Review: opensourcetheology.net (Peter Wilkinson)

This study of the pervasive influence of the Passover on Pauline thinking and the corporate significance of the NT texts was first published in 2004. Dr Tom Holland of the Evangelical Theological College of Wales has not been backward in wanting to draw attention to his work. There is a website devoted to it, with an online version of the book (appallingly badly proof-read, and presenting the work in an earlier form from its modified published version), and a collection of many reviews of the book. The book itself is also available, hardback, at an astonishingly inexpensive price for a work of academic scholarship, and I obtained a copy, new, through Amazon for £10.47.

Contours provides a paradigm for reading Paul in particular, and the NT texts generally, based on the Egyptian Passover and the New Exodus vision of the 8th century prophets. Tom Holland has done his groundwork, and provides detailed and panoramic reference to studies which have preceded his, whilst pointing out that none of these take the implications and significance of their readings as far as he himself is prepared to propose.

In the process, Holland throws out some major challenges to contemporary scholarship, especially the various New Perspective schools or writers. Amongst these, he challenges the vogue for using inter-testamental writings as a way of interpreting the New Testament, based on a model which has Second Temple Judaism as its background. Holland argues that the complexity of the writings, and the difficulty in establishing contexts and schools of thought which provide consistent readings of the writings, make definitive observations and statements about their underpinning of New Testament thought very problematic. He argues for a more thorough-going use by the NT writers and early church of the OT as the background which shaped their thinking and theology, and this in a unique way without parallel in the inter-testamental literature.

However, Holland lines up with NP scholarship in agreeing that Paul’s theology is essentially Semitic, rooted in the Old Testament, and not Hellenistic. His conclusions, based on extensive study, diverge from NP scholarship, however – albeit not totally, but at key points.

In particular, Holland disagrees with Dunn and Wright that Paul’s opposition to the early church arose from his belonging to the Jewish Zealot faction, directed against Hellenists, who supposedly were in the vanguard of encouraging uncircumsised gentiles into the covenant people of God. Holland argues that Paul’s chief contention with the early church was its preaching of a crucified messiah.

Holland also disagrees with Wright’s view that justification was essentially a declaration identifying who belonged to the covenant people of God. By pursuing the New Exodus provenance of the word, Holland argues that while it does have primarily a covenant rather than forensic significance, the word itself implies the creation of the new covenant, rather than its identification. Holland argues that the Reformers were not wrong in seeing justification as the means of entry to the covenant, but that they failed to emphasise the historical basis of the covenant as being deeply shaped by the Passover paradigm.

Dr Holland pursues in detail a widespread, profound and pervasive use of language in Paul’s writings which firmly anchors his redemptive theology in the narrative historical soteriology of Israel. A key to unlocking this observation is the recognition that the Old Testament, especially the eschatological vision of Ezekiel, and extra-biblical writings, saw an atonement as well as a redemptive significance in the Passover, and that in Ezekiel the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement merged with the observation of the Passover in the eschatological temple. Hence in Holland’s detailed exploration of Romans 3, the hitherto problematic hilasterion (trans. propitiation, or sin offering, whilst actually referring to the mercy seat which covered the ark of the covenant in the temple), finds a natural home and explanation.

On the issue of hilasterion, Holland also refutes contemporary scholarship’s resort to 4 Maccabees 17:22, where it is used to imply a martyrdom theology, this being taken up and subsequently applied to Christ’s own death. Holland points out the limitations of this as a way of interpreting the death of Christ, and provides a way of interpreting the word in its Romans context which resolves the difficulties which it had previously posed.

Thus far has been some observation on details of Dr Holland’s thesis. But not content with detail, which he provides in abundance, his work throws up challenges to various threads of the NP school which require an answer. He also provides a major paradigm for understanding the theology of Paul, and the gospels. The paradigm is significant, because it builds on the work of NP thinkers, and accepts a basic premise, that the narrative history of the people of God is central to understanding the significance of Christ and his death on the cross, and that much that has subsequently been reshaped into ontological categories for interpreting scripture can now be restored to a more convincing home, providing greater integrity, and actually a simpler unifying way of understanding things. This, Holland asserts, was the theology which Paul inherited from his Judaistic background, but which had already been formed by the early church. Paul introduced nothing new.

An example of how this approach works out can be seen in Holland’s exposition of the ‘hymn’ in Colossians 1:15-20. The current consensus sees a Wisdom provenance for the language of the hymn – connecting Proverbs 8 with Genesis 1 in particular. Dr Holland takes the key introductory word prototokos – firstborn, and demonstrates its relationship with the Passover, and why this word, rather than its associate in OT writings, Redeemer, was extensively used in the NT. The prototokos performed the function of Redeemer in OT thought, whilst also connoting substitutionary sacrifice and atonement. (‘Redeemer’ did not imply the latter, and ‘redemption’ was not the sole prerogative of the firstborn – hence, Holland argues, its non-use in describing Jesus in the NT). The hymn ends with a further cultic reference in the blood of Jesus. Holland offers the intervening links to locate it entirely to a New Exodus context.

The other major theme of the book is the exploration of the corporate dimension of Paul’s thinking. Again, there is nothing new in the attempt to move from a highly individualised reading of the letters to the more authentic corporate setting in which they would originally have been read. But Holland takes this much further than many, bearing in mind the corporate significance of the Passover and New Exodus settings which he is using to interpret Paul. So he takes words and phrases such as ‘body of sin’, or ‘the old man’, and ‘the new man’ to be consistently corporate. Going further, he suggests that references to baptism in Romans 6 are not technically related to the meaning of an individual’s water baptism, but have a consistent relationship to the people of God as a whole, based on the Passover paradigm of baptism into Moses, and the corporate passage through the Red Sea. This makes sense, in Holland’s view, of the otherwise uncertain meaning of baptism in, for instance, 1 Corinthians 12:13 (with its distinct Passover references).

Of particular interest, in relation to Dr Holland’s pursuit of the corporate significance of Paul’s thinking within the New Exodus framework, is the light he sheds on the otherwise puzzling 1 Corinthians 6:15ff “Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never” etc. Holland argues, using historical research which suggests that Aphrodite worship did not entail temple prostitution in the Roman period at Corinth, that the prostitute or harlot here is not an individual example, but a demonic corporate entity – akin to the harlot of Revelation. The believer may be free to eat meat which has been sacrificed in pagan temple ceremonies, but is not free to engage in the feasts which accompany the ceremonies themselves – as the letter goes on to elucidate, making reference, of course, to the first Exodus.

Dr Holland is not the first to explore the New Exodus as a way of understanding Paul or the NT generally, and he enumerates many others who have done some sort of work on the subject. He is probably the first to pursue the New Exodus to an extent in which it is shown to shape the thinking of Paul on a broad scale, and to suggest that this is what underpinned the theology of the NT writers, in relating the messiah Jesus to the OT narrative. In so doing, he throws up considerable challenges to contemporary biblical studies, in relation to Paul in particular, although, as already suggested, not exclusively to Paul. Dr Holland’s style is sometimes rather whimsical, occasionally overdoing assertions of what he has proved, rather than letting the arguments speak for themselves. I occasionally found it helpful to read the words to myself with a Welsh accent. Somehow the Celtic voice seemed to help interpret the script, in the strange interior world of my head.

As the book throws up some challenges to the narrative historical reading of the NT provided by The Coming of the Son of Man, I felt it would be particularly interesting to interact with it on opensourcetheology.

This is one of the most stimulating works of academic scholarship I have read. I wonder how well it will transfer into the realm of popular thinking and theology in the church at large – in ways that the NP paradigm(s) seem not to have been able to do.

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