Redemption from the New Perspective?


Redemption from the New Perspective?
Towards a Multi-Layered Pauline Theology of the Cross

Originally published in Redemption, ed. S. T. Davis, D. Kendall, G. O’Collins (Oxford: OUP) 2006, 69–100.
Original pagination is retained in bold italicized numbers.
Reproduced by permission of the author.



Calling something ‘new’ is always risky, and the ‘new perspective’ on Paul, now a quarter of a century old since it was introduced by Ed Sanders in 1977, is starting to look rather frayed around the edges. Others have written its history; some are now trying to write its epitaph.[1] I come neither to bury Sanders nor to praise him, but to do two things simultaneously: to look at Paul’s doctrine of ‘redemption’ from (one version of) the perspective Sanders proposed, and in so doing to see what if anything can be redeemed from his proposal. I am conscious that the current wave of gravediggers are making room for more than one coffin, and that some of them at least want to bury N. T. W. along with E. P. S. (and indeed J. D. G. D.). But I am inclined to believe that the rumours of my theological demise have been exaggerated, and that the modified and developed version of the [70] ‘new perspective’ (hereafter NP) which I adopt possesses not only life but considerable explanatory and exegetical power.

A few brief introductory notes on the various topics thus introduced. First, as to the NP. Sanders’s proposed reading of Paul had at its heart a massively argued proposal about first-century Judaism, in which Sanders substantially followed the protest of H.-J. Schoeps a generation before and G. F. Moore a generation before that. Judaism was not, basically, a religion of self-help moralism, a kind of early Semitic Pelagianism, but was a religion in which the keeping of the law mattered not because people were trying to earn their member-ship in God’s people but because they were eager to demonstrate it. Law-keeping was not part of ‘getting in’ but of ‘staying in’—two categories which become thematic for Sanders. Keeping the law within the ‘staying in’ mode is what he calls ‘covenantal nomism’, another thematic technical term.

This proposal cuts most deeply against the Lutheran readings of Paul which have been common coin in New Testament scholarship for a long time, and also in many non-Lutheran parts of the church which have assumed that its account of Judaism (enshrined in such monumental works as Strack-Billerbeck and the Kittel Wörterbuch) was historically accurate. Sanders is clearly motivated by the desire to do justice to first-century Judaism rather than caricature it in the interest of Christian apologetic. Painting the ‘background’ dark in order to make the jewel of the gospel shine more brightly—the very word ‘background’ has become taboo, carrying as it does the implication that one might be studying Judaism not for itself but in order to contrast it with Christianity to the advantage of the latter—must be abjured in the interests of objective study of the different ‘patterns of religion’. As in all his work, Sanders belongs within the post-Holocaust movement of scholarship, trying to get away from a polarization between Judaism and Christianity and to show their many convergences. Indeed, though Sanders does acknowledge that Paul held a critique of Judaism (in this he does better than his teacher, W. D. Davies, who in other respects paved the way for him), this critique is minimal and simply a reflex of Paul’s new experience: Paul has found salvation in Christ, and so deduces that there must have been a problem with Judaism. He begins with the solution and then postulates a plight, rather than the old theory in which Paul began with a problem (variously described) to which he found the answer in Christ. The implicit conclusion from a good deal of [71] Sanders’s work, as in many other contemporary writers, is that these two religions at least are more or less equally valid paths to salvation. Sanders is clear that Paul does not say that himself, but he constantly hints that it will not take a large step beyond Paul for us to do so.

As the subtitle of his book indicates, Sanders’s proposal is about religion, not theology. Indeed, when it comes to theology both his initial book and his subsequent ones are unsystematic, and do not address in any sustained way the major topics of Pauline theology (christology, justification, the cross, etc.). If anything, Sanders simply assumes that the big words like justification, atonement, salvation, redemption and so on all converge in meaning. His major proposal about interpreting Paul himself does not need to explore that territory too far, because the emphasis lies elsewhere: he divides Paul’s thought, in a traditional fashion, between ‘juristic’ categories and ‘participationist’ categories, and, following Schweitzer and Davies, declares that the latter are primary and central, and that the former are ancillary and more situational or polemical. Thus he regards ‘being in Christ’ as central, and ‘justification’ as more peripheral. This has obvious exegetical spin-offs (e.g. reading Rom. 5-8 as more central to Paul’s thought than Rom. 1-4), though as Sanders has published no commentaries we cannot see exactly how it might all play out. It is noticeable, however, that he has difficulty in fitting Romans 2: 1-16 into the mind of Paul, and that he is forced to dismiss the complex Romans 7 as tortured rambling.

Second, the relation of my own reading of Paul to the NP. Perhaps the most important point is this: had the dominant view of Paul prior to Sanders been Reformed rather than Lutheran, the NP might never have been necessary. I began my graduate work on Paul with just such a Reformed standpoint, and in many respects found Sanders an ally rather than an adversary. Since this will be counter-intuitive to some, an explanation is needed.

From (at least) Calvin onwards, reaching something of a climax in the Romans commentary of Charles Cranfield, exegetes in the Reformed tradition found in Paul a view of the Jewish law which was far more positive than Lutheran exegesis had assumed. I am not sure that this tradition ever did full justice to second Temple Judaism, but at least it did not start from the assumption that the law itself was basically a bad thing ripe for abolition. (Notice how this works out in exegesis of the notorious crux at Rom. 10: 4: is Christ the abolition, end, completion, goal, or fulfilment of the law? Or what?) After all, in [72] Reformed Theology the Torah was given in the first place within a historical scheme, not to enable the Israelites to keep it and so earn their membership in God’s people, but to enable them, as a people already redeemed through the Exodus, to demonstrate and work out the implications of their membership and vocation. The (at least partial) convergence of Sanders’s reading of Judaism with a Reformed view of the law makes it all the more ironic that the anti-NP movement is today centred not least in Reformed circles such as the Presbyterian Church of America and Westminster Theological Seminary; but this sort of thing is frequent in the history of ideas. What I am concerned with at the moment is to stress that there were various readings of Paul and Judaism already on offer and that Sanders’s protest was directed against one (albeit the mainstream one) among them, one which was already under attack (not that most Lutherans noticed) from the Reformed side.

I arrived at my own understanding after some years of struggling to make Cranfield’s reading of Romans fit with what Paul actually says in Galatians—something Cranfield, I think, never achieved. I was not satisfied with the shallow developmental analyses offered by various scholars, according to which Paul was opposed to the law in Galatians and in favour of it in Romans, and so on.[2] I found the clue in Romans 10: 3: Paul’s fellow Jews, he says. ‘were ignorant of God’s righteousness, and were seeking to establish their own, and so did not submit to God’s righteousness’. Their own: not a ‘righteousness’, a status of membership in God’s people, which might be obtained by assiduous and moralistic self-help Torah-keeping, but a covenant status which would be for Jews and Jews only. It would be what I called a ‘national righteousness’. Dunn followed this with his proposal, which I fully endorse, that the ‘works of the Law’, against which Paul warned in both Galatians and Romans, were not any and every legal ‘work’ done out of a desire to earn good marks in some heavenly ledger account, but were the ‘works of Torah’ which marked out Jews over against their pagan neighbours: sabbath, circumcision, and food laws. I have shown in considerable detail that this proposal works exegetically, verse by verse and line by line, through Romans, and I have sketched out the way it works in Galatians.

[73] In particular, it makes sense of first-century Judaism. A recent attempt to prove that there was a ‘variegated nomism’ in the second Temple period has indeed succeeded in bringing out various nuances which go beyond what Sanders had said.[3] But, despite the attempt in the book’s final summary to suggest otherwise,[4] it has not basically undercut the overall emphasis of his work or mine. Nobody has succeeded in proving that Judaism was after all the kind of proto-Pelagianism which it would need to have been for the normal Lutheran (and, in some circles, ‘evangelical’) understanding to be correct. In particular, remarkably, nobody in the entire project noticed that the one second Temple passage in which ‘works of Torah’ were thematic (4QMMT section C) referred not to ‘works of the law’ as something to be done in order to earn membership in the community, or salvation, or justification, but as things to be done in order to mark out in the present the community that would be vindicated in the future. The question being addressed is not: ‘How do you become a true Jew?’, but ‘How are you marked out in the present as a true Jew?’ The parameters of the discussion are eschatological, looking ahead to the last day: the assumption is that at the last day some Jews but not all will be vindicated by God; the question is, how can you tell here and now who it is that will be vindicated in the future. This has exactly the same shape and form as Paul’s doctrine of justification, but, as we shall see, different content, appropriate for his Jesus-shaped construal of both problem and solution.

But this is to run ahead of myself. Two more remarks, one on a major weakness of Sanders’s proposal, and one on a strength.

First, the weakness. Sanders declares that prior to his conversion Paul had no problem—no unquiet conscience, no difficulty keeping the law, no existential angst of the kind normally imagined within the ruling paradigm. Here Sanders, like Stendahl before him, rightly emphasized Philippians 3: 2-6.[5] As a result, he says, Paul moved not ‘from plight to solution’, first being aware of a problem and then finding Christ as the answer to it, but ‘from solution to plight’, first finding ‘salvation’ in Christ (what this word would mean if there was no sense of plight is not clear) and then deducing that there must [74] have been some kind of ‘plight’ to which this ‘salvation’ was the answer. This explains, according to Sanders, the seemingly muddled nature of Paul’s critique of Israel: he is flailing around, accusing Judaism and the Torah of various inconsistent things because this was not the real centre of his thought.

But this ignores the enormous problem, like the elephant in the living room, of which every first-century Jew—and particularly a Pharisee—would be aware. Israel was not free. The Torah was not being observed. The wrong people were running the Temple. The promises had not yet come true. YHWH had not yet returned to Zion. The Messiah had not appeared. The Gentiles were not coming toJerusalem to learn wisdom from the true God, but were coming there instead to impose their will, their ‘justice’, their way of life. All of this is what I, drawing on many strands in second Temple Judaism, have characterized in terms of ‘continuing exile’: despite the geographical ‘return’ several centuries earlier, Israel found herself living in a story whose last major marker was destruction at the hands of Babylon, a destruction only superficially reversed in the geographical return. The main exception to this reading of the second Temple period must be Ben-Sirach, and I suspect that Saul of Tarsus would have had little time for that work, with its near-idolization of the pre-Hasmonean high priest. Thus I believe we must say that Saul of Tarsus had a ‘problem’ all right: not so much the ‘problem’ often imagined within pious Protestantism, but the problem that Israel was still unredeemed, still in exile.

This enables us to locate Sanders’s proposal about Paul moving from solution to plight as the second half of a two-stage movement of thought. I agree that Paul offers an analysis of ‘the problem’ (Israel’s problem, and the world’s problem, the problem of all humankind) which bears all the marks of retrospective understanding. He has rethought the problem in terms of the gospel, in terms of the God-given solution. (He is, to that extent, a good Barthian, learning to look at everything, including the world and sin, in the light of Jesus Christ.) But he has precisely rethought the problem. He has not invented it from scratch. Paul’s analysis of the problem of Israel, the world, and humankind is his revision, in the light of the gospel, of the problem of which he was already thoroughly well aware. He already knows that Israel was ‘still in exile’: as a Christian, he understands that in a still deeper sense, witnessed in Romans 2: 17-24 and 7: 7-25. He already knows that the Gentiles were idolaters [75] and that idolatry was destructive of genuine image-bearing humanness; as a Christian, he understands that in a still deeper sense, witnessed in Romans 1: 18 – 2: 16. What is more—and this lies close to the heart of his freshly worked theology of the cross, the main subject of this paper—he may already have glimpsed, as Jesus and the prophets before him had done, the dangerous truth that Israel’s problem was related to the world’s problem, in the sense not just that Israel was the innocent victim and the world was the guilty aggressor, but that Israel herself was composed of human beings who, despite being given Torah and Temple, were themselves still sinners. Whether he has already thought of it like that or not, this is the point he now offers as the most profound analysis: Israel too is in Adam. This is one of the driving insights that carries him forward from Romans 2: 17-24 to 7: 7-25 and on, crucially, to 9: 30-10: 21. Thus, over against Sanders’s proposal that Paul moved simply ‘from solution to plight’, I suggest that we can watch Paul as he moves from his earlier understanding of ‘plight’, to the ‘solution’ offered in Christ, and thence to a deeper, but not a totally new, understanding of the ‘plight’ of Israel and the world. And, since it is to this ‘plight’ that the cross and resurrection of the Messiah are the answer, this points us clearly on to our main theme.

Second, the strength of Sanders’s proposal. The NP enables us, at a stroke, to make sense of one area which has long been controverted in Paul. Why does Paul insist, in I Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14, that one must not divide the community over issues of what you eat and which holy days you keep, while also insisting, in several places, including I Corinthians 5 and 6, that there are certain types of behaviour for which there must be zero tolerance? This has been a problem for those who think that the key issue in his theology is ‘keeping rules’ over against ‘trusting God’. But when we line up the matter in a post-NP way, the answer is: because food and holy days are things which threaten to divide the community along ethnic lines, whereas sexual ethics (or their non-observance) would divide the community in terms of what it means to be a renewed-in-Christ human being. Personal holiness matters even more for the Christian than it did for the Jew, because in Christ we have died to sin and come alive into God’s new world; but personal holiness has nothing to do with the ‘works of the law’ by which ethnic Israel was demarcated. I thus agree with several aspects of Sanders’s proposal while differing from it in some ways and going beyond it in others. I am [76] not surprised that some conservative Christians have found Sanders’s proposal not to their taste. It contains a strong streak of relativism, and that was bound to be unwelcome. He shows little appreciation of Paul’s view of either God, Jesus, or the Spirit. But I am saddened that many have imagined they have nothing to learn from Sanders’s massive scholarship and have run howling back into the arms of Luther. In some cases—these are, I think, the saddest of all—they have been reduced to appealing over the head of the New Testament to the tradition of the sixteenth century, which is all the more ironic when we reflect that Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, and the rest would certainly have advised us to read the New Testament even better than they did, not to set up their own work as a new authoritative tradition, a fixed lens through which the Bible would have to be viewed for ever afterwards. And what has been on offer in post-Sanders scholarship, including my own, has not been a slavish following of Sanders, but an insistence on rereading Paul with our eyes and ears open to the many-sided nature of second Temple Judaism, and a recognition that none of our traditions may yet have learnt all that the apostle has to teach us.

Our present summit need not concern itself, I guess, with the detail of these debates. But it has been important to sketch them out, because the theme of redemption is clearly central to some of them at least. I hope it will be clear that a (not uncritical) post-Sanders reading will enable us to take huge strides forward in our understanding of redemption, which has itself of course been contentious in various areas, not least ecumenical discussion. (I think of the perennial squabbles about justification, and also of the echoes of the Jansenist controversy in some Roman rejection of anything approaching penal substitution.) Sanders did not himself attempt to locate and explicate Paul’s theology of redemption within his overall argument. Can we do so, and what will happen to the NP if we do?

Before I move to positive statements, though, a word about two other movements which I regard as vital for a proper, historically and theologically sensitive, reading of Paul. First, there is thenarrative reading of Paul which, pioneered by Richard Hays twenty years ago, has been found increasingly fruitful, and goes with Hays’s equally important stress on Paul’s fresh reading of scripture. Basically, Paul grounds his theology again and again not in isolated prooftexts (one of Sanders’s many weaknesses was to suggest this) but in a reading of scripture which, like many second Temple Jewish[77] readings, picked up its fundamental quality as the story of the creator and covenant God with the world and with Israel. It is central to Paul’s world-view that this long story has now come to its climax in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah (another failing of Sanders is that he does not explore the significance of Christos in Paul), and that the church, not least his own apostolic ministry, is called to implement that achievement in a continuation of the same story in a new mode. This, I suspect, is one of the main things that recent anti-NP writers have objected to, which is the more ironic in that it was not part of Sanders’s platform: that when Paul is talking of salvation, he, like his Jewish contemporaries, was thinking in terms of the eschatological scheme in which ‘the present evil age’ would give way to ‘the age to come’, seen as a dramatic turn-around within a continuing history, rather than a snatching of God’s people out of the space-time world altogether. (Notice how, within the traditional paradigm, Rom. 8: 18-28, which is structurally one of Paul’s most emphatic passages, becomes marginalized in favour of a supposed message of individual salvation away from the world.) When Paul draws on scripture, whether it be Genesis, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, or Habakkuk, he is more often than not aware of, and intending to resonate with, the place of the scripture in question within a longer narrative. This is where the motif of ‘return from exile’ is so important, though still so controverted. The best example is the use of Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10: 5-8, exactly parallel to the use of the same passage in 4QMMT. Paul believes himself to be living in a story, the real story of the real world, which stretches back to creation, and comes forward, through Abraham, the exodus, the monarchy, the prophets, to the exile, which in the political and theological sense has continued to his own day. He believes that the real return from exile, which is also the new ‘exodus’, has taken place in Jesus the Messiah, and that this has brought to birth the ‘new age’, the ‘age to come’, by freeing God’s people from ‘the present evil age’.

Within this new age, there are new tasks, of which Paul’s Gentile mission, in all its many facets of evangelism, church planting, and maintaining, is a central one. The story will continue until God is finally ‘all in all’, when the cosmos itself has been set free from its bondage to decay and God’s people are finally given the new, resurrection bodies that correspond to that of Jesus himself. As I said, the real objection to the NP within certain conservative circles seems actually to be an objection to this reading of Paul as the theologian of [78] a salvation which is not away from the world but for the world. Narrative readings of Paul are thus not simply a new fad, a postmodern trick played on an ancient text, an attempt to award Paul an honorary Doctor of Letters from Yale. They reflect, at a very deep level, the fact that he is as much a theologian of creation as of redemption, and of alerting us to the fact that his theology of redemption is precisely a theology of renewed, redeemed creation. They reflect, also at a deep level, the fact that (though he seldom mentions the word) he is a theologian of covenant, expounding Genesis 15 and wrestling with the apparent tension between the foundational covenant promises to Abraham and the subsequent covenant with Moses (Rom. 4; Gal. 3). The two are intimately related: God’s covenant promises to Abraham always were the road towards the redemption of humankind and creation as a whole (e.g. new covenant in 2 Cor. 3 leading to new creation in chapter 5; and the argument from Abraham back to Adam in Rom. 4-5). I use ‘covenant’ in this sense as a shorthand way of drawing attention to the fact that, though of course Paul believes that God’s purpose has been achieved through the dramatic, apocalyptic event of the cross, cutting across all human pride and immanent process, this is nevertheless the fulfilment precisely of that larger, longer purpose. What God did in the cross and resurrection of the Messiah, and the gift of the Spirit, was what he had promised Abraham he would do: that is what I meant by referring to those events as ‘the climax of the covenant’. Paul does not think in detached aphorisms or theological slogans, but in large stories, including the story within which he believes himself to be playing a vital role. That is the framework for the various narratives that we find embedded, and fruit-bearing, within his letters.

The second movement which must be factored in to any fully fledged reading of Paul is the new awareness of the political dimension of all his thought.[6] Though there are many flaws in the work of Richard Horsley on this subject, he has pioneered the way for us to see what I have called ‘the fresh perspective on Paul’, according to which the gospel of Jesus the Messiah impinges directly on the other ‘gospel’ which was making great inroads into the same world namely, that of Caesar. As I have argued elsewhere, for Paul it was central that if Jesus was ‘Lord’ then Caesar was not. This, too, has an[79] inescapable narrative dimension, and indeed a recognition of the narrative and historical nature of Paul’s thought, as above, precipitates us into the political arena: the story of Rome, with its vivid eschatology of empire (a thousand years of preparation, and now—Caesar!), was to be subverted by the story of Israel, climaxing in Jesus. Paul fell heir to the long tradition of Jewish critique of pagan empire, stretching back to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel. This was never a dualist rejection of every aspect of empire (think of Cyrus, of Jeremiah telling the exiles to settle down in Babylon, of Daniel confounding the pagans and then resuming his senior position in the civil service). Paul is equally emphatic on God’s desire for good government and policing (Rom. 13); this has nothing to do with a right-wing or laissez-faire political attitude, but in the Jewish tradition sits perfectly well alongside a statement of God’s sovereignty over all human kingdoms.

In particular, if we are to have any historical sensitivity to the meaning of the cross in Paul’s thinking, we must place at the very centre the awareness of the cross that every first-century person, Jew and pagan alike, would share. This is where the political meaning of Paul’s gospel bites most deeply, where the ‘fresh perspective’ in its turn offers insights on a Pauline view of redemption. Granted that crucifixion was widespread as a punishment for all sorts of people, particularly at the lowest end of the social scale, it was particularly used—and had been used in Palestine in Jesus’ lifetime—as a way both of punishing revolutionaries and of warning those who might imitate them. The cross already said, with all its violent symbolic power, that Caesar ruled the world, and that those who stood in his way would be both shamed and obliterated. To get at this today we might draw on a variety of images: the world-famous photo of a small, naked Vietnamese girl, terrified and tearful; the demolition of a Palestinian home; the burning of a synagogue in 1930s Berlin, or of a church in today’s Sudan; imperial tanks sweeping into a resistant city (Russian ones, in Prague; Chinese, in Tiananmen Square?). Brute force, dehumanizing humiliation, shameful death: that was the symbolic message of the cross, and that was the symbol that came, from Paul onwards, to speak of the love of the true God, the love which had somehow conquered the principalities and powers.

I propose, then, that the true insights of the NP should be blended with a narratival and political reading of Paul, and that when we do [80] this we find the possibility of a multi-faceted theology of redemption emerging from his writings. There are several ways of approaching this topic: for present purposes I shall do so by considering the place of the cross within seven implicit narratives in Paul’s writings.


(i) Overview 

What do we mean by ‘redemption’? I take it that for the purposes of the Redemption Summit we are using the word in a broad sense, to denote the action(s) whereby God rescues human beings, and (if we are being biblical) the whole cosmos, from the state of sin, decay, and death to which they have become subject. This broad sense includes, but goes beyond, the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion on the one hand and the ‘application’ of redemption (‘call’, faith, justification, glorification, to use some of Paul’s terms) on the other. It is thus very nearly coextensive with ‘salvation’, seen also in a broad sense.

These big, somewhat floppy terms can get in the way, not least because Paul uses them in a much more precise sense, so that most of them fit together snugly in his mind like adjacent, but not identical, pieces of a jigsaw. Thus, with regard to ‘redemption’, Paul seems clearly to have in mind not just the often-noted slave-market metaphor in which someone buys the slave his or her freedom but the more specifically Jewish meaning in which God rescues Israel from the historical slave-market of Egypt. As I have argued elsewhere (that phrase applies to most of what will now follow), the context of Romans 3: 24 and 8: 23, two of Paul’s key uses of apolytrosis, strongly suggests an Exodus-interpretation: human beings in the present, and the whole creation in the future, are rescued from slavery to sin and death as Israel was rescued from slavery in Egypt. Paul uses the word again in I Corinthians 1: 30, in a string alongside sophia, dikaiosyne, and hagiasmos, which tells us little about the precise meaning he attaches to the word, though later in the letter he does speak of ‘Christ our Passover’ being sacrificed for us (5: 7). Two of the uses in Ephesians (1: 7 and 4: 30) reflect the same present/future balance as the two in Romans; the third (1: 14) seems to be a more restricted metaphor, part of the picture of a ‘down-payment’ guaranteeing ‘full possession’. The one remaining Pauline [81] use of the word, Colossians 1: 14, belongs with Romans 3: 24 and Ephesians 1:7.

But of course our topic is wider than simply the occurrences of the word normally translated ‘redemption’. Part of the difficulty now emerges: God’s action to rescue humans and the world is such a constant topic in Paul’s letters, and he says so many different things about it in so many different contexts, that without launching into a full exegesis of most of the letters I cannot really do justice to the multi-faceted nature of his thought. Nevertheless, I may attempt a proposal, at least for the sake of discussion. My proposal is that Paul’s thought about Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, the one in whom God’s promises to Israel and, through Israel, to the world are fulfilled, functions as the vital turning point in no fewer than seven interlocking narratives which form the backbone of all his thought. Understanding how the cross in particular functions in each of these will take us close to a presentation of the heart of his theology.

(ii) Biblical Narratives in the Background

Standing over all the stories that make up the narrative substructure of Paul’s thought, we find frequent reference to the Exodus. Romans 8 uses Exodus-language of the whole creation, and of the people of God travelling through the wilderness towards their ‘inheritance’. Similarly, Galatians 4: 1-n speaks of God’s people as being enslaved, and then, at the right time (the time for the Abrahamic promises to be fulfilled, as in Genesis 15 which Paul has been expounding in the previous chapter), God sending forth his Son and his Spirit to rescue those who are ‘under the law’. This is of course heavily ironic in that, in the original Exodus-story, the law is God’s good gift to the newly redeemed people, whereas here it is a force or power from whose enslavement people need to be freed. Perhaps the most obvious point (at least, thus it seems to me) is Romans 6, where those in Christ come through the waters of baptism, symbolizing the dying and rising of and with Christ, and so pass from the slavery of sin to the new life of sanctification.

The story of the Exodus is re-used in various ways both in the OT and NT, and in the latter, as in some other second Temple contexts, it gives shape in particular to stories and prophecies about the ‘return from exile’. As indicated above. I use this as a shorthand way of referring to the widespread second Temple belief (as in Daniel 9) that [82] the true ‘exile’ continued long after the geographical return, leading to speculation about when the real ‘redemption’, in other words, the New Exodus, would take place. Israel was once again enslaved to the pagans, as in Egypt, and God would act decisively on her behalf. This is, to choose a couple of examples at random, the message of the last chapters of the Wisdom of Solomon, or of the final segments of Tobit. Just as in 4QMMT and Baruch, Paul draws on the passage in Deuteronomy 30 which prophesies this ‘real return from exile’ (Rom. ^ 5-9); and I have argued that the same theme is also present in his use of Leviticus in Galatians 3:12.[7] The ‘curse’ of the Torah is not an abstract threat hanging over all who break some abstract moral law, an early version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative; according to Deuteronomy, it is the historical and physical punishment which consists of disaster within the land and finally expulsion from it. Israel’s continuing shameful exile (see Rom. 2: 17-24, quoting Isa. 52: 5 and Exod. 36: 20) needs a new act of God’s covenant faithfulness, as in Daniel 9:16, to bring Israel and hence the world through to the long-promised and long-awaited state of renewal, restoration, and redemption.

If exile is the problem, the servant is the answer—at least according to Isaiah 40-55. Though this remains controversial, I now regard it as a fixed point that Paul made extensive though subtle use of the servant songs at several places in his writings, and, we may infer from his almost casual references, at considerably more places in the thinking that lay behind the writings we have. An obvious example is Romans 4:24-5, where the entire train of thought of 3: 21 – 4: 25, is summed up in a formulaic sentence which clearly evokes Isaiah 53 and to which Paul refers in his statements about the ‘obedience of the one man’ in 5:12-21. Not that Paul has removed the servant from his wider Isaian context: chapters 40-55 are all about the righteousness of God through which the powers of the world are defeated and God’s people in consequence rescued—the New Exodus, in other words. And, within the servant story itself, but obviously going much wider in Jewish thought as a whole, we cannot ignore Paul’s regular use of sacrificial terminology. Our difficulty here is not so much in recognizing that Paul sees Jesus’ death as a sacrifice as in working out what he might [83] have meant by this, since our knowledge of how second Temple Jews understood the theology of sacrifice is remarkably thin.[8] This is bound to remain a question mark within this chapter as a whole: how precisely did Paul understand Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, and how does this integrate with all the other things he says? If we could answer this more satisfactorily we would take another large step, I think, to integrating several other aspects of his thought. These are the narratives—the exodus, the return from exile, the offering of sacrifices—which help to frame and shape the seven key stories which Paul is telling, in each of which the redeeming death of Jesus the Messiah is the central point. I must now set them out one by one before attempting integration.

(iii) The Seven Key Stories, and the Cross within Them

The first story Paul tells, by implication throughout, is that of creation and new creation. A consistently Jewish thinker, Paul never imagines that creation is evil; it is the good creation of the good God, and to be enjoyed as such. But, in line with much apocalyptic thought, Paul believes that God is planning to renew creation, to bring it out of its present state of decay and death and into the new world where it would find its true fulfilment. The classic passage for this is of course Rom. 8: 18-27, which as we saw offers one of the rare occurrences of the word ‘redemption’ itself. Paul does not mention the cross in that passage itself, but the sufferings of Christians, which are, for him, the sharing of Christ’s sufferings, hold the key to the current state of affairs through which the world must pass to attain its final deliverance from decay.

This explains why, at the end of Galatians (6: 14-15), Paul can suddenly broaden the horizon of what has been up till then a sharply focused discussion. I suspect that many at the Redemption Summit sang a few days earlier Isaac Watts’ version of redemption:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the cross of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine.
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

A wonderful statement of Christian devotion; yet, as with other hymns from the same period, we may question whether it does full justice to the scope of what Paul actually says: ‘through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world; for neither circumcision is anything, nor uncircumcision, but new creation’. The ‘to me’ is clearly important, and the ‘new creation’ is focused on the new creation that consists in the Spirit-called people defined by faith as opposed to membership in ethnic Israel; but what Paul is saying about himself, and about all God’s people in Christ, is not just that they have changed, but that they live in a landscape which has decisively changed. The world as a whole has been crucified in the crucifixion of the Messiah, and a new world has been brought to birth. This is presumably why he can say in Colossians 1: 23 that the gospel has already been proclaimed to every creature under heaven: when Jesus died and rose again, the cosmos as a whole became a different place. This is also closely linked to the famous 2 Corinthians 5: 17: ‘anyone in Christ is new creation—the old things have gone, and look, new things have come into being’. That passage, too, belongs closely with a massive statement both of the cross of Jesus and of the way the cross has worked its way through Paul’s apostolic ministry, as we shall see later. What seems to be happening is that Paul understands the death of Jesus, and the continuing resonances of that death in the suffering of the church, as the hinge upon which the door of world history turns. From that moment, the forces of decay and death have suffered their major defeat, and from now on new creation is under way, with its first signs being the new life of those who believe the gospel. ‘New creation’ thus refers to the actual people concerned, not over against the rest of the world but as the sign of the new life that will one day flood the entire creation.

The second great narrative which Paul has in mind throughout his writing is the story of Israel. This is more complicated, because Israel is the people called to bear God’s solution to the problem of the world and yet now ensnared, themselves, within the same problem. Paul shows dozens of signs that he is following through the Israel-story in the same way as many other second Temple writers: the Abrahamic promises as God’s solution to the problem of the world, the Exodus as [85] the first great fulfilment of those promises, the Torah as God’s good gift to his redeemed people, designed to stop them going to the bad until the final fulfilment… and then the catastrophe of exile, with Torah itself turning against Israel and condemning it. What can God do now about the promises? What will happen to the divine plan to bless the whole world through Israel?

This is exactly the way Paul sets up the problem in two classic passages, Romans 2: 17-3: 9 and Galatians 3: 6-12. The answer, in both cases, is the death of Jesus, bursting through the blockage in the historical fulfilment of the divine purposes. In Romans, Jesus appears as the Messiah, the faithful Israelite, whose redeeming death (3: 24- 6) is the means of God’s now declaring that all who share this faith are ‘righteous’, that is, members of the sin-forgiven family (3: 27-31), and that this is how God has fulfilled the Abrahamic promises (4: 1-25). In Galatians, more specifically, the curse of exile which had bottled up the promises and prevented them getting through to the Gentiles, leaving Israel itself under condemnation, is dealt with by the death of Jesus: he takes Israel’s curse on himself (and thus, at one remove, the world’s curse, though this is not what is in view in this passage, despite efforts to employ it as a generalized statement of ‘atonement theology’), making it possible at last for ‘the blessing of Abraham to come on the Gentiles’ and also that ‘we’ (in other words, Jews who had been under the very specific ‘curse’ of Deuteronomy) might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. In other words, the covenant has been renewed at last—through the death of Jesus as Israel’s representative Messiah.

In other words, I do not think that Paul’s train of thought ran, as so many have suggested: (a) Jesus was crucified, therefore he was under God’s curse, therefore he cannot have been the Messiah; and then (b) God raised him from the dead, therefore he cannot have been cursed, therefore his death must have been redemptive. Paul is quite clear that Jesus did bear the curse, not that he didn’t.

This explains, among many other things, why Paul says at the start of Galatians (the point in the letter when we might expect a thematic statement) that ‘our Lord Jesus the Messiah gave himself for our sins, to deliver us from the present evil age according to the will of God our Father’ (1: 3-4). And this in turn brings into view the central statement of the common early creed quoted by Paul in I Corinthians 15: 3: the Messiah ‘died for our sins according to the scriptures’. Galatians 1:4 shows very clearly what this means, [86] offering once more a historical understanding rather than a dehistoricized atonement-theory. For a second Temple Jew, soaked in passages like Daniel 9, the present parlous state of Israel, which (following Daniel and many other writers) I have characterized as ‘continuing exile’, was the result of Israel’s sins. The ancient Israelites had sinned, and had gone into exile; now their successors, even those living back in the land, had continued to sin, and as a result the final redemption, the real ‘return from exile’, was delayed. (Think, for instance, of Malachi.) The problem of sin is thus not simply that it separates the individual from God in his or her existential spirituality (true though that is as well). The problem is that Israel’s sins are keeping Israel in exile. Conversely, if somehow Israel’s sins were to be dealt with, finished with, and blotted out, then exile could be undone and the people could go free—and with them the whole world, waiting for Israel to be redeemed (as in e.g. Isa. 55, not by coincidence as we shall see). Thus, for the moment, Israel languishes in ‘the present evil age’, waiting for ‘the age to come’ to arrive, the time of redemption and forgiveness. And this forgiveness will not mean simply that individuals can now enter into a happy and intimate relationship with their heavenly Father, true again though that is. The point is that, if sins are forgiven, exile will be over, the rule of the evil powers will be broken, and Israel—and the rest of the world—will be summoned to enjoy, and take part in, God’s renewed world. This is what Paul believes has happened with the death of Jesus. In neither passage does he explain how it is that the death of Jesus delivers us from the evil age; the equation depends on two other things, which he supplies plentifully elsewhere, not least in I Corinthians 15 itself: (a) Jesus was and is Israel’s representative Messiah; (b) God raised him from the dead (note I Cor. 15:17: if the Messiah isn’t raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins; in other words, the new age has not begun).

The story of the crucified Messiah is thus at the heart of Paul’s way of telling the story of how Israel has been brought to the very depth of exile and has now been rescued to live as God’s new creation. The sharpest statement of this comes at the end of Galatians 2:

I through the Torah died to Torah, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah; however, I am alive, yet it is not me, but the Messiah lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify God’s [87] grace; for if covenant membership came by Torah, then the Messiah died for no reason. (Gal. 2:19-21)

This spills over into the next story (and all these stories are in any case interlocked); yet I cannot resist putting it here. The point of all that Paul is saying, to Peter at Antioch and, through the telling of that incident, to the Galatians as they ‘overhear’ the Paul/Peter debate, or at least Paul’s side of it, is not that he, Paul, has had a particular spiritual experience or that he now enjoys a particular kind of spiritual life. The point of it all is that Paul is here standing, as in one or two other places, as the typical Israelite. He has stated the general principle in Galatians 2:15-16: though we are by birth Jews, not ‘Gentile sinners’, we know that God declares ‘righteous’ not those who rely on ‘works of Torah’, but those whose status depends on the faithfulness of the Messiah. Paul’s point, in other words, is that through the faithful death of the Messiah God has acted to transform the category of ‘the righteous’, so that it now denotes not those who are defined by Torah but those who are defined by the Messiah. And ‘those who are defined by the Messiah’ means those who have died and come to life in and with him; those, in other words, who have been co-crucified with him (v. 19). Here the cross determines the death of the old identity: the Messiah, Israel’s representative, dies, therefore Israel dies according to the flesh. And, by implication, the resurrection determines the new life of the new identity: the Messiah,Israel’s representative, ‘lives to God’ (Gal. 2: 19, cf. Rom. 6: l0), and those who are ‘in him’ possess this same new life. That which was said in the plural in Gal. 1: 3-4 is now brought into the sharp singular, not (once again) because Paul is special but because he is paradigmatic: ‘the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2: 20). The final verse sums up the effect of the cross on the story of Israel: if Torah could have defined covenant membership, the Messiah would not have needed to die, but (so Paul clearly implies) the fact that the Messiah did need to die indicates that Israel, as defined by Torah, needed to die and to come through to a new sort of life, a life in which the promises would at last be fulfilled.

The third great narrative which Paul offers is embedded within the second, as the second is in the first: it is the story of Torah. Torah is almost personified in some Pauline passages, and its multiple ambiguities have precipitated a huge secondary literature. The crucial passages are again in Galatians and Romans. In Galatians 4: 1-7, [88] Paul tells the story of Israel being redeemed from Torah as though Torah were a new sort of Pharaoh, an enslaving power. Torah has become, in fact, identified as one of the stoicheia tou kosmou, the ‘elements of the world’, which I take to mean the shabby line-up of the tutelary deities of the nations, the subdivine beings to whom the world has been entrusted until the time of fulfilment. This explains how Paul can say that in their former state the ex-Gentile Galatians had been enslaved to beings that by nature were not divine, but had now been set free by God’s ‘knowing’ of them (4: 8-9). Paul can then chide them with turning back to the ‘elements’ once more (4: 9b), when what they were seeking to do was to embrace Torah, presumably in the hope of getting ‘further in’ within the people of the true God than they had been able to do by believing in Jesus and being baptized. The only way we can make sense of this is to remind ourselves, from 3: 21-5, that the God-given Torah had a deliberately negative purpose, to shut up Israel under a new kind of slavery until the ultimate redemption, which has now been accomplished through ‘the son of God’, his sending, his birth, and his ‘being under Torah’ (4: 4). Though Paul does not mention Jesus’ death at this point we should surely infer it.

We should do so not least in the light of the parallel in Romans 7:1-8: 11. Once again I refer to my commentary for fuller treatment. The main point to be drawn out here is found in two seminal statements, Romans 7: 4 and 8: 3-4.

Paul’s advance summary in 7: 4 is very close to Galatians 2: l6-21: ‘You died to the law through the body of the Messiah, so that you could belong to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, so that you could bear fruit for God’. Briefly, the point is this: Torah had bound Israel, not to God as had been thought, but to Adam (see Rom. 5: 20; 6:14; 7:1-3). The death of the Messiah is then to be counted as the death of his people; so those who, formerly under Torah, die with the Messiah to the Torah are set free from the bond that binds them to Adam (the ‘former husband’ of 7:1-3, like the ‘old man’ of 6: 6). As a result, they are free for a new life, a life in the risen Christ, a life of ‘being fruitful’ as Adam had originally been commanded. This points the way forwards into the exposition of chapter 7, where Torah demonstrates that Israel is indeed in Adam (7: 7-12), and that Israel, even though possessing Torah as God’s gift and rejoicing in it as such, finds that all Torah can do is condemn and kill, not because there is anything wrong with Torah but because [89] there is something right about Torah-it must point out sin and condemn it. That’s what it’s there for. Israel’s ultimate problem is not the fact of possessing Torah, but the fact of possessing it while being a sinful people, a people in Adam.

Torah, however, has throughout this process had an important and God-given negative purpose: to draw sin onto one place, luring it forwards to concentrate all its efforts at one spot. That is the meaning of the otherwise puzzling 5: 20. And when this has been done, then the trap can be sprung: sin, the real culprit (does Paul in personifying ‘sin’, take a step towards identifying it with the serpent in the garden, and hence with ‘the satan’?), must be condemned. This is the closest Paul comes to saying in so many words what so many of his interpreters have attributed to him: that the death of Jesus was the ultimate moment of judicial condemnation, of God’s punishment; ‘God, sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin-offering, condemned sin in the flesh.’ This is strongly penal language. However, Paul does not say either that God punished Jesus or that God punished Jesus for ‘my sins’; much of the previous chapter has been devoted to demonstrating that. For the pious Jew under Torah. ‘it is not I that do it, but sin dwelling in me’. What Paul says is that God punished sin in the flesh, that is the flesh of Jesus. Of course, this amounts to the same thing in practice; Jesus’ crucifixion was not one whit less horrible, shameful disgusting, and agonizing for the fact that God was punishing sin rather than punishing Jesus, since of course the point was that he had come ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’. But this theological analysis of the event indicates well enough, I think, how close the traditional penal theories of the atonement come to his meaning while yet not allowing for its subtlety. The point within this third story is that Torah, God’s agent in the necessarily negative period between Moses and Jesus, was used to draw sin onto one place-Israel, and thence to Israel’s representative, the Messiah-so that in his crucifixion, it could be punished at last as it deserved. And in that punishment-here the penal substitutionary theory makes its perfectly valid point-’there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (8: 1). No condemnation for Christ’s people because God has condemned sin in the flesh of Christ: that is the perfectly Pauline point underneath the substitutionary language that has proved so powerful for some and so problematic for others.

[90] This leads us to the fourth story, which is that of the human race. This is central to the whole presentation and, though this treatment is still very brief, it will be somewhat longer than that of the other stories. ‘All sinned, and came short of the glory of God; and they are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption which is in Messiah Jesus’ (Rom. 3: 23-4). Redemption is the means of justification. How can we understand this? ‘Justification’ has, since Augustine at least, often been understood as more or less coterminous with ‘conversion’. Traditional Reformed theology has spelt things out in more detail in terms of an ‘ordo salutis’ which comes close, in my view, to the substance of what Paul is saying without always reflecting his use of key terms. My contention here—and this explains the anger directed against my view in some circles—is that Paul does not use the verb like this. This is where I not only agree with Sanders in seeing that Paul is talking about the coming together of Jew and Gentile in Christ, but go beyond him into a far more precise definition of ‘justification’.

When Paul speaks of the initial hearing-the-gospel-and-coming-to-faith he speaks of the ‘call’ of God (see I Cor. 1: 26; Gal. 1: 15; spelt out in I Thess. 1: 4; 2:13). In the decisive, crystal-clear summary at the end of Romans 8 he distinguishes ‘call’ from ‘justify’ within the sequence of God’s actions. Thus, despite generations who have read it this way, I conclude that Romans 3: 21-6 does not describe how someone becomes a Christian, but describes rather the grounds on which God declares that certain persons, despite their all alike being sinful, are declared to be members of his covenant family. This declaration is not what brings people into the family; it is what certifies— against the expectation of those who might still assume that the Jew/Gentile distinction operates in perpetuity—that all who are ‘of the faith of Jesus’ are full members, circumcised and uncircumcised alike. That this is Paul’s meaning ought to have been clear long ago from verses 29 and 30, which explain the nature of the ‘boasting’ in 3: 27-8; but the Lutheran reading of the passage, according to which ‘boasting’ meant ‘self-righteous legalism, trying to earn God’s favour’, has been so strong that even good exegetes have been content to see verse 29 as a transition to a different theme. God ‘justifies’ all alike on the basis of faith; that is, exactly as in Galatians 2:15-21, God regards all the faithful alike as fully members of the same single family, and as belonging side by side at the same table.

[91] Thus, despite generations of zealous evangelistic use of Romans 3:21-6 as describing and facilitating ‘conversion’, I do not think this is what the passage is basically about. ‘Justification’ is not about ‘entry’, about ‘getting in’; this is where Sanders, I think, failed to draw the appropriate conclusion from his own thesis. Nor is it exactly about ‘staying in’. It is about God declaring that someone is in. It defines the community.

In the light of this, what can we say about the cross in verses 24-6? How does Paul explain more precisely the meaning of ‘the redemption which is in Messiah Jesus’?

The main thing to say is that it is cultic. God ‘put him forth’—the word is used in the LXX of the shewbread—as a hilasterion, through his faithfulness (i.e. his obedience-to-death, as in 5:12-21), by means of his blood. Much debate has poured forth on the precise meaning of hilasterion, and much has been invested in making this the vital turning point in atonement theology. By itself the word probably cannot bear that weight. Strong indications point to a propitiatory significance, but this is not enough to force the whole passage into the normal straitjacket of ‘we sinned; God punished Jesus instead; we go free’. The main point is that, as with the sacrifices of the OT, the death of Jesus is the means whereby the God of infinite justice can nevertheless declare that certain people truly are his people, are dikaioi: that is, they are covenant members, and their sins are forgiven. That was what the covenant was always designed to do, and in Jesus the Messiah the object has been attained. I have argued in my commentary that Paul is here drawing on ideas connected to the sacrificial death of the martyrs, which in turn point back to second Temple readings of Isaiah 53; and the fact that Paul refers to that passage when summing up the place of Jesus’ death in the argument of this section (4: 24-5) gives this strong support. The servant dies ‘for our trespasses/iniquities’, in order to put into effect God’s righteousness and salvation.

There can be no question but that Isaiah 53 has in mind some kind of substitution: the servant is innocent, yet bears the fate of the guilty. (See too Rom. 8. 3, discussed briefly above.) Paul has made it very clear in his initial statement of human guilt that the characteristic human position is to know God’s decree that certain types of behaviour deserve death, and yet to practise and approve them. Now he describes the Messiah dying ‘on behalf of’ the weak, the sinful, as the outworking of God’s love (Rom. 5: 8), resulting in people being [92] ‘justified’, that is, declared to be in the right, in the present, and being assured of final salvation (Rom. 5: 9). (Paul here draws on the same seam of thought as we saw in Gal. 1: 3-4 and I Cor. 15: 3.) And, as the paragraph reaches its climax in Romans 5: 10, Paul speaks of enemies being reconciled, and of those now reconciled then being saved the more easily. The fact that he has just spoken of God’s wrath (Rom. 5: 9) ought to warn us against too readily assuming that ‘enemies’ describes only the subjective state of rebellious human beings; the mystery is that God simultaneously was turned against the human race in wrath (Rom. i: 18) and turned towards it in love (Rom. 5: 8). The day we fathom that mystery will be the day we understand Paul’s atonement theology.

Where has this taken us in following the fourth story? The whole human race, sinful and unable to defend itself (Rom. 3:19-20), finds itself addressed by a love which declares that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, has died for it and risen again. When this message is preached, and the Spirit works powerfully through this gospel, this constitutes the ‘call’ (Rom. 1: 16-17; I Cor. 12: 3; Gal.1: 15; I Thess. 2: 13), resulting in the faith that Jesus is indeed Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 4: 24-5; lo: 9). This ‘call’ is itself possible because of what Jesus has already done, because of the new world that has come into being through his dying and rising (see story 1 above); but as it is applied, through the word and the Spirit, to the individual heart it invites the surprised, newly believing person to reflect on the status he or she now has. This is the status of ‘righteous’, and it is grounded in what has been achieved on the cross. By only a small expansion of Romans 5: 6-10 we can see the point. Those who were weak are now strong; those who were unaware of God’s love are now grasped by it; those who were sinners are now accounted such no longer; those who were unrighteous are now righteous; those facing wrath are now rescued from it; those who were enemies are now reconciled and, once more, rescued. All this has taken place because of the death of Jesus, and the new life which flows from it. All of this constitutes ‘the redemption which is in Messiah Jesus’. And all of this points on, in the argument of Romans 5-8 and the theology of Paul as a whole, to the climax in Romans 8: those who share Christ’s sufferings will share his glory, his dominion over the redeemed cosmos.

At the heart of this we find the strange combination of two apparently opposite ideas: the Messiah dies, therefore his people die [93] with him; the Messiah dies, therefore his people do not die. Though these are often played off against one another (‘representation’ versus ‘substitution’), I have already said enough to show that they belong closely with one another. Substitution (he dies, we do not) makes sense within the context of representation (the Member of Parliament represents the constituents, and therefore is qualified to act, particularly to speak and vote, in their place). Representation is important not least because it creates the context for substitution. Within the story of the human race as a whole we find the Pauline story of the individual human being, summarized in Romans 8: 2.9-30. When someone becomes a Christian, this is rooted in God’s inscrutable will, not in their own initiative; Paul has little to say about this, but (here and in e.g. I Thess.1i: 4-5) it is clear that when the gospel works powerfully to change hearts and lives, Paul traces this not to the worthiness of the hearer but to the grace of God (he may well, of course, have in mind passages like Deut. 7: 6-8). For our purposes the key events are the three final ones in Romans 8: 29-30: those God called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

This should make it clear that when Paul wants to refer to the initial event of someone’s becoming a Christian he does not use the term ‘justify’ and its cognates. He uses ‘call’, and he glosses this, as we saw, with a theology of the preaching of the gospel, the ‘word’, in the power of the Spirit. ‘Call’ denotes the event that people often refer to as ‘conversion’, though of course whereas ‘conversion’ draws attention to the change of heart and mind in the person concerned, the word ‘call’ draws attention to God’s action and hence places that change of heart and mind already in the category of ‘obedience’ as well as ‘faith’ (see e.g. Rom. 1: 5). The ‘call’ thus does indeed evoke faith, faith that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.

The verb ‘justify’ does not, then, denote the initial moment of coming-to-faith, but (when used in the present—see below) the declaration which God makes on the basis of that faith. Justification in the present is God’s declaration, based on that faith alone rather than anything in the ethnic, gendered, moral, or social background of the person concerned, that this person is indeed a member of the covenant family, one whose sins are forgiven and for whom there is ‘no condemnation’. Justification thus points forwards to ‘glorification’, Paul’s larger term for the eventual goal. I note that this is a larger category than ‘sanctification’, though it includes it en route (not least by means of baptism; there is, unfortunately, no space for [94] Romans 6 in this chapter). I also note that the concrete referent is the final resurrection (Rom. 8: n), not simply a post-mortem life of bliss in ‘heaven’ or wherever, something about which Paul has almost nothing to say.

What then does Paul mean by ‘justification’? Once we clear our minds of the referent the word has had in much of the last 1600 years, and listen carefully to what he says, we discover three things. When we listen to its OT echoes, the word is covenantal: it refers to the declaration that these people are members of God’s true people. But because this declaration is always made in the face of the accusation of sin, and in the light of God’s determination to put the world to rights precisely through the Abrahamic covenant, the word is also forensic: the ‘law-court’ categories are not simply snatched from a different and perhaps conflicting metaphorical home base, but rather explain how it is that the covenantal purpose is worked out. And the word is also, especially, eschatological. It can be used in both past and future as well as present, and indeed the past justification and the future justification determine the meaning of the present. This will become clear if we lay these senses out.

In Romans 2: 1-16 Paul speaks of ‘justification’ in the future: those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory, honour, and immortality will be given the life of the age to come, and this is to be seen as ‘justification’, that is, God’s final declaration that they are his people. This future ‘declaration’ will consist in God’s raising these people from the dead; this same event can thus properly be described, also, as ‘salvation’, since it will be the means of rescuing people from the state of death; and, as we saw, as ‘glorification’, stressing the new role for God’s redeemed humanity within God’s new world.

In Romans 4: 25 Paul declares that Jesus was ‘put to death for our trespasses, and raised for our justification’. The connection implied by ‘for’ in this double statement is highly contested, but for present purposes the point is that Paul is looking back to a past event which somehow grounds the justification that we enjoy in the present. It is the event which he can sum up as the ‘act of obedience’ of Jesus Christ, or as his ‘faithfulness’.

Thus Romans 3: 21-31, and indeed Romans 4 which roots it in God’s covenant promises, speaks of a present justification which is based on the action of the faithful Messiah in the past and whichanticipates the verdict of the future. When someone believes the [95] gospel—when, in other words, the ‘call’ takes place, as above—then the verdict of the future is brought forward into the present. As in 4QMMT, this is how that which will be revealed on the last day—namely, who God’s true people really are—is known in advance. But whereas in 4QMMT the evidence was to be the performance of certain specified ‘works of Torah’, namely the regulations which marked out the Essenes from other Jews, and whereas for the Pharisees (or their Christian analogues whom we can assume to have been Paul’s partners in controversy) the evidence was to be the performance of the ‘works of Torah’ which marked out Jews from their pagan neighbours, that is, sabbath, food-laws, and circumcision, for Paul the evidence is simply Christ-faith: belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. This faith, the obedient response to God’s call, is the appropriate evidence for this declaration, both because it is the sign of the Christ-life (note how the faith of the believer mirrors the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah in Rom. 3: 22) and because, since it is the work of the Spirit through the gospel, it is the sign of that upon which final assurance is based. ‘The one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of the Messiah’ (Phil. 1. 6). This is where Paul’s whole theme of the Spirit as arrabon, ‘down-payment’, makes its contribution to a fully blown theology of justification.

I thus note that, despite the loose language (and theology) we often find in this area, Paul does not speak of ‘salvation by faith’ (except for Eph. 2: 8, which raises other questions). Once we free ‘justification’ from meaning ‘conversion’ or anything like it, we cut loose from the sterile and often tortuous debates about ‘faith and works’ that have taken place in an environment many miles removed from second Temple Judaism, namely the European controversies of the sixteenth and some subsequent centuries. Paul would, of course, have scoffed at Pelagian-style self-help moralism, but this is not what Romans and Galatians are about. He believed, like most Jews of his day, in a final judgement which would be ‘according to works’, and did not in any way see that as compromising his position on justification, God’s declaration in the present that all believers belong to his true people. ‘Justification’ is a technically precise way of saying something Paul was eager to say and many of his readers have completely missed: that all those who believe in Jesus as the risen Lord belong in the same family, no matter what their social or moral status or background.

[96] So much for the fourth story Paul is telling. I turn fifthly, much more briefly, to a very specific outworking of the same narrative, namely the story of Paul’s apostolic vocation. Two passages are particularly significant: Philippians 3: 4-n and 2 Corinthians as a whole. In Philippians Paul applies the pattern he has set out in 2:6-n to his own life. Whatever gain he had, he counted as loss because of the Messiah. His goal is ‘to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain to the resurrection from the dead’. I have argued elsewhere that this is not said for the sake of autobiography, but in order to highlight the pattern of Jesus’ dying and rising as being etched into Paul’s apostolic work so that it may serve as a pattern. He wants the Philippians to imitate him; they cannot do this directly, since none of them had been zealous Pharisaic Jews as he describes himself to have been. The solution is found at the end of the chapter, where Paul’s description of Jesus seems deliberately to echo Roman imperial rhetoric about Caesar. Paul is hinting, I suggest, that the Philippians, some of whom at least will have been Roman citizens, and all of whom may have found benefit in the city’s status as a Roman colony, must sit as loose to their privileges as he has to his.[9]

Paul’s second letter to Corinth reveals the cross not so much etched into Paul’s apostolic work as burnt deep into it with a branding-iron. Passage after passage makes it clear that the cross is not only the means whereby the Christian obtains initial forgiveness, the new start of the gospel, but also the way and pattern of life, especially for those to whom the gospel is entrusted. It is at the heart of this exposition of Paul’s apostolic ministry that we find one of the most famous statements of his theologia crucis, in 2 Corinthians 5: 20-1: ‘We act as ambassadors for the Messiah, as though God were making his appeal through us. On behalf of the Messiah we entreat people: be reconciled to God! God made the one who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might become God’s righteousness.’

Again, I have argued elsewhere for a different interpretation to the normal one.[10] Start from two fixed points. First, it is highly probable [97] that when Paul writes dikaiosyne theou, as here and in several passages in Romans, he is not referring to the status which he and all Christians have, the status of ‘righteous’ which is God’s gift. That he describes as the righteous status which comes from God (he ek theou dikaiosune, Phil. 3: 9). Rather, he refers to God’s own covenant faithfulness. (This is strengthened further by the oddity of saying ‘become’, had he meant that this righteous status was ‘reckoned’ to them, as in Rom. 4 or Gal. 3.) Second, reading the verse the normal way, as a statement of abstract atonement theology in which our sins are credited to Jesus and his righteousness is credited to us (something Paul says nowhere else), destroys the force of the passage, in which Paul is building up to a crescendo not about soteriology but about the inner logic of his apostolic ministry. In fact, the normal reading of the passage often results in v. 21 falling off the end of the discussion; or, sometimes, in the treating of v. 20 as if it were a direct appeal to the Corinthians themselves (by the unwarranted addition of ‘you’), rather than a broad statement of Paul’s apostolic activity. These two fixed points suggest the following reading: that the cross of Jesus the Messiah is (among many other things) the means by which the failings and limitations of the apostle and his work, and particularly his personal sins, are dealt with, setting him free to become, to embody, to encapsulate, and show forth in his own work, that covenant faithfulness of God whose initial unveiling in the faithful death of Jesus (Rom. 3: 21-6) stands behind everything Paul believes, writes, and attempts. I therefore read v. 21 not as a statement of God’s righteousness, still less Christ’s righteousness, being imputed, imparted or otherwise transferred to the believer, but as a statement of God’s own covenant faithfulness being embodied in the apostolic work which is causing Paul so much grief throughout the letter.

This still leaves, however, the first half of the verse: ‘For our sake [God] made [the Messiah], who knew no sin, to be sin for us.’ Though Paul does not mention the death of Jesus specifically, the wider context has been full of it (especially e.g. 4: 7-15), and the mention of God’s reconciling work in the Messiah (5: 18-19) fits closely with his cross-shaped reconciliation theology in Romans 5: 9-10 and Colossians 1: 20. 22. Once again there may be cultic overtones: to make something to be ‘sin’ could be a way of referring to the sin-offering. But this should not take away from the central statement: God’s making the sinless one to be sin on our behalf. Once again the [98] closest OT passage seems to be Isaiah 53, where the innocent one is wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. It may be, though, that Paul is not simply explaining that in his death Jesus has borne ‘our’ sin, that is, including that of the apostles themselves, in order that they might be fit embodiments of God’s covenant faithfulness. He may also, or even primarily, be referring to Jesus’ sin-bearing death as the model for, and the locus of, the suffering which the apostle must now undergo as he brings the message of reconciliation. It is ‘in him’, after all, that the apostles ‘become’ God’s covenant faithfulness. Once again the parallel with Colossians 1 suggests itself: Paul fills up in his own flesh what was lacking in the Messiah’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church (1: 24).

Colossians 1 points us to the sixth story which Paul is aware of telling throughout his work: that of the powers of the world. Briefly, and confusingly, the powers—every single one of them, in heaven and earth—are created in, through, and for the Messiah, God’s beloved son (1: 16), and then are reconciled through him (1: 20). The reader of Paul’s great poem is puzzled: why, if they were created by him, did they need to be reconciled? The poem clearly presupposes some sort of ‘fall’, or rebellion of the powers. This is confirmed in Colossians 2: 15. The cross of Jesus, instead of being as one might suppose the place where the powers celebrated a triumph over him, stripping him naked and holding him up to public contempt, is to be seen as the place where Jesus celebrated his triumph over them.

This victory over the powers, and their consequent reconciliation, sets the stage for Paul’s reworking of the ancient Jewish theme of the one sovereign God and the powers of the world, spiritual and political (a modem distinction to which, notoriously, neither Jewish nor Pauline thought corresponds). Alongside Colossians 1 we must place I Corinthians 2: 8: ‘None of the rulers of this age knew [the hidden wisdom of God]; if they had, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of Glory.’ Three things are going on here, points at which Paul is picking up Jewish political theology where the Wisdom of Solomon left off and taking it forward. First, he implies that the wisdom of Israel’s God is what the world’s rulers really need, if they are to do their job properly and avoid judgement from the world’s true Sovereign. Second, he implies that had they recognized Jesus himself as wisdom incarnate, they would have done him homage rather than executing him. Third, he implies that their killing of Jesus was in fact their acquiescence in their own demise, since his death was (as in [99] Col. 2) the means whereby their stranglehold over the human race was broken at last.

This is where, I suggest, Paul’s theology of the cross confronts, in principle, the power of Rome. As I have argued in various places, both in structure and in detail Paul ranges the gospel of Jesus against the gospel of Caesar, and the place of the cross within the Jesus message offers a wonderful subversion of the place of the cross within Caesar’s empire. I cannot go further into this here, but unless this is taken seriously one whole aspect of Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ death is in danger of being ignored.

The seventh and last story we note is that of God himself. It may seem a step too far towards process theology to imagine God himself having a ‘story’; yet when Paul tells the story of Israel this is really the obverse of the other story looming up behind, the story of the creator and covenant God. This is, surely, what Romans 9-11 is all about; were there more space, I would try to demonstrate that that entire section of the book is radically shaped around the cross of Israel’s Messiah. Israel follows the Messiah into judgement, and is now free, if it wants, to abandon unbelief and find new life. But Romans 9-11 is itself based on the earlier sections of the letter, and in 5-8 we find God as the subject of the story all through, implicitly or explicitly, particularly as the one whose love is embodied and exemplified in Jesus’ death (5: 6-10; 8: 31-9). We must not miss the importance of this: over against all kenotic christologies that flirt with the idea of the Son of God somehow ‘stopping being God’ for a while in order to become incarnate and die, Paul insists that when Jesus dies what we are seeing is the love of God in action. If the one who died on the cross was not somehow identified with the one true God, then his death would reveal, not how much God loved, but how much God managed to escape the consequences of genuine love.

In fact, the passage traditionally quoted in favour of a ‘kenotic’ christology makes this point very well. Philippians 2: 6-n turns on the little word dio at the start of v.9: therefore God has given him the name above every name, that every tongue should confess that Jesus, Messiah, is kyrios. The LXX references, especially to Isaiah 45: 23, indicate what is in mind: the One God, who will not share his glory with another, has shared it with Jesus—precisely because he has been ‘obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross’. For Paul in Philippians, the crucifixion of Jesus is not something which [100]happened despite the fact that he was God incarnate, but because of it. He has done what only God can do.

(iv) Conclusion: The Cross within Paul’s Storied World

I have tried to show, in all too incomplete a fashion, the role that the cross played in seven of the key interlocking stories which contribute to the rich texture of Paul’s theological and practical writing. Ideally, I should now work through the material from one or two more angles, establishing some cross-sectioned references and so homing in the more accurately on the way Paul’s mind and arguments worked. But I have said enough to show, I think, both that the New Perspective, by highlighting key aspects of second Temple Judaism and by loosening the grip of a wooden Lutheran-style analysis, has opened up all kinds of new possibilities, even though within the NP itself these were not followed up in the way I have now done. I have also tried to indicate how the fresh perspective plays out, though there again there is much more to be said. Certainly Paul believed that through his costly apostolic work (story 5) and through the creation, by the gospel, of a renewed non-ethno-specific human family (story 4), Caesar’s grandiose claim to bring justice, freedom, and peace to the world (story 6) was being challenged by God’s counter-claim, which, like Caesar’s, hinged decisively on the cross. This coming together of soteriology and ‘political theology’ may indeed be the most important proposal of this chapter.

But I have tried to show, in particular, how narrative readings of Paul can shed fresh light on well-known and contentious areas. I do not think I have made these areas less contentious, but I hope I have conveyed something of the excitement and drama that they had for Paul himself and can, I believe, still have today. ‘Redemption’ is one of those heavy, stodgy words that sit amongst Christian vocabulary the way suet puddings sit amongst the other food on the plate. I hope I have indicated that for Paul this was a word which spoke of promise fulfilled, of freedom attained, of the faithful love of God and the journey home to the ‘inheritance’—in other words, of exodus. In a world ringing once more with the familiar imperial rhetoric of freedom, it is good to be reminded that there is another way of telling the story.

[1] Representative works of the New Perspective include: E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977); James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul. and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville. Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press. 1990); N. T. Wright, What St Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. 1997). Among recent, critical responses, see: Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. 2001); Andrew A. Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001); Simon J. Gathercole,Where is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5 (Grand Rapids. Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).

[2] John W. Drane, Paul, Libertine or Legalist? A Study in the Theology of the Major Epistles (London: SPCK, 1975); Hans Hubner, Law in Paul’s Thought (ET; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1984).

[3] D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (eds.), The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, i. Justification and Variegated Nomism (WUNT 2.140; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2001).

[4] Ibid. 543-8.

[5] Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976).

[6] See N. T. Wright, ‘A Fresh Perspective on Paul?’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library. 83 (2002), 21-39, with full references.

[7] See N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991), ch. 7.

[8] On the clear reference to the ‘sin-offering’ in Rom. 8: 3 see my commentary and the other works there cited: Romans, in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2002). See also Jean-Noel Aletti’s remarks below about the difficulty of knowing how Paul and contemporary Judaeans understood the Day of Atonement.

[9] See N. T. Wright, ‘Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire’, in Richard A. Horsley, (ed.) Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation. Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl (Harrisburg. Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000), 160-83.

[10] ‘On Becoming the Righteousness of God: 2 Corinthians 5: 21’, in D. M. Hay (ed.), Pauline Theology, ii (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 200-8.