Paul the Apocalypticist: Jamie Davies’s “The Apocalyptic Paul”
Jamie Davies. The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022.   “What does it mean to say that Paul was an ‘apocalyptic’ thinker?” The Apostle Paul, more than any other figure in the New Testament, is the most dominating and domineering figure in the decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus… The post Paul the Apocalypticist: Jamie Davies’s “The Apocalyptic Paul” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Jamie Davies. The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022.

 

“What does it mean to say that Paul was an ‘apocalyptic’ thinker?” The Apostle Paul, more than any other figure in the New Testament, is the most dominating and domineering figure in the decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Concerning New Testament scholarship, Paul is also the central figure, the supposed key, to unlocking the complexities and nuances of understanding the meaning of the life and eschatological meaning of Jesus.
I consider it one of the great blessings of my life to have spent two years at Yale University’s Divinity School obtaining a master’s degree in religious studies. Originally conceived as a complement to my bachelor’s in history and philosophy, I concentrated in historical theology and biblical studies becoming exposed to the world of historical and contemporary biblical scholarship. The required coursework in the New Testament, naturally, had a heavy dose of Paul. Anyone who engages in a serious study of the Bible must necessarily wrestle with the Apostle who provided the largest extent corpus of New Testament writings, and likely provided the largest sole extent corpus of all biblical writing.
The apocalyptic Paul was one side of the Pauline scholarly debates that I was introduced to while a student, even if only in limited form. This is where Jamie Davies comes in. He sees the blind spot in apocalyptic Pauline scholarship and has remedied this deficiency with a readable and concise introduction to a most exciting strand of Pauline scholarship. What, then, is apocalyptic?
Etymologically, apocalyptic means “unveiling” in Greek. In another word: revelatory. Apocalypse means revealing knowledge through speech/writing. But it is, of course, much more than that. In the context of Jesus and Paul as apocalyptic prophets (prophétés, literally “speaking forth” a certain message), apocalyptic is generally understood as having three key components: “historical dualism, universal cosmic expectation, and the imminent end of the world.” When scholars speak of the apocalyptic Paul, they are asserting that Pauline theology “was driven by the eschatological conviction that the new Messianic age had already dawned in the resurrection of Jesus, and that the present age would be decisively put to an end by his imminent return.” This was expected within Paul’s lifetime. Intertwined in this understanding of apocalyptic is also a strong “belief in angelic and demonic powers.”
With this foundation, much of Jesus’s own preaching as enumerated in the Gospels and much of Paul’s authentic writings, even among some of the disputed letters, begin to make more sense. The end of the current world, angels and demons, and the coming new age is all “near at hand.”
In this slim but valuable work, Jamie Davies gives us an introduction to the origins of the apocalyptic Pauline scholarly tradition, beginning with Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, and running through Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst Käsemann, who famously called apocalyptic theology the “mother of all Christian theology.” These men are very much commonplace in New Testament scholarship, especially over questions of the “historical Jesus” and “historical Paul,” and are the central cornerstones from which the apocalyptic tradition of Pauline scholarship grew.
This book isn’t so much an original treatise on apocalyptic Pauline scholarship as much as it is a learned monograph exposing the reader to the multifaceted world of apocalyptic Pauline scholarship. This should be understood from the start. There are, though, many benefits of this book.
The most obvious is that it exposes the reader to an important substratum of Pauline and New Testament scholarship. There are, as I see it, two prevailing and ubiquitous views of Paul that overshadow the apocalyptic Paul. The first is the Paul of soteriological theology, principally the Paul of the Reformation wherein Lutheran and Reformed interpretations of Paul and salvation predominate. Popular preachers and radio and television evangelists dominate this presentation and understanding of Paul. We need not get into detail over this Paul as one is probably already familiar with him: Paul preaches a gospel of saving faith in Christ who understood the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross as the atonement for Adam’s sin which frees us from the bondage of sin and the Old Testament Law. The second Paul that tends to have a lot of clout is the New Perspective on Paul, the school of scholarship that I was most heavily introduced to at Yale. This Paul, a product of later twentieth century academic study than expository preaching, offers a re-evaluation of the supposed negative Pauline rhetoric regarding the Old Testament Law in the context of covenant theology. The New Perspective maintains that Paul was critical of certain ritualistic legal practices (like circumcision) and not the Law as a whole, in fact, part of being a new creation in the new covenant is active participation in the Moral Law of God now made possible through the life of Christ. There is much more one can say on these topics, but this suffices for the purpose of this review.
This brings us to the apocalyptic Paul. If, as Käsemann said, apocalyptic theology is “the mother of all Christian theology,” it stands to reason that understanding apocalyptic theology should be the mother of all Christian concerns. Davies seems to agree, for that is why he has written this book. And the presentation of “why theology needs the apocalyptic” is the strongest part of Davies’s work.
Apocalyptic theology isn’t an invention of Jesus, Paul, or the New Testament. Apocalyptic theology, being grounded in “dualism, universal cosmic expectation, and the imminent end of the world” along with “belief in angelic and demonic powers,” is part of the non-Temple Judaisms and dissident Judaisms of the late Second Temple period.[1] What Jesus, especially as understood through Paul and the Apostle’s own writings, provide, is the clearest maturation of this side of dissident Jewish theological thought.
This reality is central to various attempts at understanding the apocalyptic Paul. In the Non-Temple Judaisms of the late Second Temple period, two prevailing apocalyptic theologies predominate, a “Forensic apocalyptic theology” and a “cosmological apocalyptic theology.” The forensic apocalyptic theology, best explained in the works of Martinus de Boer, “is fundamentally characterized by a view of sin as human transgression against God’s law, resulting in death in the present age and waiting a final judgement in the age to come, with reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked.” Cosmological apocalyptic theology “takes these themes of sin, divine judgment, and the eschatological ‘two ages’ and drives them in a completely different direction. [Cosmological apocalyptic eschatology] plays down human transgression and forensic judgment and instead attributes sin and death to primordial angelic rebellion, resulting in cosmic warfare between God and his enemies.”
When a reader of the New Testament has awareness of these apocalyptic traditions, one immediately begins to see both of their influences over the Gospels and the writings of Paul. Paul, especially, in his epistle to the Romans contain both influences. The early chapters of Romans clearly indicate an influence of the forensic apocalyptic mentality. This subsequently transitions to cosmological language in which God invades the demonic domain of the present age of sin and death through Christ. “[T]he Christ-event…represents a decisive conflict between two opposing orbs of power and the locus of divine triumph [is found]…in the cross of Christ.” 1 Corinthians also bears a heavy mark of cosmic apocalyptic eschatology, wherein the entire world will be made new and God will become “all-in-all.” Lastly, Philippians also shows traces of apocalyptic eschatology—especially the “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2.
So what, a reader might ask? Part of the Christian theological disposition is commitment to truth. For God is Truth. And Truth redeems and sanctifies the soul and world.
Some are weary of new theologies and interpretations they are unfamiliar with. But all theology begins as something new and unfamiliar. That is why Jesus was condemned and that is why a pre-converted Paul, Saul, persecuted Christians.
The scholarly traditions around the apocalyptic Paul are committed to the basic Christian commitment of truth, truth found in Scripture and its implications for one’s life and the world. On this principle, everyone should take an interest in the apocalyptic Paul. Moreover, one of the problems of contemporary theology and biblical interpretation is the need to free itself from the prejudicial shackles of Hellenized anti-Semitism. The attempts to Hellenize the New Testament were, originally, anti-Semitic ideologies attempting to purge the Holy Writ and the Christian Savior from their Semitic roots. Many well-meaning people today, who also lack awareness in the wealth of contemporary biblical studies, continue this tradition even if unknowingly. (This is especially true of the “Mythicist” conspiracists and philosophizing Gnostics who want a Bible and Christian religion compatible with the doctrines of Plato and Greek rationalism.)
Davies’s inclusion of the historic and contemporary schools of Apocalyptic theology makes clear the Jewish context of the apocalyptic eschatological theology. While one might retort that Greek influences do come into the late Jewish tradition through the Alexandrine translators of the Septuagint and Philo and that we detect Greek influences in Johannine literature, a definitive favoritism of asserting Hellenized New Testament theology is actually quite weak and remains the hobby horse of philosophers woefully underread and still perpetuating a century old idea now since discredited by all the discovers after the Second World War. The strongest arguments over the New Testament’s worldview are in favor of dissident Jewish theologies being the primary foundation of New Testament theology; whatever Greek influences there are within the texts (and there are) are secondary and there is an urgent need to reorient readers and commentators to these dissident Jewish apocalyptic traditions when reading the New Testament. The Hellenized flavor of the New Testament is a paradigm that is, as mentioned, over one hundred years old and doesn’t consider the vast archeological material discovered since 1945 and the multitude of scholarly works published since then; on this account Davies does an admirable job in synthesizing and presenting for the reader a concise guide of the highlights of apocalyptic Pauline scholarship.
Furthermore, Davies—himself a former missionary and pastor before turning to academic studies—offers constructive applied theology from an apocalyptic understanding of Paul. Theology isn’t just an academic and intellectual enterprise, it is lived reality (something that is so strongly implied throughout Paul’s writings). The demands of modernity and its attendant problems cannot be glossed over. Davies’s attempt to bring an apocalyptical Paul into Barthian systematic theology (something already being undertaken by various theologians) will undoubtedly be a lively project that many future scholars, and even pastors, will be engaged in.
Jamie Davies has written an important and concise book, introducing readers to the wealth of scholarship surrounding the apocalyptic Paul with its implications to interdisciplinary scholarship, New Testament studies, and political theology. It is a work that undergraduates, graduate students, learned lay readers, and those with an interest in Christian and Antique religion and theology will profit tremendously from. Whether one will adopt the apocalyptic Paul as the key to their reading and understanding of the New Testament lay with the individual reader and their theological commitments, but any serious reader will certainly benefit from an understanding of the apocalyptic Paul the next time they read Paul or even the Gospels.

 

NOTE:

[1] I have an essay explaining the meaning of Easter from this perspective. See “Passion and Exodus: The Real Story Behind Easter,” VoegelinView, 15 April, 2022. <https://voegelinview.com/passion-and-exodus-the-real-story-behind-easter/>

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