Davies on Gentiles, Jews, and the Torah

I have two items for my write-up today on W.D. Davies’ Jewish and Pauline Studies:

1.  In Romans 11:17-18 (in the KJV), we read: “And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.”

A point that Davies makes on at least three occasions in this book is that there is significance in Paul’s comparison of the Gentile Christians with a wild olive tree.  Paul’s purpose for the comparison, according to Davies, is to illustrate that the Gentiles contribute nothing to the olive tree, for wild olive trees never produce useful oil (even though Davies does note that wild olive trees are not thoroughly useless, for they were utilized in Olympic wreaths and in the construction of buildings).  For Davies, Paul is saying that the Gentiles came into the Christian community when they were uncultivated, and the “cultivating element in culture is not the Greco-Roman but the Jewish” (page 144).  Davies quotes Cyril of Alexandria’s affirmation that Christ sent the apostles to cultivate the uncultivated.  For Davies’ Paul, whatever cultivation the Gentile Christians are receiving is from the Jewish contribution to the people of God.

This view differs from another notion in ancient Christianity (and I do not know where Cyril of Alexandria stood in relationship with it): that God used pagan culture to prepare the Gentiles for Christ, almost as if pagan culture was for the Gentiles what Sinai was for Israel.  According to Davies’ characterization of Paul’s thought, however, Gentile culture did not have anything that was useful or cultivating.  Davies may think that Paul saw Gentile culture as full of idolatry and fornication (though Paul found something enlightening in Gentile culture in Acts 17).

2.  An issue that I’ve been visiting and revisiting on this blog is the relationship of Gentiles to the Torah.  Davies comments on this.  I’m not sure if what he says is dramatically different from thoughts (by other authors) that I have discussed on this blog, but I’ll post them for my records.

On page 186, Davies takes H.D. Betz to task: “And his treatment of the role of Gentiles in Judaism provokes uneasiness.  Is it true that for Judaism ‘outside the Torah covenant there is no salvation’…?  H.D.B. ignores the doctrine of the Noachian commandments.  The interpretation of 4:5 suffers from this lack[;] we prefer to follow Burton (1921).  The Gentiles are under the laws of the covenant of Noah.”

Paul says in Galatians 4:4-5: “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.”

For Davies, this passage means that Christ redeemed the Gentiles from the seven Noachide commandments.  God gave most of these commands to humanity at creation, and God added a few immediately after the Flood.  A prominent view within rabbinic Judaism was that Gentiles were bound to observe the seven Noachide commandments, but not the entire Torah, and they could be counted as righteous and enter the World to Come simply by keeping those seven commands.  But Davies’ perspective may be that, for Paul, the Gentiles had transgressed these laws that they were under, and thus they needed a savior.  

On page 196, Davies states that Paul believed that all people, Jews and Gentiles, have “an innate knowledge of God’s laws”.  Davies elaborates on what exactly “God’s laws” mean:

“This does not mean that every person possesses the itemized knowledge prescribed by the Jewish Law, but rather what might be called the sum total of the Law, which can be summarized in the so-called Noachian commandments.  As a created being by nature, every person possesses certain universally valid norms which, in Paul’s view, are part of God’s revelation in creation.”

Does this imply that, whenever Paul uses the phrase “under the law”, he means that all people are under the Noachide commandments—-that “law” means “Noachide commandments”?  I think that there is some merit to this view, for Paul in Romans 2 does appear to argue that Gentiles obey the law whenever they walk according to the dictates of their consciences.  But where the view falls short, in my opinion, is that Paul in Romans and Galatians strongly identifies the law with the revelation at Sinai (Romans 5; Galatians 3-4), which occurred after creation and the time of Noah.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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