Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pronouns in Ephesians

It is a strange week when two people, in two different continents, email you on consecutive days with the same question about the personal pronouns in Ephesians, but that is what happened to me recently.

On pronouns, I've always been interested in the "we" of Gal. 2.16: "we know that no one is justified on the basis of works of law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ". Who is the "we"? I think it refers to Jewish Christians which demonstrates that justification by faith was not a Pauline novum, but something that was transparently part of the faith of the early church (see R. Hays ABD 3.1131 and E.P. Sanders PPJ 519 for the same point).

In Ephesians (leaving authorship aside for a moment) there is a constant switch between first person and second person pronouns in chs. 1-2. My student and friend David Kirk writes to me and notes:

"Paul uses first person pronouns for 1:3-12; then second person for 1:13-18. He uses second person for 2:1-2, then first person for 2:3-10, then second person for 2:11-13. In Chapter 2, it is clear that to some degree the second person pronoun refers to Gentile believers. Does the first person pronoun then refer to Jews? If so, Paul's argument is that Gentiles have been incorporated into blessings which were first and foremost for the Jews, which seems a thoroughly Pauline thought, and is what Paul goes on to argue in 2:13ff. In it's favour is that 1:3-12 then makes a lot of sense, with God's choice being of Israel (a thought with strong roots in the OT), adoption as sons being a predestined eschatological goal for the Jews; the 'mystery of his will' in verse 9 then becomes the revelation by Law and prophets with a view to the summing up of all things in Christ. Also 2:1-3 makes sense, especially 'even as the rest'. If my speculations are correct, 2:1-2 refers to Gentiles, 2:3 refers to Jews."

I think the Kirkmeister is on the money and made a good observation. Hopefully he'll blog about this fairly soon himself. Update: David Kirk has posed on this here.


Geoff Hudson said...

All Jews - those in the prophets(we), those recently in (you), probably priests, not Gentiles.

Steven Coxhead said...

In Ephesians a lot depends on who the "we who were the first to hope in Christ" (1:12) are identified as being. But given the strong theme in Ephesians of the incorporation of the Gentiles into the people of God, it makes sense to view those who first hoped in Christ as being the early Jewish Christians. I also agree with Mike that the "we" of Gal 2:16 indicates that justification by faith was the orthodox position in the early church. See also the way that faith is used in Acts 15:9. The Gentiles are cleansed by faith, not by submission to (i.e., the works of) the Mosaic law. Also note that Acts 15:11 is spoken from the Jewish perspective, and uses the Jewish "we" like in Gal 2:15-16. Paraphrasing Acts 15:11, we Jews are saved by faith in Christ "just as" the Gentiles are. This is a doctrine of justification by faith in the Messiah (i.e., submission to the lordship of Christ) rather than by submission to the Mosaic covenant (otherwise known as the works of the law), and it applies equally to both Jew and Gentile in the age of the new covenant. Acts 15 clearly shows that this was the orthodox soteriological doctrine of the early Christians.

Phil said...

As the 'second person' who emailed Mike about this during the week, I think it's persuasive that the alternation between first and second person is entirely consistent with the Jew/Gentile argument. The smoke clears at 2:11 with 'YOU who are Gentiles by birth. It's an observation that has far reaching consequences, and also fits with a much earlier observation by Bishop Donald Robinson that the 'saints' (at least in Ephesians!) is a reference to the Jewish Christians, those who were the first to hope in Christ, those who had the inheritance and the hope and the promises that the Gentiles have now been invited to share together with Israel, together raised with Christ, together seated with Christ. My observation is that there's an internal logic in the argument that makes the alternation between 'we' and 'you' absolutely coherent both here and in Colossians and Galatians. In Galatians, I think the key verse is "Christ has redeemed US from the curse of the law.... so that (paraphrasing) YOU GENTILES might also be included in the Spirit." Love to hear what other people think about this.

Phil C

Geoff Hudson said...

How else can one be a Gentile then? Wasn't it fairly obvious that a Gentile was not born a Jew?.

Should be "you who are priests by birth", don't you think?

Phil said...

It was obvious that a gentile was 'not born a jew' - but it wasn't at all obvious that those who were 'gentile by birth' could join with the 'saints' in sharing the inheritance and the hope that had previously been restricted to Israel. And I think that's the point.

Geoff Hudson said...

So Phil, do you agree that there once was a form of 'Christianity' that was completely Jewish? The 'saints' seem to be Jews in your reckoning. In a Jewish context it would seem to make sense if the words were "you who are priests by birth", because it wasn't at all obvious to the priests that they could leave the office that was their birthright and join the prophets or the 'saints'. And we know from Acts that some of the priests were indeed joining the 'saints'.