the fact that he is as much a theologian of creation as of redemption, and of alerting us to the fact that his theology of redemption is precisely a theology of renewed, redeemed creation. They reflect, also at a deep level, the fact that (though he seldom mentions the word) he is a theologian of covenant, expounding Genesis 15 and wrestling with the apparent tension between the foundational covenant promises to Abraham and the subsequent covenant with Moses (Rom. 4; Gal. 3). The two are intimately related: God’s covenant promises to Abraham always were the road towards the redemption of humankind and creation as a whole (e.g. new covenant in 2 Cor. 3 leading to new creation in chapter 5; and the argument from Abraham back to Adam in Rom. 4-5). I use ‘covenant’ in this sense as a shorthand way of drawing attention to the fact that, though of course Paul believes that God’s purpose has been achieved through the dramatic, apocalyptic event of the cross, cutting across all human pride and immanent process, this is nevertheless the fulfilment precisely of that larger, longer purpose. What God did in the cross and resurrection of the Messiah, and the gift of the Spirit, was what he had promised Abraham he would do: that is what I meant by referring to those events as ‘the climax of the covenant’. Paul does not think in detached aphorisms or theological slogans, but in large stories, including the story within which he believes himself to be playing a vital role. That is the framework for the various narratives that we find embedded, and fruit-bearing, within his letters.

The second movement which must be factored in to any fully fledged reading of Paul is the new awareness of the political dimension of all his thought.[6] Though there are many flaws in the work of Richard Horsley on this subject, he has pioneered the way for us to see what I have called ‘the fresh perspective on Paul’, according to which the gospel of Jesus the Messiah impinges directly on the other ‘gospel’ which was making great inroads into the same world namely, that of Caesar. As I have argued elsewhere, for Paul it was central that if Jesus was ‘Lord’ then Caesar was not. This, too, has an [79] inescapable narrative dimension, and indeed a recognition of the narrative and historical nature of Paul’s thought, as above, precipitates us into the political arena: the story of Rome, with its vivid eschatology of empire (a thousand years of preparation, and now—Caesar!), was to be subverted by the story of Israel, climaxing in Jesus. Paul fell heir to the long tradition of Jewish critique of pagan empire, stretching back to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel. This was never a dualist rejection of every aspect of empire (think of Cyrus, of Jeremiah telling the exiles to settle down in Babylon, of Daniel confounding the pagans and then resuming his senior position in the civil service). Paul is equally emphatic on God’s desire for good government and policing (Rom. 13); this has nothing to do with a right-wing or laissez-faire political attitude, but in the Jewish tradition sits perfectly well alongside a statement of God’s sovereignty over all human kingdoms.

In particular, if we are to have any historical sensitivity to the meaning of the cross in Paul’s thinking, we must place at the very centre the awareness of the cross that every first-century person, Jew and pagan alike, would share. This is where the political meaning of Paul’s gospel bites most deeply, where the ‘fresh perspective’ in its turn offers insights on a Pauline view of redemption. Granted that crucifixion was widespread as a punishment for all sorts of people, particularly at the lowest end of the social scale, it was particularly used—and had been used in Palestine in Jesus’ lifetime—as a way both of punishing revolutionaries and of warning those who might imitate them. The cross already said, with all its violent symbolic power, that Caesar ruled the world, and that those who stood in his way would be both shamed and obliterated. To get at this today we might draw on a variety of images: the world-famous photo of a small, naked Vietnamese girl, terrified and tearful; the demolition of a Palestinian home; the burning of a synagogue in 1930s Berlin, or of a church in today’s Sudan; imperial tanks sweeping into a resistant city (Russian ones, in Prague; Chinese, in Tiananmen Square?). Brute force, dehumanizing humiliation, shameful death: that was the symbolic message of the cross, and that was the symbol that came, from Paul onwards, to speak of the love of the true God, the love which had somehow conquered the principalities and powers.

I propose, then, that the true insights of the NP should be blended with a narratival and political reading of Paul, and that when we do [80] this we find the possibility of a multi-faceted theology of redemption emerging from his writings. There are several ways of approaching this topic: for present purposes I shall do so by considering the place of the cross within seven implicit narratives in Paul’s writings.


(i) Overview


What do we mean by ‘redemption’? I take it that for the purposes of the Redemption Summit we are using the word in a broad sense, to denote the action(s) whereby God rescues human beings, and (if we are being biblical) the whole cosmos, from the state of sin, decay, and death to which they have become subject. This broad sense includes, but goes beyond, the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion on the one hand and the ‘application’ of redemption (‘call’, faith, justification, glorification, to use some of Paul’s terms) on the other. It is thus very nearly coextensive with ‘salvation’, seen also in a broad sense.

These big, somewhat floppy terms can get in the way, not least because Paul uses them in a much more precise sense, so that most of them fit together snugly in his mind like adjacent, but not identical, pieces of a jigsaw. Thus, with regard to ‘redemption’, Paul seems clearly to have in mind not just the often-noted slave-market metaphor in which someone buys the slave his or her freedom but the more specifically Jewish meaning in which God rescues Israel from the historical slave-market of Egypt. As I have argued elsewhere (that phrase applies to most of what will now follow), the context of Romans 3: 24 and 8: 23, two of Paul’s key uses of apolytrosis, strongly suggests an Exodus-interpretation: human beings in the present, and the whole creation in the future, are rescued from slavery to sin and death as Israel was rescued from slavery in Egypt. Paul uses the word again in I Corinthians 1: 30, in a string alongside sophia, dikaiosyne, and hagiasmos, which tells us little about the precise meaning he attaches to the word, though later in the letter he does speak of ‘Christ our Passover’ being sacrificed for us (5: 7). Two of the uses in Ephesians (1: 7 and 4: 30) reflect the same present/future balance as the two in Romans; the third (1: 14) seems to be a more restricted metaphor, part of the picture of a ‘down-payment’ guaranteeing ‘full possession’. The one remaining Pauline [81] use of the word, Colossians 1: 14, belongs with Romans 3: 24 and Ephesians 1:7.

But of course our topic is wider than simply the occurrences of the word normally translated ‘redemption’. Part of the difficulty now emerges: God’s action to rescue humans and the world is such a constant topic in Paul’s letters, and he says so many different things about it in so many different contexts, that without launching into a full exegesis of most of the letters I cannot really do justice to the multi-faceted nature of his thought. Nevertheless, I may attempt a proposal, at least for the sake of discussion. My proposal is that Paul’s thought about Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, the one in whom God’s promises to Israel and, through Israel, to the world are fulfilled, functions as the vital turning point in no fewer than seven interlocking narratives which form the backbone of all his thought. Understanding how the cross in particular functions in each of these will take us close to a presentation of the heart of his theology.

(ii) Biblical Narratives in the Background

Standing over all the stories that make up the narrative substructure of Paul’s thought, we find frequent reference to the Exodus. Romans 8 uses Exodus-language of the whole creation, and of the people of God travelling through the wilderness towards their ‘inheritance’. Similarly, Galatians 4: 1-n speaks of God’s people as being enslaved, and then, at the right time (the time for the Abrahamic promises to be fulfilled, as in Genesis 15 which Paul has been expounding in the previous chapter), God sending forth his Son and his Spirit to rescue those who are ‘under the law’. This is of course heavily ironic in that, in the original Exodus-story, the law is God’s good gift to the newly redeemed people, whereas here it is a force or power from whose enslavement people need to be freed. Perhaps the most obvious point (at least, thus it seems to me) is Romans 6, where those in Christ come through the waters of baptism, symbolizing the dying and rising of and with Christ, and so pass from the slavery of sin to the new life of sanctification.

The story of the Exodus is re-used in various ways both in the OT and NT, and in the latter, as in some other second Temple contexts, it gives shape in particular to stories and prophecies about the ‘return from exile’. As indicated above. I use this as a shorthand way of referring to the widespread second Temple belief (as in Daniel 9) that [82] the true ‘exile’ continued long after the geographical return, leading to speculation about when the real ‘redemption’, in other words, the New Exodus, would take place. Israel was once again enslaved to the pagans, as in Egypt, and God would act decisively on her behalf. This is, to choose a couple of examples at random, the message of the last chapters of the Wisdom of Solomon, or of the final segments of Tobit. Just as in 4QMMT and Baruch, Paul draws on the passage in Deuteronomy 30 which prophesies this ‘real return from exile’ (Rom. ^ 5-9); and I have argued that the same theme is also present in his use of Leviticus in Galatians 3:12.[7] The ‘curse’ of the Torah is not an abstract threat hanging over all who break some abstract moral law, an early version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative; according to Deuteronomy, it is the historical and physical punishment which consists of disaster within the land and finally expulsion from it. Israel’s continuing shameful exile (see Rom. 2: 17-24, quoting Isa. 52: 5 and Exod. 36: 20) needs a new act of God’s covenant faithfulness, as in Daniel 9:16, to bring Israel and hence the world through to the long-promised and long-awaited state of renewal, restoration, and redemption.

If exile is the problem, the servant is the answer—at least according to Isaiah 40-55. Though this remains controversial, I now regard it as a fixed point that Paul made extensive though subtle use of the servant songs at several places in his writings, and, we may infer from his almost casual references, at considerably more places in the thinking that lay behind the writings we have. An obvious example is Romans 4:24-5, where the entire train of thought of 3: 21 - 4: 25, is summed up in a formulaic sentence which clearly evokes Isaiah 53 and to which Paul refers in his statements about the ‘obedience of the one man’ in 5:12-21. Not that Paul has removed the servant from his wider Isaian context: chapters 40-55 are all about the righteousness of God through which the powers of the world are defeated and God’s people in consequence rescued—the New Exodus, in other words. And, within the servant story itself, but obviously going much wider in Jewish thought as a whole, we cannot ignore Paul’s regular use of sacrificial terminology. Our difficulty here is not so much in recognizing that Paul sees Jesus’ death as a sacrifice as in working out what he might [83] have meant by this, since our knowledge of how second Temple Jews understood the theology of sacrifice is remarkably thin.[8] This is bound to remain a question mark within this chapter as a whole: how precisely did Paul understand Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, and how does this integrate with all the other things he says? If we could answer this more satisfactorily we would take another large step, I think, to integrating several other aspects of his thought. These are the narratives—the exodus, the return from exile, the offering of sacrifices—which help to frame and shape the seven key stories which Paul is telling, in each of which the redeeming death of Jesus the Messiah is the central point. I must now set them out one by one before attempting integration.

(iii) The Seven Key Stories, and the Cross within Them

The first story Paul tells, by implication throughout, is that of creation and new creation. A consistently Jewish thinker, Paul never imagines that creation is evil; it is the good creation of the good God, and to be enjoyed as such. But, in line with much apocalyptic thought, Paul believes that God is planning to renew creation, to bring it out of its present state of decay and death and into the new world where it would find its true fulfilment. The classic passage for this is of course Rom. 8: 18-27, which as we saw offers one of the rare occurrences of the word ‘redemption’ itself. Paul does not mention the cross in that passage itself, but the sufferings of Christians, which are, for him, the sharing of Christ’s sufferings, hold the key to the current state of affairs through which the world must pass to attain its final deliverance from decay.

This explains why, at the end of Galatians (6: 14-15), Paul can suddenly broaden the horizon of what has been up till then a sharply focused discussion. I suspect that many at the Redemption Summit sang a few days earlier Isaac Watts' version of redemption:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,

Save in the cross of Christ my God;

All the vain things that charm me most,

I sacrifice them to his blood.


Were the whole realm of nature mine

That were an offering far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine.

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

A wonderful statement of Christian devotion; yet, as with other hymns from the same period, we may question whether it does full justice to the scope of what Paul actually says: ‘through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world; for neither circumcision is anything, nor uncircumcision, but new creation’. The ‘to me’ is clearly important, and the ‘new creation’ is focused on the new creation that consists in the Spirit-called people defined by faith as opposed to membership in ethnic Israel; but what Paul is saying about himself, and about all God’s people in Christ, is not just that they have changed, but that they live in a landscape which has decisively changed. The world as a whole has been crucified in the crucifixion of the Messiah, and a new world has been brought to birth. This is presumably why he can say in Colossians 1: 23 that the gospel has already been proclaimed to every creature under heaven: when Jesus died and rose again, the cosmos as a whole became a different place. This is also closely linked to the famous 2 Corinthians 5: 17: ‘anyone in Christ is new creation—the old things have gone, and look, new things have come into being’. That passage, too, belongs closely with a massive statement both of the cross of Jesus and of the way the cross has worked its way through Paul’s apostolic ministry, as we shall see later. What seems to be happening is that Paul understands the death of Jesus, and the continuing resonances of that death in the suffering of the church, as the hinge upon which the door of world history turns. From that moment, the forces of decay and death have suffered their major defeat, and from now on new creation is under way, with its first signs being the new life of those who believe the gospel. ‘New creation’ thus refers to the actual people concerned, not over against the rest of the world but as the sign of the new life that will one day flood the entire creation.

The second great narrative which Paul has in mind throughout his writing is the story of Israel. This is more complicated, because Israel is the people called to bear God’s solution to the problem of the world and yet now ensnared, themselves, within the same problem. Paul shows dozens of signs that he is following through the Israel-story in the same way as many other second Temple writers: the Abrahamic promises as God’s solution to the problem of the world, the Exodus as [85] the first great fulfilment of those promises, the Torah as God’s good gift to his redeemed people, designed to stop them going to the bad until the final fulfilment... and then the catastrophe of exile, with Torah itself turning against Israel and condemning it. What can God do now about the promises? What will happen to the divine plan to bless the whole world through Israel?

This is exactly the way Paul sets up the problem in two classic passages, Romans 2: 17-3: 9 and Galatians 3: 6-12. The answer, in both cases, is the death of Jesus, bursting through the blockage in the historical fulfilment of the divine purposes. In Romans, Jesus appears as the Messiah, the faithful Israelite, whose redeeming death (3: 24- 6) is the means of God’s now declaring that all who share this faith are ‘righteous’, that is, members of the sin-forgiven family (3: 27-31), and that this is how God has fulfilled the Abrahamic promises (4: 1-25). In Galatians, more specifically, the curse of exile which had bottled up the promises and prevented them getting through to the Gentiles, leaving Israel itself under condemnation, is dealt with by the death of Jesus: he takes Israel’s curse on himself (and thus, at one remove, the world’s curse, though this is not what is in view in this passage, despite efforts to employ it as a generalized statement of ‘atonement theology’), making it possible at last for ‘the blessing of Abraham to come on the Gentiles’ and also that ‘we’ (in other words, Jews who had been under the very specific ‘curse’ of Deuteronomy) might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. In other words, the covenant has been renewed at last—through the death of Jesus as Israel’s representative Messiah.

In other words, I do not think that Paul’s train of thought ran, as so many have suggested: (a) Jesus was crucified, therefore he was under God’s curse, therefore he cannot have been the Messiah; and then (b) God raised him from the dead, therefore he cannot have been cursed, therefore his death must have been redemptive. Paul is quite clear that Jesus did bear the curse, not that he didn’t.

This explains, among many other things, why Paul says at the start of Galatians (the point in the letter when we might expect a thematic statement) that ‘our Lord Jesus the Messiah gave himself for our sins, to deliver us from the present evil age according to the will of God our Father’ (1: 3-4). And this in turn brings into view the central statement of the common early creed quoted by Paul in I Corinthians 15: 3: the Messiah ‘died for our sins according to the scriptures’. Galatians 1:4 shows very clearly what this means, [86] offering once more a historical understanding rather than a dehistoricized atonement-theory. For a second Temple Jew, soaked in passages like Daniel 9, the present parlous state of Israel, which (following Daniel and many other writers) I have characterized as ‘continuing exile’, was the result of Israel’s sins. The ancient Israelites had sinned, and had gone into exile; now their successors, even those living back in the land, had continued to sin, and as a result the final redemption, the real ‘return from exile’, was delayed. (Think, for instance, of Malachi.) The problem of sin is thus not simply that it separates the individual from God in his or her existential spirituality (true though that is as well). The problem is that Israel’s sins are keeping Israel in exile. Conversely, if somehow Israel’s sins were to be dealt with, finished with, and blotted out, then exile could be undone and the people could go free—and with them the whole world, waiting for Israel to be redeemed (as in e.g. Isa. 55, not by coincidence as we shall see). Thus, for the moment, Israel languishes in ‘the present evil age’, waiting for ‘the age to come’ to arrive, the time of redemption and forgiveness. And this forgiveness will not mean simply that individuals can now enter into a happy and intimate relationship with their heavenly Father, true again though that is. The point is that, if sins are forgiven, exile will be over, the rule of the evil powers will be broken, and Israel—and the rest of the world—will be summoned to enjoy, and take part in, God’s renewed world. This is what Paul believes has happened with the death of Jesus. In neither passage does he explain how it is that the death of Jesus delivers us from the evil age; the equation depends on two other things, which he supplies plentifully elsewhere, not least in I Corinthians 15 itself: (a) Jesus was and is Israel’s representative Messiah; (b) God raised him from the dead (note I Cor. 15:17: if the Messiah isn’t raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins; in other words, the new age has not begun).

The story of the crucified Messiah is thus at the heart of Paul’s way of telling the story of how Israel has been brought to the very depth of exile and has now been rescued to live as God’s new creation. The sharpest statement of this comes at the end of Galatians 2:

I through the Torah died to Torah, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah; however, I am alive, yet it is not me, but the Messiah lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify God’s [87] grace; for if covenant membership came by Torah, then the Messiah died for no reason. (Gal. 2:19-21)

This spills over into the next story (and all these stories are in any case interlocked); yet I cannot resist putting it here. The point of all that Paul is saying, to Peter at Antioch and, through the telling of that incident, to the Galatians as they ‘overhear’ the Paul/Peter debate, or at least Paul’s side of it, is not that he, Paul, has had a particular spiritual experience or that he now enjoys a particular kind of spiritual life. The point of it all is that Paul is here standing, as in one or two other places, as the typical Israelite. He has stated the general principle in Galatians 2:15-16: though we are by birth Jews, not ‘Gentile sinners’, we know that God declares ‘righteous’ not those who rely on ‘works of Torah’, but those whose status depends on the faithfulness of the Messiah. Paul’s point, in other words, is that through the faithful death of the Messiah God has acted to transform the category of ‘the righteous’, so that it now denotes not those who are defined by Torah but those who are defined by the Messiah. And ‘those who are defined by the Messiah’ means those who have died and come to life in and with him; those, in other words, who have been co-crucified with him (v. 19). Here the cross determines the death of the old identity: the Messiah, Israel’s representative, dies, therefore Israel dies according to the flesh. And, by implication, the resurrection determines the new life of the new identity: the Messiah, Israel’s representative, ‘lives to God’ (Gal. 2: 19, cf. Rom. 6: l0), and those who are ‘in him’ possess this same new life. That which was said in the plural in Gal. 1: 3-4 is now brought into the sharp singular, not (once again) because Paul is special but because he is paradigmatic: ‘the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2: 20). The final verse sums up the effect of the cross on the story of Israel: if Torah could have defined covenant membership, the Messiah would not have needed to die, but (so Paul clearly implies) the fact that the Messiah did need to die indicates that Israel, as defined by Torah, needed to die and to come through to a new sort of life, a life in which the promises would at last be fulfilled.

The third great narrative which Paul offers is embedded within the second, as the second is in the first: it is the story of Torah. Torah is almost personified in some Pauline passages, and its multiple ambiguities have precipitated a huge secondary literature. The crucial passages are again in Galatians and Romans. In Galatians 4: 1-7, [88] Paul tells the story of Israel being redeemed from Torah as though Torah were a new sort of Pharaoh, an enslaving power. Torah has become, in fact, identified as one of the stoicheia tou kosmou, the ‘elements of the world’, which I take to mean the shabby line-up of the tutelary deities of the nations, the subdivine beings to whom the world has been entrusted until the time of fulfilment. This explains how Paul can say that in their former state the ex-Gentile Galatians had been enslaved to beings that by nature were not divine, but had now been set free by God’s ‘knowing’ of them (4: 8-9). Paul can then chide them with turning back to the ‘elements’ once more (4: 9b), when what they were seeking to do was to embrace Torah, presumably in the hope of getting ‘further in’ within the people of the true God than they had been able to do by believing in Jesus and being baptized. The only way we can make sense of this is to remind ourselves, from 3: 21-5, that the God-given Torah had a deliberately negative purpose, to shut up Israel under a new kind of slavery until the ultimate redemption, which has now been accomplished through ‘the son of God’, his sending, his birth, and his ‘being under Torah’ (4: 4). Though Paul does not mention Jesus’ death at this point we should surely infer it.

We should do so not least in the light of the parallel in Romans 7:1-8: 11. Once again I refer to my commentary for fuller treatment. The main point to be drawn out here is found in two seminal statements, Romans 7: 4 and 8: 3-4.

Paul’s advance summary in 7: 4 is very close to Galatians 2: l6-21: ‘You died to the law through the body of the Messiah, so that you could belong to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, so that you could bear fruit for God’. Briefly, the point is this: Torah had bound Israel, not to God as had been thought, but to Adam (see Rom. 5: 20; 6:14; 7:1-3). The death of the Messiah is then to be counted as the death of his people; so those who, formerly under Torah, die with the Messiah to the Torah are set free from the bond that binds them to Adam (the ‘former husband’ of 7:1-3, like the ‘old man’ of 6: 6). As a result, they are free for a new life, a life in the risen Christ, a life of ‘being fruitful’ as Adam had originally been commanded. This points the way forwards into the exposition of chapter 7, where Torah demonstrates that Israel is indeed in Adam (7: 7-12), and that Israel, even though possessing Torah as God’s gift and rejoicing in it as such, finds that all Torah can do is condemn and kill, not because there is anything wrong with Torah but because [89] there is something right about Torah-it must point out sin and condemn it. That’s what it’s there for. Israel’s ultimate problem is not the fact of possessing Torah, but the fact of possessing it while being a sinful people, a people in Adam.

Torah, however, has throughout this process had an important and God-given negative purpose: to draw sin onto one place, luring it forwards to concentrate all its efforts at one spot. That is the meaning of the otherwise puzzling 5: 20. And when this has been done, then the trap can be sprung: sin, the real culprit (does Paul in personifying ‘sin’, take a step towards identifying it with the serpent in the garden, and hence with ‘the satan’?), must be condemned. This is the closest Paul comes to saying in so many words what so many of his interpreters have attributed to him: that the death of Jesus was the ultimate moment of judicial condemnation, of God’s punishment; ‘God, sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin-offering, condemned sin in the flesh.’ This is strongly penal language. However, Paul does not say either that God punished Jesus or that God punished Jesus for ‘my sins’; much of the previous chapter has been devoted to demonstrating that. For the pious Jew under Torah. ‘it is not I that do it, but sin dwelling in me’. What Paul says is that God punished sin in the flesh, that is the flesh of Jesus. Of course, this amounts to the same thing in practice; Jesus’ crucifixion was not one whit less horrible, shameful disgusting, and agonizing for the fact that God was punishing sin rather than punishing Jesus, since of course the point was that he had come ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’. But this theological analysis of the event indicates well enough, I think, how close the traditional penal theories of the atonement come to his meaning while yet not allowing for its subtlety. The point within this third story is that Torah, God’s agent in the necessarily negative period between Moses and Jesus, was used to draw sin onto one place-Israel, and thence to Israel’s representative, the Messiah-so that in his crucifixion, it could be punished at last as it deserved. And in that punishment-here the penal substitutionary theory makes its perfectly valid point-’there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (8: 1). No condemnation for Christ’s people because God has condemned sin in the flesh of Christ: that is the perfectly Pauline point underneath the substitutionary language that has proved so powerful for some and so problematic for others.

[90] This leads us to the fourth story, which is that of the human race. This is central to the whole presentation and, though this treatment is still very brief, it will be somewhat longer than that of the other stories. ‘All sinned, and came short of the glory of God; and they are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption which is in Messiah Jesus’ (Rom. 3: 23-4). Redemption is the means of justification. How can we understand this? ‘Justification’ has, since Augustine at least, often been understood as more or less coterminous with ‘conversion’. Traditional Reformed theology has spelt things out in more detail in terms of an ‘ordo salutis’ which comes close, in my view, to the substance of what Paul is saying without always reflecting his use of key terms. My contention here—and this explains the anger directed against my view in some circles—is that Paul does not use the verb like this. This is where I not only agree with Sanders in seeing that Paul is talking about the coming together of Jew and Gentile in Christ, but go beyond him into a far more precise definition of ‘justification’.

When Paul speaks of the initial hearing-the-gospel-and-coming-to-faith he speaks of the ‘call’ of God (see I Cor. 1: 26; Gal. 1: 15; spelt out in I Thess. 1: 4; 2:13). In the decisive, crystal-clear summary at the end of Romans 8 he distinguishes ‘call’ from ‘justify’ within the sequence of God’s actions. Thus, despite generations who have read it this way, I conclude that Romans 3: 21-6 does not describe how someone becomes a Christian, but describes rather the grounds on which God declares that certain persons, despite their all alike being sinful, are declared to be members of his covenant family. This declaration is not what brings people into the family; it is what certifies— against the expectation of those who might still assume that the Jew/Gentile distinction operates in perpetuity—that all who are ‘of the faith of Jesus’ are full members, circumcised and uncircumcised alike. That this is Paul’s meaning ought to have been clear long ago from verses 29 and 30, which explain the nature of the ‘boasting’ in 3: 27-8; but the Lutheran reading of the passage, according to which ‘boasting’ meant ‘self-righteous legalism, trying to earn God’s favour’, has been so strong that even good exegetes have been content to see verse 29 as a transition to a different theme. God ‘justifies’ all alike on the basis of faith; that is, exactly as in Galatians 2:15-21, God regards all the faithful alike as fully members of the same single family, and as belonging side by side at the same table.

[91] Thus, despite generations of zealous evangelistic use of Romans 3:21-6 as describing and facilitating ‘conversion’, I do not think this is what the passage is basically about. ‘Justification’ is not about ‘entry’, about ‘getting in’; this is where Sanders, I think, failed to draw the appropriate conclusion from his own thesis. Nor is it exactly about ‘staying in’. It is about God declaring that someone is in. It defines the community.

In the light of this, what can we say about the cross in verses 24-6? How does Paul explain more precisely the meaning of ‘the redemption which is in Messiah Jesus’?

The main thing to say is that it is cultic. God ‘put him forth’—the word is used in the LXX of the shewbread—as a hilasterion, through his faithfulness (i.e. his obedience-to-death, as in 5:12-21), by means of his blood. Much debate has poured forth on the precise meaning of hilasterion, and much has been invested in making this the vital turning point in atonement theology. By itself the word probably cannot bear that weight. Strong indications point to a propitiatory significance, but this is not enough to force the whole passage into the normal straitjacket of ‘we sinned; God punished Jesus instead; we go free’. The main point is that, as with the sacrifices of the OT, the death of Jesus is the means whereby the God of infinite justice can nevertheless declare that certain people truly are his people, are dikaioi: that is, they are covenant members, and their sins are forgiven. That was what the covenant was always designed to do, and in Jesus the Messiah the object has been attained. I have argued in my commentary that Paul is here drawing on ideas connected to the sacrificial death of the martyrs, which in turn point back to second Temple readings of Isaiah 53; and the fact that Paul refers to that passage when summing up the place of Jesus’ death in the argument of this section (4: 24-5) gives this strong support. The servant dies ‘for our trespasses/iniquities’, in order to put into effect God’s righteousness and salvation.

There can be no question but that Isaiah 53 has in mind some kind of substitution: the servant is innocent, yet bears the fate of the guilty. (See too Rom. 8. 3, discussed briefly above.) Paul has made it very clear in his initial statement of human guilt that the characteristic human position is to know God’s decree that certain types of behaviour deserve death, and yet to practise and approve them. Now he describes the Messiah dying ‘on behalf of’ the weak, the sinful, as the outworking of God’s love (Rom. 5: 8), resulting in people being [92] ‘justified’, that is, declared to be in the right, in the present, and being assured of final salvation (Rom. 5: 9). (Paul here draws on the same seam of thought as we saw in Gal. 1: 3-4 and I Cor. 15: 3.) And, as the paragraph reaches its climax in Romans 5: 10, Paul speaks of enemies being reconciled, and of those now reconciled then being saved the more easily. The fact that he has just spoken of God’s wrath (Rom. 5: 9) ought to warn us against too readily assuming that ‘enemies’ describes only the subjective state of rebellious human beings; the mystery is that God simultaneously was turned against the human race in wrath (Rom. i: 18) and turned towards it in love (Rom. 5: 8). The day we fathom that mystery will be the day we understand Paul’s atonement theology.

Where has this taken us in following the fourth story? The whole human race, sinful and unable to defend itself (Rom. 3:19-20), finds itself addressed by a love which declares that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, has died for it and risen again. When this message is preached, and the Spirit works powerfully through this gospel, this constitutes the ‘call’ (Rom. 1: 16-17; I Cor. 12: 3; Gal.1: 15; I Thess. 2: 13), resulting in the faith that Jesus is indeed Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 4: 24-5; lo: 9). This ‘call’ is itself possible because of what Jesus has already done, because of the new world that has come into being through his dying and rising (see story 1 above); but as it is applied, through the word and the Spirit, to the individual heart it invites the surprised, newly believing person to reflect on the status he or she now has. This is the status of ‘righteous’, and it is grounded in what has been achieved on the cross. By only a small expansion of Romans 5: 6-10 we can see the point. Those who were weak are now strong; those who were unaware of God’s love are now grasped by it; those who were sinners are now accounted such no longer; those who were unrighteous are now righteous; those facing wrath are now rescued from it; those who were enemies are now reconciled and, once more, rescued. All this has taken place because of the death of Jesus, and the new life which flows from it. All of this constitutes ‘the redemption which is in Messiah Jesus’. And all of this points on, in the argument of Romans 5-8 and the theology of Paul as a whole, to the climax in Romans 8: those who share Christ’s sufferings will share his glory, his dominion over the redeemed cosmos.

At the heart of this we find the strange combination of two apparently opposite ideas: the Messiah dies, therefore his people die [93] with him; the Messiah dies, therefore his people do not die. Though these are often played off against one another (‘representation’ versus ‘substitution’), I have already said enough to show that they belong closely with one another. Substitution (he dies, we do not) makes sense within the context of representation (the Member of Parliament represents the constituents, and therefore is qualified to act, particularly to speak and vote, in their place). Representation is important not least because it creates the context for substitution. Within the story of the human race as a whole we find the Pauline story of the individual human being, summarized in Romans 8: 2.9-30. When someone becomes a Christian, this is rooted in God’s inscrutable will, not in their own initiative; Paul has little to say about this, but (here and in e.g. I Thess.1i: 4-5) it is clear that when the gospel works powerfully to change hearts and lives, Paul traces this not to the worthiness of the hearer but to the grace of God (he may well, of course, have in mind passages like Deut. 7: 6-8). For our purposes the key events are the three final ones in Romans 8: 29-30: those God called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

This should make it clear that when Paul wants to refer to the initial event of someone’s becoming a Christian he does not use the term ‘justify’ and its cognates. He uses ‘call’, and he glosses this, as we saw, with a theology of the preaching of the gospel, the ‘word’, in the power of the Spirit. ‘Call’ denotes the event that people often refer to as ‘conversion’, though of course whereas ‘conversion’ draws attention to the change of heart and mind in the person concerned, the word ‘call’ draws attention to God’s action and hence places that change of heart and mind already in the category of ‘obedience’ as well as ‘faith’ (see e.g. Rom. 1: 5). The ‘call’ thus does indeed evoke faith, faith that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.

The verb ‘justify’ does not, then, denote the initial moment of coming-to-faith, but (when used in the present—see below) the declaration which God makes on the basis of that faith. Justification in the present is God’s declaration, based on that faith alone rather than anything in the ethnic, gendered, moral, or social background of the person concerned, that this person is indeed a member of the covenant family, one whose sins are forgiven and for whom there is ‘no condemnation’. Justification thus points forwards to ‘glorification’, Paul’s larger term for the eventual goal. I note that this is a larger category than ‘sanctification’, though it includes it en route (not least by means of baptism; there is, unfortunately, no space for [94] Romans 6 in this chapter). I also note that the concrete referent is the final resurrection (Rom. 8: n), not simply a post-mortem life of bliss in ‘heaven’ or wherever, something about which Paul has almost nothing to say.

What then does Paul mean by ‘justification’? Once we clear our minds of the referent the word has had in much of the last 1600 years, and listen carefully to what he says, we discover three things. When we listen to its OT echoes, the word is covenantal: it refers to the declaration that these people are members of God’s true people. But because this declaration is always made in the face of the accusation of sin, and in the light of God’s determination to put the world to rights precisely through the Abrahamic covenant, the word is also forensic: the ‘law-court’ categories are not simply snatched from a different and perhaps conflicting metaphorical home base, but rather explain how it is that the covenantal purpose is worked out. And the word is also, especially, eschatological. It can be used in both past and future as well as present, and indeed the past justification and the future justification determine the meaning of the present. This will become clear if we lay these senses out.

In Romans 2: 1-16 Paul speaks of ‘justification’ in the future: those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory, honour, and immortality will be given the life of the age to come, and this is to be seen as ‘justification’, that is, God’s final declaration that they are his people. This future ‘declaration’ will consist in God’s raising these people from the dead; this same event can thus properly be described, also, as ‘salvation’, since it will be the means of rescuing people from the state of death; and, as we saw, as ‘glorification’, stressing the new role for God’s redeemed humanity within God’s new world.

In Romans 4: 25 Paul declares that Jesus was ‘put to death for our trespasses, and raised for our justification’. The connection implied by ‘for’ in this double statement is highly contested, but for present purposes the point is that Paul is looking back to a past event which somehow grounds the justification that we enjoy in the present. It is the event which he can sum up as the ‘act of obedience’ of Jesus Christ, or as his ‘faithfulness’.

Thus Romans 3: 21-31, and indeed Romans 4 which roots it in God’s covenant promises, speaks of a present justification which is based on the action of the faithful Messiah in the past and which anticipates the verdict of the future. When someone believes the [95] gospel—when, in other words, the ‘call’ takes place, as above—then the verdict of the future is brought forward into the present. As in 4QMMT, this is how that which will be revealed on the last day—namely, who God’s true people really are—is known in advance. But whereas in 4QMMT the evidence was to be the performance of certain specified ‘works of Torah’, namely the regulations which marked out the Essenes from other Jews, and whereas for the Pharisees (or their Christian analogues whom we can assume to have been Paul’s partners in controversy) the evidence was to be the performance of the ‘works of Torah’ which marked out Jews from their pagan neighbours, that is, sabbath, food-laws, and circumcision, for Paul the evidence is simply Christ-faith: belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. This faith, the obedient response to God’s call, is the appropriate evidence for this declaration, both because it is the sign of the Christ-life (note how the faith of the believer mirrors the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah in Rom. 3: 22) and because, since it is the work of the Spirit through the gospel, it is the sign of that upon which final assurance is based. ‘The one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of the Messiah’ (Phil. 1. 6). This is where Paul’s whole theme of the Spirit as arrabon, ‘down-payment’, makes its contribution to a fully blown theology of justification.

I thus note that, despite the loose language (and theology) we often find in this area, Paul does not speak of ‘salvation by faith’ (except for Eph. 2: 8, which raises other questions). Once we free ‘justification’ from meaning ‘conversion’ or anything like it, we cut loose from the sterile and often tortuous debates about ‘faith and works’ that have taken place in an environment many miles removed from second Temple Judaism, namely the European controversies of the sixteenth and some subsequent centuries. Paul would, of course, have scoffed at Pelagian-style self-help moralism, but this is not what Romans and Galatians are about. He believed, like most Jews of his day, in a final judgement which would be ‘according to works’, and did not in any way see that as compromising his position on justification, God’s declaration in the present that all believers belong to his true people. ‘Justification’ is a technically precise way of saying something Paul was eager to say and many of his readers have completely missed: that all those who believe in Jesus as the risen Lord belong in the same family, no matter what their social or moral status or background.

[96] So much for the fourth story Paul is telling. I turn fifthly, much more briefly, to a very specific outworking of the same narrative, namely the story of Paul’s apostolic vocation. Two passages are particularly significant: Philippians 3: 4-n and 2 Corinthians as a whole. In Philippians Paul applies the pattern he has set out in 2:6-n to his own life. Whatever gain he had, he counted as loss because of the Messiah. His goal is ‘to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain to the resurrection from the dead’. I have argued elsewhere that this is not said for the sake of autobiography, but in order to highlight the pattern of Jesus’ dying and rising as being etched into Paul’s apostolic work so that it may serve as a pattern. He wants the Philippians to imitate him; they cannot do this directly, since none of them had been zealous Pharisaic Jews as he describes himself to have been. The solution is found at the end of the chapter, where Paul’s description of Jesus seems deliberately to echo Roman imperial rhetoric about Caesar. Paul is hinting, I suggest, that the Philippians, some of whom at least will have been Roman citizens, and all of whom may have found benefit in the city’s status as a Roman colony, must sit as loose to their privileges as he has to his.[9]

Paul’s second letter to Corinth reveals the cross not so much etched into Paul’s apostolic work as burnt deep into it with a branding-iron. Passage after passage makes it clear that the cross is not only the means whereby the Christian obtains initial forgiveness, the new start of the gospel, but also the way and pattern of life, especially for those to whom the gospel is entrusted. It is at the heart of this exposition of Paul’s apostolic ministry that we find one of the most famous statements of his theologia crucis, in 2 Corinthians 5: 20-1: ‘We act as ambassadors for the Messiah, as though God were making his appeal through us. On behalf of the Messiah we entreat people: be reconciled to God! God made the one who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might become God’s righteousness.’

Again, I have argued elsewhere for a different interpretation to the normal one.[10] Start from two fixed points. First, it is highly probable [97] that when Paul writes dikaiosyne theou, as here and in several passages in Romans, he is not referring to the status which he and all Christians have, the status of ‘righteous’ which is God’s gift. That he describes as the righteous status which comes from God (he ek theou dikaiosune, Phil. 3: 9). Rather, he refers to God’s own covenant faithfulness. (This is strengthened further by the oddity of saying ‘become’, had he meant that this righteous status was ‘reckoned’ to them, as in Rom. 4 or Gal. 3.) Second, reading the verse the normal way, as a statement of abstract atonement theology in which our sins are credited to Jesus and his righteousness is credited to us (something Paul says nowhere else), destroys the force of the passage, in which Paul is building up to a crescendo not about soteriology but about the inner logic of his apostolic ministry. In fact, the normal reading of the passage often results in v. 21 falling off the end of the discussion; or, sometimes, in the treating of v. 20 as if it were a direct appeal to the Corinthians themselves (by the unwarranted addition of ‘you’), rather than a broad statement of Paul’s apostolic activity. These two fixed points suggest the following reading: that the cross of Jesus the Messiah is (among many other things) the means by which the failings and limitations of the apostle and his work, and particularly his personal sins, are dealt with, setting him free to become, to embody, to encapsulate, and show forth in his own work, that covenant faithfulness of God whose initial unveiling in the faithful death of Jesus (Rom. 3: 21-6) stands behind everything Paul believes, writes, and attempts. I therefore read v. 21 not as a statement of God’s righteousness, still less Christ’s righteousness, being imputed, imparted or otherwise transferred to the believer, but as a statement of God’s own covenant faithfulness being embodied in the apostolic work which is causing Paul so much grief throughout the letter.

This still leaves, however, the first half of the verse: ‘For our sake [God] made [the Messiah], who knew no sin, to be sin for us.’ Though Paul does not mention the death of Jesus specifically, the wider context has been full of it (especially e.g. 4: 7-15), and the mention of God’s reconciling work in the Messiah (5: 18-19) fits closely with his cross-shaped reconciliation theology in Romans 5: 9-10 and Colossians 1: 20. 22. Once again there may be cultic overtones: to make something to be ‘sin’ could be a way of referring to the sin-offering. But this should not take away from the central statement: God’s making the sinless one to be sin on our behalf. Once again the [98] closest OT passage seems to be Isaiah 53, where the innocent one is wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. It may be, though, that Paul is not simply explaining that in his death Jesus has borne ‘our’ sin, that is, including that of the apostles themselves, in order that they might be fit embodiments of God’s covenant faithfulness. He may also, or even primarily, be referring to Jesus’ sin-bearing death as the model for, and the locus of, the suffering which the apostle must now undergo as he brings the message of reconciliation. It is ‘in him’, after all, that the apostles ‘become’ God’s covenant faithfulness. Once again the parallel with Colossians 1 suggests itself: Paul fills up in his own flesh what was lacking in the Messiah’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church (1: 24).

Colossians 1 points us to the sixth story which Paul is aware of telling throughout his work: that of the powers of the world. Briefly, and confusingly, the powers—every single one of them, in heaven and earth—are created in, through, and for the Messiah, God’s beloved son (1: 16), and then are reconciled through him (1: 20). The reader of Paul’s great poem is puzzled: why, if they were created by him, did they need to be reconciled? The poem clearly presupposes some sort of ‘fall’, or rebellion of the powers. This is confirmed in Colossians 2: 15. The cross of Jesus, instead of being as one might suppose the place where the powers celebrated a triumph over him, stripping him naked and holding him up to public contempt, is to be seen as the place where Jesus celebrated his triumph over them.

This victory over the powers, and their consequent reconciliation, sets the stage for Paul’s reworking of the ancient Jewish theme of the one sovereign God and the powers of the world, spiritual and political (a modem distinction to which, notoriously, neither Jewish nor Pauline thought corresponds). Alongside Colossians 1 we must place I Corinthians 2: 8: ‘None of the rulers of this age knew [the hidden wisdom of God]; if they had, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of Glory.’ Three things are going on here, points at which Paul is picking up Jewish political theology where the Wisdom of Solomon left off and taking it forward. First, he implies that the wisdom of Israel’s God is what the world’s rulers really need, if they are to do their job properly and avoid judgement from the world’s true Sovereign. Second, he implies that had they recognized Jesus himself as wisdom incarnate, they would have done him homage rather than executing him. Third, he implies that their killing of Jesus was in fact their acquiescence in their own demise, since his death was (as in [99] Col. 2) the means whereby their stranglehold over the human race was broken at last.

This is where, I suggest, Paul’s theology of the cross confronts, in principle, the power of Rome. As I have argued in various places, both in structure and in detail Paul ranges the gospel of Jesus against the gospel of Caesar, and the place of the cross within the Jesus message offers a wonderful subversion of the place of the cross within Caesar’s empire. I cannot go further into this here, but unless this is taken seriously one whole aspect of Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ death is in danger of being ignored.

The seventh and last story we note is that of God himself. It may seem a step too far towards process theology to imagine God himself having a ‘story’; yet when Paul tells the story of Israel this is really the obverse of the other story looming up behind, the story of the creator and covenant God. This is, surely, what Romans 9-11 is all about; were there more space, I would try to demonstrate that that entire section of the book is radically shaped around the cross of Israel’s Messiah. Israel follows the Messiah into judgement, and is now free, if it wants, to abandon unbelief and find new life. But Romans 9-11 is itself based on the earlier sections of the letter, and in 5-8 we find God as the subject of the story all through, implicitly or explicitly, particularly as the one whose love is embodied and exemplified in Jesus’ death (5: 6-10; 8: 31-9). We must not miss the importance of this: over against all kenotic christologies that flirt with the idea of the Son of God somehow ‘stopping being God’ for a while in order to become incarnate and die, Paul insists that when Jesus dies what we are seeing is the love of God in action. If the one who died on the cross was not somehow identified with the one true God, then his death would reveal, not how much God loved, but how much God managed to escape the consequences of genuine love.

In fact, the passage traditionally quoted in favour of a ‘kenotic’ christology makes this point very well. Philippians 2: 6-n turns on the little word dio at the start of v.9: therefore God has given him the name above every name, that every tongue should confess that Jesus, Messiah, is kyrios. The LXX references, especially to Isaiah 45: 23, indicate what is in mind: the One God, who will not share his glory with another, has shared it with Jesus—precisely because he has been ‘obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross’. For Paul in Philippians, the crucifixion of Jesus is not something which [100] happened despite the fact that he was God incarnate, but because of it. He has done what only God can do.

(iv) Conclusion: The Cross within Paul’s Storied World

I have tried to show, in all too incomplete a fashion, the role that the cross played in seven of the key interlocking stories which contribute to the rich texture of Paul’s theological and practical writing. Ideally, I should now work through the material from one or two more angles, establishing some cross-sectioned references and so homing in the more accurately on the way Paul’s mind and arguments worked. But I have said enough to show, I think, both that the New Perspective, by highlighting key aspects of second Temple Judaism and by loosening the grip of a wooden Lutheran-style analysis, has opened up all kinds of new possibilities, even though within the NP itself these were not followed up in the way I have now done. I have also tried to indicate how the fresh perspective plays out, though there again there is much more to be said. Certainly Paul believed that through his costly apostolic work (story 5) and through the creation, by the gospel, of a renewed non-ethno-specific human family (story 4), Caesar’s grandiose claim to bring justice, freedom, and peace to the world (story 6) was being challenged by God’s counter-claim, which, like Caesar’s, hinged decisively on the cross. This coming together of soteriology and ‘political theology’ may indeed be the most important proposal of this chapter.

But I have tried to show, in particular, how narrative readings of Paul can shed fresh light on well-known and contentious areas. I do not think I have made these areas less contentious, but I hope I have conveyed something of the excitement and drama that they had for Paul himself and can, I believe, still have today. ‘Redemption’ is one of those heavy, stodgy words that sit amongst Christian vocabulary the way suet puddings sit amongst the other food on the plate. I hope I have indicated that for Paul this was a word which spoke of promise fulfilled, of freedom attained, of the faithful love of God and the journey home to the ‘inheritance’—in other words, of exodus. In a world ringing once more with the familiar imperial rhetoric of freedom, it is good to be reminded that there is another way of telling the story.

[1] Representative works of the New Perspective include: E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977); James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul. and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville. Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press. 1990); N. T. Wright, What St Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. 1997). Among recent, critical responses, see: Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. 2001); Andrew A. Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001); Simon J. Gathercole, Where is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5 (Grand Rapids. Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).

[2] John W. Drane, Paul, Libertine or Legalist? A Study in the Theology of the Major Epistles (London: SPCK, 1975); Hans Hubner, Law in Paul’s Thought (ET; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1984).

[3] D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (eds.), The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, i. Justification and Variegated Nomism (WUNT 2.140; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2001).

[4] Ibid. 543-8.

[5] Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976).

[6] See N. T. Wright, ‘A Fresh Perspective on Paul?’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library. 83 (2002), 21-39, with full references.

[7] See N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991), ch. 7.

[8] On the clear reference to the ‘sin-offering’ in Rom. 8: 3 see my commentary and the other works there cited: Romans, in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2002). See also Jean-Noel Aletti’s remarks below about the difficulty of knowing how Paul and contemporary Judaeans understood the Day of Atonement.

[9] See N. T. Wright, ‘Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire’, in Richard A. Horsley, (ed.) Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation. Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl (Harrisburg. Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000), 160-83.

[10] ‘On Becoming the Righteousness of God: 2 Corinthians 5: 21’, in D. M. Hay (ed.), Pauline Theology, ii (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 200-8.

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