Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 1


Since Michael mentioned my ThM thesis and my reformed theological stance, I thought it would be good to discuss the thesis for my first series of blog posts here. First, a little of my background.

I became a Christian when I was 15. It was the typical youth summer camp conversion, but it was my first very real experience of God’s presence and the first time I believed the gospel. At that time, my family and I attended a small SBC church on Sundays and I attended an Evangelical Bible church on Wednesdays for youth group. This continued through high school. After my experience at camp, I became somewhat interested in the Bible as it pertained to debates with other religions and pseudo-Christian cults. Our youth group did a series on world religions that I found fascinating and I had a friend whose family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, which made me interested in defending the deity of Jesus. Also, in school one of the only classes I paid attention to was our discussion of Greek mythology in my classes on literature. I was not a driven student at that time, but I was interested in religion.

Since I was such a poor student, I had no intention of going to college after high school. Eventually, I came to believe that God wanted me to join the Marine Corps. Unlike most Marines, not long after my initial training courses for my specialty, I found myself working under a Christian who invited me to church. I was stationed at Camp Pendleton and began attending Calvary Chapel in Vista, Ca. I was hooked from my first visit because this was the first church that I attended where there was a concerted effort to ground all we believed and did in the Bible. At that time, I began reading the Bible on my own for the first time and not long after believed that I had a gift for comprehension and theological inquiry. Wanting something deeper, I found myself attracted to the Reformed tradition (of the Baptist variety), since I found them to take a more scholarly approach to the Bible than I had experienced to that point, and I had become convinced of that tradition’s approach to God’s sovereignty in human redemption. I wanted to study the Bible in the original languages, so after completing my 4-year obligation in the Marine Corps, I enrolled in Dallas Christian College (an institution in the Restoration Movement tradition) to earn a degree in Biblical Studies and Biblical Languages. During this time I excelled in my studies and believed that I should pursue more advanced training focusing in New Testament, so I attended Dallas Theological Seminary because of their rigorous ThM program that focuses heavily on biblical languages (despite my rejection of dispensationalism). I have now completed my coursework there and will receive my diploma this December. I plan to begin PhD work in New Testament studies in the near future as well.


I mentioned above that during my journey I became convinced that the Reformed tradition has broadly understood the biblical material about God’s sovereignty in relation to salvation better than alternatives. Today I would describe myself as lowercase “r” reformed since I do not subscribe to the traditional confessions. I’m a member of a Southern Baptist Convention church with a Calvinistic persuasion. I don’t want my scholarship to be focused on this topic as a hobby horse. In fact, my main area of interest is the Jewish background to the New Testament. It was this topic, not primarily my Calvinistic convictions, that led me to write my thesis on predestination in Pauline literature.

My academic work led me naturally to consider the history of Pauline scholarship. Paul’s writings have always been a place emphasis in my study. You don’t have to do too much reading in Paul before you come across the debates about his historical context that arose during the 1970s with the publication of E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders took on what had come to be scholarly truisms regarding Jewish religion in Paul’s day, demonstrating that they were, in fact, misrepresentative caricatures. Sanders demonstrated that Judaism was very much a religion founded upon the belief in a gracious God who had initiated the salvation of Israel and provided for its maintenance through his covenant. His extensive treatment of the Jewish materials created a wake in Pauline scholarship that continues to ripple today. All subsequent studies on Paul would have to grapple with Sanders’ work.

Like most Evangelicals, I was introduced to this world of scholarship through N. T. Wright and the debates over the new perspective. Wright and others took Sanders’ findings in the Jewish materials (rejecting much of what he had to say about Paul), and used them to create new paradigms of exegesis in Paul’s letters. This had its most significant impact on the topic of justification in Paul. I came to believe that much of what this new school had to say was insightful and helpful, but that it lacked explanatory value for understanding some key issues in Paul. Regardless of my disagreement on some issues, the appeal to the Jewish background to Paul led me into those primary sources and to read the best works that engaged in the debates about Paul’s relationship to 1st century Judaism. Again, I found Sanders’ work in the Jewish material to be extremely valuable, but reductionistic, since it did not engage in a discussion of what “grace” meant to different Jews and it did not deal adequately with the possibility that Paul evaluated his contemporaries in ways different from their own self-expressions.

As I was nearing the completion of the required course work at DTS, I still had to write a thesis, and I was having trouble coming up with a topic. Then I came across two newly published books that shaped my project. The first was John Barclay’s 2015 work, Paul and the Gift. This work has had a huge impact in Pauline studies, with some saying (and I agree) that this may be the most important book on Paul written in over 100 years. In my opinion, Barclay’s study is the single most important book on Paul’s theology of grace. Whereas Sanders showed that grace is pervasive in 1st century Judaism, Barclay has provided much-needed nuance, demonstrating that “grace is not everywhere the same.” Different Jewish authors understood grace differently, and the task is to locate Paul’s discourse about grace within this complex spectrum. Barclay’s approach to the question of grace in Second Temple Judaism was to treat the topic in five sources—The Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, the Qumran Hodayot, Pseudo-Philo (Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum), and 4Ezra. Barclay detects six “perfections of grace” in the material he surveys (which also includes some Greco-Roman material and major interpreters of Paul in history). These are superabundance, singularity, priority, incongruity, efficacy, and non-circularity (pp. 70-5). Although I didn’t agree with Barclay’s reading of Paul in every respect (only about 98%), his work confirmed and solidified much of what I was finding in my own study. Most notably for me was his treatment of the Hodayot (“Thanksgiving Hymns”) discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QHa), which contain some overtly predestinarian language and emphasize the efficacy of God’s grace, as I believe Paul does, though Barclay disagrees somewhat at this point. This I thought, in agreement with Barclay, is markedly different from what we read in some texts that emphasize human volition in opposition to divine determinism, such as Jubilees and The Wisdom of Solomon. From this, it seemed abundantly clear to me that Judaism’s grace and election theology cannot be reduced to a single monolithic concept so that every author is thought to reject predestinarian election.

Barclay’s monograph had really reconfirmed some convictions I had arrived at after reading John Piper’s work some time before. Today, Piper is known for his prolific authorship and speaking as a pastor. However, he began his career as a New Testament scholar. While teaching in Bethel University, he published his monograph on Romans 9, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23 in 1983. This was a masterful and robust exegetical study of this passage that is so remarkably different from the kind of writings Piper has produced since, such as Desiring God, that it’s hard to image the same man producing both. One aspect of Piper’s argument that I remember being very impressed with was his appeal to Sirach 33:7–15 (with some appeal to the Dead Sea Scrolls), following Gaird Maier’s study (Mensch und freir Wille nach den juedischen Religionsparteien zwischen Ben Sira und Paulus) as crucial background for understanding Paul’s potter/clay imagery in Rom 9 in a predestinarian sense. The combination of these studies by Barclay and Piper had me convinced that a compelling case for understanding Paul’s election theology in predestinarian terms in the context of Second Temple Judaism was not only possible, but could be made compellingly.

As much praise as I have for Barclay’s study, another study impacted me as profoundly, but in the opposite direction. Also in 2015, A. Chadwick Thornhill published a version of his dissertation completed at Liberty University, called The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism. With both my theological background and academic interests, this title obviously called out to me. I have always tried to remain intentional about laying my own presuppositions and cherished views on the table for scholarly scrutiny. If what I believe does not hold up to the evidence, then it is not worth clinging to. So, as best I could, I read Thornhill’s study with an open mind. He essentially makes the case that elsewhere in the Jewish sources we find no evidence of belief that election was understood in terms of predestination unto salvation. Therefore, Paul should not be read as affirming any such thing. Instead, the careful reader of Paul should see his election discourse as it relates to salvation in terms of corporate theories rather and individual predestination.

I immediately saw three problems with this study: (1) Having just completed Barclay’s study (which was not available to Thornhill at the time of his research), and through my own reading of the primary Jewish sources, I knew that it simply is not true that the notion of election in terms of predestination to salvation is absent in Second Temple Judaism. Reading Thornhill’s study after Barclay’s made me wonder if the former would have said all that he did if he had the opportunity to read Barclay’s work before publishing The Chosen People. (2) Even if we were to grant Thornhill’s reading of the Jewish literature, it would not of necessity follow that Paul must have agreed with his fellow Jews regarding election and predestination. Paul is quite unique among Jewish authors of his day, for example, in his understanding of the role of the law in God’s economy of salvation. Paul tells us in several places that the law was given to reveal and increase transgressions, leading to death, whereas, his Jewish contemporaries would have said that it was given to curb sin and provide a means of obtaining life. (3) In the most detailed treatments of the topic of election in Paul’s letters, he seems (on my reading) to say some things that sound very much like what Thornhill says Paul could not have believed. So, I found Thornhill’s study to be lacking on historical grounds in these three ways, making a critical evaluation of his study a helpful avenue to consider afresh Paul’s relation to Second Temple Judaism with regard to election and predestination.

In the following posts, I’m going to rehearse some of the key findings in my study, beginning with what I regard as the most relevant materials in the Second Temple literature.


Some New Announcements

Hello readers of Jesus and Paul and the New Testament blog! I have three exciting updates.

(1) To begin with the most exciting news: A new author is joining the blog — Robert Wiesner! I have known Robert a long time, almost ten years. While our studies have taken us in different directions, we have maintained steady contact since first meeting in 2008. I still remember meeting him at my regular Starbucks, where I studied weekly throughout all of Bible college. I was with a friend discussing New Testament theology, specifically Pauline theology. Robert overheard and introduced himself as a Bible college student in the area with knowledge of Greek.

Robert completed his undergraduate degree at Dallas Christian College with a major in Biblical Studies and a minor in Biblical Languages. He has also completed a soon to be awarded Master of Theology in New Testament Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. The title of his thesis was: “Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election in the Context of Second Temple Judaism.”

Robert knows his way around the entire Greek New Testament, but is especially a student of Paul, which his thesis title reveals. And his doctoral research will take him even deeper into Pauline research and the world of Second Temple Judaism. He provides, therefore, an excellent balance to the aims of this blog. He also shares an appreciation for Reformed doctrine, but I’ve informed him that I lean more toward Lutheran theology than Reformed.

While I have steadily focused on Jesus studies since 2012, Robert has done the same for perhaps longer with Paul. His knowledge of Paul eclipses my own and he will be a valuable voice in the blogosphere.

(2) Secondly, I am beginning year two of doctoral studies at the University of Aberdeen. My focus is the historical Jesus and the Last Supper, with a dual emphasis on methodology and the Last Supper event. I had a very successful first year and look forward to all that year two will provide!

(3) Third and lastly: With the support of my doctoral supervisor and others, I have a forthcoming publication in the works. I am not going to reveal details here for several reasons, but mostly because it is my first publication and I do not know how much I can share without being frowned upon. I will say that it is a contributory essay in an important book on Jesus studies hopefully coming next year.

That is all that I have for now. I look forward to sharing more details with you on both (2) and (3) as they progress. I hope you enjoy Robert’s blogging as well.


Codex Bezae

I have been studying Maurice Casey on the Last Supper in his books Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel and Jesus of Nazareth. His interest in the Semitisms (Aramaisms) of Codex Bezae prompted me to look further into this codex. Because of Casey’s many appeals to the witness of Codex Bezae, I searched online for the Greek text. I learned that Logos presently has the Greek transcription of the codex compiled by the International Greek New Testament Project and Cambridge University Press — for free! Logos has added many helpful aids for interested researchers as well. (Note also that Logos has Codex Sinaiticus for free download.)

Lessing’s Ditch versus the Questers (comical)

Historical Jesus studies in a nutshell, with Lessing’s famous ditch as a rubric: (1) First questers both realize and attempt to cross the ditch, but get hung-up on their reflections in the streams below, midway across the bridge. They like what they see more than getting across. (2) No questers looked across the ditch to the man Jesus and considered it unnecessary to cross, since they had the kerygmatic Gospels and could encounter Jesus… without Jesus…(?!) (3) New questers attempted to bridge the ditch through newer criteria. Initial analysis demonstrated significant advances, and all indications were positive. It was only a question of the right criteria. And still more criteria. Hundreds of criteria! Some even practiced the criteria! (4) Third questers contextualized the ditch, rather to the ditch’s confusion and bewilderment! But they were somehow able to rescue Jesus’ ministry from across the ditch. Just not Jesus’ passion. Efforts are still ongoing… (5) Post-modernist historians, despite regarding ditch-crossing as an impossibility, and though seemingly unaware of the discipline of history and its ability to bridge to something beyond epistemology, beyond itself — these questers, rather curiously, are most likely to succeed in crossing the ditch, since at the rate they write, the ditch may soon be filled!

Further Contours — Neither Jew Nor Greek

Dunn picks up where he left off in Beginning from Jerusalem – with the Jewish war – and ends with Irenaeus whom he regards as the first biblical theologian and therefore a fitting stopping–point (141). Continuing with many of his previous emphases on diversity detailed already in the second volume of his trilogy, the period under discussion in the present volume involves a Christianity also in tension, “contested on all the main factors which make for identity” (41).

The Jesus tradition continued to be transmitted orally, even alongside the emergence of the Gospels. It was the achievement of Mark to move the ‘gospel’ tradition to the newly invented “Gospel” biography (195), with Matthew and Luke following (192f). And though Paul may emphasize the gospel in terms of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, his burial, and his resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-4), Mark’s Gospel is not all that different in its emphasis. Dunn makes mention of Martin Kähler’s description of “the Gospels as passion narratives with extended introductions” (196). The Gospels, then, present Jesus as just as much the object of gospel content as Paul and subsequent tradents (cf. 188-99). Dunn specifically has in view Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:15; 8:35; and 10:29; 13:10; 14:9; evident from the cited passages is that the term is appearing within the context of Jesus’ own passion predictions and his charge to the disciples that they too will suffer, within his counter-temple discourse, and in the tradition of his anointing for burial). The movement from oral to written Jesus tradition, or gospel to Gospel “should not be seen as some sort of radical departure from the oral gospel tradition” (213).

Concerning the four leading voices of the New Testament: (1) Paul’s influence continues to shape Christianity throughout the second century, particularly as shaping  “a Jewish messianic sect into a religion open to non-Jews and attracting increasing numbers of Gentiles; Paul is seen as a figure with an abiding and strong influence on Christianity; (2) James’ impact was for the most part lost by the events of the Jewish war and subsequent displacement of the Jerusalem Jewish Christians, and by “those who defined Christianity over against Judaism…”  (3) Peter’s impact, which was “surprisingly hidden in the first generation” returns with “increasing force in subsequent generations,” and he is “increasingly claimed as first bishop of Rome”; (4) John’s impact was “hardly evident” at all in the first generation, but becomes “a major voice at the turn of the first and second century.” His heritage was critical in the heresiological confrontations with Gnostics since John’s incarnational Christology was fundamentally opposed to Gnosticism (42). That John and Peter are dated late and afforded less influence in the first generation would align Dunn’s analysis of the literature with F. C. Baur’s. At times the parallels are striking.

Concerning the Gospel of Thomas, Dunn writes with emphasis that: “The basic narrative of Thomas is too distinctive and too different from the other first-century indications of the impact made by Jesus for us to find a root for the Thomas perspective in Jesus’ mission or the early oral Jesus tradition” (400; cf. 375-84).

Neither Jew Nor Greek — Examining James Dunn’s Dates and Sources

Dunn, James D. G. Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity. Volume 3 of Christianity in the Making. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015. xiv + 946 pp. $60.00.

Dating the Sources

Mark is dated largely based on the apocalyptic discourse material of ch. 13 to AD 65-75, something of a consensus among scholarship (53). Particularly, Dunn points out Mark 13:14’s “abomination of desolation,” an intentional echo of Dan 12:11, as indicative of Caligula’s attempt to erect his own statue in the Jerusalem temple (53). “Most find the link between Mark 13 and the destruction of the temple sufficiently close to date the Gospel to the period of 65-75” (54). Luke’s date is largely figured using the same rationale, so that “Luke 21:24 probably implies that the author was able to look back on the destruction of Jerusalem” (60). His Gospel was written before Acts, however, and given a date in the late 70s or early 80s (61). Since Matthew’s Gospel draws on Mark, it “must have been written some time after 70 (66). Ignatius’ use of Matthew provides a terminus ad quem of 100-118, further narrowing the window (67). The critical stance towards “the post-70 successors of the Pharisees” as found in Matt 23:7-8, would indicate an even earlier date still, while Judaism in the wake of Jerusalem’s devastation was still forging a new halakhic identity. Because of the difficulty in deciding whether or not the tensions in Matthew’s Gospel are directed or indicative of a breach with Judaism, Dunn opts for the consensus view of somewhere in the 80s, likely mid to late 80s (68-9). Concerning John, John 21:23 is taken to imply that the beloved disciple had died (79). “There is no clear evidence that the Apostolic Father knew John,” and the “earliest evidence of knowledge of John in Christian circles is Justin Martyr (1 Apology 1.61.4-5 – John 3:3-5),” providing the terminus ad quem of about 150 (79). P52, “generally dated to about 125,” further reduces the time of writing to “the first decade of the second century” (79). Since the John Rylands fragment was discovered in Egypt, then the Gospel of John must have already been in wide circulation, and therefore a date in the last decade of the first century is Dunn’s assessment (or at the turn of the century; 79).

Dunn next explores the pseudepigraphical writings of the New Testament, including Ephesians, the Pastorals (which includes Titus), and 2 Peter (81). Dunn’s point here is that these texts were received into Christian churches not because they were strictly written by Paul or Peter, but because they claimed an authoritative tradition closely wed to the apostles, the closeness of which must have been well known. In answering the dilemma of pseudepigraphical New Testament writings, Dunn points to the value of D. G. Meade who argues that the traditions which began with Peter and Paul, accrued additional tradition material (likely from within each of their own apostolic circles), but in a manner faithful to the work of their respective apostolic witnesses, so that their apostolic authority was maintained (84). In short, Dunn agrees with Meade’s explanation that the claim of apostolic authority for these pseudepigraphical texts should not be confused with literary origins (84). The writings were instead an attempt to “renewedly actualize the authoritative Pauline and Petrine traditions for the following generation” (84). Meade sought precedence for the developing authoritative tradition within Second Temple traditions such as Enoch with its expansions, as well as in Isaiah’s tripartite division declared by historical critics. But is it fair to cast epistolary literature, particularly Paul’s writing to his disciples Timothy and Titus, in the same vein as the textual developments in Enochic and Isaianic literature (granting for the sake of argument, of course, the historical-critical portrait)?

Since the ecclesiology of the Pastoral letters aligns, Dunn states, with that of Acts, and generally reflects a time between Ephesians and Ignatius, a date of 80-100 is posited (91). Hebrews, since it demonstrates that Torah was fulfilled not by the temple-cult in Jerusalem but by Christ, reflects a post-70 time of writing (96). Second Peter is “firmly dated after 100,” or “some time in the first half of the second century,” based on the delay of the Parousia indicated by 2 Peter 3:4, 8, and 9, and because Paul’s epistles are regarded as Scripture in 3:15-16 (102-3). Because of Jude’s association with the traditions in 2 Peter, the earliest date for the letter would be late in the first century with 2 Peter forming the terminus ad quem; and this dating is despite Dunn’s recognition of Mark 6:3 (Jude is a brother of Jesus, and James), the letter’s Jewish character, and Eusebius’ mention of Jude’s grandsons as church leaders in the 90s (Ecclesiastical History, 3.19.1-3.20.6; pp. 97-9). First-Third John, later than the Gospel of John (90s), reflects a post-70 transition from Jerusalem to Syria and Ephesus, which would have been a lengthy process (106). They were written near the end of the first century, or into the second (106). Finally, Revelation, following the scholarly consensus dates to the early 90s (106). Babylon (in Rev 18) is a reference to Rome, as well as the Beast described in Rev 13:1-8. The imperial cult and Domitian persecution are instructive for the dating (106).[1] The letters of James, 1 Peter, and Paul were treated by Dunn in Beginning from Jerusalem.

First Clement is dated to AD 95-6 (113), Ignatius “the late 100s or early 110s” (115), Polycarp’s “letter to the Philippians quite likely followed Ignatius’s letters only a few months later – that is, still in the 110s” (117), and the Didache is roughly AD 100-120 (120). Additional second-century sources evaluated and used by Dunn include the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, 2 Clement, Papias, and the Odes of Solomon. The list of authors and works treated by Dunn apart from the New Testament documents includes dozens more, stretching from pp. 111 to 182, with a helpful chart on p. 183.

[1]E. Earle Ellis states that the evidence presented for a Domitian persecution “do[es] not appear to be very strong.” The Making of the New Testament Documents (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 212-3.  And that dating later New Testament documents (and 1 Clement, p. 280-1 n.236) to the last decade of the first century AD on the grounds of a Domitian persecution amounts to unreliable, dubious history.