The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Feb 17, 2018

Did Markus Barth anticipate the NPP in his Ephesians commentary?

[Warning: much of what is posted here is a bit of an over-simplification, but space precludes a fair treatment of all of the issues involved in the NPP!]

In the New Testament Intro seminary class that I teach, we spend a significant amount of time discussing the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). My take is mostly negative, i.e., I disagree with most of what the NPP brings to the table (I was there for the 2010 ETS debate in Atlanta and, in my humble but opinionated opinion, the best response to N. T. Wright's take on the NPP and his view of justification is the address delivered by Thomas R. Schreiner, revised and published here)

However, having said that, there are a couple places where I believe the NPP is correct. For example, the NPP rightly showed us that Judaism in the Second Temple period was, at the least quite often, a "religion of grace" (dear reader, please take a look at the "Prayer of Manasseh" sometime--it's an absolutely beautiful plea for forgiveness hinging on nothing more than the pure grace of God!)   In other words, to say that Judaism, as an entity, was legalistic is to build a straw man (now, the NPP does swing the pendulum too far to the other side, because some of Second Temple literature [e.g., Tobit 12:9; Mishnah Avot 3:16] did give us the sort of "works-righteousness" that Paul [Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5] and the Reformers opposed).

To reiterate, then: the NPP is at its strongest when it is pointing out that we should not build a "strawman" that characterizes all of 2nd Temple Judaism as legalistic/works-righteousness-oriented.

So, imagine my surprise when, while reading Markus Barth's magisterial Anchor Bible commentary on Ephesians, vol. 1, page 248 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), a book which predates Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism (generally considered to mark the beginning of the NPP) by three years, I found the following statement by M. Barth:

"Therefore, it is misleading (and probably nothing less than slanderous) to consider 'justification by works of law' a doctrine that is distinctly and typically Jewish and basically maintained by all Jews. Jews are not, as it were by definition, Pelagians. Augustine's and Luther's deep insights into Paul's doctrine of grace and the successful use they respectively made of Paul's anti-'Judaistic' utterances when condemning Pelagius and medieval concepts of meritorious works have led Paul's interpreters to a caricature of 'the Jews' which is not supported by historical and literary evidence. 'The Jews,' including the early Judaeo-Christian congregation, have been falsely accused of representing a doctrine of salvation in opposition to Paul's. If Paul really intended to strike at the Jews in the polemical excursus of Eph 2:8-9, it is inconceivable that he could speak as positively of the reconciliation of Israel and the Gentiles as he does in 1:11-14; 2:11-22; 3:6." (emphasis added)

Now, in so far as this paragraph goes, it is golden, and represents the strongest point of the NPP, even before the NPP truly began: "Jews are not, as it were by definition, Pelagians." Markus Barth's words should warn us not to broad-brush an entire group so carelessly, especially when the NT writers themselves were (almost all) Jewish. Interestingly, on page 248 Barth cites the Tübingen School (e.g., F. C. Baur) as representing the school of thought that sees "all Jews (except Jesus and Paul) guilty of the teaching repudiated by Paul." To the extent that the NPP is pushing back against that, I believe the NPP is correct (though as I noted above they swing the pendulum too far to the other side sometimes!) Also, for the record, I disagree with Barth's view that "works" in Eph 2:9 is"works of the Law" like in Galatians (p. 244). Surely a generic "works," without contextual qualifiers, is broader than "works of the Law"! But I digress.

On a closing note: I have a much higher opinion of Markus Barth than his father Karl Barth. Markus' message to us about a husband's duty in Ephesians 5 is something his father, apparently, did not always live up to (i.e., as we see in the recently translated correspondence). Also, Markus Barth's Acquittal by Resurrection remains one of my favorite books, as it absolutely demolishes the  idea that one can be truly Christian without the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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