I am off today to Boston for a week of various professional activities. Tomorrow morning I will be filming a documentary with an independent film maker on some aspect of the New Testament. After that I’ll be having lunch with about a dozen members of the blog, and then dinner with three or four. Following that, on Friday, I will be giving a talk at the Biblical Archaeology Society FEST (a gathering of interested lay folk to hear lectures by scholars for a couple of days). And then it’s off to my annual professional meeting, with thousands of other biblical scholars from the U.S. and around the world, the Society of Biblical Literature meeting.
My talk at the Biblical Archaeology Society will be about Paul and his understanding of his mission. About a year ago I realized something I had never thought of before. Paul actually understood himself, personally, to have been predicted by the prophets of the Old Testament as the fulfillment of God’s plan. Wow. Here is how I have thought about and explained the matter recently:
It is easiest to understand Paul’s subsequent missionary activities and evangelistic message by realizing how an appearance of the living Jesus would force him from “fact” to “implications.” For him the “fact” was that Jesus was alive again, as he knew from having seen him. From there Paul started reasoning backwards. This backward reasoning must have proceeded through a number of steps ending in a remarkable place: Paul came to believe that he himself had been chosen and commissioned by God to fulfil the predictions of Jewish Scripture. Divinely inspired prophecies delivered centuries earlier were looking forward to his day, his labors, and him personally. Paul cannot be faulted for thinking small.
Paul’s vision made him realize that it was Jesus’ death and resurrection, and nothing else –e.g., not the Jewish law – that established a person in a right standing before God. Thus, to be members of God’s covenantal people, it was not necessary for gentiles to become Jews. They did not need to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, keep kosher, or follow any of the other prescriptions of the law. They needed to believe in the death and resurrection of the messiah Jesus. This was an earth-shattering realization for Paul. Prior to this, the followers of Jesus – the first Christians – were of course Jews who understood that he was the messiah who had died and been raised from the dead. But they knew this as the act of the Jewish God given to his people the Jews. Certainly gentiles could find this salvation as well. But first they had to be Jewish. Not for Paul. Jew or gentile, it did not matter. What mattered was faith in Christ.
Once Paul came to realize this he was blinded yet again by a further insight. Throughout the prophets of Scripture …
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