Review: Paul, a New Covenant Jew

Paul

Paul, a New Covenant JewBrant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, John A. Kincaid (Foreword by Michael J. Gorman). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: In answer to the question of “what kind of Jew was Paul?”, three Catholic scholars, focusing on 2 Corinthians 3:2-16, argue that he was a new covenant Jew and then relate this idea to apocalyptic, Christology, atonement, justification, and the Lord’s supper.

There is a cascade of literature in Pauline studies in recent years, difficult for any reviewer to keep up with unless one makes this one’s focus. One of the qualities that makes this work stand out is that it is the work of three Catholic scholars, seeking both to interact with and contribute to serious Pauline scholarship, and to do so in a way faithful to Catholic tradition. The other distinctive of their work is their proposal answering the question of “what kind of Jew was Paul?”

The first chapter considers this question and alongside the alternatives of former Jew, eschatological Jew, and Torah-observant Jew, the authors propose that Paul is a new covenant Jew. They center their contention on Paul’s self-description as a minister of a new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6) and the broader context of 2 Corinthians 3:2-16. They argue that this best explains both the discontinuities (“new”) and continuities (“covenant”) evident in Paul’s ministry and letters (this work focuses on the seven uncontested letters of Paul).

Remaining chapters then press out the connection of this idea to other Pauline themes. With regard to apocalyptic thought, they note the continuity of Paul’s thought with the idea of two ages, and the discontinuity in the assertion that in the death an”d resurrection of Jesus, the new age has already begun, new creation already is a reality, and both Jews and Gentiles already part of the heavenly Jerusalem. This is, in the words of Michael Gorman, an “apocalyptic new covenant.” Along the lines of Jewish expectation, Jesus is a very human figure, according to Paul. Yet Paul also asserts that he is in “the form of God” and “equal with God,” on the creator side of the creature/creator divide. Paul’s new covenant hope is in a Messiah both human and the divine Son. For these scholars, the cross is not only new covenant sacrifice by the apocalyptic revelation of the character of God in the self-giving of his son–a revelation of both righteousness and love.

The chapters that are most “Catholic” and might evoke the most discussion are those on justification and the one on the Lord’s table. The authors contend that justification is not merely juridical but, drawing on Pauline language, contend that justification also involves three transformative realities in the life of the believer:

  1. Cardiac righteousness, in which the heart of the believer is transformed resulting in an obedience of the heart, and obedience of faith. (2 Cor. 3:9; Romans 10:10).
  2. This righteousness comes through baptismal initiation (Romans 6:11; 1 Cor. 6:11; Gal. 3:24-27).
  3. Through our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, reflected in baptism, we are being conformed to the image of Christ, which Paul describes under the term, justification (cf. Gal. 2:15-21; Phil. 3:7-12; Romans 6:1-11).

Finally, with regard to the Lord’s Supper, they draw out the connection between participation in Christ and participation in drinking the cup, eating the bread of the sacrifice. They note the strong cultic language in Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s supper and emphasize its sacrificial nature. The authors make a strong exegetical case for their contention, although I would contend one can understand the Lord’s supper as participation in Christ’s sacrifice, without the elements becoming body and blood, that is, a sacrifice (although the authors do not assert this explicitly, but draw parallels to Old Testament sacrifices, and the consumption of these).

In these last two chapters, the authors walk a fine line between Catholic and post-Reformation discussions. They raise important exegetical issues and cite other scholars from the wider discussion whose work aligns with their conclusions. They make a proposal about how we might understand Paul that echoes his own self-description and that plausibly connects with other themes in Pauline teaching. Their work suggests the potential of biblical theology to foster constructive engagements between different parts of the church around the biblical text.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Paul, a New Covenant Jew

  1. Pingback: The Month In Reviews: December 2019 | Bob on Books

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