The Father in Law I Never Knew: Alec Simpson

His epitaph could have been, ´his deeds follow him´ (Rev 14:13).  Fifty-five years later Alexander Simpson’s deeds do follow him, ´embodied´ in the older Brazilian believers converted through him and the younger ones converted through them.

Alec was forty when he died 1950 in Uberaba in the interior of Brazil having come there as a missionary from Scotland with his wife Janet in the late thirties.  Janet, her children Anita and David were forced to return to Scotland two years later and from there shortly afterward they migrated to Australia.  Janet never returned to Brazil but Anita with husband Paul was able to visit Uberaba in late June 2005.

So what would we find when we came?  We knew of the children of missionaries from Alec’s era who were still there and that there was a functioning (Brethren) assembly.  But would there be people who remembered the ten-year old Anita and her missionary parents?

Janet sometimes told us how hard things had been.  Some locals were very wealthy; most were poor, as were the (faith) missionaries who had come.  Brazil was intensely Roman Catholic and far less tolerant in those pre-Vatican 2 times.  It was not uncommon for the people to throw rotten eggs at the preachers.  Priests would sprinkle holy water where they had preached.  The town was noted as a centre of spiritism and mediums.  When the missionaries approached the local police to assure them of their bona fides the superintendent welcomed them because, as he said, this was ´an evil town´.

It was and remains a ´religious´ town.  It is a Roman Catholic healing centre; and only recently it witnessed the passing of a famous local medium, Chico Xavier.  Subsequently his followers declared that Jesus was the ´way´ but that Alan Kardet (another spiritist leader) was ´the truth´ and Chico Xavier (the local medium) was ´the life´.  Many people came there for Chico Xavier´s ´services´.  Part of the spiritists´ outreach strategy was to provide bread and soup to locals.  A spiritist once challenged the believers, ´where are the ´Christians´ queues for bread and soup´?  One of the elders replied that when people are born again they don´t need food queues anymore.

Alec and Janet were not the first Brethren missionaries there, but they properly belong to those whom the locals call the ´pioneers´.  Janet often spoke to us of the believers in the assembly at Uberaba.  But would there be any left from all those years ago?  Perhaps they had drifted away in the many and turbulent years since 1950?

Alec and Janet and the other twenty ´somethings´ from the assemblies of southern Scotland went to Brazil for life.  They mastered Portuguese and built houses and became part of life in Brazil.  Return visits to Scotland were the exception.  The now ageing children of the ´pioneers´ are mostly still there, fluent in Portuguese and strangely still speaking the Scottish way.  They, and their children and their grandchildren are irrevocably Brazilian.  (I would be interested to know of other missionaries like these who actually became indigenous émigrés like these have become).

When we arrived in Uberaba the truly exciting news was that many remembered Alec and Janet and spoke movingly of the huge impact on them personally and upon the church in Brazil.  One of the elders, Julio, told me his grandfather was ´born again´ through Alec.  Another man, Wilson, reflected his huge affection for Alec and the assistance he gave him in his many months of illness and progressive loss of sight.  A man converted through Alec at his deathbed has gone on to become a great evangelist.  A lady named Glaucia taught Anita at school and was very close to Janet.  It was moving for Anita to meet and be hugged by these people, to visit the home where she was born and to go to Alec´s tomb.  Above all, though, it was encouraging to attend the gathering of several hundred for the ´breaking of bread´ and the teaching of the Bible.  Alec´s and Janet´s deeds have followed them.

In 1950 (the year Alec died) only 3% of Brazilians were ‘evangelical´ whereas today (according to a feature article in the major Sao Paolo daily, 26 June ’05) there are 15% who are ‘evangelical´.  Many of these, however, promote an outrageous form of ´prosperity theology´, creaming off entire salaries of many vulnerable local people and bringing the Gospel into disrepute.  The growth in the numbers and membership of the assemblies is a fraction of this supposed growth in ‘evangelical´ numbers.  Yet what these believers lack in sheer numbers they more than make for in purity of doctrine, holiness of life, congregational affection and missionary zeal.  God was always more interested in a remnant people who honoured him than in vast numbers of those who merely professed to.

There is another assembly now in Uberaba in addition to the one where Alec and Janet served all those years ago.  The original assembly has almost made up the numbers it gave for the new venture.  Together they are a body of several hundred very active members who remain true to the Brethren vision as a non-clerical, lay movement.  Every member is a minister, and a missionary, and a serious student of the Word.  The Brethren movement was never vast, but its world wide missionary impact has been disproportionately great.  These people have always punched above their weight.

The origins of the Scottish Brethren mission in Brazil (humanly speaking) owed something to a book entitled Adventures with the Bible in Brazil, based on the author David Glass´s journeys there in the 1920s.  As far as I can make out this book served as something of a catalyst for the ´pioneers´ courageous determination in the decade or so following.  A stronger clue to their motivation is to be found in the words Janet inscribed as her husband´s epitaph (Revelation 22:6 and 1 Corinthians11:26) both of which are Second Coming texts.  The conviction of the Lord´s Return and all that meant seems to have driven these wonderful people to leave home and hearth for their life-long sojourns in a foreign soil where they mostly remain.

Brazil is a vast land-mass with an immense population (150 million).  The children of the ´pioneers´ are praying for a deepening awakening by God that will raise up a new wave of workers who will take the Gospel to the length and breadth of their homeland.

Paul Barnett


See the following blog for the Alexandre Simpson Orphanage in Sacramento, Brazil




Surviving and Growing in an Era of Change

Andrew Robinson’s helpful article Liturgy Schmiturgy prompts the following reflection about a lesson to be learned from early Christian history about the survival and propagation of the Christian faith.  I am thinking of the decades before and after the close of the apostolic age in circa AD 100.  The great apostolic leaders had passed on, there was considerable theological confusion due to Gnosticism and other deviant views and, furthermore, the Lord had not returned.

One interesting element in apostolic and early post-apostolic Christianity was a willingness to learn from Jewish practices.  Initially, the first Christians were Jews and the Jewish influence in the churches continued throughout the first century, although diminishingly. So Christianity grew out of the soil of Judaism, a Judaism that in previous centuries had survived the fires of persecution on the one hand and the subtle syncretistic seduction of Greek beliefs and practices on the other.  The Jews were careful to adopt activities that enabled them to survive in hostile environments, such was their commitments to their beliefs.  It was no accident that these early Christians learned from and adapted the practices of the Jews.

•Jews gathered on a fixed day (Sabbath) but so too did the Christians (Sunday).

•The core activity of the synagogue was the reading and teaching of the Scriptures, but this was likewise the basic reason for church meetings, except that to the Old Testament they added readings from the writings of the apostles.

•The Jews translated their Hebrew scriptures into Greek and the early Christians translated their texts in Latin, Syriac, Armenian, etc.

•The synagogues used liturgical forms like the Shema (‘Hear, O Israel…’) and the Benedictions and so too the churches recited their Trinitarian and Christological creeds.

•The Jews created their calendar to commemorate great feasts (e.g., Passover) but so too did the Christians develop their calendar (notably to celebrate Easter).

•Jews remembered their deliverance from Egypt in the annual Passover and Christians recalled their deliverance in the remembrance meal, the Lord’s Supper.

•Jews inducted their children into the covenant by catechetical instruction and so likewise the Christians developed their manuals for instruction prior to the Easter baptisms.

•The Jewish communities understood the need for a succession of teachers in the appointment of great rabbis to preserve the Mosaic tradition, but so too did the Christians appreciate the principle of a succession of strong and orthodox leaders.

•Synagogue rulers and elders governed the synagogues and the churches developed similar offices, though with different names.

•Synagogues exercised discipline of wayward members (often by harsh corporal punishment) and the churches suspended or expelled heretics and the immoral.

In short, in the face of forces that would destroy them the churches consciously or unconsciously looked to the practices of the synagogues as means of survival, and adapted them accordingly.

The Christians of the second century survived the ravages of persecution and moral syncretism and the destructive influences of Gnosticism and later of Arianism.  Despite the opposition they faced they developed forms of welfare assistance for the disadvantaged, including for those who were not Christians.  By these and other means they won the attention of Constantine and others and, as it is said, the rest is history.  Within two and a bit centuries the tiny Jesus movement became the faith of the Roman Empire.

Today there are groups like the Pentecostals who have grown remarkably.  Sydney Anglicans have not witnessed comparable growth but we have an important role to play in Australian Christianity.  In particular, we can provide a theological and ecclesiastical stability that will buttress and support Christianity in our nation.  An important part of that stability will be our commitment to received practices like use of Bible reading and Bible-based preaching, (contemporary) liturgy, creeds, use of church calendar and the Collects and – not least – willingness to apply constructive church discipline.

There are some who follow these practices out of a love of tradition, a tradition that is often dressed in aesthetic clothing so that these things become ends in themselves.  Evangelicals, wary of such an approach, sometimes merely reject such things as a distraction for the central task of making disciples and building them up in the faith.  As well, evangelicals in their love of the gospel place great emphasis on preaching and the preacher and pay scant attention to liturgy, sacraments, calendar or the ‘form’ of the meeting of the saints.

This may have several unwelcome consequences.  One is the ‘cult of the preacher’ with the equivalent devaluing of the congregation, the ‘church of God’.  (This diocese is deeply committed to the theology of ‘local church’)  Another is that the emphasis on the existential, the ‘now’ can leave a lesser sense of our past (‘where we have come from’) or our future (‘where we are going’).  The amazing survival of Judaism due to Jewish tenacity to their ‘traditions’ is worth pondering.  Evangelical emphasis on the ‘now’ might mean an impact ‘today’ but little or none for ‘tomorrow’.

Of course, such things as a liturgy that requires Bible reading and reminds us of the need for divine forgiveness, creeds that reinforce what we believe, a calendar expressed in special prayers to remind us of great doctrines are merely vehicles, which need always to be articulated in contemporary terms.  Yet they are very useful vehicles and in the long term better than no vehicles.

These are turbulent times but that is true to a greater or lesser degree of all historical eras. It is the nature of life.  As in every age we face a twofold challenge.  On one hand, we are to ‘make disciples’ and, on the other, we are to ‘contend for the faith’, that is, defend and preserve it.  In our passion for the first we must not disregard the second.  The lessons the early Christians learned from the Jews are worth learning again.  There are practices and structures that have served us in the past and which, as we fill them with evangelical content, will help carry forward into the future.


Paul Barnett

May 2011

Chronology and the Corinthians[1]

Calvin’s mantra for the Christian life was ‘Humility, Humility, Humility’.  I have a mantra for Corinthian studies: ‘Chronology, Chronology, Chronology’.

Thankfully establishing chronology for Paul and the Corinthians is possible.  He arrived in Corinth in AD 50 and departed in AD 57.  Stretched between 50-57 are the following:

-between 50-51 Paul founded the church in Corinth;

-in 54 from Ephesus he wrote the ‘previous’ letter to Corinth (now lost);

-in early 55 from Ephesus he wrote a second letter, our First Corinthians;

-later in 55 he made his second – or ‘painful’ –  visit to Corinth;

-in 56 from Ephesus he wrote a third letter (the ‘tearful’ letter – also lost);

-later in 56  from Macedonia – probably Berea – he wrote his fourth letter, our Second Corinthians;

-in late 56 or early 57 Paul made his third and final visit to Corinth, stayed for 3 month (where he wrote Romans);

-in 57 Paul left Corinth for Jerusalem with the Collection.

Not everyone will agree with every date or every detail, for example, that Second Corinthians was one letter; many think it was later assembled from various fragments.  This will not affect my argument.

That argument – based on a sense of chronology – is that Paul’s relationships with this group of people was not static but inevitably changing.  Those relationships appear to have been stable during Paul’s first visit (50-51) when he established the church and survived the synagogue’s appeal to the Proconsul Gallio.  Then there is the question of the size of the congregation: did it remain the same, diminish or grow?

Between 52-54 when Paul came to Ephesus things became complicated, in at least two ways.  First, for some of that time – perhaps most of it – the church was under the influence of other leaders.  First there was the gifted Alexandrian Jew, Apollos, an ane|r logios, ‘a man of words’, a rhetorician (Acts 18:24), who powerfully refuted the Jews of Corinth.  Compared to Apollos Paul appeared rather mundane and ungifted.  Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians was probably further destabilised by the visit of the better-accredited Cephas, accompanied by his wife.

Secondly, Paul ‘previous’ letter (lost) was directed to the church’s present failure to deal with internal moral issues – fornication, idolatry, drunkenness, and fraud.  It is unlikely that such problems would have arisen when Paul was with them two years earlier, when, in any case the congregation’s numbers were probably smaller.  In other words, in comparison with the stability of first two years the next two were less stable, due to the absence of Paul and the presence of less effective leaders.

By the time Paul wrote First Corinthians later in 54 or early 55 the negative trajectory had continued.  This is evident in the tone and content of the letter.  Amongst the issues Paul had to address were four in particular:

First was the now widespread belief that the role of preaching was to produce ‘wisdom’ and that the worth of such preaching was judged by the quality of its rhetoric.  Paul refers derisively to the ‘wisdom from speech’ (sophia logou – 1 Cor. 1:17).  Public speaking was at a premium in a Graeco-Roman city like Corinth, for political advancement, for entertainment and in public speaking competitions.  The charismatic Apollos’s presence raised the profile of public speaking amongst the saints in Corinth.

The second was a growing sense of negativity towards Paul by the minority ‘haves’ within the congregation but also towards the majority ‘have nots’.  As a Roman city Corinth was a deeply stratified society with few wealthy and influential elites and many the opposite, whether poor free people or slaves.  Once more, it is likely that when Paul was with them as their founder when numbers were fewer, when the converts owed their all to Paul, it didn’t matter too much that he worked as a humble tentmaker.  Those were ‘heady’ days when the Spirit had come with a rush.

In Paul’s absence, however, there was most likely a return to Corinth’s traditional social stratification within the church.  Paul’s lowliness in absentia may have been seen even more sharply by the presence of Apollos who, we presume, was paid by the wealthy Corinthians and by the presence of Mr and Mrs Cephas who we know were paid.

The uncaring attitudes of the few elite members toward the many ‘nobodies’ was also seen in the cavalier attitude of the ‘man of knowledge’ eating in the presence of the idol in the idol-temple.  But it was most obvious at the Meal of the Lord when the few ‘haves’ ate and drank to excess, whilst the many ‘have nots’ went without.  Again, there is an argument that the litigants Paul condemns in chapter 6 were the  wealthier members who by dint of wealth and social influence must necessarily prevail against the poorer adversaries in the courts.

It is possible that the stratification also extended to the church meetings.  Paul’s ideal was that members of ‘the body’ were interdependent and united, regardless of their charismata.  But this ideal was shattered by the claims to superiority of the tongues-speaking Pneumatikoi.  Of course, it could be that the tongues-speakers were poorer members flexing their muscles in the assembly.  But on balance, I suspect that the financially powerful members dominated the meetings from every viewpoint, including the showy exercise of their charismata in the assembly.

Is there a theme here in these observations about stratification?  At one level Paul is unhappy that the ‘haves’ marginalised and suppressed the ‘have nots’.  Such behaviour was abhorrent to the Master Paul served, the ‘friend’ of the sinners, the lost and the poor.  But this high-mindedness seems to have crept into the Corinthian church during Paul’s two-year absence.

At another level, the ‘haves’ are actually rebelling against Paul himself.  Behind ‘each saying, “I am of Apollos”’ or ‘I am of Cephas”’ there was a widespread sentiment, ‘ABP – “Anyone But Paul”’.  If this is correct, as I believe it is, then the key part of First Corinthians is chapter 4:8-12 where he says, ‘Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings!’  He goes on to portray himself as a struggling gladiator in an arena with the Corinthians – I mean the wealthy ones – sitting in the best seats watching the humiliated apostle in his struggles.  These he spells out as hunger, thirst, being poorly dressed, homeless, working with his own hands – all social and economic things that marked Paul out as a ‘have not’.  In a word, it was Corinthian snobbery, but more serious even than that – their serious questioning, or rejection of Paul’s authority in the Corinthians assembly.  Paul must tell them that his written words carry the authority of the Lord above their prophesying and tongues-speaking. (14:37).

A third serious matter was the doubt of some about the future resurrection at the End of history.  The amount of space Paul devotes to this is a measure of its importance.  We are left to speculate who these doubters may have been.  Perhaps the poorer less well-educated members may have been glad for the apocalyptic eschatology of the general resurrection when the poor would become rich and the weak strong.  One’s station in life would have affected one’s attitude to eschatology.  The poor had a lot to gain and the rich a lot to lose.  In any case the rich – and therefore educated – may have been attuned to Greek ideas about the survival of the soul in line with the theology of the Greek poets who specifically said, ‘There is no resurrection’.

There were other issues, notably the failure of some of the Corinthians to disengage from the temple culture including from the city brothels.  My guess is that this was a problem for the poorer male members of the house churches.  We can exclude those Jews and God-fearers who were part of the church.  These were not Jewish foibles.

I have not yet mentioned the fourth, and in my understanding, the biggest issue reflected in First Corinthians – apart from the elite Corinthians’ superior attitude to Paul and the ‘have nots’.  That very large issue is matter of the Incestuous Man (5:1).  I am persuaded by the argument that he was a powerful member of the church and that this, above all, was the reason the Corinthians failed to suspend him.

Thus First Corinthians exposes serious issues within this congregation – the heightened evaluation of rhetoric, the intensification of social stratification discriminating against the ‘have nots’ including Paul, the denial of resurrection and –  the weightiest of all –the church’s failure to discipline Incestuous Man.  Nonetheless, despite these substantial issues Paul wrote in a measured way, confident that he could visit them in the next year or so with all these issues dealt with and behind them.

True, Timothy was coming to monitor their compliance with the items in the letter.  And Stephanas was there as a stout supporter of Paul, a bulwark within the church.  Paul is pretty hot under the collar in chapter 4 (the gladiator passage), in chapter 6 (about litigation) and in chapter 11 (about the Lord’s Supper) and very strong about the notorious sinner in chapter 5.  But his chapter 15 is measured and the final chapter pretty calm.  He expected to be able to come to them and be farewelled in dignity and, most importantly, with their contributions to the Collection for Jerusalem completed and intact.  So all was good? Right? Wrong!

When Timothy came, apparently, all was not good.  In particular the church had failed to deal with the chief offender, at least that is my reconstruction of the matter.  His report to Paul in Ephesus was so negative that Paul had to make an unscheduled visit to Corinth.  This, his second visit, he describes as ‘painful’.  It was ‘painful’ because of an incident described in 2 Corinthians 7 that involves someone who ‘did an act of wrong’ and another who ‘suffered an act of wrong’.  Almost certainly Paul was the ‘wronged’ party.

But who was the one who ‘did the wrong’ to Paul?

Let me give two reasons for thinking the wrongdoer was the Incestuous ManFirst, Paul’s reason for the second, emergency visit most logically flows out of something in First Corinthians that Timothy reported negatively about back to Paul.  There is a congruity between First Corinthians, Timothy’s visit and Paul’s unscheduled visit, the ‘painful’ visit.  Recall that a man having his father’s wife was outrageous even amongst unbelievers.  To leave this crisis unresolved would hopelessly compromise the church in Corinth.

Secondly, First and Second Corinthians each point to a single notorious individual, unnamed of course.  The unnamed individual in First Corinthians is the Incestuous Man and the unnamed individual in Second Corinthians is the man who wronged Paul.  I believe the unnamed man in First Corinthians and the unnamed man in Second Corinthians are one and the same – the Incestuous Man.  Nothing new here; this is a widely held view.

Reference to ‘a majority’ who have found against the wrongdoer (2 Cor. 2) implies a minority who support him in spite of the church’s eventual judgment against him and his subsequent repentance.

What ‘wrong’ did he do against Paul?  Again, we can only guess.  But Paul’s many references in Second Corinthians defending his financial probity lend weight to the suggestion that the wrongdoer accused Paul of financial impropriety, perhaps connected with misuse of or misappropriation of the Collection.  It was, indeed, a ‘painful’ visit.

So here is Paul back in Ephesus after humiliation in Corinth when the church members sat on the fence, failing to support their founder.  When in Corinth during that second visit he had intimated a change of plans whereby he would come back directly to them, go to Macedonia and then return to them before being sent by them to Judea with the Collection (2 Cor. 1:15-16).  Back in Ephesus, however, Paul fatefully decided to write a letter instead of making this Corinth-Macedonia-Corinth visit, a letter Titus (not Timothy) would deliver, a letter demanding action against the wrongdoer, a letter that was in effect an ultimatum to the Corinthians to comply with Paul’s apostolic authority.

This ‘tearful’ letter brought mixed results.  It did succeed in forcing the Corinthians to support him in disciplining the wrongdoer, though there seems to have been ongoing rumblings and grumbling about this.

But many were decidedly unimpressed by Paul’s failure to return as promised, calling him a lightweight, a ‘flip flop’ man, someone who says ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘yes’ (2 Cor. 1).

One sarcastic critic or group of critics said, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account’ (2 Cor. 10).  This is specific commentary on Paul himself and his recent behaviour.  ‘When he came he was “weak”, overwhelmed by just one of our members.  Only by a cowardly letter written back in Ephesus and brought by someone else is he “strong”’.  This is damning commentary, a symptom of the depth to which Paul had fallen in the eyes of some within the church in Corinth: weak when present, only strong when absent by letter; a coward here, a bully there.

In Ephesus Paul was overtaken by events late in 56.  The riot of the silversmiths brought him face to face with death forcing him to flee north to Troas to rendezvous with Titus, anxious to hear the response of the Corinthians to the ‘tearful’ letter.  No Titus.

He crossed to Neapolis.  Again, no Titus.  More anxiety, as the days shortened and winter drew closer.  Eventually Titus arrived and brought mostly bad news from Corinth.  True, the Corinthians at last acted against the wrongdoer who had repented, though his supporters remained unhappy.  The bad news – the very bad news – was that some charismatic Jewish preachers had arrived and had been warmly welcomed by many in the church, especially it would appear, by the Jewish members.

Paul with Titus and – it seems – Timothy set out from Neapolis visiting the Macedonian churches along the Via Egnatia – Philippi and Thessalonica – and been greatly encouraged by their desire to contribute to the Collection.  Eventually (it seems), they came to Berea where Paul, with his colleagues, set about writing a letter that Titus and two prominent Macedonian leaders will take to Corinth (2 Cor 8).  Paul will follow soon after, in company with Timothy and one delegate from Berea and two from Thessalonica (Acts 20).

Paul has two main objectives in writing Second Corinthians: (a) to secure the Corinthians’ commitment to complete the Collection, and (b) to deflect the Corinthians from those he calls, ‘peddlers of the word’, ‘false-apostles’ and ‘super-apostles’.

His method is interesting.  First, by explanation and argument he seeks to ‘reconcile’ the Corinthians to him; and to reconcile the Corinthians to God; and to reconcile the Corinthians one another in a reunited church – a three-way reconciliation.  In the process he seeks to ‘build them up’ in Christian maturity so that they will see for themselves the truth of the new covenant and the falsity and pretentiousness of the ‘super-apostles’.  Equally, as ‘built up’ by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit they will fulfil his objective in voluntarily completing the Collection, that is, by their initiative, by grace.

Paul sent the letter by these three supporters – Titus and the two eminent Macedonians – and then he came himself with four supporters, Timothy and two delegates from Thessalonica and one from Berea.

In short, in 57 Paul came to Corinth surrounded by supporters from Macedonia and with Titus and Timothy at his side, it was a far cry from the lonely figure who came a year earlier to Corinth at the second visit where he was humiliated by the church that failed to support him against the wrongdoer.

Securely located in the house of Gaius, in whose house the whole church met, and with the help of Tertius, Paul wrote his great Romans letter during his 3 months sojourn in the Achaian capital.  Meanwhile the members of church completed the Collection and Paul went on his way to Judea happier with the Corinthians than he had been for some time.

So much for our chronological review.

How does a linear and chronology approach matter for Corinthian studies?

First, it is helpful in reading each letter in its chronological context.  We benefit from reading First Corinthians against the background of 50-51 when Paul was present in Corinth and 52-54 when Paul was absent, but when Apollos and Cephas were present.

As well, we are able to reflect on known events in wider Corinth during the years of Paul’s absence, for example, the effects of the famine, the inauguration of the imperial cult honouring Claudius in 54 and the death of Claudius Caesar later in 54.  Bruce Winter has helpfully raised these ‘background’ issues in his After Paul left Corinth.

Similarly, our studies in Second Corinthians would benefit from a careful study of First Corinthians and the events that happened between First Corinthians and when Paul and Timothy wrote Second Corinthians – Timothy’s visit to Corinth, his report to Paul in Ephesus, Paul’s second or ‘painful’ visit to Corinth, his dispatch of Titus with the ‘tearful’ letter and Paul’s re-engagement with Timothy and with the Macedonian congregations in Macedonia.

It is quite remarkable that after 2000 years we are able to piece together these things to the degree we can.  I think I know more about Paul and the Corinthians AD 55-57 than I do about my own life over a three year period forty years ago!

Rather than get up too close to the texts of these letters, whether in part or in whole, there is something to be said for standing back and looking at First Corinthians from a wide angle and for looking at Second Corinthians from an even wider angle.  Chronology, chronology, chronology is a big help.

Secondly, a linear approach prompts a number so questions that might not otherwise be raised, for example, the question of the numbers of members in the church.  Would we be correct to assume that the numbers were constant throughout the seven-year period?  Probably not.  During Paul’s initial visit we know of the leading members – Crispus, Gaius and Stephanas and of Priscilla and Aquila and of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy.  If we assume a household of a dozen or so for the leading members it would mean that the church in Corinth had 50-70 members when Paul took his leave in 51.

Would we be correct to assume this remained the number of Corinthian believers?  Probably not.  The opening lines of both epistles some years later imply growth in numbers in the wider province so it would follow that the church within the city had grown also.  The number of factions and viewpoints reflected within First Corinthians suggest a church membership well over a hundred members, perhaps approaching 200. This is a guess, of course, but not unreasonable.  My point is that a chronological, linear approach at least raises the question.

Thirdly, should we assume that a senior Corinthian like Erastus was a member from the beginning?  He is not mentioned until Paul’s last weeks in the city, in AD 57 (Rom. 16:23).  Clearly Erastus the city oikonomos is a leading political figure in Corinth, though whether he is the Erastus the aedile who laid the pavement near the theatre at his own expense remains a matter of debate.  Had Erastus been a member of the church from the beginning we might have expected Paul to refer to him by name in First Corinthians, along with Crispus, Gaius and Stephanas.

Fourthly, speaking of Stephanas raises another chronology-based question.  Clearly Paul is making much of Stephanas in First Corinthians (16:15-18).  Mentioning Stephanas third in chapter 1 after Crispus and Gaius might seem an afterthought but actually may have been deliberate, to raise his profile above Crispus and Gaius.  Certainly, Paul singles him out in chapter 16 for the Corinthians to ‘be subject to’, giving some reasons for this.

But I am puzzled why at this stage, three years after Paul left Corinth, does he need to nominate Stephanas as his man in Corinth?  Why does he have to give reasons about Stephanas five years after the foundation of the church?  Had other leaders eclipsed Stephanas in the meantime?  Had Stephanas been somewhere else?  I don’t know the answer to the question why at this late stage Paul inflates Stephanas, but the question doesn’t seem to come up in the commentaries.  Chronology asks questions like this.

The commentators do, indeed, make much of the Stephanas passage but none that I have consulted addresses the question why must Paul buttress Stephanas’s leadership 5 years after the foundation of the church.

Fifthly, there is an argument that the issues in the letter are better addressed initially exegetically and within the chronological stream of relationships between Paul and the Corinthians.

One example is that text I referred to – 2 Cor. 10:10: ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account’.  The two elements – letters and speech – naturally inspire scholarly interest in letter writing in antiquity and speech-rhetoric in antiquity, especially in the case of the latter where Paul downplays himself as idio|te|s to| logo| ‘a layman in speech’ a few sentences later.

Discussion of Paul as a letter writer and a rhetorician is a fruitful field of research, but is it the place to start in understanding 2 Cor. 10:10?  Rather than scurrying off immediately to Quintilian and Cicero and other ancient authorities might it not be better to begin with the actual context of the letter chronologically, and only then pursue the other research?

Titus is the source of this verdict on Paul from some in Corinth during his most recent visit that he has then reported to his friend in Macedonia.  The sharp criticism of Paul in 2 Cor. 10:10 is based on three specific area of failure:  His first perceived failure was to secure the support of the church in disciplining the wrongdoer during his second visit.  The second was his failure to return directly to Corinth as he had intimated; and the third was the writing instead of a ‘weighty and strong letter’ which he dispatched by someone else.  As we say today, it was not a good look!

This brutal criticism was in direct response to Paul’s own actions, or lack of them.  Further reflection would need to be based on research into contemporary letter writing and speech-rhetoric but I think the place to start is chronology.  My point is that something is lost by not analysing 2 Cor. 10:10 and 11:5 first within the flow of the letter and within the flow of recent events, Paul’s failure to deal with the wrongdoer, his failure to come back as promised and his dispatch of junior associate with a harsh letter.

To conclude, nothing is lost and much gained by commencing Corinthian studies with a wide-angle chronological understanding of the seven year saga.  This, I suggest is methodologically a better place to start than with socio-political analysis of ‘background’ data.  Of course, this is not an either/or but a both/and approach.  But much depends where one starts.

Thankfully, the Acts passages that ‘bookend’ Paul’s relationships with the Corinthians (Acts 18 and 20 plus Romans 16) and the four letters and one visit in between provide a good basis for such a chronological approach, and one of the best examples for understanding a set of relationships in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century.


Paul Barnett
14 May 2011.





[1]A paper by Paul Barnett for conference at Macquarie University 14 may, 2011: Corinth – Paul, People and Politics.

Luke’s Pharisees[1]


Pharisees in Luke
Pharisees are prominent in each of the four gospels.  Matthew has 12 passages involving the Pharisees, but Luke has 16.  John has 9 and Mark 7.  Furthermore, if we include the lawyer who asked Jesus about eternal life in Luke 10 Luke’s count would be 17.  ‘Scribes’ are regularly mentioned with Pharisees (but only in John once – in the woman taken in adultery passage).  Luke mentions scribes separately from Pharisees as plotters for the death of Jesus in Luke 9:22 and 19:49 but especially in the Good Friday chapter 20.  I think Luke wants us to bracket the Pharisees with the Scribes as major participants in the conspiracy against Jesus.

In Matthew and Mark the Pharisees are a nameless group, but in John the Pharisee Nicodemus is named and one of Luke’s Pharisees is Simon, a host at a meal (Luke 7:40).  In fact Luke has two other occasions where Jesus is a guest of a Pharisee at a meal (11:37; 14:1).

All three meals are problematic.  In one the host (‘Simon’) objects that Jesus should have known that the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet was a ‘sinner’ (7:39).  In the second the Pharisee host was ‘astonished’ that Jesus ‘did not first wash his hands before dinner’ – probably more a matter of purity than hygiene (11:38).

In the third, a Sabbath meal, the host – a ruler of the Pharisees – ambushed Jesus by bringing into the room the man with dropsy (14:1-2).  Luke 14:1-23 is the extensive narrative of the remarkable Sabbath meal where Jesus tells three other parables that expose the foibles of the Pharisees.  He accuses the host of hypocrisy for attempting to trap him to heal on the Sabbath (which he did anyway).  To that Jesus added the charge of high-mindedness to those who rushed to get the best seats at the dinner.  He scathingly condemned the snobbery of those who invited only their social equals to their dinners.  Finally, he exposes the ingratitude of those who rudely declined the invitation of God to attend his banquet.  Ironically they (the Pharisees) will see those whom they despised being welcomed to the very seats they refused to take, that is, the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame and the hated Gentiles.

Yet Luke’s Pharisees are not all bad.  Some warned Jesus of the evil intentions of Herod the tetrarch of Galilee (13:31).  It is possible that the Pharisees’ question about the coming of the kingdom of God was genuine (17:20).

So there is some light and shade in Luke’s portrayal of the Pharisees, more than in the other gospels.  But it is mostly shade and not too much light.  Luke’s negativity towards the Pharisees, however, is quite developed in a literary sense.  He has not set up a merely negative profile or stereotype.  Throughout his many nuanced references he lets the reader see the moral and spiritual darkness of the Pharisees.

Luke indicates that the Pharisees were unmoved by John the Baptist’s call for the nation to be baptised (7:30) whilst being outwardly hostile to Jesus for welcoming the tax collectors (5:30; 7:34; 15:1-2), for blasphemously claiming to forgive sins (5:21), for failing to fast (5:33), and for healing on the Sabbath (6:7; 14:1, 3).

Repeatedly Luke shows us Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees – for hypocrisy (11:39, 42; 12:1), for social pretentiousness, for lack of compassion towards the needy (11:43; 14:7, 12-14), for greed (16:14), for a self-justifying spirit that lacked humility before God (10:29), and for wilfully refusing the invitation of God (14:18-20).

This hostility intensified when Jesus finally arrived in Jerusalem, the centre of the their movement.

The Pharisees’ goal was to make all the people of Israel as pure as the priests were at the time of their temple duties.  To that end the Pharisees acted like ‘religious police’, reinforcing Sabbath keeping, dietary law, fasting, tithing and the purity washings.  Their sphere of influence was the synagogue where they excluded people they classified as impure, people like tax collectors and those they called ‘sinners, that is, prostitutes and others who pursued ‘despised trades’ (for example, herdsmen, tanners, carters, bath attendants, physicians).

Tax Collectors
Tax collectors were outsourced contractors who collected taxes from the ordinary people on behalf of the authorities, whether in Galilee for the tetrarch or in Judea for the Romans.  Either way, the Jews despised tax collectors as brutal extortionists (a reputation they deserved) and barred their entry to the synagogues.  The gospels regularly bracket them with ‘sinners’.

Luke refers many times to the tax collectors, as those who came in repentance to be baptised by John the Baptist (3:12), whom Jesus welcomed and with whom he shared meals (5:29, 30).  Jesus called Levi, a tax collector in Capernaum, to join his band of disciples (5:27).  Another whom Jesus called was Zacchaeus, chief tax collector in Jericho (19:2, 9).

We may ask what lay at the heart of the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees?  Quite simply Jesus was teaching about the rapidly approaching kingdom or rule of God.  Radically, God’s kingdom was based on grace and was to be extended to the lowest of the low, the neediest of the needy.  Jesus embodied this kingdom by reaching out to lepers, cripples, the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ whom the Pharisees shut out from the synagogues.  The Pharisees saw Jesus as the obstacle to their vision of the kingdom, the all-purified people of Israel whereas Jesus saw the Pharisees as the absolute antithesis of his vision of the kingdom of God, the kindly rule of God in the hearts of all from the least to the greatest.

Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Luke devotes much of his Gospel to narrating Jesus’ contrasting relationships with Pharisees and tax collectors and to noting his diametrically opposite verdicts about them.  In this parable Luke brings together in starkest of contrasts Jesus’ attitudes to these two groups, as focused in just two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector.

Luke endorses Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees, that they trusted in themselves that they were righteous and they treated others with (literally) ‘utter contempt’.

These two men are going to the temple to meet with God.  Both men stand to pray, the customary posture for prayer.  Outwardly it would appear that both men were praying devoutly and acceptably, but it is the attitude of the heart not outward appearance that reveals all.  Appearances are deceptive.

The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like others (including the tax collector) and pointed out how he fulfilled, and more than fulfilled, the expectations of the Law.  The Torah prescribed one day of fasting per annum, but he fasted twice each week; he tithed not only his income but also his possessions.

The Pharisee would have been a student of the Bible yet he did not understand that all prayer depends on humility, self-awareness and contrition without which it is not possible to engage with God.

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
‘I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with himwho is of a contrite and lowly spirit…’

Isaiah 57:15

The Pharisee did not pray to God but ‘with himself’ (RSV).

By contrast, the tax collector stood ‘far off’, unworthy to be close to the righteous Pharisee.  He did not even lift his eyes to heaven, that is, to God.  Deeply aware of his unworthiness (as a tax collector) he cried out to God for mercy on him, ‘a (literally the) sinner’.

Jesus the teller of the parable has, as it were, been watching these two men, but through the eyes of God the judge.  The Pharisee who ‘exalted’ himself will not be ‘justified’ on the Last Day, but ‘humbled’.  By contrast, the tax collector who ‘humbled’ himself will be ‘justified’ and ‘exalted’.

It is as if the Pharisee is looking admiringly at himself in the mirror whilst catching a sidelong glimpse of a despicable tax collector.  He is puffed up with adulation with the image of himself but filled with loathing towards the other.  Does he see God?  He does not, indeed cannot.  The Pharisee’s self-idolatry has blinded him to God and poisoned his eye with jaundice towards all others.  It is God’s prerogative to judge our fellows, not ours but the Pharisee usurped that role.  Even his expression of thanks to God was nothing more than haughty condescension towards the tax collector.

Jesus’ parable, as told by Luke, is profoundly challenging to our idea of God.  If we think God is pleased with our moral, spiritual or theological superiority then God is not who we think he is.  If we think God is not God also to the sinner who cries out to him, again he is not the God whose mind Jesus knows.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ parable is both elegant in its brevity but powerful in its stark intensity and moral challenge.  In these few words Luke captures the many passing references to Pharisees and tax collectors who have figured so significantly in his unfolding narrative, especially on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, of course, is the home of the Pharisees, the holy city where they rule supreme, to which Jesus will soon arrive.

Luke 14 and 15
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector exposes that Pharisee’s dual failure of dependent humility before God and condescending arrogance toward the penitent tax collector.  Luke’s chapters 14 and 15 expose their failures in even more detail.

In chapter 14, as we have noted, Jesus is a guest of a Pharisee and Ruler at a Sabbath meal, where there is a deeply hostile atmosphere.  Recall that Jesus calculatedly healed the dropsical man – Sabbath or not – then told parables that attacked their social pretentiousness and high-minded hard-heartedness towards the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.  Then he gave the Parable of the Great Banquet where those invited – Pharisees in particular – came up with feeble, paper-thin excuses, whereupon the host threw open his banquet first to the poor, crippled, blind and lame of the town then finally to the pathetically indigent who waited in the hedgerows to glean the droppings of the harvest.  The parable tells the Bible’s great story of redemption first of Israel but then of the nations because of the failure of Israel (symbolised by the leaders of Israel – the Pharisees and the temple leaders – rejecting the Messiah when he came to them).  Is this Jesus’ insight that Paul would spell out in Romans 10-11?

Almost immediately we have the famous chapter 15.  Do we recall how it begins?  It is another mealtime motif.  Here, though, Jesus is actually eating with tax collectors and sinners as he did earlier with Levi when the Pharisees grumbled (5:29-30) and later with Zacchaeus when everyone in Jericho grumbled (19:6).  These are the tax collectors and sinners, the kind of people who were brought to the table in the Parable of the Great Banquet just before chapter 15 who were invited in place of the Pharisee-types who made those weak and offensive excuses.

So Jesus in chapter 15 gives us three more parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons.  Note the plural: lost sons.  In each parable the climax is a celebration of the lost being found.  The shepherd and the woman searched till they found the lost item; the father waited patiently until the lost son returned, and welcomed him effusively.

The lost – ‘prodigal’ – son represents the tax collectors and sinners whom Jesus welcomed.  The elder brother who would not join the celebratory banquet and who complained bitterly represents the Pharisees who ‘grumbled’ – there’s that word again – about Jesus welcoming and eating with the tax collectors and sinners.

A Kingdom for the Lost
It is striking how in Luke’s Gospel the narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem brings out the mercy of Jesus towards the needy and marginalised.

He sent messengers to the Samaritans 9:52
He told a parable about a merciful Samaritan 10:25-37
He endorsed the woman Mary who sat at his feet                           10:39
He said, ‘sell your possessions and give to the needy’ 12:33
He healed the man with dropsy (on the Sabbath)                           14:2
He said, ‘Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind 14:13, 21
He said, ‘
Invite those from highways and byways [Gentiles]’         14:23
He received and ate with tax collectors and sinners 15:1-2
He approved the Samaritan leper who alone thanked God            17:11-19
He welcomed children 18:16-17
He told a parable favourable to the tax collector 18:9-14
He healed the blind beggar 18:35-43
He promised salvation to Zacchaeus, the tax collector 19:1-10
He promised salvation to the Penitent Criminal 23:43

Jesus declared that he came to seek and to save the lost (19:10).  These included the moral outcasts (tax collectors and sinner), the economic outcasts (the poor, the needy), the sexually inferior (women), the maturity inferior (children), the physically defective (the man with dropsy, the crippled, the lame, the blind), the hygienically and ritually contaminated (the lepers), and the ethnically contaminated (Samaritans, Gentiles).

The Marginalised
It may be asked: who marginalised these people?  Israel itself began as a ‘marginalised’ tribe, slaves in Egypt.  In rescuing them God called them to be ‘holy’, as he, their Lord, was holy.  The problem was that in their attempt to distinguish themselves from other nations they so emphasised issues of holiness and purity that they forgot about the mercy of God that took them out of Egypt and gave them the land.  In the time of Jesus it was the Pharisees and their Scribes (leading teachers) who intensified the demand for ‘separation’ from the nations, by means of washings, fasting, Sabbaths, festivals and the like.  The religious elitism and legalism of the Pharisees inevitably created an underclass of those on the fringes of the mainstream.

Even more elitist than the Pharisees were the Essenes, especially the male celibates in the Qumran community (near Jericho).


No madman, or lunatic, or simpleton, or fool, no blind man, or maimed, or lame, or deaf man, and no minor, shall enter into the community, for the angels of holiness are with them.[2]

We cannot help noticing that the very people Qumran excluded – the mentally unwell (including demoniacs), the blind, the crippled, the deaf, the children – were the very ones that Jesus reached out to.

Jesus’ inclusiveness towards the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ is thrown into sharp contrast by the rigorous standards of the Pharisees and the Essenes.  Jesus, the Son of Man, proclaimed the kingdom of God, the God who was the Creator of all men and women and children.  Consistently, Jesus extended the promise of the kingdom to all people, Essenes, Pharisees and the ‘lost’ ones.

Were these needy and marginalised automatically included in the kingdom of God?  Clearly they were not.  The prodigal son returned, penitent, to his father.  The Samaritan leper who was healed came back to praise God.  The justified tax collector had pleaded for mercy.  The blind beggar believed Jesus’ promise.  Zacchaeus repented of his fraud.  The crucified criminal repented of his crime and pleaded for mercy.  Being marginalised of itself did not bring one under the kingdom of God.  God’s grace needed to be met with repentance and trust.

Although Jesus proclaimed the mercy of the kingdom of God to the whole nation it was the people on the margins like those mentioned above who tended to respond. Jesus the Messiah, God’s Chosen One, sought to gather the whole nation under him. Tragically the nation’s leaders rejected him and then killed him (13:34-35).

Luke’s Pharisees
So, why does Luke have so much to say about the Pharisees and why is it so negative?  We cannot be certain when Luke wrote his great Luke-Acts work.  But it was sometime after Paul’s two year imprisonment in Rome, after AD 62.  Let us suggest AD 70 as about the time Luke finished writing.  I am not wanting to make too much of the date, or the place where he wrote (which was probably Rome).

Put yourself in Luke’s shoes writing Luke-Acts in the mid-60s, about thirty years after Jesus’ historical lifespan.  His maximum scroll length for each ‘book’ is about 10 metres, 30+ feet in imperial measure.  He has various shorter texts that he is consolidating in his sequential work.  It is likely that he has to omit some material.  Clearly the material he does include is a priority for him.  Luke is very interested in the Pharisees and they play a large and largely negative part of his narrative.  Why?

A Pastoral Motive
Luke is very interested in narrating his Gospel and Acts historically, with as much rootage in the soil of world history and actual geography as possible.  He want his readers to know that the events he described actually happened, including his accounts of Jesus and the Pharisees.  Historical integrity is one reason for these details.

But I believe he has pastoral concerns as well.

Luke’s experience as missionary co-worker of Paul may have shown him that the spirit of the Pharisee all too easily lives on among Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile Christians.  Christianity calls for outward identification with Christ by baptism and church membership.  That outward identification implies a standard of behaviour that is all too frequently not matched by right behaviour behind closed doors, or within the ultimate privacy of our thoughts.  There are spectacular examples of hypocrisy, for example where a morals crusader is shown to be a serial fornicator.  Less spectacular but not uncommon are those who present as decent, caring and upright people in public who are quarrelsome and short tempered at home.  In continuity with the Jewish Pharisees are the Christian Pharisees who are publicly prominent as preachers but who plot and scheme behind the scenes to secure preferment for themselves or others in the ecclesiastical pantheon.  In other words, the very public aspect of Christianity – which is intrinsic to its character – runs the risk of its members not being what they seem, in a word, hypocrites (play actors).

It must not pass unnoticed how frequently the NT letter writers exhort against hypocrisy, usually unhelpfully translated as against ‘insincerity’.  No.  The word is anupocritos – ‘un-hypocritical’ (e.g., Rom. 12:9; 2 Cor. 6:6; 1 Tim. 1:5; 2 Tim. 1:5; James 3:17; 1 Pet. 1:22).  Paul, James and Peter clearly think hypocrisy is an issue amongst their readers.

Because none of us is free from this temptation we can readily understand why Luke labours the point about the Pharisees.  We do well to listen carefully to his narratives.  In particular, the message of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector should be etched in our hearts, for we who are Christians are all too easily the Pharisee in that parable.  One of our problems is that we think that knowing about believing is the same as believing and knowing about trusting God is the same as trusting God.  So we pass our days knowing about believing and trusting and easily think we are actually believing and trusting, whilst harbouring a sense of superiority towards those who don’t believe and don’t trust.  Like the Pharisee in the parable my god is very easily me, and I am trapped in the most insidious and pernicious idolatry of all.

This short parable reaches into the hearts of those on the ‘Jesus Journey’.  He forces us to ask ourselves, who am I in the presence of God, the Pharisee or the tax collector?  There is peril in being a Christian and a church member.  It is all too easy to have the attitude of the Pharisee, to feel that I have no moral need for God’s forgiveness but to believe I am superior to others.  Jesus calls us to earnest and honest soul searching and to approach God honestly and humbly and with no sense of superiority over others.  We look to the teller of the parable who a few weeks later was nailed up on the cross to propitiate the wrath of God towards our sins, that we might go to our homes ‘justified’.

So here is the challenge.  I know my theology.  I am a church person.  I am moral and upright.  But there is something not quite right about my inner life, my attitudes – how I think about me and God and how I think about myself and about others.  How do I think about people who have things wrong, people like sexual deviates, transvestites, atheists, the deliberately unemployed?

You see, the thing is it is not only those who are obviously sinners who are lost from God.  The really scary part of Jesus’ teaching as recorded in Luke is that upright, religious people can also be lost.  That’s why the great parable in Luke 15 is about two sons, not just one.  The second son – the upright, dutiful son – was just as lost as the ‘prodigal’ son, maybe more so.

In some ways the longer we have been saved, the more prone we may be to a judgmental attitude about others and moral blindness about ourselves.  Years of upright living mean we easily forget how sinful we were, the reality of our fallen-ness.

So one of Luke’s pastoral concerns may have been the perennial reality of Pharisee-ism amongst Christians, as well as amongst Jews.  This may be why we find Luke’s Gospel so painfully challenging.

A Polemical Motive
But there is another possible motive that Luke may have had in writing the way he did about the Pharisees.

We discover from Luke’s second ‘book’, the Acts of the Apostles that some Jewish believers in Jerusalem also belonged to the sect of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5).

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them [Gentiles] and to  order them to keep the law of Moses’.

‘Believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees…’  They are believers in Jesus the Messiah who belong to the sect of the Pharisees by a kind of dual membership.  These believers in Jerusalem held the same viewpoint as those who had recently gone to Antioch saying, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1).  Paul in Galatians speaks of this incident in Antioch and describes these men as ‘the circumcision party’ (Gal. 2:12) who drove Jewish believers – including Cephas and Barnabas – from table fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles.  Their message was simple: no dietary compliance, no circumcision means no table fellowship with us, including presumably the Lord’s Supper.

A year or so earlier Paul deliberately brought the uncircumcised Titus to Jerusalem where he successfully warded off the efforts of ‘false brothers’ who had demanded the circumcision of Titus (Gal 2:4).  The ‘pillars’, James, Cephas and John, did not disagree with Paul.

Then followed Paul’s and Barnabas’s mission in southern Galatia preaching a circumcision-free gospel to Gentiles.  A counter-mission – almost certainly from Jerusalem – went to the Galatian churches and sought to impose circumcision, the Jewish calendar (‘days, months, seasons, years’) and other ‘works of the law’ on Gentiles.  Paul refers to them as ‘troublers’ or ‘agitators’, but it is almost certain that they were either ‘believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees’ or those who were in principle sympathetic to their views.  ‘False brothers’, the ‘circumcision party’, ‘troublers’ or ‘agitators’ and ‘believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees’ – these are various ways of describing the one point of view.

According to Paul in Galatians these counter-missionaries were opposing the grace of God.  Because the Galatian believers – Jewish believers as well as Gentile believers – have been ‘bewitched’ by the counter-mission Paul says, ‘You are severed from Christ – using the language of ‘cutting’, as in circumcision – you who would be justified by law, you have fallen away from grace’ (Gal. 5:4).  Paul pleads with them: ‘For freedom Christ has set you free: stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery’ (5:1).  It seems too much a coincidence that Paul should use the word ‘yoke’ that Jesus had used in his invitation to those who labour and are heavy laden to take ‘my yoke’ and ‘learn from me’ who am ‘meek and gentle’ and a source of ‘rest’ (Matt. 11:28-30).

Jesus sought to relieve the ‘weary and heavy-laden’ tax collectors and sinners from the yoke of Pharisee-inspired slavery and Paul his apostle fought to spare the Gentiles as well as the Jews from the yoke of slavery of the ‘works of the law’ like circumcision, the dietary rules and the calendar.

Our earliest historical window through which we see early Christianity is Galatians, written circa 48, a decade and half on from Jesus.  What do we see?  We see a ferocious argument within Christianity between Paul and ‘believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees’ over the same issues that Jesus ferociously fought with the Pharisees a few years earlier for the sake of the tax collectors and sinners: the grace of God.

Jesus’ keywords were ‘kingdom of God’ and Paul’s keyword was ‘righteousness’.  Yet Jesus used both words (‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness…’ – Matt 6:33) and Paul used both words (‘the kingdom of God is…righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ – Rom 14:17). Jesus said, ‘Fear not little flock, it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ (Luke 12:32).  Paul said, ‘we are justified by grace as a gift’ (Rom 3:24).  For Jesus ‘kingdom of God’ was grace-based, God’s gift, and for Paul ‘righteousness’ was grace-based, God’s gift.  Jesus insisted on grace for the sinners and Paul insisted on grace for the Gentiles, as well as for the Jews.

Luke even uses the Pauline language of ‘righteousness’ and justification.

The tax collector’s plea, ‘Be merciful to me’ (Luke 18:13) is more literally understood as ‘be propitiated to me’ reminding us of Paul’s words that Christ’s death ‘propitiated’ the wrath of God due to sin (Romans 3:25).  Furthermore, the parable is directed ‘to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and concludesthis man went down to his house justified (literally, “righteoused” – Luke 18:9, 14)’.

In two other occasions Luke brings this language into his narratives.  The lawyer who enquired about eternal life sought to justify himself (Luke 10:29) and later Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.  For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God’ (Luke 16:15).

Luke, as Paul’s travelling companion and biographer understood the struggles of his friend against ‘believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees’.  When he finally came with Paul to Jerusalem in 57  they were confronted by ‘thousands…among the Jews of those who have believedall zealous for the law’ who ‘have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs’ (Acts 21:20-21).  In short, many if not most of the community of Jewish believers in Jerusalem by the late 50s were ‘zealous for the law’, Pharisee-influenced.

These believers who were Pharisees believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but they insisted on Gentiles scrupulously keeping the laws of Judaism.  They are merely a continuation of the Pharisees of the Gospel of Luke who insisted in sinners keeping the Sabbath, fasting, washing and tithing.

The believers who were Pharisees required male Gentile believers to submit to circumcision and all Gentile believers, male and female, to keep the Sabbath and the ‘months’ and ‘years’ that Jews observed.  Just as Jesus protected the ‘lost’ in Israel from the legalistic ‘yoke’ of the Pharisees so the apostle Paul protected the ‘lost’ Gentiles from the legalistic ‘yoke’ of the believers who were Pharisees (Matt 11:28-30; Gal 5:1; cf. 2:3-5).  Jesus insisted that the kingdom of God was a ‘gift’ (‘Fear not little flock it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’) – Luke 12:32); and his apostle Paul likewise insisted that ‘justification’ was God’s ‘gift’ (Luke 12:32; Romans 3:24 – ‘all have sinned…and are justified freely by his grace, as a gift’).  From the New Testament we learn of Pharisees, both non-Christian and Christian, changing God’s mercy from a ‘gift’ of to be humbly received into a ‘wage’ to be earned.

One small speculation, if I may.  Many believe, as I do, that Luke was from Antioch.  Clearly he was a believer in circa 50 when he joined Paul in Alexandria Troas to cross to Philippi where he seems to have stayed for the next seven years before rejoining Paul in the journey to Judea and later to Rome.  If Luke was a believer in 50 he almost certainly was in 48 when the incident in Antioch occurred prompting Paul to write to the Galatians.  In other words, Luke may have witnessed the attempt of the ‘false brothers’, ‘the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees’ to impose ‘works of the law’ on the Gentiles in Antioch.  If so, and this is conjecture, it would help explain Luke’s attitude to the Pharisees and the reason he narrates them the way he does in his Gospel.

Luke’s powerful, yet nuanced account of the Pharisees and their counterparts the tax collectors invites reflection.

Luke wrote his two-volume masterpiece several decades after Jesus’ engagement with these groups.  Our author was strictly limited as to the amount of material he could include in his scrolls so that his priority in including so much about the Pharisees is indeed a matter of interest.

Two possible motives come to mind.

One is Luke’s perception that the spirit of the Pharisee is endemic within us humans, especially amongst ‘religious’ people, the Christians of the early decades.  Unbending theological purity accompanied by blindness to oneself and a sheer lack of care for the elderly and needy is very easily a mark of the evangelical Christian.  We are at our Pharisaic worst when we are involved in theological criticism of those with whom we disagree,  whether Catholics, Charismatics or Liberals.  Never are our own blind spots less apparent to us than when we are critical of others.  It was not for nothing that Paul said, ‘Look to yourself, lest you also be tempted’ (Gal 6:1).

Another possible motive for writing was Luke’s reaction against the efforts of Pharisee-connected believers who sought to impose the ‘works of the law’ upon Gentiles, in particular circumcision as in the disputes in the late 40s in Jerusalem, Antioch and Galatia.

It is possible, but beyond proof, that Luke himself had been caught up in those disputes in Antioch, thus colouring attitudes that would influence his narratives in his Gospel in the coming years.


Paul Barnett
Easter 2011



































[1]A paper by Paul Barnett at Conference at Wesley Institute 16th April 2011.


[2]4Q Dam d; cf. 1 Q Sa 2:3-9.  Translation is from G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), 109.

Jesus, Paul and Peter and the Roman State



The creation of an Islamic theocracy in Iran following the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of the Jihardist movement have raised critical questions about the state and the Christian’s relationship to the state.  Clearly the nature of ‘the state’ is the big issue of our times.  Does the NT shed light on this issue?  In fact it does shed considerable light since this was a major concern to Jesus and his apostles Paul and Peter.

There were two streams of thought in NT times that create the context for Jesus’ teaching about theocracy.  One was the Zealots’ vision for a renewed Davidic theocracy and the other was the Roman Caesar’s demand to be recognised as a universal king.

1.            Jesus and the Zealots

The Davidic kingdom was a theocracy.  In that kingdom (at least considered in ideal terms) the king ruled the people for the covenant LORD through the divinely given Torah-Law.  Within that kingdom the Temple and its priests and rituals were of utmost importance.  Those ideal terms, however, rarely coincided with reality.  The kings themselves were the problem in the main, as witnessed by the continuing conflicts between those kings and the prophets who admonished them for their failures to uphold the Sinai covenant.

Theocracy in Israel didn’t last for very long, in fact for only those years when the great powers of the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean region were weak and Israel was strong.  The successive rise of and invasion by Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans meant that Israel existed as a minor satrapy in those great kingdoms, whether Babylonian, Persian, Greek or Roman.  By New Testament times, then, theocracy in Israel belonged to the distant past.  In any case, Israel was now largely existing in its scattered Diaspora with perhaps as few as ten percent of Jews living in their historic homeland.

Nonetheless, theocracy remained a fiercely held ideal, most obviously from the time of the Judas Maccabeus’ revolt against the Hellenising programmes of King Antiochus IV in Antioch.  The language of zeal and zealotry now begins to be used in Israel, based on the extreme actions of Phinehas (Numbers 25.6-9) and Elijah’s slaughter of the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel (1 Kings 18.36-40).  Judas Maccabeus’ revolt against Antioch marks the beginning of the ‘zealot’ mindset that was to dominate Jewish thinking in the next two centuries, including the era of the New Testament in which Christianity was born.

There are some points of contact between the Zealots of Israel and the modern Islamic Jihardists, in particular the willingness to lay down one’s life for a religious cause.  Clearly, then, Jesus’ attitude to zealotry and the apostles’ attitude to zealotry are important for the concerns of the times in which we live.

In Jesus’ day the zealot hope was expressed in the slogan ‘No master except God’.’[1] The catalyst was the Roman demand that individual Jews submit to a census for the payment of personal tax to the pagan overlord.  Hence the cry of Judas the Galilean in AD 6 ‘No master except God’.[2] Zeal for the name of Yahweh meant killing or being killed in his name.  That ‘Name’ and its honour were more valuable than one’s own life, anticipating in some respects the attitudes of contemporary suicide bombers.

2.            Jesus, the Zealots and the Roman Caesar.

(i)            Jesus’ teaching specifically opposed zealot paradigm, which was to ‘hate the enemy and love the friend’.  This paradigm was fundamental within extreme Jewish groups, whether Qumran covenanters[3] or the followers of various warlords like Judas the Galilean, Simon bar Gioras or John of Gischala.  Let us be reminded of Jesus’ teaching.

You have heard that it was said,  ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Matthew 5.43-45.

Love, not hate, lay at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus’ attitude to the ‘men of violence’ of his times is clearly stated in these words:

From the days of John the Baptist until now
the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence
and men of violence take it by force.

Matthew 11.12.

Jesus’ words offer commentary on the violence dear to the heart of the ‘zealots’ of Jesus’ times.

The attempts of Robert Eisler and S.G.F. Brandon to identify Jesus as a zealot or zealot sympathiser have rightly been discredited.  Jesus’ teaching was in direct contradiction of the zealot ideal and the zealot method.

(ii)            Ironically, however, the Romans executed Jesus for fulfilling a role he had strenuously opposed.  It began with the accusation of the Temple authorities.

Then the whole company of them arose, and brought him before Pilate.
And they began to accuse him, saying,  ‘We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king’.

Luke 23.1.

This is, indeed, ironical.  These were the very crimes of his fellow Galilean Judas two decades earlier.  That Judas forbade paying taxes to the Romans and he claimed to be a king.  Moreover, as we have seen, he had a ‘kingdom’ message.  It was ‘No master except God’.

The Romans found Jesus the Galilean guilty of claiming to be ‘king of the Jews’ and he was crucified for that crime, that is, of treason against Rome.

It was a spectacular miscarriage of justice.  The Temple authorities wanted Jesus out of the way; he had a large and growing following.  Though Pilate was a tyrant and a brute the chief priests had a hold over him.[4] So Jesus was removed on the pretext that he was a zealot king with a theocratic programme that was inimical to the Pax Romana.  But it could not have been further from the truth.

The truth was that Jesus identified himself as the fulfilment of the prophecies of the oracles of God.  Specifically Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man (prophesied by Daniel) and the vicariously suffering Servant (prophesied by Isaiah).  Paradoxically, the one was the most exalted of figures and the other the most humiliated.  The only pathway to glory, he said, was through suffering for others.  Only at the last did Jesus publicly disclose himself as the Lord’s anointed, his Christ (fulfilling the prophecy of Nathan).  Only to his immediate circle did Jesus reveal himself to be ‘the Son’ of Abba, his Father-God.

The Jewish authorities did not or would not penetrate into the true persona of Jesus, who unimaginably amalgamated within himself the disparate strands of OT hope.  And so he was accused, condemned and crucified as a bloody local warlord, a new Judas the Galilean.

(iii)             Here, though, we must note carefully Jesus’ recorded reaction to this injustice.  The Johannine tradition is particularly important in bringing out the involvement of the Roman authorities in the arrest and trial of Jesus.  According to John Jesus was arrested by a significant cohort of Roman troops, with Temple police playing a subsidiary role.  Again, according to John Jesus submitted to more extensive Roman interrogation than we would have guessed from the Synoptic accounts.

In the course of those interrogations Jesus makes important and revelatory replies.

Jesus answered,
‘My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight…’

John 18.36.

Pilate…said to him,
‘Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?
Jesus answered him,
‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…’

John 19.10-11.

From this exchange between Jesus and Prefect we note:
a)            Jesus is no theocratic king; God’s kingdom is not a theocratic kingdom.
b)             Jesus rejects the zealot ideal of violence; his is a heavenly kingship.
c)            Pilate holds his imperium from Caesar, including the IUS GLADII, the authority to execute.  But Jesus teaches that Caesar and therefore his delegate have their authority from God himself.  Implicit in John’s Gospel is the divine indictment of Pilate who failed to provide a duty of care to a powerless and innocent provincial like Jesus.
d)            Consistently, Jesus does not threaten revenge against those who wrongfully and illegally torture and execute him.  Luke records Jesus’ words, ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do’.  Accordingly, Jesus’ manner of death and his attitude to Jewish and Roman authorities do not subvert or overthrow the divinely appointed lines of government but uphold it.

These four elements – Jesus’ heavenly, not theocratic kingship; his recognition that God (the ultimate authority) bestows mediating authority to those like Pilate who hold office and his forgiving, non-subversive attitudes towards authority will reappear in the New Testament letters of Paul and Peter.  Furthermore, these will be critical in the centuries following, ahead of the Constantinian settlement.

(iv)            We come now to Jesus’ famous reply to the entrapment question about paying taxes.  This bears on both the vision of a Jewish theocracy (signalled by the zealot ban on tax paying) and the Roman demand on Caesar’s theocracy (acknowledging his unrivalled kingship).

Of course, the question was not merely about the rights and wrongs of taxation, the rate of taxation or whether direct or indirect tax is better.  True, taxes were high; the local people lobbied Tiberius in AD 17 for their reduction.  Furthermore, Roman provincial administration was proverbially corrupt.  Tiberius himself cynically observed that governors were like blood sucking flies.  The real issue, though, was the hated ‘poll tax’ which symbolized the subservience of Yahweh’s people to the hated heathen Romans.  This is an important passage with far-reaching consequences.

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to entrap him in his talk. And they came and said to him,
‘Teacher, we know that you are true, and care for no man;
for you do not regard the position of men,
but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
Should we pay them, or should we not?’
But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them,
‘Why put me to the test?
Bring me a coin, and let me look at it.’   And they brought one.

And he said to them,
‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’
They said to him,  ‘Caesar’s.’
Jesus said to them,
‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.’
And they were amazed at him.

Mark 12:13-17

The answer was clever, extricating him from the apparently inescapable trap.  To have said ‘yes’ would have identified him as a ‘zealot’ and to have said ‘no’ as a Roman collaborator.  Jesus was neither a zealot (and an advocate of theocracy) nor an unquestioning devotee of the hegemony of the Roman Caesar.

Beyond its cleverness, however, Jesus’ answer articulated his unique view of the state – even the pagan state – in the purposes of God.  So what was that answer?

First, he actually directed the payment of taxes to the heathen occupier.  In a single stroke, Jesus repudiated zealotry and theocracy.  The believer can live under the rule of the infidel, a view that radical Islam repudiates.

But second, Jesus directed the people to ‘render to God the things that are God’s.  This was likely in reaction against the iconic and idolatrous character of the coin, showing the effigy of the emperor (Tiberius) and the words, Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.  In other words, the coin portrayed the emperor as a demi-god.  Jesus’ words, ‘render to God the things that are God’s’ clearly prohibited any veneration of a mere man like this.  Let the emperor know his place.

In effect, then, Jesus attributes all authority to God, demanding due recognition of his deity and sovereignty.  Beneath that sovereignty, however, Jesus located a rightful role ‘Caesar’, that is, for the state.  In the divine order, Caesar is to provide an infrastructure for the welfare of his citizens.  Clearly, though, Caesar’s state must not be an oppressive totalitarian state, whether a heathen totalitarian state or a religious totalitarian state. ‘Caesar’ must know his place’.

In passing, the context of the book of Revelation indicates that the Caesar of that time (mid-nineties) did not know his place.  That Caesar was, so far as we can tell, Domitian.  This was the emperor who insisted on being called ‘Dominus et Deus’.

And the beast (the emperor) was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months; it opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.
Revelation 13.5-8.

That ‘Caesar’ was demanding reverence and worship of himself, a worship that should only have been ‘rendered’ to God himself.

Clearly, therefore, Jesus words ‘render to Caesar’ are sharply qualified and conditional.  All Caesars including leaders in modern democracies should heed his words.

Where a ruler takes to himself a divine right and acts as a demi-god that ruler becomes anti-Christ and the ‘Beast’ of Revelation 13.  His city becomes ‘Babylon’, a place of captivity and suffering for the people of God (and others).


Let me now draw a line under this section about the immediate era of Jesus and his response to the challenge, on one hand posed by zealotry and theocracy within Judaism, and on the other by the demands of the omnipotent Roman state.


3.            Apostolic Catechesis based on Jesus’ Words and Works
There is strong evidence of an early catechesis in relation to disciples and the state.  This evidence emerges from Romans 13.1-7 and 1 Peter 2.13-17.

In Romans 13.1 Paul enjoins ‘be subject (hupotassestho|) to governing authorities’ and in 1 Peter 2.13 Peter says ‘be subject (hupotage|te) to every human institution’.  The similarity is clear.  In Romans 13.3 Paul observes ‘rulers are not a terror to good (to| agatho|) conduct but to bad (to| kako|)’’ and in 1 Peter 2.14 Peter states that kings and governors are ‘sent to punish those who do wrong (kakopoio|n) and praise those who do right (agathopoio|n)’’.  Again the similarity is evident.  In Romans 13.7 Paul encourages’honour (time|) to whom honour is due’ and in 1 Peter 2.17 Peter says ‘honour (time|sate) all’.  Once more the similarity is clear.  Nonetheless, these texts from Paul and Peter are not identical.

The similarities point to some connection between the texts but the dissimilarities imply that they are depending on a common source rather than one upon the other.  In other words, a catechetical source had been created in the few decades between Jesus and the writing of these texts that called for a distinctive ethical attitude to the Roman state.  That source did not arise from within Judaism since anti-Roman feeling ran high among the Jews at that time.  On the contrary, this tradition sprang from Jesus’ distinctive attitudes, on one hand against zealotry, and on the other, his recognition of the role of Caesar, pagan though he was.

Significantly, there are further connections between these two state-related passages.  I refer to the almost identical demands of these respective letters – Romans and First Peter – for non-retributive behaviour against official persecution.

In the passage in Romans immediately preceding his injunctions regarding the state Paul writes, ‘repay no one evil for evil’ (me|deni kakon anti kakon apodidontes)’ – –Rom 12.17) whereas Peter wrote ‘do not repay evil for evil’ (me| apodidontes kakon anti kakou – 1 Pet 3.9)’.  The words are strikingly similar, yet not identical.  Once again the juxtaposition between similarities and dissimilarities points to an earlier independent common catechetical source that was formulated soon after Jesus (cf. 1 Thess 5.15 orate me| tis kakon anti kakou tini apodo|  – ‘See to it that no one renders to anyone evil for evil’).

In addition (i) to the injunction ‘not returning evil for evil’ (me|deni kakon anti kakou apodidontes – Rom 12.17), (ii) Paul also exhorts, ‘bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse’ (eulogeite tous dio|kontas, eulogeite kai me| katarasthe – Rom 12.14).  Clearly this non-retributive behaviour urged by Paul springs from the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Matt 5.38; Lk 6.29, 35 for Rom 12.17 and Matt 5:.44;; Lk 6.26 for Rom 12.14).

In First Peter, however, the non-retributive attitude is inspired by Jesus’ own example where he suffered unjustly.

Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example,
that you should follow in his steps.
He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips.
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return;
when he suffered, he did not threaten;
but he trusted to him who judges justly.

1 Pet 2:.21-23

Christ’s manner of dying – non-subversively – inspired Peter’s injunction:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,
whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him…

1 Pet 1.13-14.

The Lord’s own non-retributive ‘subjection’ to the emperor’s governor Pilate provided his own ‘example’ of ‘rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’.  In other words, Jesus did not subvert but upheld the Roman state, both by teaching and his own powerful example.

Peter’s important emphasis on Christ as exemplar of faithful, non-retributive sufferings under injustice is balanced by his emphasis on his role as the Deuteronomic-Isaianic sin-bearer.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,
that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.
By his wounds you have been healed.

1 Pet. 2.24.

For Christ also died for sins once for all,
the righteous for the unrighteous,
that he might bring us to God…

1 Pet 3.18.

Overall in First Peter, however, the greater emphasis appears to be on Christ the exemplar, who by deed and word shows believers how to live but also to suffer and die in a hostile society.

It is clear, therefore, from these passages in Romans 13.1-7 and 1 Peter 2.13-17, 21-23; 3.9 that Jesus’ teaching and example (in relation to both the zealot theocracy and the Roman state) profoundly influenced the catechetical instruction of disciples in the Pauline and Petrine churches.  This catechesis, however, predated the writing of these letters, springing from Jesus himself soon after his historical lifespan.

This instruction of the Lord, mediated through his apostles, was to prove hugely important in the following centuries when believers were to suffer under various emperors.  While important this teaching is, nonetheless, negative and defensive.  Is there more that can be said?  In particular, do these apostolic writings prompt the disciples of Christ to ‘Seek the welfare of the City’.

4.            Caesar and the City

Two key passages (once more) are Romans 13.1-7 and 1 Peter 2.13-17 which are overwhelmingly positive.  Paul speaks of the ruler as ‘God’s servant (diakonos) for your good’ (v.4) and as a ‘minister (leitourgos) of God’ who is to be ‘respected’ and ‘honoured’ (v.7).  Thus Paul enjoins ‘pay all of them their taxes for they are attending to’ these matters (v.7).

Peter’s sentiment is similar.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him… Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor.
1 Peter 2.13-14, 17.

It is of utmost importance to note that Paul and Peter are not making these requests of believers living in a Christian theocracy like those in the centuries following Constantine.  The emperor at the time Paul wrote Romans and Peter wrote his First Letter was the infidel, Nero.

Indeed, in the centuries before Constantine Christian leaders repeatedly called on Christians to submit to and be loyal to the Emperor.

It needs to be pointed out, however, that submission to Caesar is voluntary and discretionary.  Believers don’t give Caesar a blank cheque.  There have been many occasions when Christians have opposed the State and its leader.  This prophetic opposition to a corrupt king has its roots in the OT and in John the Baptist’s opposition to his tetrarch’s marriage.  It has risen to the surface many times in the centuries since, whether by John Chrysostom or Thomas a ‘Becket.

Seeking the welfare of the city specifically means giving a voice to the voiceless and power to the weak and marginalised.  It is by no means necessarily the same thing as compliance to Caesar.  Caesar may be acting against the weak, and has often done so.

5.            Seeking the welfare of the city.

There are echoes in First Peter from another letter written centuries earlier, written by the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles from Jerusalem now captive in Babylon.

Jeremiah’s letter mentions ‘exiles’ and ‘Babylon’, references that also appear in First Peter (1.1, 17; 5.13).

1                   These are the words of the letter which Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

3                  … It said:
4                    “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel,
to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
5                   Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.
6                   Take wives and have sons and daughters;
take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage,
that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
7                   But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Remarkably, despite their exile in Babylon Jeremiah calls for positive attitudes and actions towards the city where God’s people are in captivity.  He urges ‘seek the welfare of the city and to pray to the LORD on its behalf’.  Similar attitudes are implicit in Peter’s words to these ‘aliens and exiles’ in Babylon, that is to say, the disciples of Christ (2.13-17).

Despite their present sufferings of persecution that show signs of becoming even more intense, they are witness to Christ by imitating his patience and non-vengeance.  More than that, they are to ‘be subject’ to – that is, cooperate positively and voluntarily with – appointed authorities.  Likewise, they are to avoid any form of anti-social behaviour.

In other words, like Jeremiah the apostle Peter is calling on believers to make their home in a place that is not ultimately their home.  Although the world beyond (the kingdom of God) is that home, in the meantime they – and we – are to seek the welfare of this city, even though it is the city Babylon and not the city of God.


6.            Seeking welfare in the centuries following

It is well known that in the following centuries Christians were noted for their works of charity, including towards those who were not of the ‘household of faith’.  It is worth recollecting some examples of this ‘welfare’.

Justin, writing earlier in the mid-second century, notes that a collection was made during the weekly assembly of Christians for distribution by the ‘president’ for a rather broader group.

This collection was for the succour of the orphans and widows, and those who through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in prison, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need (Apology 1.66).

The same development is on view half a century later in Tertullian’’s comment.

Even if there is a chest of a sort, it is not made up of money paid in entrance fees, as if religion were a matter of contract.  Every man once a month brings some modest coin – or whenever he wishes, and only if he does wish, and if he can; for nobody is compelled; it is a voluntary offering.  You might call them the trust funds of piety.  For they are not spent upon banquets or drinking parties; but to feed the poor and to bury them, for boys and girls who lack property and parents, and then for slaves grown old and ship- wrecked mariners; and any who may be in mines, islands or prisons, provided it is for the sake of God’s school, become the pensioners of their confession (Apology 3.9:1-6).

As well, the churches were concerned for others distant from themselves, following the example of Paul’s collection from the Gentile churches for Jerusalem.  These post-apostolic Churches did not confine their generosity to their own members, but were aware of the needs of the fellow-believers in other places.  The Church of Rome was noted for its generosity, both to its own needy members, but also to those further afield.  Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth wrote to his counterpart in Rome c. AD 180:

This has been your custom from the beginning, to do good in manifold ways to all Christians, and to send contributions to many churches in every city, in some cases relieving the poverty of the needy, and ministering to Christians in the mines, by the contribution you have sent from the beginning…(Eusebius HE 4. 23.11).

At the time of the plague in Carthage Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, addressed the Christians.

…there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attention of love…we should love his enemies as well….

Cyprian’s biographer added:  ‘Thus the good was done to all men, not merely the household of faith’ (quoted R. Stark, The Rise of Christianity, San Francisco: Harper, 1997, page 87)

Such a caring attitude by Christians towards pagans may have contributed to their growing sense that this religion was relevant to them and destined soon to become the new religion of the Roman world.  Within fifty years or so this began to be an accomplished fact.

In AD 360 Constantine’s nephew Julian became emperor.  He is famously known as Julian ‘the apostate’ whose short tenure is noted for his brief but futile attempts to take the Roman world back to the paganism it left behind with the conversion of Constantine.  Although intelligent and a capable soldier Julian’s surviving writings disclose a rather eccentric and impractical personality.  Of special interest are Julian’s attempts – also futile – to have that paganism express various forms of welfare replicating those that had been established by the Christians.  Julian was specially galled by the ways the Christians assisted those who were not of their own persuasion.  Accordingly Julian wrote to the High Priest of Galatia decreeing what had to be done.

In every city establish frequent hostels in order that strangers may profit from our benevolence; I do not mean this for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money.  I have but now made a plan by which you may be well provided for this; for I have directed that 30,000 modii of corn shall be assigned every year for  the whole of Galatia, and 60,000 pints of wine.  I order that one fifth of this be used for the poor who serve the priests and the remainder be distributed by us to strangers and beggars.  For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to  beg, and the impious Galileans (= Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men  see that our people lack aid from us (Ep. 49).

At the same time, Julian was exercised by the fact that Christians were teaching the children of the empire rhetoric and grammar based on the classical pagan authors.  Since Christians did not believe in the gods or hold the beliefs of classical paganism it was absurd for them to be teaching what they did not believe.  Let them stop teaching pagans and go off to the churches of the Galileans and there teach the Gospels (Ep. 42).

A number of basic Christian values combined to inspire a concern for ‘welfare of the city’ by the disciples of Jesus.  There was the conviction that their God and Father was the creator and sustainer of all people, whether believers or not.  Likewise the incarnation and the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God were seen to be a source of redemption for all people.  There was universal application of the Gospel.  Jesus’ miracles of healing the sick and feeding the hungry showed the way for the believers’ care of one another in the churches, widows and orphans in particular.  From early times the churches appointed almoners to bring practical aid to needy members.  This ‘hands on’ concern was expressed on a massive scale in Paul’s ‘collection’ from the Gentile churches for the poor saints in Judea.  As well, there were hints that ‘good’ was to be done to ‘all men’ and not just within the household of faith (Gal 6:.10; 2 Cor 9.:13).

In a word, the Christian gospel was inspired by ‘love’, the love of God, and believers were to express that love in highly practical ways, not only to fellow believers, but to all.

Beyond these values, however, we must note the distinctive teaching and example of Jesus.  He rejected the way of violence implicit in the zealots’ theocratic programme, on one hand, and the totalitarian theocratic claims of Caesar, on the other.  Rather, Jesus insisted on the ultimate authority of God and his own rightful claim to be the messianic Son of Man.  To God and his Christ must be rendered veneration and service, to them and to them alone.  Caesar must know his place.

But Caesar does have a place, ruling over human societies for their good.  Let Caesar learn from King Christ who is a server and not an exploiter of those under his rule, especially the vulnerable.  The place Christ gives to Caesar, admittedly qualified, is articulated within the apostolic instructions in the following decades, as we have noted

These things combined to inspire the Christians of the next centuries in their service not only of their own people, but of all people.  And this, as much as anything else, contributed to the astonishing events of the fourth century whose effects are still working themselves out.

7.            Reflection


a.            Jesus does not call for a theocratic polity.
b.            Since rulers receive their authority from God they must exercise it as servants of the people.
c.            People, including Christian people, are to live respecting, honouring and cooperating with rulers, unless their rule has become a criminal rule.
d.            There is a prophetic role for Christians and their leaders in confronting rulers who are not acting out of care for their people.
e.            Where a ruler becomes an anti-Christ the city becomes ‘Babylon’.
f.            Christians should seek the welfare of the city, in particular the welfare of the weak and voiceless.

Paul Barnett

A paper read in Singapore November 2005 at a conference, Seek the Welfare of the City.


































[1]I am employing the term ‘zealot’ in a generalised way.  To be precise the zealot faction arose only within the period of the war AD 66-70.  Nonetheless, there were individuals who were referred to as ‘zealot’ (e.g., ‘Simon who was called “zealot”‘ – Luke 6.:15).

[2]Josephus, Jewish War 2.118.

[3]Cf. IQS 1:4.

[4]Philo, Embassy to Gaius 301-302.

Paul’s Perspectives on the Righteousness of God[1]


One of the important issues of recent times is the ‘new perspective’ on Paul (as Professor Dunn called it).  In fact, there are multiple perspectives and some are were not new when Dunn attached that tag (in 1983).

But to call something ‘new’ catches our eye.

the new quest for the historical Jesus
the new perspective on Paul

In this paper I want to look at Paul’s own perspective on something: the righteousness of God.  And I want to focus on one of his most passionate letters, Galatians.

Before I do that I would like to make some more general observations.

Let me begin by offering a brief comment on this word ‘righteousness’ and it’s brother word, ‘justified’. (Unfortunately our English cannot bring out their common root Greek root, which is DIK-; dikaiosyne| [‘righteousness’ – very frequently/’justification’ - infrequently] and dikao|ithe| [justified’]).

These are law court words but get used more broadly in the NT.  For example, in 1 Cor 4:4 Paul speaks about the Corinthians’ ‘judgment’ about his ministry.  He says, ‘I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted’.  The Greek literally reads, ‘I am not thereby justified’, but RSV says ‘acquitted’ (likewise ESV).

Paul uses this language to describe the relationship with God of those who are (in Paul’s words) ‘in Christ’, Christian believers.  He says that they are ‘justified’ (= ‘acquitted’).

The passive voice means that if I am ‘acquitted’ (or, more literally ‘justified’) it means that someone else has ‘acquitted’ (or ‘justified’ me), and that someone else is God.  Paul doesn’t need to say ‘by God’; the passive voice alone tells us that since Paul the Jew avoided using God’s name where possible.  So: to be ‘justified’ means to be ‘acquitted’, acquitted by God.

What then of the term ‘righteousness of God’?  This is Paul’s way of referring to God’s activity of ‘justifying’ or ‘acquitting’ people.  But it also refers to ‘righteousness’ as their consequential new status before God.  In Christ, they participate in and share God’s own righteousness.

For example, Paul tells the Corinthians that,
‘For our sake he made him [Christ] sin who knew no sin,
so that in him we might become the righteousness of God
in him [Christ]’ (2 Cor 5:21).

So: God does the justifying (acquitting), giving people thereby his righteousness.  But how does God do this?  God does this through an agent, and that agent is Christ, or more specifically ‘Christ’s blood [= death’].  Twice in Rom 5 Paul uses the passive ‘justified’ (i.e., by God) – ‘justified by faith’ (5:1) and ‘justified by his blood’ (5:9).

A second preliminary comment is that some expressions of ‘new perspective’ (some, but not all) argue that Israel had no need of God’s ‘righteous-ing’ activity since she was already ‘in’ the covenant, already saved and that Paul articulated ‘justification by faith’ for non-Jews, as a means of attaching the non-covenantal people of the nations (i.e., ‘Gentiles’) to Israel.


I am wary of attributing motives, since God alone knows the human heart.  Yet it appears historically that this aspect of ‘new perspective’ did take root and flourish in the soil of Christian-Jew ecumenism post Second World War.  This ecumenism was inspired in part by the widely felt guilt that the holocaust occurred in a ‘Christian’ nation and that some church leaders in Germany and elsewhere raised no voice against it.

Is it a coincidence that the ‘new quest for the historical Jesus’ found a specifically Jewish Jesus of Second Temple Judaism, who bore minimal similarity with the Jesus of the catholic creeds, the Jesus of a church numbers of whose members looked the other way when the ‘final solution’ was being perpetrated?

Is it a coincidence that some ‘new perspectives’ on Paul also emerged in this era of post-holocaust Jew-Christian ecumenism?  Were Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic views a factor here, influencing the emergence of ‘new perspectives on Paul’, in particular in reaction to the doctrine of Paul’s that Luther made famous – ‘justification by faith’?

A third general comment relates to the idea of ‘covenant’.

E.P. Sanders, the prominent ‘new perspectivist’, famously made the ‘covenant’ with Israel the starting point for his reading of Paul.  Is this word prominent in Paul in respect of the existing ‘covenant’ with Israel into which the Gentiles are now said to be included?  The answer is ‘no’.  Paul uses the word only five times, three of which are not relevant (Rom 11:27; Gal 3:17; 1 Cor 11:25).

The two relevant ‘covenant’ texts actually speak of the ‘ending’ of the existing covenant with Israel, the replacement by the new of the old.  Against Sanders we say that in Paul’s mind there was no continuing old covenant; it was finished, fulfilled and ‘ended’ in Christ. The dispensation of ‘righteousness’ through Christ’s death (which is equally a dispensation of ‘the Holy Spirit’) annuls, abolishes the covenant of Israel which was a covenant of ‘letter’ (= law) which brought condemnation and death.

2Cor. 3:6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.

[Paul is referring to God’s ‘call’ at the Damascus Event and its consequence, his God-given ministry of this ‘new covenant’].

2Cor. 3:14 But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.

[Paul is referring to the past and present ‘blindness’ of Jewish people to the true message the old covenant, that is, Christ and the Spirit; only when they ‘turn’ to the Lord [Jesus] is the veil of blindness removed].

We conclude that ‘covenant’ and ‘covenant inclusion’ are not be the right point of entry to ascertain Paul’s mind on ‘righteousness of God’.

This prompts me, fourth, to express a concern that we start with the text before us.  This applies whether we are addressing Paul’s or his younger contemporary the voluminous Josephus.  We have the author’s words on the page and we are able (to a degree) to work out what he attempted to convey to his readers at the time.  If we can detect his use of a known rhetorical form, that may be helpful for our understanding.  If our author is hinting that his words must be understood in terms of some meta-narrative or overarching typology that, too, may be useful.  I am thinking of Paul’s reference to the exodus and years of pilgrimage in 1 Cor 10 or to his ‘allegory’ of Abraham’s two sons in Gal 4.

Yet caution is needed.  Paul usually sends a strong signal of an overarching story or pattern.  To import a meta-narrative or allegorical interpretation of our own will likely deflect us from the point Paul is actually making in his text.

Apart from overturning authorial intent, appeal to meta-narrative may be faulted on other grounds.

One is an academic elitism that implies sovereign authority in interpreting individual texts.  This implies that only those who have mastered the meta-narrative are qualified to exegete specific texts.  But the meta-narrative is always a hypothetical reconstruction of the canonical texts, a work in progress, at it will ever be.

Another possible problem with appeal to meta-narratives is that it says, ‘if you can only grasp the true narrative universe of Paul (as I do), then you will understand Paul (or Josephus, or whomever)’.  Isn’t this a bit ‘Gnostic’?  It’s like saying, ‘We the elect illuminati know the meta-narrative and we have the light of revelation of Paul’s real meaning while you poor blind plodding exegetes have only his text’?

Having cleared the ground with these preliminaries let me turn to the second part of the paper.  Here I want to focus (briefly) on one of Paul’s most passionate letters – Galatians.  This passion is generated by those who oppose Paul’s teaching about the righteousness of God.


In Galatians the ones Paul opposed (and who opposed him) surprise us.

I am referring to the so-called ‘incident at Antioch’, whose importance must not be underestimated.  It represented a crossroads for Paul’s relationships with notable leaders, Peter and Barnabas.  These were his opponents in Antioch.

Paul and Barnabas had been working associates for four or five years – in Antioch-on-the Orontes and in mission work in Cyprus and Anatolia.  Paul’s relationships with Cephas/Peter went back sixteen or seventeen years before the Antioch incident.  The incident in Antioch had the potential to divide Paul from the Jewish mission and to divide absolutely the faith community along Jew-Gentile lines.

The ‘incident’ at Antioch occurred ca. 48, a year or so after Paul’s and Barnabas’ return from Cyprus and Anatolia.  This is mentioned in Acts 15:1-2 and Galatians 2:11-14 (with further discussion in Gal 2:15-20).

At the time the mixed assembly of Jewish and Gentile believers in Antioch shared unhindered table fellowship, most likely including at the Lord’s Table.  But then a bombshell came in the arrival of ‘certain men…from James’ as Paul puts it (Gal 2:12).  They brought a message from James, prime ‘pillar’ in Jerusalem, the effect of which was that the Jews Peter and Barnabas ‘drew back and separated themselves’ and would no longer eat with the Gentile believers.  And the reason: their ‘fear of the circumcision party’?  Or, as the Acts puts it: these men from Judea were teaching that ‘unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1).

So the message in Antioch that Paul strenuously opposed was ‘no circumcision no salvation’ (so, Luke in Acts); ‘no circumcision, no table fellowship’ (so, Paul in Gal 2).  So, according to this new teaching, the common ground on which Jewish and Gentile believers must stand for salvation and fellowship is male circumcision.  Without male circumcision of Gentiles, there is no salvation and no eating together.  In short, there is no place in the church of God for the uncircumcised.

The Antioch incident was serious beyond words.  Had Paul also succumbed to the pressure (as Peter and Barnabas did) it would have changed the entire character of future Christianity.  Indeed, it is unlikely there would have been any significant future Christianity at all among the Gentiles.

So what does Paul say to the Gentiles among his Galatian readers, who are also being subjected to the pressure to ‘receive circumcision’ (Gal 5:2)?  We remember his admonition:

1 For freedom Christ has set us free;
stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
2 Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision,
Christ will be of no advantage to you.
3 I testify again to every man who receives circumcision
that he is bound to keep the whole law.
4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law;
you have fallen away from grace.
5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.
12 I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!

So how did Paul the Jew come to such a passionate position?  It all went back to the Damascus Event.

In Gal 3:21-25 Paul speaks about the impact of Damascus on him:

21 Is the law then against the promises of God?
Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive,
then righteousness would indeed be by the law.
22 But the scripture consigned all things to sin,
that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ
might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were confined under the law,
kept under restraint until faith should be revealed.
24 So that the law was our pedagogue until Christ came,
that we might be justified by faith.
25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a pedagogue

Paul is speaking as a Jew representing other Jews, but in a way that is deeply personal.  He is addressing the matter of righteousness before God, as provoked by the issue of circumcision.  He uses two related word pictures of his pre-Damascus situation: (a) he was locked up in a prison, and (b) he was subject to a harsh pedagogue (pedagogues had a bad name for abusive behaviour).  But then, he says, ‘faith came’ and ‘faith was revealed’. ‘Faith came’ to Paul and ‘faith was revealed’ to Paul when Christ ‘seized him’ at Damascus.

On that day, that very first day he was ‘a man in Christ’, Paul was ‘justified’ (or, ‘acquitted’), that is, deemed to have participated in the ‘righteousness of God’.  The point he is making is that as now ‘justified’, he was set free from the ‘prison’ of seeking righteousness by the ‘law’.  By grace, God had freely done for him what his pre-Damascus self-effort had never been able to achieve.

The remarkable extent of the Damascus allusions makes it likely that Paul now saw the OT through the lens of Damascus and that the gospel Paul preached was shaped and informed by Damascus, in particular that he, Paul, and all people – Jews or Gentiles – find their righteousness with God only in Christ crucified and risen.

In the passage immediately following the ‘incident in Antioch’ where the circumcision demand would have destroyed the Christ-based common ground between Jews and Gentiles Paul writes this, in respect of himself, and fellow-Jews, Peter and Barnabas:

15 We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners,
16 yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law
but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus,
in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.

20 I have been crucified with Christ;
it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me;
and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me and gave himself for me.
21 I do not nullify the grace of God;
for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.

We note, here that Paul is referring to the ‘righteousness before God’ of individuals (‘a man is not justified by works of the law’ [e.g., circumcision] but through faith in Jesus Christ [or the faithfulness of Jesus Christ]‘); and secondly, that he is speaking of himself, Peter and Barnabas as Jewish individuals.  I make this point again against those ‘new perspectivists’ who propose that ‘justification by faith’ was Paul’s theological solution to the problem of the inclusion of the Gentiles, inferring (or asserting) that Jews were already ‘in’ the covenant and in no need of God’s righteousness.

Paul is arguing that due to sin both Jews and Gentiles stand in need of God’s righteousness, available only through the redemptive, accursed death of the Son of God on the tree.  In Rom 3:9 Paul states that ‘all’ (that is, Gentiles and Jews) are ‘under sin’, that is, controlled by sin (as members of the lost tribe of Adam).  As lawbreakers under the curse of the law, both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, find one and the same means of redemption, through the One who gave himself for sins, Jesus Christ the Lord (Gal 1:3; 2:20).

That Gentiles, as well as Jews have this blessing fulfils God’s promise to Abraham, that in his ‘descendant’ (Christ) all the nations will be blessed.  Abraham, himself, knew a kind of anticipatory ‘justification’ since, as it is written, ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ (Gal 3:6; Gen 15:6).

God’s ‘justification’ of Paul at Damascus as a ‘man in Christ’ opened his eyes to understand the grace-based, faith-based, Christ-centred nature of ‘the righteousness of God’ as it applies to the new covenant people of God, which had applied also to the father of faith, Abraham.

Final Reflection

Let me summarise.

1.            I have attempted to establish Paul’s thinking on the issue of the ‘righteousness of God’.  I have deliberately focused on a letter that is apologetic and polemical in character (Galatians), rather than the more measured letter like Romans.  The pastoral situations are easier to identify in a passionate epistle like Galatians or Second Corinthians.

2.            You will notice that I do not warm to current interest in finding Paul’s true meaning in some supposed wider or global biblical narrative that he is hinting at or alluding to.  This approach implies that such narratives invariably informed Paul’s intellectual universe, which his readers also share.  Not only is that an assumption for Paul’s Gentile readers who do not inhabit this narrative universe, but more particularly it allows the Bible interpreter who has supposedly reconstructed this ‘global narrative’ to re-shape the exegesis in subtle new directions.

3.            I wonder to what degree the tragedy of the holocaust has influenced currents of theological interpretation.  Is it a coincidence that the Jesus found by the new questers was – whatever else he was – first and foremost a Jew?  A Jew moreover who was somehow an un-catholic Jesus, un-credal Jesus; just a Jew.

Was interest in an ‘un-Lutheran’ Paul also some kind of a reaction against Luther attitudes to the Jews.  Did the opposition of some ‘new perspectivists’ to Luther’s famous statements about justification arise by revulsion against his anti-Semitism?

Luther’s blind spots need to be set aside.  We need to ask: did Luther understand Paul and interpret him correctly?  True, he too easily imposed his own disputes with the Roman Church upon Paul’s disputes with the Judaisers.  Yet, despite that anachronistic flaw, was not Luther correct in discerning a commonality of error between Paul’s opponents and his own?  Might it not be argued that the semi-Pelagianism implicit in that Catholicism had much in common with the ‘semi-Pelagianism’ of the Pharisees and therefore with the extremists in the Jewish mission?

To concede this is to concede that Paul’s arguments, though time-bound to the mid-first century, also happen to be perennially timely due to the inclination of the human psyche towards self-justification and its confidence in being able to please God.

4.            In essence, Paul is arguing from within the Damascus event.  This for him marked the turning of the aeons, from ‘old’ to ‘new’, from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’, from ‘letter’ to Spirit, from ‘condemnation’ to ‘justification’, from alienation to ‘reconciliation’.  Everything for him beforehand was ‘then’ and everything since was ‘now’.  Accordingly, Moses/’letter’/old covenant is now ‘ended’ and ‘abolished’, outshone and de-glorified; in Christ and the Spirit the new has come and will remain, forever (2 Cor 3).

Accordingly, Paul will argue trenchantly in Galatians against any attempt to find righteousness with God through any rite (like circumcision); righteousness of God is found only in Christ crucified and is the basis for eating together.  Likewise, he will resist any attempt in Corinth to wind back the eschatological clock so that the now-‘ended’ covenant is reinstated and reimposed.  Paul’s gospel is law-free, Christ-centred, grace-based, Spirit-empowered, and word-communicated.



Paul Barnett.
June 2006.

The other speaker was the Rt. Revd. N.T. (Tom) Wright.
The symposium was held at Robert Menzies College, Macquarie University.
Chair: Emeritus Professor E.A. Judge
















[1]This is an edited version of a paper delivered at a symposium on Paul at Robert Menzies College 16 March, 2006; the other paper was given by Dr N.T. Wright.

The Corpse that Stood Up




Of course the Greeks laughed.  Their poets, whose writings had the status of ‘holy writ’, said, ‘When the dust has drained the blood of a man, once he is slain, there is no resurrection’.  ‘There is no resurrection’ is also what some of the Greek Christians in Corinth were saying, prompting Paul to write his majestic fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth.

The laughter in Athens and the disbelief in Corinth are understandable.  Why is that?  It’s because the words ‘resurrection of the dead’ literally mean, ‘The standing up of corpses’.  If there is one thing a corpse doesn’t do is ‘stand up’.  A corpse is a dead person and death means the total absence of life and the power to ‘stand up’.

So, corpses don’t stand up.  Greeks laughed then and their modern counterparts also laugh.  Greeks, however, did believe in the survival of the soul.  That seems a better idea, really.  It lets you have it both ways.  The dead are dead and corpses don’t stand up, but the idea of the ‘me-within-me’ lives on seems helpful.  Some of the Corinthian Christians who disbelieved that corpses stand up most likely did believe that the souls of the departed did survive.  Maybe many church people today are like those resurrection disbelievers in Corinth.  Corpses don’t stand up but the soul lives on.

We can understand that those Athenians laughed at the Jew Paul.  Corpses don’t stand up.  No one had ever seen a corpse stand up.  Athenian scholars would have heard that Jews believed that at the end of history that corpses would stand up, that is, all corpses.  But here is this strange man Paul saying that the corpse of a man did stand up, and just a few years ago, in Jerusalem.  So they laughed him out of the assembly.

Wherever he went this Paul announced that his Master had been crucified by the Romans but resurrected by the Almighty, the Creator of the universe.  Nothing else and no one else is powerful enough to make a corpse stand up.  We know about the awesome power of volcanos that shut down airlines and tsunamis, earthquakes and cyclones that smash buildings and destroy lives.  We know about the amazing acts of man that create massive A380s and huge cruise ships and electronic wizardry.  But neither the forces of nature nor the genius of man enables a corpse to stand up.  It doesn’t matter whether it is the corpse of the world’s richest or the world’s poorest, it doesn’t stand up.  From the dust it was taken and to the dust it will return.

Except for one man, just one man, the Messiah Jesus.  Like the Athenian philosophers who laughed there are many theologians who maybe don’t laugh but at least smile at the idea.   Their problem is really that they don’t hold with the idea of the Almighty Creator.  Rather they think of ‘God’ (or god) as the human spirit or inner light.  It follows that the resurrection of Jesus must be reinterpreted away from the literal to the figurative, from the objective to the subjective.  Somehow the spirit of Jesus came alive in them as they remembered him.  His resurrection was ‘in’ them and he continued to be ‘real’ to them.

But this ‘explanation’ ignores several stubborn facts.  The first is that the tomb in which the dead Jesus was placed was empty when the women came early on the first day of the week.  Each of the four gospels establishes with absolute clarity that the body of the deceased Jesus was gone.  Likewise the earliest Jerusalem tradition that Paul passed on to the Corinthians, that Christ died, was buried, was raised, appeared alive to many hundreds.  It does not say the tomb was empty but presupposes it was empty: ‘he was buried [in the tomb]’, ‘he was raised’.

So who took the corpse of Jesus from Joseph’s tomb and why?  Grave robbers?  But there was nothing to steal and why take a corpse somewhere else.  The Roman or Jewish authorities?  But they would have produced the body when the disciples began preaching the resurrection.  Disciples?  But they scoffed at the reports of the women that the tomb was empty.

Then there is the easily neglected detail that John records, that the linen wrapping was in the tomb.  An eminent medico pointed out that nobody removing a wrapped corpse would unwrap it, bloodied and scarred as it was, but leave the wrappings in place and remove it still wrapped.  But the wrappings were in the tomb.

Another stubborn fact is the witness of the independently written gospels Luke and John.  Both these gospels narrate in extensive detail that Jesus came amongst the  disciples physically, as ‘a corpse who stood up’.  He walked along the Emmaus road with two men and talked with them and later ate with them.  That night he came to the band of disciples and ate with them.  John records that Jesus showed them his hands and feet that had been pierced in crucifixion.  A week later the disbelieving Thomas was confronted with the bodily resurrected Jesus and forthwith confessed him as his ‘Lord and God’.

In fact, the entire New Testament, whether gospels or letters, insist that Jesus was raised alive from the dead, raised bodily, that God made the corpse of his Son ‘stand up’.

Two final thoughts.  There are a number of facts that define our faith so that to doubt or reject them would place us outside the boundaries of that faith, facts like the historic incarnation of the Son of God through virginal conception, his miracles and teaching, his sacrificial death as the ‘Lamb of God’ who bore the sin of the world and his bodily resurrection.  As the hymn says,

These are the facts as we have received them,
these are the facts that the Christian believes.
This is the basis of all of our preaching:
Christ died for sinners and rose from the tomb.

That, as they say, says it all.

Secondly, God’s raising of his Son is the potent sign that God is the victor over the Devil and human wickedness and the most profound basis for our hope that in the face of the last enemy death and of every lesser enemy we will be more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed.

Paul Barnett

Easter 2011



Manning Clark and Luke.


Manning Clark and Luke.


Manning Clark, the legendary chronicler of Australian history, is well known for his left-leaning interpretations, including sympathetic comments about Communist Russia.  Clark, in his 1960 book Meeting Soviet Man, described Lenin as ‘Christ-like in his compassion’ and in a speech in Russia in 1970 called him ‘teacher of humanity’.  Even after Brezhnev’s brutal repression of Czechoslavakia in 1968 and other revelations of Soviet brutality Clark could only say that his earlier views on Russia were merely an ‘error of judgment’ and that he had ‘not made clear what was really in his mind’.

Being blinded by ideology is not unique to Clark as a historian.  What has now been evident for some years, however, is that Clark also lied.

‘As An old man looking back on his life, Manning Clark claimed to have seen with his own eyes the horrors of Kristallnacht. Witnessing this notorious Nazi pogrom changed his life, said Clark, and made him the historian he was. It became the most famous story of a great storyteller (David Marr, au/news/  national/manning-clarks-fraud/2007/03/04/1172943275676.html).

According to Clark, ‘I happened to arrive at the railway station at Bonn am Rhein on the morning of Kristallnacht,’ he told the poet John Tranter in 1987. ‘That was the morning after the storm troopers had destroyed Jewish shops, Jewish businesses and the synagogues. Burned them and so on…I saw the fruits of evil, of human evil, before me there on the streets of Bonn.’

But Clark was not there that day. The historian’s biographer, Mark McKenna, reveals this week in The Monthly that Clark did not reach Nazi Germany for another fortnight. The person who saw the broken glass and smoking synagogues on that morning in November 1938 was the woman Clark was to marry. ‘It was Dymphna Lodewyckx, not Manning Clark, who witnessed the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht’ (; M. McKenna, An Eye for Eternity, MUP, 2011).

So Australia’s most famous historian is now exposed as someone who lied, and did so repeatedly about the unspeakable Kristallnacht pogrom.  It is probably the case that once we have given a version of something a few times it becomes part of us and we really believe what we are saying.  Our truth becomes the truth.

Luke, the author of the two volume Luke-Acts provides an interesting point of contrast with Clark.  In his opening words Luke makes it clear that he did not know Jesus but was dependent on written sources that the followers of Jesus had handed over to him.  Unlike Manning Clark, he does not claim to have been there.

In his second part, the book of Acts, he quietly inserts himself into the narrative.  This he does by subtly changing the narrative about Paul from ‘they’, ‘them’ to ‘we’ and ‘us’, to indicate that he was now Paul’s companion who traveled with him from Greece to Jerusalem, and later from Jerusalem to Rome.  These travels occurred over a five year period.  He does not make any fuss about this quiet change of pronouns but any casual reader of the ‘we’ passages can’t help noticing how much more detailed are these passages.  A classic example is Luke’s description of the sea voyage to Rome and the shipwreck on the rocks of Malta (Acts 27).

Luke makes it clear, as noted above, that he depends on the writings of others for his narrative about Jesus.  One such narrative is the Gospel of Mark.  Luke reproduces about half of Mark so it is easy to see what Luke does with Mark’s text.  Does Luke embellish or ‘beef’ up the Jesus that Mark writes about?  Does he change a prophet into a divine figure, for example?  In fact, Luke generally shortens Mark’s narrative and in no way does he make Jesus into something or someone else.  Mark’s Gospel is the earliest written of the four and Mark’s Jesus is already an exalted figure.  In Mark, Jesus is the Son of God, and the Son of Man, the one destined to rule the world but who, paradoxically, will be crucified by the Jewish and Roman authorities.  Luke’s version of Jesus is similar.

The example following is interesting.  In Mark Jesus reveals himself to be the ‘Son’ God finally sent to Israel.  Luke shortens Mark’s account but does not in any way exalt the figure of Jesus.

Mark 12:5-6 Luke 20:12-13
And he sent another,and him they killed;

and so with many others,

some they beat

and some they killed.


He still had one other,

A beloved son;

finally he sent him to them saying,

‘They will respect my son.’

And he sent yet a third; 

this one they wounded and cast out.





Then the owner of the vineyard said,

‘What shall I do?

I will send my beloved son;

It may be they will respect him.


Manning Clark was quite open about writing history out of a particular world-view.

Indeed, anybody writing history does so out his or her temperament, personality and values.  This would have been true also of Luke.  Clearly Luke is passionate about the mission that Jesus unleashed on the world and he writes his great Luke-Acts from that barely concealed intention.  That does not mean his narrative is untrue.  In fact, given the across the board evidence from other sources it is evident that Jesus inspired a mission to the nations of the world.  Luke is doing no more or less than the rest of the documents of early Christianity.

In any case, practical objectivity is attainable, even if that objectivity cannot ever be perfect.  Manning Clark is a great historian and anybody can quickly work out his biases and prejudices and observe, ‘Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

But lying, falsifying evidence is different.  It calls every page into question.  That’s the problem with lying, isn’t it?  We don’t trust liars.

The thing is, that Luke can be crosschecked.  Anybody can put a Luke passage alongside a Mark passage and come to decision about his care – or otherwise – as a scribe.  Likewise, one can check Luke’s version of his record Paul’s autobiographical speeches in the Acts against Paul’s own autobiographical references in his letters.  The vocabulary (Greek) is different but the content is the same.

Paul himself (Philippians 3:5-6) Paul according to Luke (Acts 26:5; 22:3-4
As to the law, a Pharisee

As to zeal, a persecutor of the church

I have lived as a Pharisee

Being zealous for God…I persecuted this Way unto death


This is quite remarkable.  By the time Manning Clark wrote his many books historiography had become highly sophisticated, based on careful analysis of statistics, records and archives.  None of this expertise or resources was available to Luke.  There was not even a universally recognised calendar; Romans, Greeks and Jews observed different calendars.  Yet for all these disadvantages Luke has tried hard to be truthful and careful within the parameters of his passion for the message and mission of the one he called ‘Lord’.

2nd May, 2011.