Salvation and 2nd Temple Judaism

I’m working my way through Wright’s “Big Book on Paul”, that would be Paul and the Faithfulness of God… 1600 pages of theological goodness. Yeah… if you want to throat-punch your under-cooked Pauline theology, I’d suggest reading the whole thing. At this point, I should finish by the end of 2014.


He’s got a great opening quotation about the theological topic of “salvation,” and what it meant for 2nd Temple, 1st century Jews. Jesus and Paul were one of those, so what they think of salvation is a bit different than the latest Bible tract would present it.

“It is massively misleading to bring to the texts the question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ in the sense that almost all modern western persons would understand. In the gospels, of course, that question is asked by a second-Temple Jew, and as I and others have made clear it did not mean, ‘How can I go to heaven when I die?’ but rather ‘How can I be a part of the coming age, the age to come, ha’olam haba?’ As all the texts we have mentioned make clear, this ‘age to come’ was not much like the ‘heaven’ of medieval and post-medieval western imagination, and much more like the liberated Israel, and perhaps the liberated world, of biblical and second-Temple hope. If instead we insist on projecting on to the texts the questions of individual salvation, in a classic western heaven-or-hell scheme, trying to discern where they fit in terms of ‘qualifications’ people might have for the one or the other, and how (either through God’s grace or human merit or some combination of the two) some might attain such a salvation, we will simply miss the entire story within which the writers of those texts were living. And in doing this we will, almost certainly, distort quite radically the other terms that cluster around the larger notion of ‘salvation.’

This relatively modern approach to the texts, understanding them in terms of a non-spatio-temporal ‘salvation’, is basically telling the wrong story. It collapses ‘Israel’s story’, the main theme book after book in the literature we have surveyed, into ‘my story’, the story of the individual soul on the way to heaven or hell…

Let us, of course, be clear: this is not to say that personal ‘salvation’ is not at issue or is deemed important. This is a regular slur against fresh interpretations of Paul, but it misses the point entirely. Of course, ‘salvation’ matters. What is being said, however, is (a) that salvation doesn’t mean what the western tradition has often taken it to mean (escaping to a disembodied ‘heaven’), (b) that it is in any case not the main topic of most of the texts, and (c) that it is not the main narrative which they are trying to explicate. In the New Testament the rescue of human beings from sin and death, which remains vital throughout, serves a much larger purpose, namely that of God’s restorative justice for the whole creation.” (163-165)


Published by joeskillen

I'm a husband, dad of 2, Pastor at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, KS.

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