Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Trials of a Teacher

One of the many things I've learned during these two years of college teaching: Survey courses are tough. Why? Mainly because a survey requires you to figure out how to summarize material that really deserves to be studied in depth. In a survey class, I feel like I'm riding a motorcycle through a museum.

For example, every semester I teach a class called "The New Testament." It's a basic first-year, content-survey course. Of course, anyone who's spent much time with the New Testament knows that several of its books provide enough content, questions, etc. for a semester’s worth of exploration. One of the Gospels? Luke-and-Acts? But in a survey, the New Testament books average less than one per class session. So the teacher has to decide which parts receive attention and which parts get more less neglected. That’s the challenge. An even bigger challenge is to set up the course and teach in a way that gets students learning on their own, reading outside of class, etc.

One thing I've tried to do is to establish a few anchor points, basic observations about the New Testament that can be applied to various parts of it. For example, near the beginning of the course we explore the idea that a good understanding of the New Testament includes an awareness that Jesus himself and all of the earliest Christians were Jews. At the same time, the first believers were not merely Jews. Of course, we then turn the spotlight on the pre-eminent first-century Jewish Christian, Paul. And what do we see? Even after his Damascus Road experience, Paul is perfectly content to think of himself as a Jew.
  • He continues, for example, to reckon time in the Jewish way: "But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost" (1 Corinthians 16:8).
  • He speaks of himself and every other descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as "we who are Jews by birth" (Galatians 2:15).
  • And when it’s necessary—as in his debate with the "super apostles" at Corinth--he puts his Jewish identity front and center: "Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I." (2 Corinthians 11:22).
From examples like these, we gather that what was different about the Christian Paul was not that he had rejected his Jewish identity. So what exactly was different about Paul the Jew following his confrontation with the resurrected Christ? In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, he gives us a clue. Speaking in some detail about his work as a Christian missionary, Paul writes:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Without any knowledge of the Book of Acts, one can gather from this passage that Paul is not only an apostle to the Gentiles, but that he also deals with fellow Jews. What he's discovered is that the most-effective approach is to play the part of a "cultural chameleon." Around Jews, says Paul, he is like a Jew. Around Gentiles, "those not having the law," he is like a Gentile.

Here, two telling disclaimers stand out. First, the Christian Paul no longer considers himself to be "under the law." Although he can be like one under the law of the Jewish Scriptures, he himself is not under such law. Which is not to say that Paul the Christian is somehow lawless. Knowing that his first disclaimer might be misunderstood, he adds that he certainly is under divine rule. Indeed he is "under Christ’s law."

It must have come as a shock when Paul’s fellow Jews understood that he no longer considered himself subject to Mosaic law. When asked why, he no doubt would have used the language of Philippians 3. Although Paul could easily confide in his adherence to Mosaic law—"as for legalistic righteousness, faultless"—he was eager to renounce all of that for "the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ" (see Philippians 3:1-11). Not that there was anything wrong with keeping the law. But there was something wrong with assuming that the mark of circumcision, and the observance of sabbath ordinances and dietary laws were not only important but even essential for the people of God in Christ.

Such a radical and unexpected break required Paul to employ in his explanations language that was equally radical and unexpected. This explains passages like Galatians 6:15. There Paul insists that what ultimately matters is that the perfect work of God in Jesus the Messiah had ushered in "a new creation," a time when and reality where the difference between circumcision and uncircumcision means nothing.

The work of God in Christ had so changed the way things are, the language of "a new creation" wasn't a stretch. An altered reality. A radically changed world. That's what was different.

[A good bit of this reflection was generated as I read Ben Witherington, The Paul Quest, pp. 53-69].

1 comment:

Matt said...

Have you ever read Jacob Jervell's Luke and the People of God or his Theology of Acts? He offers some pretty unique insights about why Acts was written - to prove Paul was not a heretic, to show that Paul was not at odds with the Law, that it was not a Jewish rejection that led to the door opening to the Gentiles, rather a large-scale Jewish acceptance that led to it, among other things.

I remember reading that book and thinking - yes, I have always heard this...and then watched him dismantle it in front of my eyes. It is also a fairly quick read. His work on John is not as good. I hope your John class is going well.