Sunday, September 25, 2005

The New Perspectives and the Bible

As much as I think the New Perspectives movement distorts first century Judaism in the extra biblical literature, I think that their biggest error is ignoring the Gospels. We have a divinely inspired picture of first century Judaism, and it ought to trump all else. Several gospel encounters should shed light on the nature of first century Judaism.

John 3 is a perfect example. Christ present Nicodemus with a beautiful picture of salvation by grace in stating that we must be born again. Yet, Nicodemus cannot comprehend it. He thinks Christ speaks of a physical rebirth. Christ chastises him for not understanding grace, the need to be born again. Nicodemus a teacher of Israel did not think much of grace. Nicodemus asks, “how can these things be?” to the teaching that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Hardly the response of someone who already lived and participated in a religion of grace.

Matthew 23:4 shows us Christ describing what the Pharisees do as they teach. They “bind heavy burden and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders.” Surely this is a description of a graceless religion that cares only of works. Peter echos this sentiment in Acts 15 when he says the law is a yoke that “neither we nor our fathers could bear.”

The Rich Young Ruler in Matthew 19:16-26 is another example. Although men like Steve Schissel try to turn this story into an affirmation that the law is doable, it really condemns salvation by works. We must not forget when reading this story that Christ begins with “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God.” Christ is beginning by reminding the rich young ruler that no man is good, no man keeps the law. Only God is good. Then when the rich ruler does not get it and still asks what he “lacks”, Christ shows him all he lacks is a heart that desires God. It is the 10th commandment, the internal commandment that he cannot keep. We should also not stop there. The story continues to the disciples who then hear the camel and the eye of a needle teaching. They rightfully ask, “Who then can be saved?” Christ responds, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” No man can save himself. No man can save himself by the law, but God can save. God alone is good and God alone can save.

Matthew 5:20 and indeed all the Sermon on the Mount is related to that point. “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” This is to tell us that as good at law keeping the Pharisees and religious leaders are, they still deserve only death. Not only does this help show us that the Judaism of the time of Christ looked to obedience to the law for righteousness, it shows us also that obedience to the law is impossible. Why? Because the law is internal as well as external. This is why those who know they are poor in spirit, mourn that fact, are meek, and thirst for that righteousness they lack will receive it. They are blessed and will be filled with a righteousness that is not their own, but comes from Christ.

These are but a few of the gospel accounts of first century Judaism. I am sure that many who are better than I can quickly show more. Often the NPP refuses to accept Biblical testimony to the nature of Judaism. The Bible paints a picture very different than that painted by most NPP advocates.


Alastair said...

Have you read Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God and New Testament and the People of God? If you haven't then you have really missed out and should wait before making the judgment that you do in your post. The treatment of the Gospels by Wright is probably one of the most compelling parts of his case. He has addressed the Gospels more thoroughly than he has addressed Paul to date.

I still have to be persuaded that being 'born again' in John 3 refers to individual conversion. I think that the focus is on the coming gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, causing Israel to be reborn as the Church. 'You (plural) must be born again' is a reference to what must happen to Israel. Nicodemus should have been aware of this from such places as Ezekiel 36-37 (which Jesus alludes to in a number of ways in John 3).

Being 'born again' is a peculiarly new covenant reality. People were converted in the OT, but unless they participate in the Baptism of water and the Spirit, and are made part of the body formed at Pentecost, they will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

John the Baptist is an example of someone who was not regenerated. He was among those 'born of women', but not in the kingdom of heaven, although he certainly came to share in it after his death (Matthew 11:11). The reference to 'born of women' is an implicit contrast to those of the kingdom, who have been reborn. Regeneration is an eschatological reality, which only comes through the ministry of the Messiah. This is what Jesus was speaking of in John 3.

Lee said...


I have not read that book yet, and it is next on my reading agenda. I freely admit that I have not read much of Wright. I have tried to only quote Sanders in these posts as I am a little more familiar with him. However, I do think, from my slight exposure to Wright, that he uses his theories on First Century Judaism to redefine the Bible. For example, Wright denies Jesus self-consciously believed himself to be God, and his reasoning is based upon his view of the First Century Jewish mindset and what would have been plausible to a First Century Jew. I will read his books, but I hope he does not impose outside standards on the Bible to read what he will into the passages.

I would like to hear your clarification on who has and has not been regenerated. Were any of the OT saints regenerated prior to death? Were they members of the Kingdom of Heaven prior to death? Are NT saints regenerated prior to death? I look forward to your response.

Alastair said...

On the issue of Jesus' knowledge of Himself as God, Wright does not deny that Jesus had a form of knowledge of His divine identity. However, he argues that this was a sort of knowledge of vocation, rather than the sort of knowledge that I might have about my height or shoe size. I think that he is right.

On regeneration, answering quickly (it is almost 2a.m. here).

The OT saints were not regenerated during their lifetimes. They were only regenerated (post-mortem) following the resurrection and Pentecost. There is reason to believe that they didn't share in the Regeneration until about AD70 (according to a particular reading of Revelation 20).

NT saints are regenerated prior to death. NT saints are regenerated through the laver of regeneration (i.e. Baptism — Titus 3:5).

Regeneration is not the same thing as conversion or having a faithful heart. Both of these things are important, but we must not confuse them with regeneration. Regeneration refers to a redemptive historical change as the old world order of flesh is replaced by the new world order of the Spirit, through the death, resurrection, ascension of Christ and Pentecost.

Individuals are regenerated as they are brought into the larger redemptive historical event of the Regeneration (i.e. by incorporation into Christ in Baptism).