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Supersessionism and the New Perspective

In light of a stimulating debate about N. T. Wright and Supersessionism in the Harvard Theological Review (currently available for free download), I thought I’d reiterate here my own views on the question.

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism (Cover image)

The following is a direct quotation from Lionel J. Windsor, Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 19–21:

The “Paul within Judaism” perspective is often critical of the “New Perspective on Paul.”[76] Nanos argues that the “New Perspective” has built into it a kind of structural supersessionism.[77] While critiquing the “Old Perspective” for demonizing Jewish legalism, the “New Perspective” has

gone on to replace the traditionally supposed “wrongs” of works-righteousness and legalism . . . with the supposed sin of ethnic particularism, variously described and named. On the premises of the New Perspective, this “wrong” is assumed to be the necessary sin involved in celebrating and guarding the boundaries of Jewish identity and behavior, as if claiming to be set apart for God was inherently arrogant, mistaken, and evidence of bigotry. It is this essentially Jewish sin to which the New Perspective says Paul objected.[78]

Other authors level similar critiques against the “New Perspective.” Neil Elliott writes:

The only theological principle to be celebrated in the “new perspective” is a “universalism” that effectively excludes Torah- observant Jews (who are, by definition, “exclusivistic”).[79]

Jae-won Lee also writes:

The so-called “New Perspective on Paul” locates him [Paul] once again in a Jewish setting but only provisionally in that the notion prevails that Paul set the Jesus movement free from ethnic particularity and made the people of God universal. In both cases Jewish identity is set aside so that E. P. Sanders concludes that the only kind of Judaism that Paul advocated was a messianic Judaism that moved beyond living according to the Law.[80]

While proponents of the New Perspective often deny the charge of supersessionism, they still advocate positions that can be regarded as implicitly supersessionist, at least in some respects. N. T. Wright, for example, while rejecting the terminology of supersessionism as too ambiguous,[81] still argues that Paul saw all Christ-believers as “‘the Jew,’ ‘the circumcision’ and even ‘Israel.’”[82] Terence Donaldson, too, on the one hand sees Paul as being committed to a principle of “an ethnically identified Israel, differentiated from the Gentiles,”[83] yet on the other hand sees this in inevitable conflict with another of Paul’s principles: a “redefinition of Abraham’s family (Israel) based instead on Christ.”[84] Tet-Lim Yee, who as we will see in the next chapter advocates a “New Perspective on Ephesians,” while resisting the idea that the “church” has become the “true Israel,”[85] nevertheless seeks to “redefine” Israel so that it is no longer understood in “ethnic” categories.[86] Thus, while the New Perspective on Paul cannot be labelled “supersessionist” in the fullest sense, its tendency to interpret the disputes in Paul’s letters in terms of a reaction to “ethnocentrism” can obscure Israel’s distinct place and role with regard to the Pauline mission.

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism (Cover image)

Several features from the “Paul within Judaism” perspective will inform my reading of Ephesians and Colossians. These features include: an emphasis on the positive value of Jewish distinctiveness and vocation in light of Israel’s role in God’s purposes, an emphasis on the positive value of difference in a way that promotes mutual interdependence, and the critique of the “New Perspective” for its overemphasis on the problem of “ethnocentrism.” However, yet again, I regard many Paul-within-Judaism interpretations to be insufficiently Christological to provide an adequate reading of the highly Christological letters of Ephesians and Colossians. Often interpreters within this perspective place too little weight on the way faith in Christ transforms Jewish, as well as gentile, identity.[87] In Ephesians and Colossians, the Christological transformation of both gentile and Jewish identity cannot be ignored.


Footnotes:

76. Interestingly, the dispute between the “Paul within Judaism” perspective and the “New Perspective” is analogous at several points to the earlier dispute between Dispensationalism and Covenantalism (see above).

77. Nanos himself does not use this term (which comes from our discussion of Soulen above), but it is a useful summary of Nanos’ argument.

78. Mark D. Nanos, “Introduction,” pages 1–29 in Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, ed. Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2015), 7.

79. Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 70.

80. Jae-won Lee, Paul and the Politics of Difference: A Contextual Study of the Jewish-Gentile Difference in Galatians and Romans (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014), 61.

81. N. T. Wright, “Romans 9–11 and the ‘New Perspective,’” pages 392–406 in Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013 (London: SPCK, 2013), 403–4.

82. N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 538–39. I have critiqued this position in Lionel J. Windsor, Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul’s Jewish Identity Informs His Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 205; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 45–67.

83. Terence L. Donaldson, Paul and the Gentiles: Remapping the Apostle’s Convictional World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 185.

84. Donaldson, Paul and the Gentiles, 246. Donaldson’s position is highlighted and critiqued by Mark Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), 161–63.

85. Tet-Lim N. Yee, Jews, Gentiles and Ethnic Reconciliation: Paul’s Jewish Identity and Ephesians (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 130; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 187.

86. Yee, Ethnic Reconciliation, 143.

87. See the critique of various proponents from the Paul-within-Judaism perspective in a series of footnotes in John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 359–60, 361, 372, 397–98, 551, nn. 26, 29, 54, 23, 75 respectively. Barclay’s own reading of Paul is one in which Israel is paradoxically “simultaneously special and not at all unique” (418, emphasis original): “With regard to worth, salvation for Israel is as incongruous as for the whole of humanity: both Paul and his Gentile converts were ‘called through grace’ ([Rom] 1:6, 15). Yet is it possible that Israel has a special place in the story, a role hinted at by these references to ‘we/us,’ [in Galatians] but left tantalizingly unexplained?” (420). Barclay finds the specialness possibly emerging in Gal 6:16 in the phrase the “Israel of God,” and certainly emerging in Romans, especially in Rom 9–11. Thus, Barclay’s reading of Paul cannot be described as boldly “supersessionist” (421). Ultimately, his reading of Paul sees a special place for Jews, but he is insistent that “the demands of the good news surpass the authority of the Torah. Paul’s paradigmatic ‘death to the law’ strips it of its ultimate authority, so that at moments critical for the enactment of the good news (such as common meals at Antioch), the Torah’s rules may be suspended for the sake of Christ” (445).

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