PAUL, these three Roman Catholic biblical scholars and theologians contend, is an apocalyptic new-covenant Jew. Key to this interpretative lens is Paul’s description of himself as a minister of the new covenant. He is fully immersed in his Second Temple Jewish world, but, in the light of the coming of Jesus the Messiah and his own experience of knowing him, Paul had to reimagine that world.
In Jesus, something new and unexpected had happened that was also the fulfilment of prophecies — and especially those of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who spoke of a new covenant with hearts of flesh and a new Spirit within. Here is an apocalyptic inbreaking, not negating the old, but bringing God’s purposes for his people into the open. Paul saw himself as a minister of a covenant of faith older than that of the Law, which had now been recapitulated in greater glory in all that Jesus was and did.
The book is readable, eirenic in tone, and truly Catholic in style. The authors have a both/and approach that allows them to avoid the usual dogmatic interpretations and allows Paul to be capacious and generous. The argument successfully mediates between Lutheran and New Perspective readings, for example, seeking the best in each. Theirs is a graceful Paul who witnesses to a faith freed of claustrophobic religiosity — be it Christian or Jewish — joyfully aware of what the Spirit had made possible for him and God’s people. It is a Paul making sense of abundance, re-reading his tradition in that light, not motivated by a diatribe against his former life. He had found freedom as the Spirit transformed his heart and empowered him to serve God faithfully, whereas previously the Law could only prescribe, but never enable.
The argument is cumulative and, mercifully, not exhaustive, giving us enough to make sense of this new-covenant perspective with insightful discussions of faithfulness, justification, corporate participation in Christ’s body, cosmic powers, the liturgical language of atonement, Jesus’s divinity, God’s gift of himself to us, the new covenant feast, and the extension of the bounds of Israel.
The Paul that they paint feels like an apostle of grace and a witness to glory. It is for that reason a Paul who is worth knowing more closely. I would like to hear more about the resurrection (they focus here on the sacrificial death). Their contention that there is something new about the community’s government by transcendent Spirit, and no longer immanent Powers, should give them a fresh voice in contemporary discussions of the political Paul. I hope that they will make it heard.
The Revd Dr Matt Bullimore is Widening Participation Officer of Churchill College, Cambridge.
Paul, a New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline theology
Brant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, and John A. Kincaid
Church Times Bookshop £27