My comments on Willits, “Paul and Matthew: A Descriptive Approach”

Before sharing my thoughts on Joel Willitts article, I think I should share some of my thoughts on the “school-of-thought” to which he belongs. First, in many ways I am in agreement with his “assumption” that Paul was a Torah-observant Jew (although, I will state my concerns with this claim later). Second, while I have a certain affinity with this “assumption,” I do realize that it is an “assumption” so when arguments are built on that foundation the results ought to be held cautiously. Third, I cannot stand arguments that negatively critique other “shools-of-thought” for necessitating certain  “shaky” assumptions, yet, then they allow themselves that very freedom.

In the tradition of the One Minute Manager, I will start with my negative comments. First, I was a bit saddened when I realized that three of the four first articles of this book amounted to a three-on-one fight with David Sim (I am including the next article in the three). While I do not agree with all (or many) of Sim’s conclusions it would have been nice to allow him a chance to respond here. Maybe he was given a chance and he declined or was unable, I do not know, but it seemed a bit unfair. Also, so far in this work I have not come across an actual critique of Sim’s work but there have been many assertions that his work is wrongheaded.

Second, Willits claims that in order for Sim to, “convince a reader, one has to agree to several controversial conclusion ― built on a growing mound of educated guesses ― about both Paul and Matthew.” I would have like him to actually named some of these “controversial conclusions” so that I can hold him, that is Willitts, to his same standard of judgment. What is the definition of controversial in a “post-consensus” era (his term)? Unfortunately, as is the trend so far in this work, this luxury is not afforded to the reader. What scholar does not forward a hypothesis that is built on some assumptions? The Conservative Evangelical school? The F.C. Bauer’s school? The New Perspective school? I think all do it to a varying extent and these assumptions should be allowed inasmuch as they are clearly stated up front as unverifiable.

Willits of course is explicitly guilty of not allowing assumptions for others while allowing them for himself in the article when he says, “I will be conducting the study on Matthew and Paul with the assumption that both were Torah-observant Jews and members of a new form of Judaism that has recently been labelled ‘apostolic Judaism.’” Now, excuse me if I can conceive of this statement as “controversial.” Does this mean that his work is as valuable as Sim’s?  Not only that but what exactly does it mean to say Paul was Torah-observant? I mean, from whose perspective is this label considered to be accurate? Paul does make statements that would lead one to conclude that at least some of the time he does not “keep” the Torah from a strict perspective. On top of that, we have a statement by a member of so-called “apostolic Judaism” (James) that claims if one breaks even one command then they have broken the whole Torah. Would James have considered Paul to be Torah-observant? I think much more work needs to be done in explaining this viewpoint before it can be assumed without this assumption being a problem or, dare I say controversial[1]. I am not in disagreement with this “school,”  I am very excited about its promise, but, I do not think it is good to try and have one’s cake and eat it too.

Third, Willits claims, “apostolic Judaism was allogeneic,” i.e., when related to Judaism it is, “genetically dissimilar but belonged to the same species.” While I like the biological image and agree this is a good direction to try, his assertion seems to demand more than what he has stated ― while Judaism was not normative “apostolic Judaism” was normative. I am not sure that this is a safe assumption considering it is the very thing Sim has tried to exegetically demonstrate as wrong! It is at least possible that Christianity was not monolithic or normative in its early stages.

Fourth, when discussing the theme of judgment-according-to-works he assumes that both writers are working with the same definition of the theme. Would Sim disagree that in some way both writers had an understanding of judgment-according-to-works as a reality (even if they nuance it differently? If Matthew understood this judgment to be “works of Torah” and Paul has explicit statements that can easily understood as countering this claim (e.g., by works of the Law no one is saved), then it seems reasonable for a scholar to follow that path to its logical conclusion. For the life of me I cannot understand why Willitts “descriptive” project would not include Jesus’ command to his followers, which only appears in Matthew’s Gospel, that if they did not keep all of the Torah they would be called least in the Kingdom? One would think a description of this theme in Matthew would have to account for that statement.

Fifth, I completely agree with Willitts, who quotes Mohrlang, that the biggest difficulty in comparing Paul to Matthew is that of genre. I really wish his article would have teased out and/or demonstrated how this can skew ones exegesis. Unfortunately, he does not do this. Instead he states that his opinion regarding the production of synthetic comparisons between two corpa via exegesis, “are counterproductive and unnecessary.” Again, it is unfortunate that he does not follow through on this statement since I cannot think of one reason why this claim would be true! He does, though, leave us with a quote worth thinking about, “There is a high probability when Matthew and Paul address the same topic that they deal with it for different reasons and to accomplish different ends.” Ok, great proposition but can you demonstrate this?

Finally, I would like to reiterate that I am very friendly with this “school” and its direction. I do believe that scholarship will benefit from the work that is produced based on its new assumptions. Just because comparing Paul and Matthew is hard, or difficult, that does not mean that scholars should not attempt the endeavor. Willitts prefers caution while Sim (appears to) like paradigm busting. Both polarities have their benefits and drawbacks.

[1] I am well aware of and have learned much from the work of Mark Nanos and Anders-Runesson.

4 Replies to “My comments on Willits, “Paul and Matthew: A Descriptive Approach””

  1. Daniel:
    Thanks for reading and interacting with my chapter in the book. While I won’t attempt to answer each of your criticisms directly, I would like to offer something of a response. First, you query why several of us, at least the two Matthew essays, directly deal with Sim and omit others. There is a simple reason for this: Sim is the primary, perhaps nearly only, proponent of this view. Furthermore he’s been extremely industrious over the last decade promulgating his views. While there may be a few lesser lights, Sim is the primary interlocutor of this view. Second, this has been the second of two essays I’ve written in response to the views of Sim. Perhaps you are unaware of my article “The Friendship of Matthew and Paul” in HTS. I think this might, and I underscore might, help illuminate my approach more. Third, I think you’ve misunderstood, or better, perhaps I didn’t do a good enough job explaining the point of assumptions and presuppositions. I didn’t critique Sim for having assumptions. I’m not guilt of criticizing anyone for having assumptions. My approach takes the point of assumptions for granted. Rather what I’m criticizing is the standard assumptions which allow Sim to make the arguments he does. I think I said it in both essays I’ve written on this subject, that where the real debate is in this discussion is which conclusion based on which set of assumptions makes better sense historically. I think the assumptions that inform Sim’s conclusions about Matthew and Paul don’t make the most sense historically.

    1. Wow. Thanks for your response. As for your article in HTS, yes, I did read it. I read it a couple of times. In my opinion more work needs to be done to show why Sim’s view is problematic, that is from a methodological perspective. Your article in HTS didn’t quite do that, at least, in a full sense (IMHO). I know my post may not have seemed like what I am about to say is true, but, for the most part, I agree with your claim that Paul was probably, in some sense, Torah-observant! My biggest problem, though, is that no one has explained what it means to be Torah-observant in light of the statements he makes that give the impression he doesn’t always keep the Torah. And, just because Paul was Torah observant, that doesn’t mean Matthew’s Gospel didn’t find it offensive that the Gentiles had the freedom to be Torah-less under Paul.

      Anyway thanks for your reply,

  2. Perhaps more work needs to be done, but biggest issue with Sim (and this is shared by others) is that he finds conflicts with Paul where no conflict is explicitly referenced. And the conflict that he sees is with a hypothesis of Paul that in fact may not be our most historical one. I think these are substantive. Also, it is not true that proponents of a Torah-friendly Paul, if not observant, have not gone to sketch this out in detail. I agree that one must define what one means by the term, but what most mean is that he would have been recognized as a Jew within a diverse Judaism. While I don’t attempt to make the arguments there others have work these things out to some degree (i.e. Tomson, Bockmuehl). Also, consult the recent monograph by David Rudolph’s A Jew to Jews (WUNT). I agree with your last statement, but I am of the opinion that it is more likely that Matthew didn’t require Gentiles to become proselytes. I don’t see that in the text as I tried to explain in the HTS piece. Anyway, thanks for reading my piece. I trust that at the very least it pushed you to continue wrestling with the text. Cheers, Joel

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