Friday, May 11, 2007

Mistakes in Interpreting Paul

In the time since the Reformation, the apostle Paul and his theology and especially his letter to the Romans have had a particularly important role to play in Protestant doctrine and teaching. Unfortunately due to a huge level of ignorance about ancient Judaism and about the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures of Paul’s time, a large number of serious and fundamental mistakes were made in interpreting Paul’s writings. Over the last 30 years the study of the ancient social context of Paul’s time has flourished, and many serious errors in our previous interpretations have been identified and corrected. It's pretty hard to exaggerate the cumulative effect of the errors that were made.

Here I give a list of some of the major errors in old interpretations of Romans that historical research has enabled us to identify. With each point I’ll list one or two recent scholarly works on the subject:

1. Paul’s discussion about following Jewish customs (“works of the Torah”) was misunderstood as being about "good works" and “human effort”.
Malina & Pilch “Social Science Commentary on Paul”
Dunn “Romans”

2. “Grace” was mistranslated and misunderstood and quite a complex theological system was developed around it, whereas it should be translated “favour” and understood as part of the ancient favour system.
Harrison “Paul’s Language of Grace in its Graeco-Roman Context”
DeSilva “Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity”

3. “Belief” and “faith” were mistranslated and misunderstood – they should be translated “faithfulness” and understood it as part of the ancient favour system and is not at all in opposition to human effort and deeds.
Campbell “The Quest for Paul’s Gospel”
DeSilva “Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity”

4. The faithfulness “of Jesus” was incorrectly translated as faith “in Jesus”
Hays “The Faith of Jesus Christ”

5. The phrase “Christ died for us” was read as a reference to penal substitution rather than martyrdom.
Gibson ‘Dying Formula’ in “Celebrating Romans” (online here)

6. Paul’s diverse usage of sacrificial metaphors was mistakenly taken literally and all kinds of sacrifices were assumed to work the same way and in a certain way.
Finlan “Cultic Atonement Metaphors” and “Problems With Atonement”.

7. The fact that Paul and Judaism taught an achievable final judgment according to deeds was not realised.
VanLandingham “Judgment and Justification”
Yinger “Paul, Judaism, and Judgment”

8. The Greek concepts of the mind and desires were not understood and so Paul’s self-control discussions were misread as meaning humans have a “sinful nature”.
Stowers “Rereading Romans”


Blogger P-Style said...

While some would try to deride and excommunite the like of NT Wright, I personally welcome the inquiry. What an adventure to have Christian heritage and belief explored in such a way - why we might even rediscover something of what it was that made the early christian community such a beacon of social change and transformation.

Blogger metalepsis said...

Now in all fairness, despite my near complete agreement, not all of these are settled issues. So using 'mistakes' might be a bit premature. Perhaps it would be better to say 'new developments in interpreting Paul'.


Blogger Andrew said...

Sure, they are not all settled among scholars. The view that they are 'mistakes' reflects my own judgment made on the basis of my own research into these issues.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Andrew. Although this is my first comment i regularly read your blog and am often inspired and educated by your posts.




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