16 July 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
It is not difficult to imagine the reactions of at least some of Paul’s Jewish readers. They will have responded to him with a mixture of incredulity and indignation. For his thesis will have seemed to them an outrageous undermining of the very foundations of Judaism, namely God’s character and covenant.
Paul’s method of handling Jewish objections to his teaching takes the form of a ‘diatribe’, as we have seen – a literary convention well known to philosophers of the ancient world. In it a teacher would set up a dialogue with his critics or students, first posing and then answering their questions. Paul has already begun to use this genre when addressing both the critical moralizer (2:1ff.) and the Jew (2:17ff.); but now he develops it further. It is not necessary to suppose that his debating opponent is imaginary or his debate fictitious. It seems more probably that he is reconstructing the actual arguments which Jews have flung at him during his synagogue evangelism (E.g. Acts 17:1ff., 17; 18:4ff.; 19:8).‘It often becomes easier to follow Paul’s argument’, writes C.K.Barrett, ‘if the reader imagines the apostle face to face with a heckler, who makes interjections and receives replies which sometimes are withering and brusque.’ We may go further than this. ‘Paul’s interlocutor was no straw man,’ Professor Dunn writes. ‘In fact we would probably not be far from the mark if we were to conclude that Paul’s interlocutor was Paul himself – Paul the unconverted Pharisee, expressing attitudes Paul remembered so well as having been his own!’ In this way Paul the Pharisee and Paul the Christian are in debate with each other, as in Philippians 3.
The details of the debate are a little hard to grasp, not because Paul’s position is ‘obscure and feeble’, but because he gives it to us in only the briefest outline. For the elaboration we shall have to wait for Romans 9-11. We do have before us in 2:25-29, however, the teaching of Paul which prompts the objections, namely that there was no fundamental difference between Jews and Gentiles, and that the law and circumcision guaranteed neither Jewish immunity to the judgment of God nor Jewish identity as the people of God. This seemed to call in question God’s covenant, promises and character. It prompted four distinct but related questions.
Objection 1: *Paul’s teaching undermines God’s covenant* (1-2). Paul and his critics are agreed that God chose Israel out of all the nations, made a covenant with them, and gave them circumcision and its sign and seal. But if the words ‘Jew’ and ‘circumcision’ are now to be radically redefined, then *What advantage…is there in being a Jew* in the same old sense of the term, and *what value is there in circumcision* in its traditional meaning (1)? For these things do not protect Jews from judgment, according to Paul.
In his answer Paul does not go back to what he has written about the real Jew and the true circumcision. The fact that being an ethnic Jew has no value in protecting from God’s judgment, however, does not mean that it is valueless. It has *much* value *in every way*, but a different kind of value, that is, responsibility rather than security. *First of all* (Paul is evidently intending to list several privileges, but he does not get round to it until 9:4f.), *they have been entrusted with the very words of God* (2). It seems clear that these ‘oracles of God’ (AV, RSV, REB) are not just God’s commandments or promises, but the whole Old Testament Scripture which contains them and which was committed to Israel’s care. Indeed, to be the custodians of God’s special revelation was an immensely privileged responsibility; it had been given to ‘no other nation’. (Ps. 147:19f.; cf. Dt 4:8.).
Objection 2: *Paul’s teaching nullifies God’s faithfulness* (3). Perhaps God’s ‘oracles’ or ‘very words’ (2) allude in particular to his promises, notably to his promise of the Messiah. If so, the objector argues, what has become of God’s promise, and (more important) to his faithfulness to his promise? *What if some did not have faith*, and so failed to inherit the promise? *Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness* (3)? Paul’s teaching seemed to imply this. The play on words relating to *pistis* (faith or faithfulness) is more obvious in the Greek sentence than in the English. It might be rendered as follows; ‘If some to whom God’s promises were entrusted (*episteuthesan*, 2) did not respond to them in trust (epistesan, 3a), will their lack of trust (apistia) destroy God’s trustworthiness (*pistis, 3b)?’ If God’s people are unfaithful, does that necessarily mean that he is?
Paul’s riposte (*me genoito*) is more violent than is suggested by the expressions ‘Not at all! (NIV), ‘By no means!’ (RSV), ‘Certainly not!’ (REB) or even ‘God forbid!’ (AV). John Ziesler suggests that ‘”not on your life” or “not in a thousand years” gives something of the flavour.’ For God will never break his covenant, as Paul will elaborate in chapters 9-11. His truth or faithfulness is an *a priori*. Indeed, *Let God be true and every man a liar* (4a). The first of these two propositions, writes Calvin ‘is the primary axiom of all Christian philosophy’; the second is a quotation from Psalm 116:11. So far is it from the case that human unfaithfulness undermines God’s faithfulness, that even if every single human being were a liar, God would still be true, because the remains invariably himself and true to himself. Moreover, Scripture confirms this. David even acknowledged that he had sinned and done evil in God’s sight in order that God’s word might be proved right and his verdict justified: ‘*So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge*’ (4b) (Ps. 51:4)