Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5

  • Simon J. Gathercole
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Gathercole, Simon J. Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2002. Paperback. xii + 311 pp. $ 32.00. ISBN 0-8028-3991-6.

Simon Gathercole is one of the rising young evangelical stars in the British New Testament scholarly world. He currently lectures in the University of Aberdeen, after completing his Ph.D. thesis, which this book reflects, under Jimmy Dunn in Durham. Courteously but convincingly, Gathercole adds his contribution to the growing number of respondents to the new look on Paul, particularly as advocated by E. P. Sanders, Dunn himself, and Tom Wright. While not unappreciative of the strengths of the new perspective, Gathercole stresses that the "works of the Law"--obedience to Torah--did play a central role in the final, eschatological vindication of individuals in the Jewish thought with which Paul would have interacted.

After an introductory chapter that deals with recent literature on the topic, Gathercole takes five chapters to survey "obedience and final vindication in early Judaism." Chapter 1 surveys a wide swath of pre-70 C.E. apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, citing an abundance of texts that speak of good works functioning positively in the assessments of judgment day. Not all of this literature clearly envisions a life to come, and many texts also speak of God's unique election of Israel. But the latter stand along side rather than canceling out judgment according to works, with heavenly reward for those who merit it. Chapter 2 deals much more briefly with the Dead Sea Scrolls, noting that the famous 4QMMT does indeed speak of "concrete deeds that are counted as righteous on the day of judgment" (p. 94) despite claims to the contrary, and observing that the fullest articulation of this theology comes in the little cited 4QInstruction.

In chapter 3, Gathercole insists that the New Testament itself must be used as a primary document for reconstructing first-century Jewish beliefs. John 5:28-29, 6:26-29, James 2, Revelation 20:11-15, several of Jesus' parables, the story of the rich young ruler, scattered texts throughout Matthew, and Romans 2 all attest to some form of obedience-based soteriology among the Jews described or presupposed in those passages. The earliest post-70 Jewish literature is analyzed in chapter four, with 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, Josephus and the Targums adding further support for the pattern thus far established. A short fifth chapter rounds out this section by reviewing the theme of boasting in Second Temple Judaism. Claims that Israel has been essentially an obedient, holy nation surface in the Assumption of Moses 9:3-6, Baruch 3:7, Wisdom of Solomon 15:1-4, 2 Baruch 48:22-24, 4 Ezra 8, 2 Maccabees 8, 4 Maccabees 9:17-18, Josephus (Contra Apionem 2.176-178) and scattered passages in the Sybilline Oracles. Parallel, individual boasts attributed to Abraham and Jacob appear in Jubilees, to Zebulon in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, to Joshua and David in Pseudo-Philo, to Tobit in the book that bears his name, by Josephus in his Life and to Saul in Philippians 3:5-9.

Part Two subdivides into three chapters and proceeds to exegete Romans 1-5 in light of all this Jewish background. In chapter six, Gathercole argues that a Jewish (and not Jewish-Christian) interlocutor is in view in 2:1-16 (and not just first at 2:17) and continues to be foremost in Paul's mind in the catena of OT quotes in 3:9-20. Thus after establishing the universal sinfulness of the Gentile world in 1:18-32, all of 2:1-3:20 establishes the parallel status of Judaism. Throughout, "the energy and extent of Paul's attempt to persuade his interlocutor of Israel's sinfulness and guilt is further evidence that this was precisely what was missing in the self-assessment of the Jewish nation" (p. 211).

Chapter 7 turns to Romans 3:27-4:8. With the "new perspective," rhetorical questions like those in 3:29 ("Is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too?) clearly suggest Paul is countering a nationalistic ethnocentrism among at least some Jews. But it is harder to interpret 4:4-5 in this same respect; Paul here goes out of his way to clarify that the contrast is between meritorious works and freely credited faith. The solution is not to return to the Reformers' ignorance of the nationalist or covenantal nomist perspective of much of first-century Judaism nor to jettison the genuinely works-based righteousness simultaneously found in the same period, but to accept a "both-and" approach that recognizes elements of each in the errors Paul was combating.

Gathercole completes part two as he did part one with a short chapter on boasting. If boasting is so uniformly condemned, how can Paul in Romans 5 suddenly shift to a positive Christian form of boasting? The answer, of course, is that this boasting is in the Lord, not in oneself, in what the Lord has done for us and will do, paradoxically even through suffering. A brief conclusion recapitulates Gathercole's main points.

This book forms an important companion to such other recent volumes as Carson, O'Brien and Seifrid's Justification and Variegated Nomism and Mark Elliott's The Survivors of Israel. For theological students and pastors who haven't yet heard of the Sanders-Dunn-Wright trajectory in Pauline studies, this trio forms a required starting point for understanding that first-century Judaism was not primarily characterized by obedience to the Law to "get saved," as evangelicals today would phrase it. Jews understood themselves to be born into the covenant community. What Gathercole disputes, however, is Sanders' formula that limits the role of the works of the Torah to "staying saved." Or perhaps better put, one needs to redefine "staying saved" from the way Sanders did. It was not just that Jews remained in the covenant unless they consciously opted out or forfeited their position through prolonged and flagrant rebellion. Rather the very uncertainty of one's position before God on Judgment Day in a theological world without what we popularly call "eternal security" meant that one had to demonstrate a significant measure of obedience to the Torah to secure one's place in the life to come. This is what Paul rejected when he became a Christian and labored hard to counter, particularly in Galatians and Romans.

One may question details of Gathercole's exegesis here and there. I, for one, am not yet convinced in his adopting Cranfield's approach to the person judged positively on the basis of works in Romans 2 as a Christian and would follow Dunn here (with the narrative flow of the text still in pre-Christian times in this chapter). This is the Jew, and possibly the righteous Gentile, responding appropriately (with faith) to the Law. I'm not as sure we can take Josephus' claims about his obedience as dispassionately as some do, since he clearly was trying to commend Judaism to his Roman patrons and is willing to stretch the truth a fair bit elsewhere to that end. I would have wanted to include the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector among relevant Gospels materials. There are also a couple of sentence fragments (pp. 143, 202), but otherwise the typography is excellent. But these are exceedingly minor criticisms of what is overall an outstanding thesis and a highly significant contribution to contemporary Pauline studies.

Craig Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary