Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Biblical Scholarship and Proper Humility

D. A. Carson reviews David A. Brondos. Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle's Story of Redemption. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006. Pp. xiii + 241. Paper. $20.00 ISBN 0800637887.

If you have read this blog from its inception, you will recall my entry titled A Humbling Experience While Researching. In it I indicated that I had read a couple of journal articles on precisely the same biblical passage upon which I had earlier written a rather substantial essay, "'Redeemed from the Curse of the Law'": The Use of Deut 21:22-23 in Gal 3:13." If you take a look at it, you will see that it is technical in that if offers a close and tight exegesis of the passages involved. It so happens that David Brondos, whose book D. A. Carson reviews, is one who wrote an essay on the same passage, "The Cross and the Curse: Galatians 3:13 and Paul's Doctrine of Redemption," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 81 (2001): 3-32.

When I read Brondos's essay, I decided to put the best construction on the fact that he made no reference to my essay, which, by the way, shows up in every major index system, including ATLA. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt that he had simply missed my essay in the ATLA listing as he researched essays on the selected passage. Yet, I wondered if he selectively ignored my essay because it demonstrates from biblical evidence an argument that leads to conclusions that counter his own conclusions. Upon reading D. A. Carson's review of Brondos's book,
Paul on the Cross, which I have not had an opportunity either to see or to read, my formerly private thoughts may be more accurate than my previously expressed public thoughts. Is it conceivable that I misplaced the cause of my expressed humility? Which is the cause? Did he accidentally overlook my essay by missing it on the ATLA or other index retrieval system? Or, did he overlook my essay by suppressing it because my argument and conclusions countered his own? You be the judge. Read D. A. Carson's review of Brondos's book. As in his book, so also in his essay, Brondos contends that

Pauline scholars have tended to look to some version of the doctrines of atonement found in later Christian tradition for the narrative framework and ideas necessary to interpret Paul's thought in Gal. 3.13. However, a proper understanding of the foundtational story found in the primitive Christian tradition provides us with all the elements we need to understand this passage: by being obedient unto death in seeking the redemption of others, Christ attained that redemption once for all when God responded by raising him, since now exalted in power, he is certain to redeem God's people from the law's curse when he comes again ("The Cross and the Curse: Galatians 3:13 and Paul's Doctrine of Redemption," JSNT 81 (2001): 32 [Brondos's own abstract]).
Taking offense at the longstanding Christian belief in substitutionary or vicarious atonement may have prompted his slighting of my essay, for, as you will see if you read the following paragraphs, I make a case that Deuteronomy 21:22-23, in the Old Testament covenant framework, depicts substitution. On the other hand, it seems somewhat odd that Brondos did not cite my essay as a contemporary example of one who holds what he regards as a wrong view of Paul's understanding. Here, then are crucial excerpts from the conclusion of my essay.

Reading Deut 21:22-23 from this hermeneutical matrix clarifies the legitimacy of Paul's use of that passage in Gal 3:13. In its OT covenantal context, Deut 21:22-23 prepares for and anticipates Christ's curse bearing upon the cross. The corpse of the covenant-breaker is hung “upon the tree" as a gruesome sign that he is an object of curse. He is suspended between heaven and earth, exposed to the vengeance of God to propitiate his wrath toward Israel (Num 25:4; 2 Sam 21:6ff).

From his salvation-historical perspective, Paul argues that Christ hung “upon the tree" in Israel's place, bearing the curse of the violated covenant and turning away God's wrath from his people by redeeming them out from under the law's curse. This redemption of believing Jews from the law's curse is epochal in character, for Christ replaces the law for Jews and in so doing extends to Gentiles the blessing promised to Abraham. Thus, Jew and Gentile together are made recipients of the long-awaited Spirit of the new covenant.

If this study is reasonably correct in its identification of biblical authorization for Paul's quotation of Deut 21:22-23 in Gal 3:13, it demonstrates the short-sightedness of exegesis that becomes unduly entangled in pursuing hidden midrashic link-words. Paul's warrant for employing his selected passage, though undoubtedly influenced by gezerah shawah, is not bound to the middoth, nor is he driven to find and appropriate in an ad hoc manner OT passages to validate the NT creed. The eye of faith, reading the OT through Paul's optic (namely the coming of Christ) will yield fresh and rewarding insights concerning how the NT cites the OT.

Do scholars selectively ignore some books or articles that do not fit the direction of their research or challenge the conclusions to which they have come? I am afraid that we scholars are very much tempted to do just that when we encounter an essay or a book containing an argument, especially a carefully reasoned exegetical argument, that does not fit our template. Do scholars have templates in their minds from which they argue. Indeed, we do. Is it possible to overcome the temptation to lay our preconceived notions and beliefs upon the text and avoid coming to the conclusions that we presume from the beginning? Yes, but it is difficult for us as it is for all others.

We are made rather uncomfortable with the ideals and principles that ought to guide all scholarship. Why? It is because true biblical scholarship will arrive at conclusions to which the biblical text leads, and often those conclusions cut cross-grain with our preconceived notions and ideas. Is there a danger in submitting ourselves to wherever the biblical text will lead us? Indeed, there is, for our ideas, beliefs, prejudices, and conclusions may be significantly challenged by the biblical text rightly read and followed. Such is the nature of Scripture. Is it not? Is this not precisely why biblical scholarship must always be prepared to be humbled rightly and even greatly by the biblical text? Herein is proper humility.

The other essay that shows no indication of any knowledge of my essay is Kelli O'Brien, "The Curse of the Law (Galatians 3:13): Crucifixion, Persecution, and Deuteronomy 21:22-23," JSNT 29 (2006): 55-76. Here is the author's abstract.
It is widely accepted that Christians were persecuted for preaching a crucified messiah because, according to Deut. 21.22-23, one who is crucified is also accursed. However, the arguments in favor of that position are weak. A larger examination of Jewish texts on Deut. 21.22-23 and crucifixion per se demonstrate that attitudes toward crucifixion and its victims were generally very different. The article conclues that Deut 21.22-23 is an unlikely basis for early Jewish rejection and persecution of Christianity and that other causes should be sought.
How could a scholar who gives careful examination to Galatians 3:13 and to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 fail to account for a substantial essay that addresses both passages at length? May God spare me from failing to account for essays, theses, dissertations, and books in my research, and especially those that I need most crucially to read and to examine in that they will challenge me and push me to examine the biblical text more closely and to scrutinize my own predilections and assumptions. Amen.