Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2021.12.06

William S. Campbell. The Nations in the Divine Economy: Paul’s Covenantal Hermeneutics and Participation in Christ. Lanham: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2018. Pp. Xii + 410. ISBN: 9781978700758. $126.00. Hardback.

Isaac W. Oliver
Bradley University

William S. Campbell has devoted his life to studying the writings of Paul, especially how they relate to Judaism and shed light on the Jewish roots of Christianity. The Nations in the Divine Economy assembles several recent essays devoted to this important matter. Campbell’s main thesis is that Paul’s letters show that the Christ movement in its earliest stages sought the eschatological renewal rather the displacement of Israel (pp. 21-22). Campbell comments on Paul not only from a historical-critical perspective but also from an inner-Christian viewpoint that values the continuing difference of Judaism. In line with this ecumenical concern, Campbell shows how Paul’s letters can help Christians relate to the Jewish people in ways that do not discriminate against Judaism.

In the introductory chapter, Campbell presents his own definition of key terms as they relate to Paul and first-century Judaism. He defines the Greek word ethnē as “those from the nations,” noting that this was a typical Jewish way used by Paul to designate non-Jews. Campbell prefers not to translate the term ethnē as “gentiles” because the latter connotes individual non-Jews. As Campbell observes, Paul is interested more in the corporate destiny of the nations, for whom it is harder to imagine a collective “identity switch” than individual non-Jews assimilating into Israel (p. 4). As for the proper English translation of the word Ioudaios, Campbell opts, rightly in my opinion, for “Jew” instead of “Judean” even while recognizing that modern concepts of “religion” do not fit antiquity. Campbell also discusses the concept of sectarianism during the Second Temple period. While there is still confusion around the definition of the term “sect” as it concerns Second Temple Jewish groups, Campbell nevertheless finds the adjective “sectarian” helpful for describing “the divisive attitude that typifies the disposition of those who wish to create schism” (p. 8). In this regard, Campbell does not believe that Paul held a sectarian attitude since he wished for all of Israel to be saved and defined his gentile communities in relation to Israel.

In Chapter 1, Campbell provides a social-historical context that that allows the gentile communities established by Paul to be related somehow to Jewish followers of Jesus or Jewish synagogues although not necessarily in a social sense. Unlike the so-called god-fearers who attached themselves to Jewish synagogues but continued their pagan cultic practices, gentile members of the Pauline communities were prohibited from engaging in idolatry. Since according to Campbell, Paul clearly differentiated his non-Jewish acolytes from the nation of Israel proper, these new gentile followers sensed a deficiency in their newly acquired identity: on the one hand, they were not Jews and therefore could not observe distinctively Jewish practices, on the other hand, they could no longer engage in their former cultic ways. Campbell posits that with time this identity crisis led to a displacement theology—which Paul did not intend—in which Israel served as a foil for negative self-definition. This anti-Jewish trajectory is first attested by Ignatius who categorically rejected Jewish practice among all followers of Jesus, even Jewish ones.

The next two chapters further trace anti-Jewish trajectories in the history of Pauline reception. Campbell critiques anti-Jewish interpretations that continue to shape contemporary perceptions of Paul’s writings. These include binary categories that cast Judaism as ethnic and particularist in contrast to Christianity seen as the truly universalist and non-ethnic religion. Campbell is especially critical of what he calls the “hermeneutics of antithesis,” which deploys Paul against Judaism. In contrast to this tendency, Campbell offers an analysis that compares Paul in continuity with Judaism. Following Krister Stendahl, Campbell argues that Paul did not “convert” from one religion to another but saw his new membership in the Christ movement as a calling. Campbell emphasizes that Paul’s letters address non-Jews only. Paul, in his own language, was the apostle of the ethnē. Paul’s gentile addressees therefore determine how his remarks on matters pertaining to Judaism should be interpreted. This hermeneutical principle allows Campbell to restrict any seemingly negative statement about the Torah and its observance to gentile followers of Jesus. Paul remained a Torah-observant Jew after his calling. He never promulgated the annulment of the Torah for Jews but only opposed the implementation of Jewish practices (e.g., circumcision) among non-Jews.

In Chapter 4, Campbell interacts with the seminal work of E. P. Sanders. Although he did much to correct misconceptions about Judaism, Sanders nevertheless claimed that Paul did not embrace covenantal nomism but participationist eschatology. Campbell, by contrast, argues that Paul can be meaningfully situated within the general patterns of religious thought that Sanders attributed to “common Judaism.”

Campbell begins carefully exegeting Paul’s letters in Chapter 5. He argues that Paul’s use of the term διαστολή (“distinction”) in Rom 3:22 and 10:12 is not anti-ethnic but anti-discriminatory. Paul was not trying to overcome ethnic differentiation but discrimination on the grounds of difference.

Second Corinthians 3 is a text that most adherents of the Radical New Perspective seem to have gladly glossed over.[1] Campbell, however, courageously confronts this challenging passage in Chapter 6. He stresses that the apostle to the ethnē is especially determined here to defend his apostolic commission before the gentile Jesus-followers in Corinth. Paul does not deal directly with the Mosaic covenant in connection to Israel but compares his διακονία (“service”/“ministry”) with the service of Moses. Paul hardly disparages the service Moses administered to Israel. On the contrary, Paul assesses his ministry in degrees of glory using the Jewish hermeneutical qal vahomer measurement (Greek: πολλῷ μᾶλλον; “how much more”) to underline commonality with Moses. Even when Paul does allude to the new and old covenants in 2 Cor 3, he does not oppose the older Sinaitic covenant made with Israel against a newer covenant struck with Jesus-followers. Instead, Campbell interprets the wording καινῆς διαθήκης, οὐ γράμματος ἀλλὰ πνεύματος (“a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit”; 2 Cor 3:6 NRSV) exclusively in relation to the new covenant. This significant reading of 2 Cor 3:6 suggests that in Corinth the issue was not one of “new covenant versus old covenant, but rather two differing perspectives on gentile life patterns after the resurrection of Christ, one characterized by spirit and the other by letter”(p. 160; emphasis original). Thus Paul’s disturbing references in 2 Cor 3 to the Torah as “ministry of death” or a “ministry of judgment” must be related only “to the effect of the Mosaic law on the nations outside the sphere of Christ,” since, in Campbell’s opinion, “it is inconceivable that the God-given Torah should be described this way by Paul” (p. 172).

In Chapter 7, Campbell returns to modern scholarship, critically assessing the influential work of Ernst Käsemann. The German scholar of the New Testament held that faith stemmed from confrontation with God’s word and denied that there was any immanent continuity in Heilsgeschichte (“salvation history”). Käsemann, as Campbell observes, was reacting to the legacy of Nazi theologians who had asserted immanent continuity to promote their own ideology. Campbell nevertheless wishes “to stress some continuity among the faithful throughout history, however this may be expressed” (p. 195), noting that Käsemann himself held onto a loose notion of salvation history, which he coined Heilsplan. Campbell discerns the concept of continuity in salvation history in Paul’s understanding of the remnant of Israel. According to Campbell, Paul identified the remnant with a corporate group of Israelites, namely, the Jewish followers of Jesus. Paul believed that this remnant was a sign of divine providence manifest in history that provided a vital link for the ethnē to receive the gospel about Jesus. Paul’s conception of salvation history therefore does not bypass God’s interaction with the people of Israel by hopping directly from Abraham to Jesus. Earthly continuity in divine providence persists throughout Israel’s history.

In Chapter 8, Campbell addresses how Paul conceives of the ethnē in Christ as σπέρμα (“seed”) of Abraham. Paul affirms that the ethnē in Christ become the seed of Abraham without eliminating the division between Israel and the nations. The divine promises made to Israel were not transmitted simply through Abraham but through Isaac and Jacob as well. Thus, Abraham’s lineage alone does not secure Israelite status, which stems from Isaac, Abraham’s promised heir (Rom 9:7). The ethnē in Christ therefore are not children of Isaac as are the Israelites although they do inherit the Abrahamic promises via Isaac (p. 228). 

Building on the premise that Paul recognizes ongoing ethnic difference, Campbell argues in Chapter 9 that, for Paul, “being in Christ” entails “continuation of pre-Christ identity as a Jew or non-Jew” (p. 13). To make this case, Campbell relies heavily on 1 Cor 7:17–24, which in his estimation shows that ethnic distinctions remain meaningful for Paul. Paul’s motto “remain as you were when called” (1 Cor 7:17) shows that the apostle did not intend to overcome difference in order to establish a uniform or even hybrid Christian identity. Paul still viewed Israel’s covenant as the dividing line between people.

Chapter 10 returns to some of the discussion in Chapter 4 concerning the place of the covenant in Paul’s thought. Again, in contradistinction to Sanders, Campbell affirms the importance of covenantal categories in Paul’s theology. Paul’s audience explains his limited use of covenant language since non-Jewish followers of Jesus partake in the divine promises through their participation in Christ rather than as Jewish participants in the covenant itself. Paul, however, did not believe that the advent of Jesus nullified the covenant with Israel.

The conclusion reflects on the theological significance of interpreting Paul’s gospel in a manner that does not eradicate difference but welcomes it. The gentile Christian uniformity that sought to overcome the original diversity within the Christ movement stemmed from a reaction against Judaism and Jewish Christianity. This endeavor, however, rendered Christianity deficient in its identity construal. To rectify this situation, Campbell proposes that Christianity relate the revelation of Christ to the prior revelation of God to Israel through a hermeneutic of commonality rather than opposition. This can hopefully lead to reconciliation with Jews (and other non-Christians) and restore an adequate Christian self-understanding.

Before ending with praise for this splendid book, I would like to raise some questions for further discussion. I voice them with the greatest sympathy and respect that I have for Campbell’s scholarship, whose findings and concerns align very much with my own.

First, it seems to me that Campbell’s reading of Paul’s letters depends heavily on restricting their relevance to their non-Jewish addressees. Among other things, this hermeneutical application allows Campbell to limit the damage of Paul’s controversial statements concerning the Torah (e.g., the “ministry of death” in 2 Cor 3:7). The potential offense of these statements for Jews is diminished if they concern only the ethnē and arise from Paul’s attempt to prevent non-Jews from yielding to pressure to become Jews. I completely agree that a reader of Paul must always bear in mind the situational character of his letters. But are there limits to this consideration? Paul speaks a great deal as a Jew about Jews when addressing his gentile interlocutors. Are there not statements therefore that can be extracted from Paul’s gospel that concern Jews—even in the realm of Torah observance? Gentile addressees aside, would Paul not hold certain positions to be true regardless of the identity of the audience addressed? Certainly, we can agree that Paul would testify to anyone, whether Jew or gentile, that Jesus rose from the dead. But what other matters did Paul deem relevant for gentiles and Jews? In full agreement with Campbell, I don’t think that Paul is belittling the Mosaic Torah in 2 Cor 3. Neither is he dismissing the ministry of Moses whose glory he repeatedly notes. His goal is not to criticize the Torah but to defend his apostolic authority in the eyes of his gentile Corinthian converts. Along the way, though, Paul draws his audience’s attention to the Jewish people—both those contemporary to him and those from the biblical past. Significantly, Paul mentions the “old covenant” (παλαιᾶς διαθήκης) explicitly in relation to the Jewish people of the present day: “to this very day, when they [i.e., non-Christian Jews] hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there (2 Cor 3:14 NRSV; emphasis added). I wonder then whether Paul was merely contrasting in 2 Cor 3 two different understandings of the new covenant as they concerned gentiles. The only time when Paul speaks of the old covenant he refers to Israel.

Could not the “old covenant” then mean for Paul the one struck at Sinai and the “new covenant” the one initiated through Jesus? Campbell avers that this cannot be the case because Paul would be describing the Torah of Moses in a way unthinkable for a Jew as a “ministry of death” and a “ministry of judgment.” I have been reading Martin Buber recently, and I find myself reminded that this unique Jewish thinker openly denied the revelatory authority of the Jewish law (much to the distress of his close friend Franz Rosenzweig). Paul admittedly did not reject the original glory and divine authority of the Mosaic Torah. The question though is to what extent Paul was a common Jew (as defined by Sanders’ “Common Judaism”). I know of no Jew from antiquity quite like him. Some of the Pharisaic disciples of Jesus mentioned in Acts 15:5 or indirectly attested in the Gospel of Matthew come to mind. But as far as we know, none of these had previously persecuted and suddenly joined the Christ movement only to then reach out to non-Jews, teaching them not to observe the Mosaic Torah in its totality.

One final question, which is less material since the final outcome is essential agreement: Campbell distinguishes the “ethnē in Christ” as seed of Abraham from Israel the promised seed of Isaac and Jacob. But can the “ethnē in Christ” also be the children of Isaac? In Rom 9:10 Paul refers to Isaac as “our father” even though he addresses gentiles throughout this letter (see, e.g., Rom 11:13: “to you ethnē I speak”). But when Paul defends the covenantal election and future restoration of the Israelites, he refers to their chosenstatus and to his (“my”) Jewish compatriots (e.g., Rom 9:3–5). We should recall that, like Abraham’s descendants, not all of Isaac’s seed automatically became heirs to the covenantal promises. Paul reminds us of this matter when he refers to Jacob and Esau (Rom 9:13). One son was chosen, the other not. It is only the eponymous patriarch bearing the name of the chosen people who is truly the first Israelite. While in Romans Paul does not confuse the ethnē in Christ with the children of Israel, as only Jacob’s progeny is Israelite, I wonder nonetheless whether he might have viewed gentile followers of Jesus as being somehow the children of Abraham and Isaac.

I am sure that Campbell has excellent answers to these questions, which, if I may borrow from Talmudic jargon, I have raised “for the sake of heaven,”that is, not merely for argumentation but for a common, if I dare, higher purpose that can lead toward a better appreciation of Paul’s thought and mutual understanding between Jews and Christians, and indeed all humans. Most of the time, I found myself applauding and nodding in agreement with Campbell’s nuanced exegesis of Paul’s letters. The correctives against false binary readings of Paul that cast Jewish categories against Christian ones are warmly welcome. I second Campbell’s central thesis, namely, that Paul ultimately maintains a distinction between Israel and the nations. Thus I fully concur that the remnant of Israel was for Paul the body of Jewish followers of Jesus. Paul included himself in this Jewish remnant (Rom 11:1–2) and believed that it guaranteed the future restoration of all Israel, which for Paul was not “the Church” but am Yisrael, the people of Israel which remains God’s beloved because “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:31). This, in my opinion, is arguably the greatest affirmation of divine fidelity and love in the entire New Testament, which, tragically, has been largely forgotten, even denied through persistent supersessionist readings of Romans. I sincerely hope therefore that Christian readers—to whom Campbell’s book is primarily addressed—will pick up this book and reflect on its profound reflections.

[1] On this issue, see Joshua Garroway, “2 Corinthians 3 ‘Within Judaism,’” in The Message of Paul the Apostle within Second Temple Judaism, ed. František Abel (Lanham: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019), 75–87.