I recently listened to an episode of Unbelievable?, an apologetics podcast hosted by Justin Brierley based out of the UK, on the information Paul provides us about the historical Jesus (link). This discussion was between atheist Richard Carrier and Christian apologist Jonathan McLatchie. I’m a regular listener and even had the honor of participating in an episode on what the Book of Revelation teaches us about the nature of eschatological punishment in hell (link). I’m a huge fan of the show because Justin has been able to get the world’s best biblical scholars (along with scientists and philosophers) to have down to earth and usually civil conversations about all sorts of really interesting topics related to Christian faith and skepticism. The shows usually include one Christian and one non-Christian contributor in the conversation.

Richard Carrier has tried to make a scholarly argument that the historical Jesus reflected in the Gospels arose after a more primitive Christian belief that Jesus was a celestial being who was crucified in the heavenly realm, and never a historical person. Later Christians projected this heavenly redeemer figure Jesus into history and eventually inscribed this myth in the canonical Gospels of the New Testament. Carrier’s case rests largely on his reading of Paul, our earliest Christian author, who he believes gives no indication of belief in a historical Jesus. To summarize Carrier’s argument (all too briefly), if our earliest sources present Jesus as a heavenly being and only our later sources place him in history, then we lack sufficient evidence for belief in the historical Jesus, according to Carrier.

The radio show discussed several important Pauline texts and briefly touched on the evidence in Acts and the Gospels. There was one line of evidence that didn’t come up, which I think is very problematic for Carrier’s thesis. This is the material from Romans 9:1–5, where Paul describes the blessings of the Jewish people, whom Paul wishes would embrace their Messiah, Jesus, and avoid condemnation. Of most importance, Paul says “from whom (the Israelites, v. 4) is the Messiah, according to flesh…” (ἐξ ὧν ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα, v. 5). Since this passage didn’t come up in the discussion (unless I missed it) I went to Carrier’s recently published book on the subject (On the History of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt [Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014]) to see if he addresses this passage in his treatment of the evidence from Paul. Carrier’s study includes no detailed treatment of its relevance for the discussion of Paul’s belief regarding the historical Jesus. He refers once to this passage in a parenthetical note (p. 568) and once he makes the connection between this verse and Romans 1:3, which speaks of the Messiah as a descendant of David (p. 575). There is also a discussion of this verse’s relevance to Paul’s belief in Jesus’ divinity in a footnote as well (p. 95 n.69).

In my opinion, this is an important oversight for Carrier’s thesis. In order to highlight the gap in his case, I want to discuss briefly what Paul meant when he described Jesus as an Israelite κατὰ σάρκα (“according to the flesh”). I believe that this evidence in Paul clearly demonstrates that he believed Jesus was a human being who was born into the same world that every other human being was and is, and that Jesus was born specifically as an ethnic Israelite. If this is the case, Carrier’s argument crumbles, because it means that Christianity began as a religion based on the belief in a human Messiah who descended from heaven into the human realm, evidenced by Paul’s writings and the continuity of this belief in the next generation, as the Gospels and latter NT writings bear witness.

What Does κατὰ σάρκα Mean?

This prepositional phrase κατὰ σάρκα occurs 20 times in the letters attributed to Paul, and only two of the occurrences are in the disputed epistles. A similar phrase (which adds the article before σάρκα) occurs in John 8:15. Otherwise, this is a uniquely Pauline term in the New Testament. From my reading of the evidence there are basically two ways that Paul uses this phrase. First, in several instances, κατὰ σάρκα is contrasted with κατὰ πνεῦμα (“according to the Spirit”). When this is the case, the idea conveyed by κατὰ σάρκα seems to be the condition of a human being who is void of God’s Spirit which is the meaning in the several occurrences in Romans 8 (see vv. 4, 5, 12, 13). Within this category is Paul’s use of this expression to depict behaving in an unspiritual way (2 Cor 1:17; 5:16; 10:2, 3, 11:18). While these passages convey important theological concepts, this meaning does not seem to be Paul’s intent in Romans 9:5.

For our purposes, it is most important to observe that Paul regularly uses this phrase to mean something essentially like “as a human being,” or “according to human flesh.” This is the meaning of σάρξ in Hebrews 12:9, which is often brought over with the translation “earthly” or “human.” Thus, in Romans 1:3, Jesus is David’s son “according to the flesh.” In contrast to Jesus’ Davidic sonship because of his “according to the flesh,” in Romans 1:4 Paul says that Jesus was declared to be God’s son “by the Spirit of holiness” (κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης) when he was resurrected. Scholars have identified this text as a preform tradition that predates Paul’s use of it in Romans. This means the Christology reflected in this passage is not only Paul’s but may also reflect the Christology of those who were believers in Jesus before him. The question that must be asked is to whom does Christ’s resurrection display his divine sonship? If his death and resurrection took place in the celestial realm, then his divine status was already known. This early creedal statement revealed that Jesus is God’s Son to those who were previously unaware. This pre-formed Christological creed makes far better sense if it is taken to attest to Jesus birth in the human realm as a son of David and the Spirit’s announcement that he is the Son of God when he is resurrected, again in the world of their experience.

This reading of κατὰ σάρκα in Rom 1:3 is solidified by Paul’s other uses of the prepositional phrase. Thus, in Romans 4:1, Abraham is the forefather “according to the flesh” of the Jewish people. Paul describes other ethnic Israelites as his “kinsmen according to the flesh” in Romans 9:3. This reading of Romans 9:3 is further supported by Paul’s reference to unbelieving Israelites simply as “my flesh” (μου τὴν σάρκα) in Romans 11:14. We have a somewhat ambiguous case in the occurrences of κατὰ σάρκα in Galatians 4:23 and 29. Paul builds an allegory on the story of Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac. Paul says that Ishmael is Abraham’s son born “according to the flesh” while Isaac is the son born according to promise and the spirit. The idea seems to be that Abraham’s son Ishmael was born apart from divine intervention in contrast to the miraculous and life-giving promise of God to Sarah (cf., Romans 4:17), which overcame her old age and barrenness so that God’s promise to Abraham could be realized through Isaac’s birth. Still, that Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” includes the reality that he was born of a woman in the normal way humans are born. Finally, in two parallel verses, Paul commands Christians who are slaves to obey their “masters according to the flesh” (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:22). These instances clearly mean human masters who have authority over their slaves in the human realm.

Conclusion and the Meaning of Romans 9:5

In none of the instances of κατὰ σάρκα does Paul mean someone who became flesh in the heavenly realm, as Carrier believes had to be the case for Jesus. To suggest otherwise is clearly a case of begging the question and it requires that we turn a blind eye to much material in Paul about what it meant for Jesus to be “flesh.” It would require us to believe that only in the references to Jesus does Paul mean something exceptional by the phrase κατὰ σάρκα. This is an obvious instance of one letting his hypothesis determine what the evidence means, rather than testing his hypothesis against the evidence,  and allowing it to be falsified when the evidence demands such. That this is the case in Carrier’s book becomes especially interesting when he suggests that Paul was “all but required” to read the prophecy of 2 Samuel 7:12–14 not as a promise that a descendant of David, born through normal means on earth, would be placed on the throne of an eternal kingdom, but, rather, that God extracted David’s sperm and kept it in heaven to create him a descendant to sit on his throne (pp. 576-7)! If one’s hypothesis leads him to believe that Paul read this prophecy in this way, while citing no Second Temple Jewish evidence that anyone read 2 Samuel 7 in such an incredible way, then I think it is rather obvious that he has taken a wrong turn somewhere in his journey to discover Paul’s beliefs about the historical Jesus.

As we observed above, for Paul to speak of his fellow Israelites in terms of “flesh” is to identify them as fellow descendants of Abraham. He laments their plight apart from faith in Christ, because they have sought to establish their own righteousness by obeying the law (Romans 10:3). However, Christ is the end of the law and the only source of righteousness, which is received only by those who believe (Romans 10:4). Paul believed that God accomplished what the law could not do for his fellow Israelites (and all who would believe) “by sending his son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).

For Paul, if Jesus is to solve Israel’s plight, and the human plight more generally, God had to send him as a genuine human being in the realm of the law’s influence and shortcomings.

This means Jesus had to take on human flesh in this world to overcome the plight of sin. Paul says as much in Galatians 4:4–5—Jesus was sent by God into this world, born of a woman, born under the law—i.e., as an Israelite—so that he might redeem those under the law.

Paul’s point in Romans 9:5 cannot be overlooked in this debate. Paul is concerned about his fellow Israelites, who will suffer judgment for their failure to embrace Jesus as Messiah and Lord. That these Israelites are Paul’s “kinsmen according to the flesh” means that he shares the same ethnicity. Likewise, that Jesus, the Messiah, comes from them “according to the flesh” means that Jesus was an Israelite in the same way that Paul and the kinsmen he is concerned about are Israelites.

For Paul, as for all the early Christians, it was not enough for Jesus to be a human, he had to be the eschatological Adam, a son of Abraham, a son of David, and an obedient Israelite (N. T. Wright has highlighted this point well in his publications).

Paul’s affirmations that Jesus is a descendant of David “according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3; cf., 15:12), the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16), and an Israelite “according to the flesh” (Romans 9:5) all mean, for Paul, that Jesus was a flesh and blood human who lived in the same world he ministered in and that he died for the sins of God’s people in this world and was resurrected in this world and only then exalted again to heaven as Lord (Philippians 2:5–11; cf. 1 Timothy 3:16). This evidence, I believe, cannot be read fairly in a way that upholds Carrier’s thesis that Paul did not believe in a historical Jesus. Paul’s entire Gospel message is grounded in the reality of the historical Jesus.


Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 5: Predestinarian Election in Paul


Having mapped out the Jewish debates about the relationship between divine sovereignty and human agency in Paul’s Jewish world, we are now in a position to compare some of his language to what we have seen so that we might draw some conclusions about his thinking on these questions. Having spent the last couple of years focused on this particular set of questions, I am convinced now more than ever that Paul’s thinking is closest to the strong emphasis on divine providence that we have observed, particularly in the Dead Scrolls, but also in Sirach 33. We can see this in a number of themes that Paul shares in common with these sources, but we will focus here on his clearest expressions of predestination in order to highlight the striking similarities between his language and that of other Jews who described election in terms of the predestination of individuals for covenant membership and final salvation.


Before discussing the positive parallels between Paul and the sources, it is important to note one difference with some of them. In a previous post, I noted examples of explicit affirmations of freewill in Sirach, Wisdom, and Psalms of Solomon. However, one looks in vain for anything comparable in Paul. Instead, there are a number of passages that reveal what scholars have identified as an “anthropological pessimism” which seems to minimize human freedom in Paul’s thinking. Thus, in Romans 8:7–8, Paul says that those who are “in the flesh,” and therefore lack God’s empowering Spirit, are unable to obey God’s law or do what pleases him. In Ephesians 2:1–10, God’s people were formerly “dead in trespasses and sins” (v. 1) and under the domain of the “the spirit that is now at work on the sons of disobedience” (v. 2). This necessitates a work on God’s part that amounts to a new creation (v. 10; cf., Rom 6:3–4; 2 Cor 4:6; 5:17; Titus 3:5), for such cannot be effected by lifeless human beings. Scholars, such as Jason Maston (Divine and Human Agency in Second Temple Judaism and Paul: A Comparative Study [WUNT 297; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010]), have noted that Paul shares much of this negative anthropological language in common with the Thanksgiving Hymns of the DSS. It was this negative estimation of humanity that led the Essene community (as attested in the DSS) to posit an explicit dual predestination, without which they could not explain their own existence. Fundamentally, therefore, Paul’s strong and explicit anthropological pessimism places him in company with those Jews who explained covenant membership and salvation in terms of individual predestination, even before we consider the passages that address the subject directly. We can confirm this by considering the most explicit mention of human will in Paul. In Romans 9:15, after rehearsing God’s choices in election and exclusion in biblical history, Paul deduces the theological conclusion that “it [election] does not depend on human will or exertion, but on the God who does mercy” (my translation). Categorically, therefore, Paul is at odds with those Jewish authors mentioned above who affirm the importance of human volition in election and salvation, choosing instead to hold up divine free will as the standard (v. 18).


This brings us to the positive statements in Paul’s letters that seem to affirm the kind of predestination we observed in Sirach 33 and the DSS. Although there are other texts and themes that we might discuss, I have focused here on the clearest instances in Paul’s letters that display remarkable overlap with Jewish predestinarian sources. I will list and briefly explain the four clearest texts in order of the value I believe they have in explaining Paul’s theology of predestinarian election.

1 Thessalonians 5:9

 “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (ESV)

This verse comes at the end of a letter that Paul wrote to a church that was troubled with matters of eschatology. Based on the two Thessalonian letters, it seems that some in this church had come to believe in an over realized eschatology and were concerned that those who died prior to Christ’s return would not be able to participate in the resurrection. After explaining that at “the day of the Lord” Christ would resurrect all of his people, both dead and alive (4:13–18), Paul concludes the letter by reminding the audience that the hope of this coming day should be a cause for joy, not fear (5:1–11). God’s people, armed with the knowledge that Jesus will return to vindicate his people by raising them from the dead, are to continue to encourage and edify each other as they patiently wait (5:6–11). In 5:9 Paul introduces the theological grounds (ὅτι, “for”) that he wants his audience to stand on as they await the Lord’s return. Because God has not destined (ἔθετο) his people to experience wrath when the Lord returns, they need not live in fear in this age. Instead, he has positively appointed for them to receive salvation.

There are two interesting parallels we can observe here. First, in 1 Thessalonians 5:5, Paul says that his audience are “children of light” and “not…of the darkness.” Read along with v. 9, this sounds remarkably like the Treatise on the Two Spirits from the Community Rule (1QS 3–4), where God is said to have assigned his covenant people the “spirit of light” and those who are destined to experience wrath, “the spirit of darkness.” Coupling this light/darkness dualism with Paul’s language of divine appointment to wrath or salvation makes perfect sense if Paul shares the perspective reflected in the Treatise on the Two Spirits. Second, we find a direct verbal parallel in the Thanksgiving Hymns. In 1QH 15.37–38, the hymnist gives thanks to God because he has “not cast my lot in the fraudulent assembly, nor have You set my portion in the council of the pretenders. But you call me to Your mercies, to [Your] forgiveness [You have brought me,] and in the abundance of Your compassion…” The context of thanksgiving is likewise important in 1 Thessalonians. Paul begins the letter by thanking God for his election of the people, which was evidenced by the effectiveness of his gospel ministry there (1:2–5). Moreover, the Greek that Paul uses to speak of God having not appointed his audience for wrath is nearly a perfect translation of the Hebrew the hymnist uses — “You have not set my portion…” (לא שמתה הוקי). The hymn goes on to describe how this appointment results in his receiving insight and being established for salvation through the covenant community, just as Paul knows that God has chosen the believers in Thessalonica because his preaching was received by faith. Paul’s language of election and appointment to wrath or salvation makes good sense when read in light of the similar language used in the DSS.

2 Thessalonians 2:11–13

“Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but has pleasure in unrighteousness. But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification of the spirit and belief in the truth.”

This translation is essentially my modification of the ESV based on my decisions regarding some exegetical problems in the text. I will have to be content to provide a very brief explanation of this complex text, which cannot possibly do justice to all that could occupy us here.

This passage comes on the heels of the most detailed explanation of the events leading up to the Lord’s return in Paul’s writings (and Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians is debated). According to the previous chapter, when Jesus returns he will destroy Satan and those who have followed him. However, 2 Thessalonians 2:11–12 says that they “believe what is false” because God causes them to, so that they may be condemned. The language of “a strong delusion” from God that leads to their rejection of the truth sounds similar to the “spirit of falsehood” described in the Treatise on the Two Spirits. This connection finds additional support when we look carefully at the Greek Paul uses in v. 13, which can be translated woodenly as “by the sanctification of the spirit” (ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος). Since Paul uses a verbal noun—“sanctification”—the genitive “of the spirit” that follows could either be subjective, referring to the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of the believer, or objective, referring to the human spirit that is sanctified. Both readings would have parallels in Paul and would place heavy emphasis on God’s agency in salvation. However, in this context where we have a contrast between those who receive a strong delusion that results in one believing falsehood and those chosen for salvation, I believe the objective reading makes better sense. If so, we have Paul using language parallel to the “spirit of truth” described in the Treatise on the Two Spirits.

Even without this conceptual parallel in the Treatise on the Two Spirits we would still have a clear affirmation of individual election unto salvation. Paul presents humanity at the Lord’s return in clearly dualistic terms, with both groups created as the result of God’s activity. There is a textual critical issue in v. 13 that impacts the meaning of the verse. It is very difficult to determine whether Paul originally wrote that God chose his people “as first fruits” or “from the beginning.” The evidence in the manuscripts themselves is essentially a stalemate. Most commentators, however, have pointed to parallel Pauline passages to show that Paul regularly uses pre-temporal indicators when discussing election (e.g., Rom 8:29; Eph 1:4), which inclines them to take “from the beginning” as original. The reading “from the beginning” obviously fits well with the predestinarian theology I am suggesting Paul intends to communicate here. Additional support for this is Paul’s use of the verb αἱρέω (“to choose”), meaning “to take” or “to pick out,” instead of the usual verb for election. This verb is arguably more vivid in expressing the subject’s deliberation and the effectiveness of his choosing. This makes the attempt of some scholars to reduce Paul’s election theology here to merely a corporate concept untenable. Moreover, Paul expresses clearly that God’s choice results in the salvation of the one chosen (εἰς σωτηρίαν), as we saw in 1 Thessalonians 5:9. They are not chosen because they are saved by choosing freely to join the covenant community, as in the corporate election scheme. The grammar employed here suggests instead that their being chosen precedes their salvation and ultimately results in it. Thus, I was shocked when reading Thornhill’s treatment on this passage that he spends much time dealing with the textual critical problem while ignoring that Paul explicitly says God’s election is for the salvation of those chosen. This is remarkable because he makes the bald claim in the book that Paul never couches election in terms of individual predestination to salvation. This verse alone, without the benefit of the exegesis provided here, does not prove Thornhill wrong; but it was an oversight not to interact with syntactical significance of the prepositional phrase εἰς σωτηρίαν. As it stands, I believe there is much in this passage to show that Paul affirmed the kind of predestination attested in Essene sources I surveyed in my last two blog entries.

Ephesians 1:3–14

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (ESV)

If you have had the opportunity to study the Greek used here, you will know that it is lamentable to simply quote an English translation, since the meaning of virtually every phrase has been the subject of debate. However, we will have to be content with an imperfect translation here, since I want to keep this as to-the-point as possible. Moreover, I will not be able to validate all that I say here. Those who read the previous entry where I discussed the Thanksgiving Hymns may notice that Paul’s introductory words here—“Blessed be the God and Father…”—are really a translation of the Hebrew used in the introductions of the hymns. In fact, apart from the distinctly Christian elements in this text, this entire passage would be right at home among the Thanksgiving Hymns that were discovered among the DSS, and this includes some remarkably distinct theological ideas. I believe a detailed study of the many parallels between Ephesians and the DSS provides the clearest evidence that suggests that Paul had significant theological interaction with the Essenes who believed what is reflected in the DSS.

For my purposes here, I want to pay careful attention to Paul’s language in vv. 4–5 and the emphasis throughout this praise hymn on God’s desire as the basis for what he has done in redeeming his people in Christ. Verse 4 describes God’s election has having taken place “before the foundation of the world.” This temporal phrase rules out a reductionistic corporate view that excludes predestinarian ideas. For it is God’s people (“us”) who are the objects of his choosing before creation, and not a plan or a faceless community of people who happen to join the church. Election here is not described as entering the community of the chosen, but as a gift passively received by the elect person, with God as the explicit subject who acted before the elect person even existed. The purpose of this pre-temporal election is said to be “adoption”—a covenantal category—which is effected in time through God’s predestining super intention (v. 5). The certain result of being elected and predestined is “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (v. 7) and participation in ultimate glory (e.g., v. 14). As mentioned above, Paul’s language is strikingly similar to what we read in the Thanksgiving Hymns: “You have determined before ever You created him…You alone have [creat]ed the righteous one, and from the womb You established him to give heed to Your covenant at the appointed time of grace…for an eternal salvation and everlasting peace without want” (7.27–29); “in the wisdom of Your knowledge You determined their destiny before they came into existence and according [to Your will] everything come[s to pass], and nothing happens apart from You” (9.21–22).

When Paul tells us on what basis God does all that he is credited with doing here, he tells us repeatedly that it was simply God’s desire and plan to do so—“according to the purpose of his will” (v. 5); “according to his purpose” (v. 9); “having been predestined accordingly to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (v. 11). These parallel phrases employ the exact Greek expression—κατὰ τὴν εὐδοκίαν αὐτοῦ— we saw in Sirach 33:13. Likewise, in the Treatise on the Two Spirits, we read that God ordains all things according to “His glorious plan” (כמחשבת כבודו, 1QS 3.16). Moreover, throughout the Thanksgiving Hymns there is heavy emphasis placed on God’s sovereign foreordination according to his “good pleasure” (רצון, see esp. 9.10, 12, 17), which is translated in the Greek OT with just the same language Paul uses here. Read in this context, it seems difficult to deny that Paul described election in terms of individual predestination to salvation, as did the Essene community who authored the DSS.

Romans 8:28–11:36

Due to the length of this section I will not quote this text in full. As sad as it was not to treat everything we encounter in Ephesians 1, what will have to suffice in our discussion of this passage is an absolute tragedy! In my thesis, the chapter dealing with this section took up 46 pages, and that barely scratched the surface as far as I’m concerned. For my purposes here, I want to discuss just four topics that especially highlight the predestinarian elements in Paul’s argument, which he shares in common with the Jewish sources that espouse predestinarian election: (1) Paul’s “Calling” Language; (2) The Meaning of Foreknowledge; (3) The Background to the Potter/Clay Imagery; (4) Israel’s Hardening and its Future Reversal.

Paul’s “Calling” Language

Up to this point I have not discussed the meaning of Paul’s language of the divine call. This concept becomes especially important in Romans 8:28–30, where we read,

“And we know that, for those who love God, he causes all things to work together for good, for those who are called according to [God’s] purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be confirmed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many siblings. And those whom he predestined, these he also called, and those whom he called, these he also justified, and those whom he justified, these he also glorified.” (my translation).

The predestinarian notions are obvious with Paul’s use of the verb “predestined” (προορίζω). All that Paul says God does here, he tells us he does for “those who are called according to [God’s] purpose.” In Paul’s writings, there is no distinction between being called and coming to faith. You will look in vain in Paul’s letters for an example of someone being called by God and fail to come to faith. God’s call is always effective for Paul, and therefore, he is happy simply to refer to Christians as those who are “called,” since those who are not in the faith have not been the beneficiaries of such a call. This text before us is the strongest evidence in Paul that he believes in an infallibly effective divine call. He tells us in no uncertain terms in v. 30 that all who are called are also justified by God and glorified. There is no room in Paul’s language to posit the category of someone who was called but failed to be justified and eventually glorified, which, according to this context, refers to eschatological salvation through resurrection (vv. 16–23). Earlier in Romans 4:17, God’s calling is described explicitly as his creation ex nihilo in fulfilling his promise that Sarah would bear Abraham’s heir. God’s calling, therefore, effects new creation. For Paul, God’s calling cannot be reduced to an invitation, since all those God calls he also justifies and glorifies.

This is reminiscent of the effectiveness and creative power of God’s “Word” that we saw when discussing Sirach on a previous post. In Sirach 16.28, we are told that nothing in creation disobeys God’s word, and in 42.15 we read that God creates by his word and this results in the obedience of his creatures. It is no surprise that in the Thanksgiving Hymns  15.37–38 we find the author praising God for having called him (ותקראני) resulting in his receiving mercy and forgiveness. The OT background to this notion can be found in Isaiah 43:1 and 7, where God’s creation (ברא), forming (יצר), and calling (קרא) of Israel are presented in synonymous parallel. God’s call is no simple invitation—it is his powerful word that creates his covenant people. Therefore, for Paul, as for Isaiah and the DSS, God’s calling is not a summons that the one called may or may not obey. God’s calling is his life-giving creative decree which infallibly effects what it intends, namely, the justification and glorification of those called. For these reasons, Paul can state categorically in Romans 9:6 that it is impossible for God’s word to Israel to fail, since his calling creates his people (9:24–26). By focusing on Paul’s calling language, we see that we cannot reduce his election theology to the exclusion of determinism, since God’s calling of individuals, in Paul’s thought, effects his desired result in election, which is the full salvation of those called.

The Meaning of Foreknowledge

In traditional theological debates, much hangs on how one understands God’s foreknowledge described in Romans 8:29. Those who reject the kind of divine determinism I am suggesting that Paul embraced tend to understand the verb “foreknew” (προγινώσκω) as suggesting that God took into consideration the foreseen faith of individuals before predestining them. The problem with this reading is that it makes the mention of God’s predestination and calling redundant. If they were already going to believe of their own accord, why must God create new life through his effectual call that we discussed? What is the point of God predestining what he already foresees is going to take place? Moreover, as I mentioned above, this is problematic in light Paul’s anthropological pessimism. Earlier in this very chapter Paul said that apart from the gift of God’s Spirit it is impossible for someone to please God (vv. 6–8). It is also important that Paul uses the verb “foreknew” again in reference to Israel in 11:2. There, because God has foreknown Israel, even though she is currently hardened in unbelief, God has not abandoned her, but will eventually reverse Israel’s condition of unbelief and bring them to salvation (11:26, 30–31). Therefore, foreknowledge is not what God learns when he peaks into some future that he did not create. Rather, it is God’s covenantal love set unconditionally on those whom he promises to save through his sovereign work. As most commentators recognize, “foreknew” here essentially means “fore-loved” or “chose before.”

We find some interesting and informative parallels to this way of speaking about God’s foreknowledge in the DSS that support this reading of Paul. At the end of the Treatise on the Two Spirits, God’s foreknowledge is the same as his deciding the fate of humanity at creation (1QS 4.25–26). In the Thanksgiving Hymns, we read, “[For apart from You no]thing is done, and without Your will nothing is known” (1QH 9.10). Here, God’s knowledge logically follows from his works as creator. The future is a reflection of God’s prior knowledge. God does not learn when he peers down the corridors of time, since the future takes the shape it does because of his prior creative activity. God’s knowledge is an aspect of his creative power. The view espoused by Paul is clearly in line with that presented in the DSS, which is different from what we saw in Jubilees, wherein, God chose Abraham and his sons because he foresaw that they would obey. This latter notion is completely foreign to Paul, and, as we will see, is flatly contradicted by Paul’s affirmations in Romans 9 and 11.

The Background to the Potter/Clay Imagery

Following Paul’s use of the case of Pharaoh’s hardening (Rom 9:14–18, narrated in Exod 4–14), Paul acknowledges the offense that his affirmation of absolute divine freedom would cause for some (v. 19). In response, he employs the metaphor of a potter’s freedom to do as he wills with clay (vv. 20–24). This is a metaphor which is used in diverse ways by Jewish authors. For this reason, some interpreters have asserted without validation that the background to Paul’s use of the imagery is Jeremiah 18. In that text, Jeremiah is encouraging the people of Judah to repent before they are taken away into exile. Although they deserve the covenant curse of exile, if they repent, God can repurpose them, in the same way a potter can start over with a piece of clay and mold it into something different. This example illustrates that the potter metaphor need not speak of divine determinism. However, observing this use of the imagery falls short of demonstrating that this is what Paul means by the image in Romans 9. In fact, this use of the potter/clay metaphor is completely out of place in Romans 9, and therefore, it is doubtful that Paul was alluding to this text.

As it turns out, Paul does not quote Jeremiah 18, but Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9. These texts use this “forming” imagery to make the point that the potter’s purpose cannot be scrutinized by the thing he creates. This fits far better with Paul’s use of the metaphor, which should be our default interpretation since these are the OT passages he is making reference too. We find some important parallels to Paul’s use of this metaphor in the DSS and Sirach 33. In 1QS 11.21–22 we read:

Who can Your glory measure? Who, indeed, is man among Your glorious works? As what can he, born of a woman, be reckoned before You? Kneaded from dust, his body is but the bread of worms; he is so much spit, mere nipped-off clay—and for clay his longing. Shall clay contest, the vessel plumb counsel?

Additionally, in the Thanksgiving Hymns there are several references to God “forming” his people’s destinies, using the same Hebrew verb (יצר) found in Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9 (1QH 7.35; 9.10, 17; 11.24–25; 19.6; 20.27–37), which evokes this same potter/clay imagery we find here in Paul. Perhaps the clearest parallel to Paul’s argument among the Thanksgiving Hymns can be seen in 1QH 20.30–34, where the author is clearly making the same point that Paul is, following Isaiah, that the thing molded cannot question the one who made it:

And what shall the dust answer […and what] shall it understand…? And how shall it stand its ground before the one who rebukes it…? For You are righteous and there is not to compare with You. So what then is the one who returns to its dust?

However, the passage which contains an argument most like Paul’s is Sirach 33.7–15, which we treated on in a previous post. In fact, it has been argued cogently by several scholars that Paul is dependent on Sirach 33 at this point in Romans 9. Like Paul, Sirach 33 describes human beings as vessels that God has formed “as he pleases” and according to “whatever he decides” (v. 13). Some are blessed by being brought into the covenant and others are cursed (v. 12), both as God sees fit. In this text, as in Romans 9, the author attributes these choices to the freedom and right of God as creator to do what he desires with his creation. Paul tells us in Romans 9:22–23 that this was God’s intention so that he could make known the full range of his attributes, including his “power,” “wrath,” and “mercy.” This is precisely the conclusion the author of the Thanksgiving Hymns draws following in perhaps the most overtly predestinarian passage in our sources:

…You have prepared them in order to execute great judgements among them before Your creatures that they might be a sign […] eternal, so that all might know Your glory and great power. (1QH 7.32–33)

While it may not be palatable to some, the view of Paul, following other Jews with deterministic theology, was that God is free to create people with fates as he sees fit. Some he creates to endure judgment and others he creates to experience his mercy and receive glory. God’s revelation is the greatest good, therefore, according to Paul, God is justified in doing as he desires with his creation. While it may be natural for humans to be offended, Paul and some of his contemporaries believed that human beings are like clay vessels attempting to scrutinize the potter. The emphasis on absolute determinism cannot be overlooked here without vitiating Paul’s intention in this magisterial passage.

Israel’s Hardening and its Future Reversal

Finally, we will consider briefly what Paul says about Israel’s hardening and future salvation in Romans 11. To begin with, Paul tells us that God has not reneged on his promise to Israel, since “at present there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (ἐν τῷ νῦν καιρῷ λεῖμα κατ᾽ ἐκλογήν χάριτος γέγονεν, v. 5, my translation). That is, God has remained faithful to the promises made to Israel by preserving a number of Israelites, as he had done with the seven thousand in the days of Elijah (v. 4). In vv. 7–10, we read that those Israelites who have not been preserved as part of the remnant were “hardened”—as Pharoah was in ch. 9—and given “a spirit of stupor” as their eyes were “darkened,” which reminds one of the “spirit of darkness” in the Treatise on the Two Spirits. Moreover, Paul goes on to say that “God has consigned all to disobedience” (συνέκεισεν γὰρ ὁ θεὸς τοὺς πάντας εἰς ἀπείθειαν) in order to one day reverse their condition (v. 32). That is, Israel’s current state of unbelief is the result of God’s design, so that the Gentiles would be brought into his covenant dealings in this age—“a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (v. 25). However, since “God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable” (v. 29), at a time determined by God, their current condition will be reversed, so that their disobedience will be transformed into obedience and salvation. For Paul, Israel’s salvation awaits God’s sovereign intervention, which unmistakably implies God’s determination of the salvation of those individual Jews who in this age have been hardened and consigned to disobedience. Paul does not try to justify these truths. Instead, he praises God for his surpassing wisdom and the truth that all things have their telos in him and for his glory:

Oh, the depth of the riches, wisdom, and knowledge of God! His judgments are unfathomable and his ways inscrutable! “For who has known the Lord’s mind, or who has been his advisor?” “Or who has given to him so that he would be repaid?” For from him, through him, and to him are all things! To him be glory for ever! Amen! (vv. 33–36, my translation)


In this series, we have seen that Judaism in the Second Temple period was not monolithic on the subjects of election, predestination, and human volition. As Josephus tells us, some emphasized human freedom in such a way that God’s determinism is reduced. Others, as Sirach 33 and the Dead Sea Scrolls testify, understood that whatever takes place in time is ultimately the result of God’s decree in advance. By examining this language, we saw that this included the election of individuals and their being predetermined to become members of the covenant community, and thereby, to receive ultimate salvation. By comparing the language these sources use to Paul’s language in the passages with the strongest election and predestinarian language, I believe I have shown that Paul evidently favored this Essene outlook on election. The clearest parallels to Paul’s language in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, 2 Thessalonians 2:11–13, Ephesians 1:3–14, and Romans 8:28–11:36 are found in these Essene texts. At some points the correspondence is quite remarkable, making it difficult to avoid the conclusion, based on a nuanced historical reading, that Paul did believe election includes the divine predestination of individuals to membership in the new covenant in Christ and eschatological salvation.

Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 3


On my last post, I made a note about method in approaching Paul’s relation to Judaism. I suggested that we are mistaken if we assume that the diverse literature of the Second Temple period is monolithic on any single topic, and election and predestination are no exceptions. Moreover, even if we were to identify absolute unity of expression in the relevant Jewish materials, it would not follow that Paul is incapable of arriving at a fresh evaluation of the topic in question, as he does on the role of the law in salvation-history. I then tried to show how Josephus’ classification of the major Jewish groups of his day according to their diverse opinions about the relationship between divine providence and human freedom makes statements to the effect that no Jewish sources affirmed divine predestination to covenant membership and ultimate salvation, like Thornhill’s, very dubious.

Building on these observations, I want to begin in this post to review some of the relevant Jewish materials for plotting Paul’s theology of election. I will make clear that we cannot affirm the equation “election = predestination to salvation” that some in my own theological tradition tend to make. Election is a complex topic and election language is used to express several ideas, making predestination one among many, which are not mutually exclusive.


Because of space limitations and because other scholars (including Thornhill) had already done a good job of cataloging the evidence, I did not review the following Jewish data in my actual thesis (it was among the painful cuts I had to make). However, in order to set the stage for our discussion of predestination in Judaism and Paul, I think it is important to review some important material that I could not cover in my thesis. Two important studies on which I am dependent should be mentioned here. The first is a revision of D. A. Carson’s Cambridge doctoral thesis, entitled Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Wipf and Stock, 2002). The other is a doctoral dissertation by Sigurd Grindheim, that Carson supervised at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, entitled The Crux of Election: Paul’s Critique of the Jewish Confidence in the Election of Israel (WUNT II/202; Mohr Siebeck, 2005). I highly recommend both works for anyone interested in the topic at hand. Both studies begin by treating the very complex topic of election in Jewish context, both in the Hebrew Bible and the Second Temple literature. Carson’s study goes on to focus on the relevance of this material to the Johannine literature, while Grindheim’s study turns to focus on Paul. I think it’s important to list some of the important categories these two scholars identify in the OT and Second Temple materials, along with some references, in order to illustrate how complex a topic election really is. The references I provide are by no means exhaustive and the scholars I have just mentioned provide many more. In order to keep this post short, I have chosen examples that are especially illustrative of the categories under which they fall.

Gift of Wisdom and Torah

In wisdom literature, like Sirach, election language can refer to the possession of the divinely dispensed Wisdom. Thus, Jacob (Israel) is elect because God commanded Wisdom to take up residence there uniquely (24.8–12). This notion has its roots in the first chapter of Sirach, where we are told that at creation God created Wisdom and determined to dispense her in general to all, but in special abundance to “those who love him” (1.4–10). There is a connection made in between the reception of Wisdom and the reception of the Torah in 2.16, where we are told that those who love the Lord are “filled with his law” (cf., 15.1; 17.11; 19.20; 21.11; et al.). Thus, this special measure of Wisdom that Israel receives in 1.9 should probably be equated with the special revelation that the covenant nation received when Yahweh gave her the Torah. Therefore, we see an intimate relationship here between election and the establishment of the Law-covenant. However, as we will see in a later post, this idea is complemented in Sirach by the presence of some key material advocating divine predestination (e.g., 33.7–15).

Election and Choice Quality

In 1 Enoch we find some examples of the use of election language to describe the quality of the elect one as choice. In 93.2 we see “the elect of the world” in synonymous parallel to “the children of righteousness.” It is “the elect ones of righteousness” whom God will choose (93.10). In 1 Enoch 38.1–4 “elect ones” is used to mean those who are righteous and holy, in contrast to the wicked and sinners. As Grindheim summarizes: “That which is ‘elect’ is now a quality… The connotations of the term are that which is ethically and religiously good, and that which is worthy of being elected…” (The Crux of Election, 42).

Call to Vocation

We also find that election carries with it the obligation of a special duty of manifesting God’s glory to the nations. Therefore, in some sources, being chosen is about being given a special task by God. Israel, for example, is to keep the Law as the terms of the covenant in order to display their God’s uniquely righteous character to the surrounding peoples:

Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I have set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:6–8, ESV; cf. 28:9–10)

In Isaiah 14:1, when God restores Israel it will result in others being joined to the covenant. Moreover, Israel is Yahweh’s chosen servant who will receive his spirit and “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).

This way of discussing election extends into the Second Temple literature as well. In Sirach 45.4–5 we read that God chose Moses in order to “teach Jacob the covenant, and Israel his decrees.” In Psalms of Solomon 17.4 David’s chosenness speaks of his appointment to the office of king. Peter repeats this idea when he applies this language of Israel’s election to the church, saying that they have been chosen “in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The concept of vocation has featured significantly in N. T. Wright’s biblical-theological work, regarding both election and Christology.

Reversal of Values

Another interesting aspect of election that shows up in the OT and especially in Paul (which is the focus of Grindheim’s study) is the way God’s choice of Israel, or his new covenant people, serves to illustrate a divine reversal of human systems of value. “That which has no outstanding inherent value becomes precious by divine election and that which is not choice in itself becomes the object of God’s choice” (Grindheim, The Crux of Election, 9). This is apparent in Israel’s patriarchal narratives, wherein Isaac is chosen over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, showing God’s disregard for primogeniture. Then, quite explicitly, in Deuteronomy 7:6–7, regarding Israel’s choice, we read:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples… (ESV)

Paul picks up this idea in 1 Corinthians 1:26 when he invites his audience to recognize that they were called by God, even though, according to worldly standards, they should not have been valued. This concept is illustrated most vividly in Ezekiel 16, where God describes his unconditional electing love for Israel as his having compassion on a new-born child who was not even loved or properly cared for by her parents, and later, in spite of her “whoring” and adultery (i.e., idolatry), he will again restore her—thus, again choosing her—through an everlasting covenant. There is no reason Israel should have been chosen, and every reason for God to have rejected her. According to Paul, the church is in the same boat. Nevertheless, God has set his covenantal affection upon his people, thus, reversing normal measures of value.

Corporate Election

Thornhill and others have focused much on the importance of corporate election in the OT and Second Temple literature as relevant background to Paul’s (and the rest of the NT’s) thought. When the corporate element of election is in focus, the texts speak of one receiving elect status and benefits by joining the elect community. Individuals are not the focus of election, but God has chosen the group, so that individuals become elect only by joining the community. The clearest examples in this category are found in the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the Community Rule (1QS). Those who repent and undergo the lengthy and demanding process of joining the Yahad (“community”) become members of God’s new covenant people. This community believed that the temple cult was defective, so that forgiveness was available only for their members. If one left the community, his fate was destruction along with all outsiders, since salvation was only for their community, the true Israel.  As we will see in later posts, this corporate element of election that we observe here did not preclude predestination (as Thornhill and others seem to assume). In fact, divine predestination was used in this very document (in the form we have it) as the crucial theological undergirding that explains why only a relatively small number of Israelites joined the community and remained there, but the vast majority did not.


The Remnant

When discussing election in the OT, it is important to make note of the “remnant” motif. Especially prominent in the prophetic books, and a theme that features heavily in Second Temple literature, and in the Gospels and Romans 9–11, is the idea of an elect people within the elect nation—a true Israel within Israel. That is, not all of Israel is truly elect in the fullest and most ultimate sense, despite being in the covenant. According to Jeremiah 31:31–34, this problem will not exist in the “new covenant.” There is great diversity in just how this concept works out in the variegated literature in question. This notion comes into special focus when the nation is divided by those who follow Solomon. Amos gives testimony that Judah thought of themselves as a faithful remnant when the northern tribes had apostatized.

The remnant motif comes into special focus following the division of the kingdom after Solomon, when sharp distinctions began to be pronounced between those descendants of Abraham were seeking to be faithful to the covenant with Yahweh (primarily in Judah) and those who were engaging in open and gross idolatry (primarily Israel). Amos gives testimony that Judah thought of themselves as a faithful remnant when the northern tribes had apostatized. The prophet seeks to dispel the notion that God will not also bring severe judgment against Judah if she continues to transgress the covenant, leaving only an even smaller remnant within Judah. Isaiah 1 provides some important evidence of the remnant concept. Judah comprises “children” who have rebelled against their father, Yahweh (v. 2). This evokes God’s judgment against “the daughter of Zion” (v. 8). However, Yahweh has spared “a few survivors” lest Judah be completely eradicated like Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 9). In Isaiah 10:20–22, inclusion in the remnant is shown to be on an individual basis according to Yahweh’s powerful eschatological act of deliverance:

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. (ESV)

A kind of remnant ideology contributed to the events that transpired during the Maccabean revolt (see especially the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 11 and 1 Maccabees, though those faithful to the covenant do not participate in violence in the former reference). In response to what was viewed as apostasy, violent actions were considered justified by the more zealous among conservative Jews. This seems only justifiable if those Jews who had compromised and engaged in what they view as idolatry were thought to be outside of the sphere of election in a very real sense. The community of the Dead Sea Scrolls held similar views, but instead of using violence to eradicate the problem and restore the nation, they withdrew into an exclusive community as the faithful remnant of the true Israel. In some ways similar (though with important differences as well), Jesus and the early Christian movement saw themselves as the faithful remnant of Israel, comprised literally of a small number of Jews who had heeded the eschatological call to repent and believe the Gospel along those Gentiles who were added to the covenant through union with the Messiah Jesus, the true Israel (e.g., Romans 9:6–29; 11:1–32; 1 Peter 2:4–10), and excluding those Israelites who did not believe (Romans 9:30–10:21). Thus, election, in some contexts, meant more than being part of Israel in general—it meant being within that part of Israel who would experience eschatological deliverance, which was not universally promised.


This all illustrates that election was a complex and pervasive concept in Second Temple Judaism (as E. P. Sanders showed so conclusively four decades ago). However, recognizing that election is ubiquitous does not answer many of the theological questions that naturally follow. The theological questions that are cause for debate and division in Christian circles are not new. There were Jews in the Second Temple period who speculated about why God had chosen Israel at all. If it was not because of some special quality in those chosen, then God seems to be capricious—which most Jews could not accept. There has always been the question of whether Israel’s election precludes her finally being rejected (or having been finally rejected) for persistently violating the covenant (e.g., Rom 9–11). Or, why were some Israelites faithful, thus comprising a remnant, while others were not? Does election effect the elect one’s faithfulness, or does God chose those whom he foresees will be faithful to the terms of the covenant? This all naturally leads to questions about human volition, divine sovereignty, and predestination? Some Jews (strangely, in my view) believed that God chose Israel because he foresaw that they alone would keep the covenant. Others said that he chose the Patriarchs for that reason (again, strangely), thus assuring Israel’s elect status. And some, even if a minority, believed that God chose Israel as his free prerogative from creation, based on nothing but his desire to display his power in the world by so doing. This act of election, prior to creation, assures the certain result of God’s purpose of choosing his people, the creation of a faithful covenant community who will reflect his glory to the nations. Over the next couple of posts, we will see some sources that saw election in terms of God’s predestination at creation, before moving into Paul’s view on the matter.

Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 2


In this post, I want to continue my series about my ThM thesis, which was written largely in response to A. Chadwick Thornhill’s 2015 book, The Chosen People. In Part 2 I will begin reviewing what I regard as the most important Jewish materials for establishing the spectrum of belief regarding election and predestination in Paul’s context.

First, I should note a key difference in the approach I took in my thesis over against the approach of Thornhill. One of the weaknesses of his study (as I judge it) is that it lacks sustained treatment of the relevant Jewish materials in their literary contexts, due to the scope of materials he included. This had the effect, in my estimation, of minimizing the rhetorical thrust of some of the more overtly predestinarian passages, which I believe skewed evidence that should have proven problematic to his thesis. Proving one’s thesis problematic is not a bad thing for an objective historian (as far as this is possible). Good historical investigation should be scientific. It requires us to begin with a working hypothesis to test against the evidence. When the evidence suggests that the thesis lacks explanatory value, the historian then must nuance or modify the hypothesis in order to accommodate. Failing to do so will necessitate strained readings of this recalcitrant evidence, leading to a greatly weakened case for the critical reader. I believe Thornhill’s study failed in this matter, partly because the volume of materials precluded detailed exegetical treatments of some of the most relevant sources, which I judge very problematic for his thesis.

In the early process of my study, I had similar aspirations of providing a wholesale treatment of the topic of election in Second Temple Judaism. I presented this idea when I submitted the syllabus for my project, which is something of an annotated outline. In response, one of my thesis supervisors, Darrell Bock, said, “This seems pretty ambitious.” As I began research for the project, I realized that he was correct and that there was no way I could stay within the page limits with such a broad-brush approach if I was going to do proper justice to each passage I used. To narrow the scope of my study I had to focus more specifically on predestination, instead of more generally on election. This allowed me to limit myself to the three key passages I will discuss over the next few blog entries. The benefit to this is that my case is grounded in sustained and detailed studies of a small number of texts which are best read as predestinarian, rather than the citation of verses as proof-texts from all over the literature with little appreciation of their literary and rhetorical contexts. This removed the temptation to read disparate material as though it all says essentially the same thing about election and predestination. I came to realize that I could best make my case by showing that some of the texts that Thornhill treated, when carefully considered within their unique literary contexts, show his reading of key evidence to be problematic.


As I began reading the secondary literature, much of which is cited by Thornhill himself, I was floored by the realization that he makes no mention (to my recollection and according to another glance at his index in the process of writing this post) to Josephus’ classification of the Jewish sects of his day. The reason why this is so surprising is that of all topics this important ancient Jewish historian might have chosen to categorize differences in theological perspective among his contemporaries, in Antiquities 13.171-173 he chose the subject of predestination and human freedom. The passage reads:

At this time there were three sects among the Jews, who had different opinions concerning human actions; the one was called the sect of the Pharisees, another the sect of the Sadducees, and the other the sect of the Essenes. Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate. But the sect of the Essenes affirm, that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination. And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the cause of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly.

Scholars have noted that Josephus uses characteristically Greek language appropriate for his audience to describe differences of opinion among Jewish groups regarding the nature of God’s providence and how human volition relates. He tells us that the Sadducees regarded human freedom as paramount, leaving little room for direct divine intervention in human affairs. The Pharisees took a moderate and paradoxical view, allowing what they regarded as parallel truths to exist without prioritizing one to the detriment of the other. The Essenes, Josephus tells us, say “fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination.” According to the Essenes, Josephus seems to mean that all that happens in human experience owes ultimately to the divine governance of the creator. This seems to be precisely the view that Thornhill says is completely absent in the Jewish sources available to us.

The reason this passage merits discussion in a book that claims that no Jewish sources present election in predestinarian terms should be obvious. If we assume that Josephus had a handle on the religious environment in which he lived (which seems to be a safe assumption), then we should expect the sources available to us to bear out this diversity of opinion. Specifically, we should expect to find libertarian expressions of election, sources which provide seemingly inconsistent statements about the subject, and others that couch election in terms of divine determinism. I believe this evidence in Josephus alone is enough to make any study on election which declares that no Jewish texts “negate human freedom” (The Chosen People, 256) problematic. Such claims by an author make me suspicious of whether the investigation undertaken is genuinely one of historiography or dogmatics. Of course, there is certainly a place for the latter. However, it should not be primary in a study that promises to place a particular author (Paul) in his historical context.

Genuine historical investigation, it seems to me, rarely yields such absolute results, and Josephus should incline us from the get-go not to expect the question of Jewish views of predestination to be an exception (as the sources will bear out). Judaism of the Second Temple period was not monolithic on any other topic. Therefore, we ought to expect diverse expressions when we investigate the theology of election preserved in these variegated sources. If we approach the evidence looking for “a common denominator,” we will inevitably find ourselves guilty of reductionism through strained readings in the primary sources. In order to avoid these pitfalls, I think it is better to identify diversity in the relevant Jewish materials in order to create a spectrum of beliefs. Only then can we compare Paul’s language to see where he ought to be plotted. As I will try to argue in the posts that follow, when we do so we will find that Paul most closely aligns with the strongly predestinarian Essene materials we will survey.

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.

Beginning from Jerusalem: Review

Dunn primarily uses Acts as a rubric for understanding early Christianity. But he also includes the Pauline corpus and identifiable Jesus traditions discernible in the letters of James and Peter. Dunn states the sources analyzed date from AD 30–70 (128). The book’s historical treatment formally ends with the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in AD 70. Peter and Paul both die in Rome in AD 64 under Nero’s persecution (1071). As a result, the epistles of Peter, since they are given a late date, must have been written by someone other than Peter (1072).


In the First Phase of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem, Dunn argues for a Hellenistic origin to the sacrificial theology evidenced by the Christian creed in 1 Cor 15:3f: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…” The Hellenists were likely from Antioch and elsewhere in the diaspora, and the confessional formula was “composed by and for the Greek-speaking converts” (232). The testimony of Acts, according to Dunn, “tells decisively against the possibility that Jesus intended to establish a new cult in place of the Temple” (233; but whence Mark 13’s Olivet Discourse?). The summary here closed with a question: “Is it simpler to deduce that the understanding of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice had never been clearly expounded in the church in Jerusalem?” (235). For Dunn, the sacrificial death motif is found in Hebrews and, to a lesser extent, in the epistles of Paul. The theory of a Hellenistic provenance for a sacrificially atoning death by Jesus continues to inform ch. 24 (241-321). The theory can be summarized neatly as follows: (1) Saul’s persecution scattered the earliest believers in Jerusalem, resulting in Hellenists taking the Jesus traditions to Antioch. (2) Upon their return to Jerusalem, the Hellenists had new insight into Jesus’ death, understanding it both as a sacrifice for sins and as subversive of the Temple cult in Jerusalem. This is why no pre-formed Aramaic tradition of the creed can be discerned behind 1 Cor 15:3f, according to Dunn, since the tradition is said not to begin with the Hebraists. While the study is impressive, the reader of Dunn cannot help but ask: Is it really plausible that the earliest Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, after being scattered and catechized anew in Antioch, returned to Jerusalem with a fresh counter-Temple doctrine, and successfully instructed the Apostles themselves on the meaning of Jesus’ death? Or that they held to and taught their own novel tradition successfully and alongside the true apostolic witnesses?


In many ways chapter 27, “Crisis and Confrontation,” is the most important in the book since it demonstrates with great skill how Dunn understands the distinctiveness of Peter’s gospel to the circumcised and Paul’s gospel to the uncircumcised (Gal 2:7), and how each apostle’s mission was answerable to James in Jerusalem, and answerable to one another. “Crisis” designates the Jerusalem Council’s decision on gentile circumcision (Acts 15:5); and “Confrontation” denotes Paul’s confrontation with Peter in Antioch over Peter’s return to Jewish dietary laws (Gal 2:11-14). Faith alone is unquestionably (and rightly) the chief principle involved in the theology of Paul, according to Dunn (see subheadings “b” and “c” under §27.5, 484f; here 487): “The events at Antioch showed Paul that the teaching had to be sharpened – faith in Christ and not works of the law.” And again: “In defining acceptability to God, and therefore of believers to one another, nothing should be added to the gospel’s call for faith; faith in Christ alone is the sole basis for Christian unity.” The last quote given demonstrates that there is a common core holding Christianity together at this early stage, which is faith in Christ – though for James and Peter it is not faith alone. Nevertheless, it is this core that forms the basis of fellowship between Jew and Gentile. This basis of unity also does not eliminate the distinctive features remaining between the Jewish Christianity of Jerusalem, with James at the helm and Peter as its missionary, and the Gentile Christianity of Paul’s diaspora missions, which taught a more homogenous gospel with former divisions such as Jew and Greek evidently absorbed entirely into Christology.

It seems the Apostolic Decree delivered by James which declared that circumcision was not required by Gentiles (God accepts Gentiles precisely as Gentiles; cf. 442-5, 461-9), still retained a Torah-abiding Jewish Christian gospel that was in fundamental disagreement with Paul’s Torah-less gospel. Again, Torah-keeping Jewish Christianity is upheld by James (461-9; esp.467; cf. also James’ “law of liberty” in Jas 1:25; 2:12, pp. 1141-2), and Gentile converts are expected to respect their customs, even where these customs cause them to be set apart from Gentiles. Dunn tantalizingly notes Ernst Haenchen who explains that the Decree is actually consistent with Torah legislation concerning foreigners in the land of Israel (466 n.222; 468 n.231; citing Lev 17:8-9,10-14; 18:20,26; Acts 15:23-29). This indicates a Torah-respecting expectation among Jew and Gentile relations within earliest Jerusalem Christianity (467). The decision of the Jerusalem Council was only enforceable where the Jerusalem mother church held influence; the daughter churches being Antioch and Cilicia (468). Dunn further points out that fundamental for the decision reached by the council was the recognition that the Gentiles had been given the Holy Spirit just as the Jews in the beginning – though Paul leaves this part out.

The Confrontation, i.e., the incident at Antioch, follows next (470-89). Galatians 2:14, Dunn says, should not be taken “to indicate that Peter and the Jewish believers had totally abandoned the law governing relations between Jews and Gentiles” (473). Faith alone was Paul’s answer for the Antioch incident (487), but Peter does not seem to have acquiesced. This confrontation concerning the place of Torah becomes a clash of apostolic titans (491), resulting in an effective fracture between Peter and Paul and their respective churches (491), with Antioch and Cilicia following Peter, and Paul continuing, as his corpus shows, to vie for his gospel against the Judaizers within his Asian and Aegean churches.

Dunn notes Acts 16:4, which states that Paul and Timothy delivered the findings of the Apostolic Decree to Paul’s previously evangelized churches. Dunn writes that this “may also indicate a concern on Paul’s part to ensure that these churches did not follow the path chosen by Peter and the Antiochenes” (665). The context of Acts 16 verse 4 does lend credibility to Dunn’s schism thesis since it suggests that Paul may have only circumcised Timothy to avoid trouble with the Judaizers. Overall, however, the findings of the chapter, as argued by Dunn, do not clearly follow from his presentation. While he demonstrates a contrast, or disagreement, over Torah between Paul and the Jerusalem Pillars, Dunn concludes that it is actually a fracture (489-94), with Jerusalem prevailing and Paul’s influence in areas of Jerusalem influence significantly curtailed (494). This means a full break between Paul and Peter and James.

In sum, concerning the confrontation between Peter and Paul over Torah “it was Peter who prevailed,” though the reader of Paul’s account would not have known it (490). Again, though, has Dunn really demonstrated that the clash of the titans was a schism – a split of the churches according to their apostolic leaders? The intensity of the schism as described by Dunn speaks to F. C. Baur’s continued influence in the thinking of Dunn, and of early Christian studies.


In stark contrast to his treatment of Paul (over five-hundred pages; pp. 495-1057), Dunn briefly sketches James (1122-47) and Peter (378-415; 1058-76). Since the primary thesis of the book is to demonstrate the variegated nature of early Christianity, that is that James, Peter, and Paul makeup different types of Christian subgroups, it is somewhat disappointing that two of the Pillars (Gal 2:9) of nascent Christianity are given so little treatment.

In his examination of the Epistle of James, Dunn identifies several aphorisms of Jesus mostly drawn from the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (1135). The aphoristic teachings are considered by Dunn to be indicative of the impact of the earthly Jesus and of his oral teaching. In this regard James acts as a valuable window into the earliest Jewish Christian followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and Judea. Dunn further finds support for orality in James’ use of wisdom tradition stemming from the Second Temple period, such as the Wisdom of Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon (1133). The noted wisdom citations are not fixed but fluid, indicating a lively, oral presence. It is a nice complement to Dunn’s orality thesis and continued focus.

James’ discussion of “works of law” is further seen as a deliberate affront to Paul, or at least those who have misunderstood Paul (1142, 1144). This is shown to be the case by recognizing the common themes on the discussion in their respective letters: (1) the issue is posed in terms of faith and works (Rom 3:27-28/Jas 2:18); (2) God is claimed as “one” (Rom 3:29-30/Jas 2:19); (3) Abraham’s example is integral to the understanding of faith/works righteousness (Rom 4:1-2/Jas 2:20-22); finally (4) both cite Gen 15:1 (Rom 4:3/Jas 2:20-22) and (5) Gen 15:6 (Rom 4:4-21/Jas 2:23). One might also add the “apart” motif, seen in Rom 3:27 “faith apart from works of the Law,” and seen also in Jas 2:18 and 20, “show me your faith apart from works,” and “faith apart from works is useless.” For Paul it is faith alone, as Dunn impressively points out (482-94); for James it is faith and works together.

James concern for Torah distinguishes him from Pauline Christianity, but not to the degree that F. C. Baur had envisaged, at least according to Dunn (1174). It is rather that they worked together despite their differences of opinion concerning the place of Torah. James’ more conservative Jewish Christianity based in Jerusalem was Torah-keeping, while Paul’s Torah-free gospel was proclaimed in the diaspora among Jews and Gentiles. Peter is seen as a mediating figure who equivocated on the principle, although in Dunn’s work Peter ultimately aligns with James and Torah-based Christianity (1060). But Peter did come to accept, as did James, that due to the movement of the Spirit of God, the Gentiles were accepted precisely as Gentiles (465 n.216), i.e. without circumcision (464).

Aphorisms are also found in 1 Peter (1154), and they too are largely from the Sermon on the Mount/Plain. Refreshingly, concerning the Pauline flavor of 1 Peter, Dunn points out that it is Paul himself who learned from Peter (Gal 1:18), so the direction of transmission may have started with Peter, a point often overlooked. Further, Peter himself should not be considered to have made no impact on his followers, with the result that his epistles cannot in any meaningful way be identified with him (1156). First Peter also reveals no meaningful tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians (1152, 1159), which would speak for an earlier date. On the contrary it presupposes a Jewish audience empty of a gentile presence (see p. 1159; cf. 1 Pet 2:12, 4:3). Dunn concludes that the epistle is very consistent with what we know of Peter’s commission to the circumcised: “the impression is more of one who has had to deal primarily with believers among the Jews of the diaspora, living in hostile Gentile territory” (1159-60).


It seems that the missions of Peter and Paul ran somewhat counter with one-another, or at least can be thought of as competing in some areas, in Dunn’s thought. Though they can be, to be sure, plotted along a spectrum of Christianity holistically understood, the tensions involved in their differing emphases do seem to generate factions within the whole. James and Peter espouse a continuing role for Torah in the life of the Christian communities founded, while Paul adamantly does not (Gal 3:1) – and his many churches are frequently troubled by Judaizers seeking to persuade believers in Messiah Jesus to obey Torah. In the aftermath of the 60s – complete with the loss of many leaders in the Jerusalem church, including Peter, as well as the Jewish War and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple – the ritualistic, Torah-keeping Christianity established in Jerusalem lost its prevailing voice. It will be sometime in the aftermath that Paul’s Torah-less gospel prevails. Or as Dunn tantalizingly closes the volume: “A particular issue will be whether the effective loss of the Jerusalem end of the spectrum was a foreshortening of the spectrum which changed the character of the whole” (1174).

Tantalizing indeed. What is the student to make of such a masterpiece? Greek-speaking Jewish Christianity is not only responsible for originating counter-Temple doctrine and the teaching of the death of Jesus sacrificially understood, but the Hellenists were also formative of, following the Temple’s demise, the eventual theological shape of early Christianity. The increasing Hellenization of early Christianity solidified it as a predominantly Gentile religion in later generations. As a fresh student in early Christianity, the hagiographical impression of the early church Pillars I once held has now been challenged – and challenged deeply. The new lens given by Dunn is carefully crafted, and when the student examines the New Testament with such a lens, many of his theories do seem to make great sense of the data. So where does this leave one so perplexed? A few answers follow.

It has not been convincingly established that a Temple/Torah free gospel is without some precedence in the Jesus tradition (cf. Mark 7:19; 8:31; 9:31; 10:45; 13:1ff.). Peter’s own influence seems closely associated with Torah-free traditions (seen particularly in Mark 7:19b; Acts 10:14; Gal 2:11-14). Nor is Dunn’s hypothesis about an Antiochene/Hellenistic provenance for counter-Temple doctrine – where the first rumblings of a sacrificial death of Christ are said to be located – convincing. Are we to ignore the triple tradition of the Olivet Discourse? Further, the theology of Peter and Paul, in terms of Jesus death understood as sacrificially atoning, stand united in many regards that it seems far-fetched to envision the sort of schism that Dunn does. Faith in Jesus Christ holds the core together, but even here it cannot be agreed that it is faith alone. In sum, too much is made of diversity at the expense of unity.