Monday, January 07, 2008

A Foray into Mark Nanos’ views on the “Torah-Observant Paul”

I just finished reading two essays written by Mark Nanos available on his website: A Torah-Observant Paul? and Rethinking the “Paul and Judaism” Paradigm. If you are unfamiliar with this work I wish to encourage you to read these two very interesting and no doubt controversial papers for a foray into his views.

If I were mapping out the movements in Pauline studies I would say that Mark, among others (and interestingly especially Messianic Jews: see David Rudolph’s forthcoming monograph from WUNT A Jew to Jews) is at the forefront of not a “New Perspective” (Dunn’s phrase for the Sanders revolution) or even a “Fresh Perspective” (Wright’s phrase for the anti-Imperial perspective of Horsley and others) but rather an “Ancient Perspective” on Paul (Paul as a Torah-Observant Jew) [I am sure that this phrase will not be coined, but hey it is the best I can do!].

I found the essays in need of some editing and revision. There are syntax problems here and there and the argument is at times difficult to follow with all of the parentheses and interruptions with dashes. In addition, the introduction to the paper A Torah-Observant Jew? was especially difficult and all the more for uninitiated. It felt like there were elliptical statements throughout that would be well served to spell out a bit more. Still these issues are not substantial and I am sure they will be revised before they are officially published pieces.

To reveal my hand slightly before discussing my view on Paul on a later post about Jewish Christianity, I will say that I am warmly sympathetic to his view of a Torah-Observant Paul. What’s more, I found myself in sympathy with many of his viewpoints in the essays. I was especially encouraged in my developing views on Paul by his perspective since I am not much more than a novice—perhaps unlike my co-blogger—when it comes to Pauline theology. I suppose one advantage I have had is that I am coming to Paul after spending a significant amount of time in the Gospels focusing on the Jewish background of Matthew. What Nanos states about Pauline interpreters—that is that while Paul gets touted as a Jew, the full weight of that assumption is often less than significant for the interpreters’ conclusions—I have said about Matthean scholars. For example, how can interpreters of Matthew so easily assume that a theology of Land has no remaining value for the Jewish author. I often think such things are so easy for non-Jews to say, although of course I myself am a non-Jew.

I want to interact with one point from his essays here that relates to Paul and Israel. On several occasions Nanos makes the point that Paul did not think non-Jews needed or even should be allowed to become members of “Israel” by proselyte conversion; in fact to do so, according to Nanos, would undermine Paul’s conviction that the end of the ages had dawned (you can read his discussion so I won't unpack this any further here). I agree in part with this assertion on one definition of the term “Israel”. In other words, I agree with Nanos that Paul differentiated between expectations for Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Jesus with respect to the Torah and asserted that non-Jews had equal standing, or were co-members with Jews as non-Jews and this was in fulfillment of eschatological expectations that Paul believed, in contrast to his compatriots, had arrived at least partially in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Still, I have been wondering these days about the term “Israel” especially Romans 9—11. What is the difference for Paul between the terms “Jew” and “Israelite” that surface in Romans? Why does Paul use the term Jew elsewhere in Romans, but in the context of Romans 9—11 he uses the term Israelite/Israel? Now most, as far as I can tell, see this change as one of election: who are the true chosen people? Most of course think Paul at best is saying that both Jew and non-Jew are now God’s chosen people and the election term “Israel” can be applied to both or at worst that the non-Jews have now taken ancient Israel’s place as God’s true Israel (quoting Paul “not all Israel is Israel”). Thus the meaning of the term “Israel” is thought to go back to the story of Jacob and his descendants. Indeed this view seems surely possible and perhaps even likely given that Paul references them in the context. Yet I question such a quick assumption when we come to Paul’s statement “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26).

The term “Israel” is multivalent and can mean at least five different things: (1) a name of a person; (2) the name of the northern 10 tribal territories—in distinction from Judah; (3) the united kingdom under David and Solomon which included not only the 12 tribal territories, but also encompassed Gentile territories from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean Sea (cf. Davidic census in 2 Sam 24); (4) the Northern Kingdom in distinction from the Southern; and (5) the Judean returnees from the Babylonian captivity.

Isn’t it at least possible that when Paul says that "all Israel will be saved" he envisages the restoration of political-national Israel that included the restoration of the twelve-tribe kingdom of David and included non-Judeans and non-Israelites--that is those of the northern kingdom? Thus the term "Israel" as a political term can encompass at least three groups: Israelites, Judeans and those who are neither, but within the kingdom of Israel(=kingdom of David). It is true that Paul's understanding is more radical with respect to these "others" than the ancient prophets understood in that even in prophetic contexts where the other nations are envisaged as participating in the eschaton they did not have equal standing in the kingdom. This for Paul is the "mystery" (Rom 11; Eph 2-3) Paul has been given by God to proclaim: Jew and Gentile as equal members of the Messianic kingdom.
It is surprising to me that nobody is even considering this possibility given that the term can be applied in this way. This is all the more startling to me since many agree with Wright that Paul’s gospel to the nations is the royal proclamation of Jesus kingship as the Davidide. In this messianic context such an implication can’t be far away. While this is not so much an issue I have with Nanos, I think it could potentially strengthen his line of thinking. I would like at some point in the near future to pursue this line of thinking.


Richard Fellows said...


thanks for summarizing some of Nanos's work. This is useful as his work is indeed very hard to follow. I have spent many hours struggling with his "irony in Galatians", and reading his emails on the Corpus Paul list where he was very active. His sentences are far to long to communicate anything clearly, and I have given up reading him. If I were a publisher I would throw his manuscripts back in his face and ask him to re-write.

Nevertheless, he may well be right in many of his views. By looking at completely different evidence, I have come to share his opinions on the following points:

1. Peter, James and John were in agreement with Paul on the gentile question.
2. The "opponents" in Galatia should rather be called "influencers"
3. The influencers may have been Galatians themselves (Incidentally, I think Bruce Winter may have a book coming out on this).

However, I find his view that there is irony in Galatians to be unnecessary. But then again, if he could find someone to translate his work into plain English, perhaps I could be persuaded.

If I remember rightly, he tends to consider Acts to be a secondary source and therefore off limits. This is a pitty as Acts would strengthen some of his points, I think.


Marc said...

Hi Joel,

My friend Dan Gregg has been translating Paul epistle's from the Greek to get the context. He just finished Galatians. We are discussing other topics as well at his blog @