Paul and Justification by Faith: The Real Jewish Evidence

The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has argued that Paul didn’t really disagree with Judaism in terms of what it meant to be justified by God, but rather disagreed on whether Gentiles were included in that justification. NPPers have charged the ‘old perspective’ folks (viz., the Reformers) with misreading the Judaism of Paul’s day.

At the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Milwaukee last November, I heard a very stimulating paper by Preston Sprinkle (a recent PhD grad from Aberdeen) contesting this view. Entitled, “Way Outside the Box: Why Paul’s Doctrine of Justification Was Risky, Offensive, and Unparalleled in Early Judaism,” Sprinkle argued, like his title suggests, that “Paul’s assertion that ‘God justifies the wicked’ would have been seen as risky, offensive, and is actually unparalleled in the world of early Judaism—yes, even among the Dead Sea Scrolls.” What a bold statement! He backs it up with some impressive evidence, too.

The paper that Sprinkle read is part of his forthcoming book, Paul and Judaism Revisited: A Study in Divine and Human Agency (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013).

Among his many points, Sprinkle notes that in the OT God did not justify wicked people, citing, inter alia, Exod 23.7 and Isa 5.23. In my class on the exegesis of Romans, which I have taught at Dallas Seminary for the past seven years, I have argued that these two texts are key to Paul’s thinking and that the Jews of his day would have realized this. Exodus 23.7 clearly involves legal language. It is this language which lies behind Paul’s points in Rom 3.23–24 and 4.4–5. In v. 7 we see δικαιόω used with ἀσεβής: ‘you shall not justify the ungodly for a bribe’ (οὐ δικαιώσεις τὸν ἀσεβῆ ἕνεκεν δώρων). This can only mean ‘you shall not declare innocent the ungodly for a bribe.’ Three things are significant here: (1) δικαιόω means, in this legal context, ‘declare righteous/innocent’; it does not mean ‘make righteous.’ (2) The person who might be declared innocent is in fact guilty (ἀσεβῆ), precisely the situation we have in Rom 3:23–24. (3) The word for bribe is δῶρον, a cognate of δωρεάν found in Rom 3:24. It would of course not do for Paul to say that God declares sinners righteous ‘for a bribe,’ so an appropriate substitute is needed—one that is a cognate of δῶρον, but does not use ἕνεκεν or imply anything except that God acts freely when he justifies sinners. δωρεάν is the accusative singular of δωρεά; as such, it is adverbial (always so in the NT) and means ‘freely.’ It is not insignificant that we again see in the LXX of Isa 5.23 the collocation of δικαιόω with ἀσεβής and δῶρον. And again, we see that δικαιόω must almost surely mean ‘declare innocent’ since the pronouncement is made on the ungodly who do not deserve it.

Sprinkle does not develop the points of contact between these two OT passages and Romans, but he does bring in other significant texts from Second Temple Judaism to show that the OT view has continuity into the time of Paul. In particular, he interacts with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the texts he discusses are CD 1.18–21; 4.6–7 (the Damascus Document), 4QMMT 26–32 (the Halakhic Letter), and 1QS 10–11 (Community Rule). It is this latter passage that is sometimes seen as in line with Paul’s view of justification. Sprinkle gives a penetrating analysis of the text, noting major differences that have been overlooked. In particular, Paul focuses on initial justification while 1QS focuses on final justification. It is a point not to be missed. Sprinkle began the section on 1QS by asking, “does Qumran anywhere affirm that God’s initial declaration of righteousness is unilateral—based on no measure of human goodness, obedience, or godly potential?” He answers with a resounding no.

In the conclusion to Sprinkle’s paper he states plainly: “The assertion that ‘Paul’s doctrine has exactly the same shape as that of MMT’ or other documents from Qumran, as N.T. Wright thinks, simply cannot be sustained.”

It will be interesting to see the responses to Sprinkle’s forthcoming book. The debate will surely continue for some time. Meanwhile, N. T. Wright is busy producing yet another work on Paul’s understanding of justification (Paul and the Faithfulness of God). Whether evangelicals need to jettison the old perspective on Paul in toto, as if the Reformation got it all wrong as Wright seems to affirm, is still an open question for many. But Sprinkle’s treatment of the Jewish materials will surely have to be wrestled with. Perhaps Luther and the Reformers got it right after all.

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