“Context is king” is one of the earliest and most important rules learned for how to interpret an author. Even though no one would deny this foundational rule, common acceptance of the dictum does not guarantee agreement on how context is properly used. No one denies the primacy of the text, but on and under the surface of the text itself are contextual details which require understanding if the text is to be fully understood and appreciated. How these details guide and limit our understanding, and what constitutes the proper context for a text fails to ellicit any unanimity. Current debates in conservative churches about the “New Perspective(s) on Paul” aptly demonstrate this.
Examining a writing like one of Paul’s letters involves understanding the context of both the sender and the recipients. The latter category is far less controversy. Few would have an issue examining the background and history of the cities where Paul sent his principal letters. Great insight into the text has been gained by carefully studying locales like Corinth of Philippi. The notorious sexual perversity of Corinth does much to explain why the church struggled so strongly with gender and sexual issues. Paul’s sensitivity and brilliance as an author come into sharper focusing when one notices the prominence of citizenship terms in addressing the church at Philippi, a Roman colony. Likewise, understanding the history of Jews in Rome grants great insight into why Gentile/Jewish issues are so prominent in Romans. Many questions regarding the audience remain unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable (who where the Galatians Paul addressed again?), yet no one denies the value of studying the context of Paul’s recipients. The situation radically changes when one turns to Paul’s own context as a writer.
Those authors identified with the “New Perspective on Paul” emphasize the need to place Paul within the Judaism of his own day to understand his writings properly. Stated simply, Paul was raised, and continued to understand himself, as a Jew; and we must take account of this to fully appreciate his writings. This idea seems obvious, and in complete harmony for how we understand the readers of Paul’s letters, that one questions why this point should raise any controversy. However, we must take into account a couple cautions and qualifications at this point. First, our understanding of the Judaism(s) of Paul’s day is fragmentary. Second, even if our understanding of Second Temple Judaism were more complete, Paul does not fully articulate his understanding and relationship to his ancestral traditions. All that we have from Paul is a small corpus of letters directed to very specific situations. Although we can learn much about the background of Paul’s thought from his correspondence, we do not have an abstract, carefully thought-out statement of Paul’s foundational beliefs. Likewise, we have a many biographical references about Paul’s life both before and after his conversion/commissioning, we must not lose sight of how many important details of which we are ignorant. This urges great caution about reading too much into Paul’s fragmentary statement, or lack of statement, on any particular topic. Granting those restraints, the methodology of the “New Perspective” holds out much promise for New Testament studies.
Traditional interpretation emphasizes the traditional understanding and interaction with Paul’s writings. For those within the conservative Reformed tradition, this understanding is articulated in the Reformation creeds, confessions, and catechisms. Much commends this approach. The long history of substantial interaction with Paul commends the tradition for serious consideration. However, several serious cautions must be exercised within this older perspective. First, the tradition, even where consistent with Paul’s thought as far as it can be discerned from the larger Pauline context, must not be confused with Paul’s thought as expressed in a specific text. Often, traditional understanding is based on a synthesis of all that Paul said on a given topic; and to read such a full concept into a single Pauline statement, while good intentioned, could lead to serious misunderstanding. For example, reading a synthesis of all Paul’s teaching on baptism into the cryptic statement on the “baptism on behalf of the dead” in I Corinthians 15 will lead no where useful. Second, we must be careful to distinguish traditional concerns from textual concerns. Reformation theology was forged by conflict with the Roman Catholic church and the Anabaptists, neither of whom was confronted by Paul. Failure to realize this inevitably leads to serious misunderstanding. The traditional equation of Paul’s opponents in Galatians with the Medieval Catholic church and the principal concern of the letter to combat legalism has lead to serious misunderstanding of the book for centuries. This is not saying that the Protestant position is wrong, or that it is inconsistent with the trajectory Paul set in his letters; but it is saying that it is not what Paul wrote in Galatians, Romans, or any other letter he left behind. Finally, we must admit that tradition can be wrong. Unfortunately, too much of the current debates seems less about upholding the integrity of the text and more about upholding the integrity of the tradition. Ultimately, failure here undermines heart of Protestant theology- ad fonts, semper refermanda, sola Scriptura.