The topic of Paul and the Law is a torturous one. It is torturous not only for someone trying to sort out all the different ways Paul uses the word nomos, but it is torturous to try to sort out all the different interpretations that scholars have made of Paul.
A book of some significance in Pauline studies in this area is Simon Gathercole's, Where Is Boasting?: Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5. It has been on my book list to the right for some time. Gathercole is somewhat critical of the so called "new perspective on Paul," including the doctoral supervisor of this his dissertation and thus of this book, James Dunn. Yet he does not simply reiterate an "old" perspective either. He thus is a kind of "synthesis" in the grand dialectic that is scholarship.
In this post, I merely want to summarize and evaluate one chapter of this book, chapter 6: "Paul's Assessment of Jewish Boasting in Romans 1:18-3:20." This is the first chapter of the second part of the book. In the first part, he runs through Jewish literature to evaluate some of the ideas of the new perspective on "salvation" in Judaism. Now in this chapter, he begins to dialog with Paul.
The argument of this chapter is as follows:
1. The Jew in Romans 2:17-20 is not a specific "Jewish Christian" in the Roman congregation to which Paul is writing (197).
Now if you call yourself a Jew and rest in the Law and boast in God, and you know [His] will and you approve of those things that are excellent because you are instructed from the Law, and you are convinced that you are a leader of the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes since you have the form of knowledge and of the truth in the Law...
2. Rather, this person is a hypothetical dialog partner (interlocutor) who represents the nation of Israel vis-a-vis the Gentile nations (199). We might add further that this person is an unbelieving Jew (200).
3. The boast of this person, of the unbelieving nation, has to do with the eschaton, when all stand before God in the final judgment (201-2). Israel boasts that it will be vindicated over and against the Gentiles by God on the Day of Judgment.
4. Now Simon gets down to the real point of debate in the chapter: What is the basis of this boast? He in effect covers three options:
a. the traditional view (e.g., Bultmann): The boast is the boast of Jews who are faithful in their keeping of the Law. They are boasting in their merit before God. They think they have earned God's favor.
b. the new perspective (e.g., N. T. Wright): The boast is in the very possession of the Law, a kind of ethnic eternal security. We're the elect and you aren't no matter what we do.
c. Gathercole's perspective: The boast is "a Jewish confidence at the final judgment that is based on election in conjunction with obedient fulfillment of Torah" (215, italics mine).
Key for Simon is that Israel has not recognized just how sinful it is. Thus they are not repentant:
"Or do you despise the wealth of [God's] goodness and forebearance and patience because you do not know that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in keeping with your hardness and [your] unrepentant heart you are storing up for yourself wrath on the Day of Wrath and of the revelation of God's righteous judgment, who will repay to each according to his work" (Rom. 2:4-6).
Simon also plausibly connects this indictment of non-believing Israel with 9:30-31:
Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness obtained righteousness, even a righteousness on the basis of faith, but Israel who pursued a law of righteousness did not attain [that] law.
In short, Israel is not nearly as righteous as it thinks it is. It was trying to establish its own righteousness (10:3), but failed.
But if I am understanding Simon correctly, the problem with the traditional and new perspective approaches is that they make the question one of whether the boast is in works (traditional) or election (new perspective) while for Paul it is both.
If I have understood Gathercole correctly, I am with him on the bulk of this chapter, although I am not sure exactly where he is taking the overall argument from here.
Some points where I might differ with him some or want to give some caveats:
1. While I agree that the person pictured throughout this chapter is a non-believing Jew, I fear the kinds of assumptions that we might import into the conversation when we begin to speak of this chapter as referencing the nation of Israel. Some will forget that Paul himself is a true Jew (Rom. 2:28-29) and that there is for him a remnant of ethnic Israel that is the true Israel (9:27). Simon does not seem to fall into these paradigmatic traps, but I fear what will go on in the minds of others.
2. I would say that Paul not only talks about the sinfulness of his hypothetical interlocutor but also this person's hypocrisy (the person indicts the Gentile sinner in Romans 1 without fully realizing the extent of their own sinfulness). I think Simon might agree with this comment, but he clearly de-emphasizes the element of "judgmentalism" in the passage (contra Kasemann), which I would rather call hypocrisy (cf. Gal. 2:13).
3. Simon criticizes the new perspective for its affirmation that devout first century Jews knew that they were sinners. Here I would try to steer a path between Simon and Wright. If you were to ask a first century Jew, "Is God obligated to honor and reward you because of your own merit in keeping the law?" surely they would say no. On the other hand there is the question, "Do you think you have kept the law well enough for God to accept you on that basis?" I think many Jews here would have said yes.
The New Perspective focuses on the answer to the first question without at times recognizing the answer to the second. Traditional views (and it would seem Simon at least in this chapter) focus on the answer to the second without recognizing the compatibility of the answer to the first.
4. Related to this issue, I agree that Philippians 3 is largely Paul's pre-Christian perspective, but I don't think we can therefore dismiss the force of 3:6: according to the righteousness in the law, I was blameless. This statement does not connect well with Romans 7 as autobiography, even as past reminiscences. Nor does it fit well with Romans 2 as a description that Paul might have applied to himself before he became a Christian.
To be sure, in Philippians 3 Paul does not think that any of this makes him worthy of the resurrection. Indeed, he considers his present sufferings part of his movement toward worthiness (3:10-11; cf. Rom. 8:17). But it seems highly doubtful, in my estimation, that Paul was thinking of his pre-Christian self either when he penned Romans 2 or 7. Peter might have been a failure at keeping the Law even in its core sense (Galatians 2:14; 6:13, of the Judaizing Christians). But Paul, even though still unworthy, thought he kept the Law quite well.
5. I disagree with Gathercole a bit (he would have to tell me how much) when he says that "There is very little evidence that gentiles were subject to judgment according to Torah in Paul's theology" (213). My issue with this comment has to do with the article I've been toying around with for about a year (with Mike Cline).
It is true that Paul says,
As many as sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and as many as sinned with the Law will be judged through the Law (2:12).
But if the Law has nothing to do with the judgment of the Gentile, then on what basis can Paul say that they have sinned? What standard does Paul have in mind? I'm reminded of 5:14:
Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam to Moses even on those who did not sin in the likeness of the transgression of Adam...
I suppose from Romans 1:21, they sin because although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or give thanks. They turn to idolatry and God abandons them to all sorts of sins in consequence.
I believe, however, that Paul has two unannounced understandings of Law in Romans (actually he uses the word in more ways than these!): one is a kind of core law that a Gentile might keep even without being a Jew, the other only a Jew could keep because it requires circumcision.