E.P. Sanders notes in Paul and Palestinian Judaism regarding Pauls language of righteousness:
We further see in the Philippians passage1, and this is the only point at which this does become clear, that Paul himself was aware of his own shift in the meaning of the term of righteousness. There is a righteousness which is based on works of law. Here Pauil does not, as he does in Galatians and Romans, deny that there is any such thing. In Philippians, rather, he argues, in effect, that the righteousness based on works of law is no true righteouness or the right kind of righteousness. Just as circumcision of the foreskin of the penis does not, in Paul’s definition, constitute true circumcision – since only Christians are the true circumcision – so also righteounsess based on law is not the right kind. The only proper righteousness is Christian righteousness, which must be based on something else. Since the characteristic act of the Christian is belief in the God who raisd Christ and made him Lord, the true or Christian righteousness is based on faith.2
In this observation, Sanders hits at what I believe to be the core of the debate regarding justification3 for Paul: that there is a different meaning. Put differently, a semantic shift has occurred for Paul, where justification does not mean the exact same thing as it was commonly taken to mean. Galatians 3:7-14 highlights this conscious shift of meaning, in contrasting the unobtainable way of justification by works of the Torah with the justification that comes with by faith through Christ becoming a curse to redeem from the curse. Quite simply, while there is necessarily some similarities between the two different definitions of righteousness and justification for Paul that we might term as a family resemblance, the words can be employed with two distinctly different concepts. It isn’t that justification has stayed the exact same thing, but now a different way has been provided as it is often times construed by Protestant theology (i.e. “Trying to get forgiven by works fails, but you can get forgiven and got to heaven by faith”); it is that righteousness is itself something different (i.e. “Being a righteous person isn’t about the works you do to your credit, but comes from the one who is at work in you.”) Paul’s teaching on justification isn’t simply that the conditions of justification are different, as true as that might be, but what is means to be justified itself has changed.
This form of semantic novelty presents a challenge for the normal pattern of Biblical scholarship. Attempts to understand Paul often times make the assumption that what Paul is saying about righteousness and justification is somehow like it is in Greek or rest of Second Temple Judaism, so we scour through the uses of δικαιοω in the Greek language, and/or we look through the Tanaatic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, apocalyptic literature, etc., in hopes of finding an analog that we can associate with Paul. But the process of semantic change means that synchronic word studies will not provide you with the necessary information. While synchronic studies still provide insight as semantic change does still retain continuity with it prior meanings that the language and culture exhibits, you can really only understand semantic change from the particulars of the person and/or community itself.
The reality is more prevalent within the New Testaments reference to Jesus as χριστος. The original sense in Greek is that of an anointed persons; through its usage by Jews, it began to be associated with an anointed figure chosen by God, the Messiah. However, while still retaining the earlier notions of anointing4 and the Messianic roles5, it exhibitσ a semantic shift as a result of its becoming a term used as an honorific6, where Christ is used to refer to the person of Jesus. Because of this semantic shift away from earlier conceptions of anointing and Messiahship, the term would then be defined more by Jesus whom the early Christians used the title for. The implication of this is the very meaning of anointing and Messiahship become redefined based on what they believed and knew about Jesus. Therefore, Romans 9-11 assumes the redefinition of Messiahship as the Messiah was originally conceived as one who the nation of Israel would follow, but instead the nation of Israel as a whole stumbled because of the Messiah.7
A similar process of semantic change for δικαιοσυνη/δικαιοω may be at hand. Paul speaks of the two different concepts of righteousness in Philippians 3:9: “not having my righteousness that is by Torah, but that is through Christ’s faith.” I take the last prepositional phrase “through Christ’s faith” (δια πιστεως χριστου) as a reference to story of Jesus Christ, where Christ’s life is characterized by faith as he obedient to the point of death and thus raised from the dead. If this construal is appropriate, then Paul is saying that righteousness is somehow characteristically related to Jesus own life. Paul is establishing the very pattern of righteousness as something that happens to people in accordance to the pattern of Christ, rather than something they do by Torah.8 Put differently, the meaning of righteousness is defined by what Paul knows about Jesus Christ, much as the sense of messiahship derived from what he believes about Jesus. This would explain why Paul highlights not his own faith in the following verses, as if the center of Paul’s thinking is faith, but rather that he wants to know the power of Christ’s resurrection; there is something that is characteristic of Christ that Paul is seeking to be established in himself. Righteousness is thus defined by Jesus’ resurrection in some manner and becomes realized in the believer’s own life.
In other words, Paul’s usages of the δικε- cluster of terms shifts in accordance to the story of Jesus Christ. As opposed to a justification being defined by the pattern as prescribed by Torah, now there is a justification that is outlined in the story of Jesus’s life. Rather than presuming certain definitions of justification, such as a forensic conception of a legal court, instead, justification is tightly intertwined with resurrection, such that Paul will say that Christ was raised for justification9 and that a person who has been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection are justified.10 If we may generalize into a systematic proposition at this point, one could say that justification is the realization of the resurrection of Jesus in the life of the person, where they are set free from the powers that bind them to their natural way of life (σαρχ) and all the achievements and honors that goes with that way of life11 To that end, justification is a freedom from the current order of creation that σαρχ is constrained to and an entrance into the life of new creation; this is why the two epistles that most highlight the topic of justification and Torah, Romans and Galatians, both make reference to a renewal of creation12 as well as in 2 Corinthians when those in competition with Paul seem to be prescribing Torah.13 It is this definition of justification that is defined by the Christ-narrative that provides the relationship between the language of justification and the language of participation;14 justification is one aspect of the participation in Christ’s life whereby the Christian is allowed to fulfill their purpose through their deeds.
But this analysis comes by allowing that the δικε– cluster of phrases experienced a semantic shift in Paul that is unique for the early Christian, or even more specifically, the Pauline communities. But if this proposal is correct, then what may be the most defining attribute of Paul’s thought is not any singular proposition, nor even a common phrase or concept such as “in Christ,” but rather how the language and concepts Paul uses has experienced a gravitational shift around the Christ-narrative such that the terms bear a family resemblance to their other usages in that time in both Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts, but that they can not be ultimately understood outside of the very particular set of traditions that surround the early Church’s understanding of Jesus Christ and perhaps also Paul’s own revelation of Christ on the road to Damascus. For Paul, he does not simply see Christ as a completing element to the Jewish story or of Greco-Roman wisdom such that we can derive his theology simply by a comparative, historical analysis and/or come up with a basic set of propositions to define his thought by, but rather that these stories and wisdom become redefined by the traditions about Jesus that the early Christians told each other time and time again. This redefinition goes from the level of narratives and wisdom, down to the most basic level of language itself, the very tool which we use to describe the world we live in, the imagination of a new world evoked within us, and through both of those things, hope to move towards speaking about the nature of God’s Kingdom as that which is in heaven, coming to earth.
While certainly not a skilled exegete, I feel this quote from the English translations of Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans is apropos. Coming from his commentary on Romans 3:21-26:
We stand here before an irresistible and all-embracing dissolution of the world of time and things and men before a penetrating and ultimate KRISIS, before the supremacy of a negation by which all existence is rolled up. The world is the world; and we now know what that means. But whence comes this KRISIS? Whence comes our recognition of it and our ability to comprehend it? Whence comes the possibility of or perceiving that world is the world, and of our thus limiting it as such by contrasting it with another world which is unknown to us? When comes the possibility of our describing time only as time, and things only as things, and men only as men? and whence the possibility of our assigning a value to history nad existence by sternly recognizing that they are concrete, limited, and relative? From what left eminence do all these critical opinions descend? And out of what abuss arises our knwoledge of these last, unknown things, by which everything is measured, this shattering knowledge of the invisible Judge in whose hands lies our condemnation? All these questions revolve around one point, which is our origin, and sound one presupposition, from which our existence has emerged. From this presupposition we have come, and regarded from this point, the world and we ourselves are seemed to be bounded, dissolved, rolled up, and judged. But this one point is not a point among other points, and this one presupposition is not one among many presuppositions. Our origin evokes in us a memory of our habitation with the Lord of heaven and earth; and at this reminiscence the heavens are rent asunder, the graces are opened, the sun stands still upon Gibeon, and the mood stays in the valley of Ajalon. But now directs out attention to the time which is beyond time, to space which has no locality, to impossible impossibility, to the gospel of transformation, to the immininent Coming of the Kingdom of God, to affirmation in negation, to salvation in the world, to the acquittal in condemnation, to eternity in time, to life in death – I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away. This is the Word of God. 15
Or in another sense, we can say that in the case of describing Paul, though no reason to suspect he would say this about himself, Jesus is the Word by which all other words that either describe God’s nature, action, etc. or the relationship to this God are structured and have their semantics natures framed. While bearing a family resemblance to other uses of language does not create the sharp, absolute break with the language of the world that might be deemed necessity by a stronger, Barthian position, it is certainly to be expected that a community that so emphasizes and remembers a set of stories about Jesus as the most important story they know would unconsciously, or maybe even at times consciously, shift the meaning of their language in substantial ways. Hence, the definition of justification flows out from a larger lexical field that is defined by the story of Christ both interpreting and interpreted by the Jewish hope of God’s vindication.
- Sanders is referring to Philippians 3:4-12
- E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestenian Judaism, 505.
- I use the term justification here due to the fact that this is the common term in scholarship and theology for Paul’s usage of δικαιοω, although I think a generally better translation is vindication in most instances.
- 2 Corinthians 1:21
- Romans 9:5
- Names such as William the Conqueror are honorifics, where they can evoke the semantic content of the word when not used as an honorific. See Matthew Novenson’s Christ Among the Messiahs for more thorough reading of this process.
- Romans 9:30-33
- Note the shift of prepositions from εκ νομου to δια πιστεως χριστου. that is consistent with a shift from one’s own actions to something that happens to Christ that impacts the person.
- Romans 4:25
- Romans 6:1-17; commonly δικαιοω is translated as “set free” here.
- PHilippians 3:4-7.
- Romans 8:18-15; Galatians 6:15
- Paul contrasts the ministry of condemnation of Moses with his own ministry in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18. Then, in describing his ministry in 5:11-21, he calls those in Christ as new creation.
- I use the term “participation” due to scholarship using it to refer to phrases such as “in Christ” and argument such as in Romans 6, but I personally thinking “pattern” is a more accurate description of Paul’s thought.
- Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 91-92.