Reading Romans After Supersessionism: The Continuation of Jewish Covenantal Identity by J. Brian Tucker
Reviewed by Henri Louis Goulet
The clarion call of Markus Bockmuehl in 2006 to scholars of the New Covenant Scriptures was to once and for all overcome the de facto de-Judaizing of Yeshua’s person, aims, and teaching— and thus the universalizing abstractionism associated with most conventional and confessional interpretation of those Scriptures.1 The “New Testament after Supersession” (NTAS) Series is one such robust response to this clarion call. The goal of the NTAS Series is clearly articulated in the series preface as follows:
The New Testament after Supersessionism (NTAS) is a series that presents post-supersessionist interpretations of the New Testament. By post-supersessionism, we mean “a family of theological perspectives that affirms God’s irrevocable covenant with the Jewish people as a central and coherent part of ecclesial teaching. It rejects understandings of the new covenant that entail the abrogation or obsolescence of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, of the Torah as a demarcator of Jewish communal identity, or of the Jewish people themselves” (see spostst.org). Although the field of New Testament studies has made significant strides in this direction in recent years, the volumes in this series, written by Jewish and gentile believers in Jesus, seek to advance the conversation by offering post-supersessionist readings of the New Testament that address the question of ongoing Jewish particularity, and the relationship of interdependence and mutual blessing between Jew and gentile in Messiah.2
That said, it is imperative to understand that the volumes in the NTAS Series are not commentaries per se, but rich companions to commentaries that offer an exegetically grounded post-supersessionist perspective on many of the key hermeneutical points that typically result in supersessionist readings of New Covenant Scriptures.
Preceding Tucker’s 2018 volume on Romans in the series was Windsor’s Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations and Zoccali’s Reading Philippians after Supersessionism: Jews, Gentiles, and Covenant Identity (both in 2017). From this reviewer’s perspective, all three of these initial volumes represent progress in the practice of apprehending a text on its own terms. Accordingly, the explicit aim of Tucker’s monograph on Romans is to (1) explain how Paul thought Jewish covenantal identity continued since the inauguration of the Messianic era; (2) evaluate the key interpretive points on topics such as the relevance of Abraham for Jews and gentiles, the role of Torah, and the way Torah is contextualized in Messiah—that generally lead to supersessionist understandings of Paul’s letter to the Romans; and (3) draw on the findings of those scholars aligned with the “Paul within [Second Temple] Judaism” paradigm, and accent those findings with a light touch from social identity theory to help readers hear Romans afresh in a way that allows both Jewish and non-Jewish existing identities continued relevance.3
Throughout the entire monograph, Tucker labors assiduously to restore readers to the big picture of what God has always been doing in history, which is arguably best captured in Jon Levenson’s succinct descriptive: Jewish particularism with a universal horizon that always maintains Israel’s particularistic election.4 Building on his earlier and rather extensive work on social identity in Corinthians,5 Tucker rightly draws attention to the key interpretive importance of Paul’s “rule in all the congregations” which clearly shows that ethnic identities (both Jewish and gentile) are to continue as a matter of calling in the new covenant (1 Cor 17:17–24). He rightly asserts that this indicates that while Paul was instructing his Roman audience on the social implications of the good news, those implications differ for Jews and gentiles, and other socially relevant groups within the Messianic communities in Rome (e.g., the “weak” and “strong”).6 Moreover, Tucker sagaciously highlights Willie James Jennings’ observation that “Christian theology missed the continuing significance of Jewish identity, and the results were disastrous for key aspects of the Christian tradition.”7
This difference in implications for Jews and gentiles (or the other socially relevant groups) is arguably one of the most misunderstood topics in conventional and confessional scholarship. Hence, the NTAS Series provides extensive correctives on this topic. A striking example of a corrective in Tucker’s monograph is found in chapter 4 “The Validity of the Law,” where we find the following insightful and finely nuanced exegetical observations: (1) The Law’s legitimate requirements are lived out in the sphere of Messiah by the work of the Spirit; (2) The Law of Moses is not superfluous in the age of the Spirit; rather it serves as “an abiding standard of behavior”; and (3) Most importantly, “Paul was able to discern what aspects of the Law of Moses had continuing validity in the Messianic age, including those that resulted in differing social implications for Jews and non-Jews in Messiah as evidenced in Romans 14–15.”8 Tucker’s corrective conclusion here, presented with a hermeneutic of humility, is just as striking:
So the negative statements about Torah often noted in conjunction with Romans 7 may in fact allude to “the usurped law in the sphere of sin, flesh, and death”, while the positive statements elsewhere in Romans “describe the law in its proper sphere where God intended it, the sphere of faith, Spirit, and [Messiah].”9
It must therefore be emphatically stated that the post-supersessionist hermeneutical approach employed in this series in general, and in this monograph in particular, holds the greatest promise of apprehending the New Covenant Scriptures on their own Messianic Jewish terms. Such a hermeneutic understands the Scriptures’ own inherent metanarrative a la Soulen as having at least the following five dominant components: creation, fall, Israel, redemption, and consummation.10 Such a hermeneutic also correctly understands Paul as a Second Temple Jewish leader who was part of a Jewish outreach to the nations that was intended to declare God’s good news and bring about the “obedience of faith” among the gentiles (Rom 1:1, 5).11 Such a hermeneutic works from the inherently Jewish apocalyptic framework that the texts of the New Covenant Scriptures constrain us to adopt in faithful interpretation of them, in sharp contradistinction to the “salvation-historical and Barthian apocalyptic frameworks that often reinforce replacement theologizing.”12 This Jewish apocalyptic framework allows for a more finely nuanced understanding of the continuity between creation and the new creation, without ignoring elements of discontinuity.
Working from within this corrective Second Temple Messianic Jewish framework also allows interpreters to understand critical topics of Jewish particularism like “the food laws, the land promise, the law of righteousness, and Davidic Messiah . . . [as] fit[ting] comfortably within the diverse expressions of Jewish patterns of life in the mid-first century.”13 Moreover, working from within this corrective Second-Temple Jewish paradigm prevents interpreters from assuming that when Paul cites passages from the Tanakh he has necessarily written gentiles into all the specific promises that were originally given to historic Israel. A striking example that Tucker provides here is Rom 4:13, where “the land promise is often thought to have been reinterpreted and transcendentalized”14 (and where I would remind interpreters of the New Covenant Scriptures of Yeshua’s words in Matt 5:5, “Blessed are the unassuming, for they shall inherit the land/earth”). Such a corrective Messianic Jewish hermeneutical approach to the interpretation of the New Covenant Scriptures allows for a canonical reading strategy that does not occlude Israel’s story. Perhaps more powerfully, it enables readers and interpreters of the New Covenant Scriptures to understand Israel’s past, present, and future covenantal identity, and share in Paul’s hope for the consummate confirmation of the patriarchal promises for the restoration of Israel for the sake of the nations.
What follows is an overview of the monograph’s chapters.
Chapter one is the introduction, which serves to delineate all of the important prolegomena and then provide a survey of the contents of each chapter.
Chapter two, “To the Jew First” (along with chapter seven, “Israel’s Future Covenantal Identity”), rightly contends that Paul sought to overcome gentile boasting in relation to Israel, as he clearly revealed that one implication of the good news was a continuing social identification with Israel.
Chapter three, “The Fatherhood of Abraham,” rightly asserts that Abraham is the father of both Israel and the nations since he serves as the bearer of promise and a keen prototype of the diverse ways of life that Paul expected according to the differing implications of the good news for Jews and gentiles. Very important to this chapter is the fact that key aspects of Jewish eschatological and political hope continue—and of paramount importance is the land promise, which is typically transcended in conventional and confessional supersessionist scholarship.
Chapter four, “The Validity of the Law,” focuses on the issue of whether the Torah has been made redundant, thereby eviscerating Jewish identity of the central gift that traditionally holds Jewish life together. Here Tucker effectively shows how Paul’s rhetorical purpose was to help Messianic gentiles understand the continuing significance of Torah for Jewish identity in Messiah, and the ongoing importance of Jewish identity for gentile identity. After a brief discussion of the importance of the Shema as the organizing principle of the Torah, the chapter provides a nuanced discussion of the series of prepositional phrases that are all too often conflated in conventional and confessional scholarship, namely under the law, in the law, and from the law. The chapter concludes by proffering Klyne Snodgrass’s spheres-of-influence approach as an organizing rubric for discussing Torah more broadly.
Chapter five, “Israel’s Present Covenantal Identity,” in dialogue with Robert Foster’s work, proffers interpretive insights into Paul’s theologizing about Jewish covenantal identity in Romans 9. It painstakingly works through the details associated with Jewish and gentile shared and distinct identities and blessings, which includes a nuanced discussion of Paul’s strategic usage of Hosea 2:23 and 1:10 in Romans 9:25–26.
Chapter six, “Christ Fulfills Torah,” focuses on the interpretive crux of Romans 10:4–6, evaluating whether the Torah has been rendered inoperative in the inaugurated Messianic age and whether the end, goal, or end-goal/fulfillment view of Messiah and the Torah is “the more probative option in light of Paul’s contextualization.”15
Chapter seven, “Israel’s Future Covenantal Identity,” builds on the findings of chapters five and six in an effort to explicate Paul’s theologizing about Israel’s future identity in Romans 11, which includes a discussion of the implications of that future identity on present Jewish and gentile identity in Messiah. One potential weakness I find here is the reliance on some of the findings of Mark Nanos.16 First, I question why the “stumbled but not fallen” metaphor in Rom 11:11 must be harmonized with the “broken (off?) branches” metaphor in Rom 11:17. Second, the issue of whether the branches are “broken” or “broken off,” and whether the grafting should be understood as “in their place” or “among them,” may require a monograph level treatment in order to get to the most exegetically sound conclusion. The space allotted to this critical topic in this monograph was inadequate from this reviewer’s perspective. Chapter seven rightly discusses what seems to remain an interpretive crux, namely the identity of “all Israel,” and then closes with an analysis of the manner in which Paul construed the gifts and calling of God as irrevocable.
Chapter eight, “The Weak and the Strong,” focuses on the social implications of continuing Jewish covenantal identity for Messianic gentiles, and, in dialogue with David Rudolph’s work, seeks to understand Paul’s teaching with respect to Jewish and gentile halakhic practices, particularly related to eating in the Messianic age. Tucker rightly concludes that the purity of the Messianic community calls for the legitimation and maintenance of diversity, especially as it relates to Jewish or Torah-informed practice.17 That is to say, he rightly concludes that Paul’s teaching is not about erasing distinctions between Jews and gentiles, but (in the words of William S. Campbell) about “the enabling of all those who are called, whether from the nations or from Israel, to glorify God together in their transformed particular identities and in mutual recognition of their abiding differences (Rom 15:7–13).”18 From my perspective, this specific topic is very poorly understood (if understood at all) in conventional and confessional scholarship. Arguably, this pertinacious problem in Pauline scholarship is a result of the misinterpretation of “no distinction” language in Paul’s letters when a supersessionist hermeneutical approach is employed. Perhaps even more important, the problem may be said to be due to the mistake of understanding Paul’s rhetorical practice of dialectical negation as absolute negation. Here, all Pauline scholars are exhorted to read the very insightful and paradigm-penetrating essay on the topic of dialectical negation by Andrew Bartelt.19
Chapter nine, “A Doxological Social Identity,” wondrously closes out this important paradigm-shifting monograph with a rich discussion of the doxological social identity for Messianic Jews and gentiles in which each group’s God-gifted differences abide in Messiah Yeshua’s welcome. That is to say, the chapter offers a description of Paul’s identity-forming work as a doxological one in which his vision of Israel and the nations worshipping together (Rom 15:10; Deut 32:43) responds to Rome’s claim of glory and the unification of disparate peoples.
This monograph has serious ramifications for all of the following: (1) Biblical interpretation from a post-supersessionist hermeneutical framework; (2) understanding the past, present, and future dimensions of the Good News with its different implications for Jews and gentiles; (3) understanding that God accomplishes his purposes by means
of Jewish particularism with a universal horizon that always maintains Israel’s particularistic election; and (4) ensuring difference-honoring and shalom-making relationships between Jews and gentiles in Messiah, and between this Messianic community and the larger Jewish people who have not yet embraced their Messiah, Yeshua.
1 See Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word of God: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). While the entire monograph is mandatory reading for scholars of the New Covenant Scriptures, see in particular the last chapter entitled “Seeing the Son of David” and especially pp. 190–198.
2 J. Brian Tucker, Reading Romans after Supersessionism: The Continuation of Jewish Covenantal Identity (Eugene: Cascade, 2018), inside front cover.
3 See the publisher’s description on the back cover of J. Brian Tucker, Reading Romans after Supersessionism: The Continuation of Jewish Covenantal Identity (Eugene: Cascade, 2018).
4 Jon D. Levenson, “The Universal Horizon of Biblical Particularism”, Ethnicity and the Bible, ed. Mark G. Brett (Leiden: Brill, 1996) as cited in Joel S. Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 146.
5 See J. Brian Tucker, You Belong to Christ: Paul and the Formation of Social Identity in 1 Corinthians 1–4 (Eugene: Pickwick, 2010); and “Remain in Your Calling”: Paul and the Continuation of Social Identities in I Corinthians (Eugene: Pickwick, 2011).
6 Tucker, Romans, 3.
7 Tucker, Romans, 248. In fact, Jennings goes so far as to say “In truth, the election of Israel never significantly entered into the social imagination of the church. Israel’s election has not done any real theological work for Christian existence.” See Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University, 2010), 254.
8 Tucker, Romans, 111.
9 Tucker, Romans, 111.
10 Tucker, Romans, 247.
11 Tucker, Romans, 1, 247.
12 Tucker, Romans, 247. On the requirement of seeking to understand something from its own inherent interpretive framework, see Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1992), 3–12.
13 Tucker, Romans, 247.
14 Tucker, Romans, 247.
15 Tucker, Romans, 26; 153–171.
16 Tucker, Romans, 27; 179–180.
17 Tucker, Romans, 218.
18 Tucker, Romans, 219–220.
19 See Andrew H. Bartelt, “Dialectical Negation: An Exegetical Both/And,” in “Hear the Word of Yahweh”: Essays on Scripture and Archaeology in Honor of Horace D. Hummel, ed. Dean O. Wenthe, Paul L. Schrieber, and Lee A. Maxwell (St. Louis: Concordia: 2002), 57–66.