ESLER on Paul and the Law

Philip Esler used social-identity theory to explain Galatians, and he now uses recategorization theory to account for Romans. They are sibling models, to be sure, but whereas the former focuses on relationships between groups, the latter does so within groups. So in the earlier letter, the Judean influencers must be degraded (in line with the canons of an honor-shame culture) and their tradition radically reinterpreted for the benefit of Paul’s Gentiles. In the second letter, the mixed group of Judean and Gentile Christ-believers, conflicted over ethnic pride, must be “taken down” to the same level, but in such a way that neither group feels that its ethnic identity is erased in the process.

Esler draws on the work of social theorists who have shown that recategorization is successful only when the different ethnic groups within a movement have equal status in a different way — since if they were equal in the same way, they would simply continue to compete in a fashion destructive of unity (see p 144). This is why the last thing Paul wants to say in Romans is, “In Christ there is neither Judean nor Greek”, as he did in Galatians. Contra Daniel Boyarin, Paul is
not attempting to erase ethnic distinctions — at least not in Romans. So, for instance, Paul claims that just as Gentiles
are under the domain of sin without the Torah (1:18-2:5), Judeans are under its power with the Torah (2:17-3:20) — and the transition text stresses the impartiality of God in punishing members of each ethnic group, “the Judean and the Greek”, those under the law and those not under the law (2:6-16). Likewise, just as Gentile Christ-believers have been
liberated from the power of sin which ruled them as immoral pagans (6:15-23), Judean Christ-believers have
been liberated from the power of sin which ruled them through the law (7:1-25). Judeans need to recognize that Gentiles are God’s elect and heirs to the promises of Abraham (9:1-11:12), but Gentiles should understand that these benefits are a means to an end — to provoke Judeans to reacquire what is really theirs (11:13-32). These days it’s the force of fashion to interpret Romans as having the Gentile group in its sights, but I’ve always believed that various parts of the letter target one group or the other. Esler has confirmed my convictions by accounting for this in terms of
recategorization theory. I could quibble about his particular breakdowns. For instance, I’ve argued in the past that Rom 7:7-25 has both Judeans (vv 7-13) and Gentiles (vv 14-25) in view. But in any case, the point is that successful recategorization requires careful attention to all ethnic groups involved. “The establishment of a common ingroup identity will only succeed if the two subgroups concerned do not feel that their distinctive identities are threatened in
>the process — this is the ‘equal status – different dimensions condition’ that is a prerequisite to successful  recategorizarization” (p 219). This, says Esler, accounts for Paul’s treatment of Abraham in Rom 4 and the Torah’s purpose in Rom 7. Abraham is a prototype for Judeans and Gentiles who have faith, against the polarizing implication of Gal 3:6-9 that Judeans have been disinherited. He became circumcised in order to seal his faith-righteousness,
precisely in order to become the ancestor of two different ethnic groups (4:11-12). And the Torah is holy and passive in its relationship to sin, against the perverse claim in Gal 3:19-26 that it actively confined people under sin. Sin used the law to its advantage, and the Torah, though given for the promise of life, was unable to do the job God gave it
(7:10-11). This may raise questions about God’s competency, but it exonerates him of perversity. So far so good, but no sooner does Esler establish these more palatable interpretations than undercut them by advancing two startling claims: (1) that it is wrong to speak of salvation-history in Rom 4 and 9-11; and (2) that the law is completely obsolete for
Christ-believers in Rom 7-8 and 13:8-10. Is Romans so much like Galatians after all? Let’s consider.
(1) As mentioned above, Rom 4:1-17 improves over Gal 3:6-9. But not much, as it turns out, because faith-righteousness displaces the covenant as much as before. Esler is worth quoting at length:
>”Those who see Paul’s thought in terms of the
>fulfillment or climax of the covenant [Wright, Dunn,
>etc] must explain its outright replacement by
>faith-righteousness… Paul’s argument is radical. He
>is saying that Judeans trace descent from Abraham not
>in virtue of his circumcision, but from the
>faith-righteousness he had prior to it and of which
>circumcision was merely a sign… Since Abraham’s seed
>are those who are righteous by faith and no one,
>except Abraham himself, appears to fit this category
>until the possibility arose of faith in Christ, it
>follows (even though Paul does not mention it) that we
>have a period between Abraham and Paul’s time when the
>promise was not fulfilled by anyone; it was de futuro
>only. This would seem to produce barren ground for
>notions of ‘salvation history’ or ‘the climax of the
>covenant’… Paul does agree that in Christ God
>fulfilled the promises made to Abraham (but in Rom
>4:11 deletes the word ‘covenant’ from his source in
>Gen 17:11)… Yet the centuries between Moses and
>Christ comprised a period of unrelieved gloom.” (pp
>189, 190, 192, 193, 286)
>My question is whether such an audacious assault on the contemporary understanding of Abraham can support
>Esler’s recategorization thesis, which depends on maintaining something pleasing (and preserving) to the
>ethnic group in question. The above commentary may well apply to Galatians, but it shouldn’t for Romans
>– unless there is a nuance to recategorization theory I’m missing. (2) Likewise, having gone out of his way to stress the more palatable treatment of the law’s purpose in Rom 7:7-25 (when compared to Gal 3:19-26), Esler undoes
>this by arguing that the law is entirely irrelevant for Christ-believers, as much in Romans as Galatians.
>Against those who see Christ as the “goal” of the law in Rom 10:4, Esler states: “There is absolutely no
>sense that Christ is the ‘goal’ or ‘natural result’ of anything to do with the law… He did not come at the
>tail-end of a process of which the law represented the earlier stages. He was the person who liberated Israel
>from the law’s mess.” (p 285) As in Gal 5:13-6:10, the texts of Rom 8:1-17 and 13:8-10 may declare the law
>fulfilled in the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. But, says Esler, given that
>love is the first fruit of the Spirit, Paul is saying that Christ-believers have access to the best the law
>promised but never delivered, by an entirely different route — the Spirit (pp 285, 335). With the Spirit
>they have achieved the ideal of the law which was never realized by the law (p 335). It is true that one can interpret Gal 5:13-6:10 and Rom 8:1-17; 13:8-10 this way. But what about Rom 3:31? Here Paul says that the law must actually be upheld — not fulfilled by a different route provided by the Spirit. Esler waxes evasive here, saying that Paul is
ultimately “unable to demonstrate the truth of what he  says” in Rom 3:31 (p 170). But Rom 3:31 is precisely the sort of statement which would support a recategorization thesis! Perhaps Rom 8:1-17 and 13:8-10 should be interpreted along the same lines; and perhaps Paul, in Romans, is implying that much of the law is still in force after all. Esler is on more firm ground with Rom 14:1-15:13, which supports a recategorization reading on almost every level. “Paul plainly views the strong as those who must give way most. The weak are not to judge them, but the initiative for resolving disputes rests with the strong.” (p 355) Indeed, opines Esler, if the weak continue to associate with the synagogues, that
>is fine with Paul, whose only interest lay in what occurred within the Christian house-churches
>themselves (p 364). But one wonders if there was more interaction between synagogue and church. Mark Nanos
>(Esler’s student) believes that the church in Rome was still tied to the synagogue, and the language of Rom
>14:1-15:13 (especially when taken with Rom 4:18-25) points to the weak as referring to those outside the
>Christ-movement — “weak in faith”, meaning lacking faith in Israel’s messiah, not as if to imply that
>Torah-observance itself makes one weak; for about this Paul says “everyone should be convinced in their own
>mind what is right” (Rom 14:5-6). Esler criticizes Nanos on the basis of Rom 16, which points to house-gatherings (p 342), and that, contra Nanos, Judeans did not meet in privately owned homes. “Nanos is in error here, a lapse explicable in that he was following specialists on Judean and Christ-movement architecture who themselves make the
same mistake, and was writing before this view had  been subjected to a recent probing reexamination against the primary data by Donald Binder and Anders Runesson.” (p 88; and see pp 89-97 for Esler’s full examination of the literary and epigraphical data) I wonder if Mark would be interested in responding to these criticisms. In conclusion, this is the book on Romans I’ve been waiting for, even if I dispute some of Esler’s results — and even if I still like Mark Nanos’ particular treatment of Rom 14:1-15:13 better than anyone else’s. We can now thoroughly appreciate Paul’s most famous letter through the eyes of those who inhabited the strange and distant world of the ancient
>Mediterranean. We see Paul’s eschatology as “forthcoming-present” more than “future” (Rom
>8:18-39). We catch a glimpse of Paul as the victim of slander and gossip (Rom 3:8) — the malicious “weapon
>of the weak” which crippled people’s honor on a daily basis. We appreciate the dual occasion of the letter
>– Paul’s impending missions to Jerusalem and Spain, intersecting with the ethnic crisis in Rome — and how
>the two are truly inseparable (see pp 128-129). And we see Paul the Middle-Eastern all too familiar with the
>hostile nature of gift-giving, whose collection for the poor was a “slap in the face” to his colleagues in
>Jerusalem (p 131), who really did “feed the hungry in order to heap burning coals upon the heads of others”
>(Rom 12:20). Esler recognizes that Paul was on a battleground when he wrote his letters, reinterpreting scripture in
>legitimately offensive ways, in line with the canons of honor-shame. He has explained these battles with
>especially insightful uses of anthropological and social theory. In my view, these sort of approaches
>serve us better than, say, trying to interpret Paul on the basis of “thought patterns abstracted from
>rhetorical and social setting” (Tom Wright), or even worse, by using literary intertextual approaches
>(Richard Hays). There’s a wide chasm separating us from the biblical world, and only when we acknowledge
>it can we begin to build bridges. Esler’s epilogue would seem to imply that there is indeed all the more
>need for such bridges in today’s world: “Every Christian who senses the daunting contemporaneity of Romans wants to select some area of human experience where the letter articulates a problem and gives voice to a solution. For me, Romans reveals its connectionwith the taproot of human experience in relation to violent ethnic conflict in the world.” (p 357) This is about as far cry from Augustinian/Lutheran relevancy as one can get. The New Perspective is here to stay. So I heartily recommend the book (along with Esler’s Galatians). Furthermore, and ironically, I  commend them taken in conjunction with the books on Romans and Galatians written by Esler’s own disciple Mark Nanos — who comes to some startlingly different conclusio ns. Talk about grist for the mill!
>Loren Rosson rossoiii @

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