2011-11-12

Must we become [worldview] Jews to become Christians?


The following is a letter I wrote to Bishop NT Wright about his constant emphasis on the 1st Century Jewish background of the New Testament. I am a big admirer of Wright, and I think he is largely right on in his "New Perspective" on Paul, as well as his strong emphasis on Resurrection as THE Christian Hope. I think his emphasis on the historical and cultural context of the New Testament is also right and necessary. Yet, sadly, it is also inaccessible for most people. If he responds to this email, I will post the reply.
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Dear Bishop Wright,

Greetings from a long time admirer and reader of your works. I have made it through most of your 3 volume opus on Christian origins, and many of your other more popular works, as well as dozens of papers, articles, interviews, and recordings on the internet.

I am also an Episcopal priest who works with teens as a school chaplain and religion teacher (and formerly a college and youth minister). Over the years I have taken many of the ideas I first gained from you and implemented them for a much younger audience.

I finally have obtained a copy of "Justification" and am reading it. From my read this time, I had a question occur to me that has never occurred before. It could be asked of any of your works, really. It just became apparent to me with this book.

The question has to do with your (rightful) emphasis on the 1st century Jewish background of the NT, especially the Pauline material (since Paul, unlike Jesus, addresses much of his work to Gentiles as well as Jews).

It strikes me as very right- self obvious really- to insist on a careful reading of the NT material within the thought-world of First Century Judaism. It seems quite right to refer to extant 1st century Jewish works (cf. 4 Ezra) to make your case for the contextual read of the NT. And it seems "meet and right" for you to question Western, Modern, and Reformed assumptions about the "clear meaning" of Scripture on the basis of such a Jewish read of Scripture.

All well and good.

But the average seminary trained cleric- let alone the average Christian or non-Christian- does not have access to the type of data you are referencing. Furthermore, as you well know, us [post]moderns are coming at the text from a very different worldview. And even for the minority of us that are fluent in NT koine Greek (as I am), our knowledge of the Biblical text is so influenced by modern English translations (cf. NIV, ESV, NRSV) that we tend to automatically import their gloss on the meanings of controversial terms (cf. dikaiosunee, pistis/euo).

So we have a situation where (a) knowledge of 1st century Judaism is almost essential to understanding the NT; (b) the overwhelming majority of clerics and lay persons do not have this knowledge; with the result that (c) Average Christians and their pastors cannot simply read the NT text (even in Greek!) and truly understand it, but must rely on an ancient worldview they do not have access to for the proper interpretive lenses.

It seems that we open up a postmodern, epistemic version of the Acts 15 problem: We are, in effect, requiring 21st century Gentiles to become 1st century Jews (in worldview) to become Christians (or at least, right-thinking Christians).

The obvious alternative is to create some sort of universalized, de-historicized, de-Judaized Gospel that is communicated propositionally in terms acceptable to the philosophy of the current age. And the result of this can be anything from bland liberalism to rabid fundamentalism to Nazi holocaust.

Is there a way out of this dichotomy of scholarly historicism on one side and radical de-historicism on the other? if I must accept this dichotomy, then I side with you on the side of Jewish context.

But is there some sort of easily communicated, easily summarized, easily accessible way out of this epistemic conundrum that is analogous to the Acts 15 settlement over the physical/ritual Judaization of early Gentile converts?

Thank you for your time.

May grace and peace fill your life,
Nate Bostian
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.