J. Louis Martyn, Apocalyptic, and Quotation Marks

In (re-)starting my comprehensive exam prep in earnest, I thought it might be fun to borrow a page from my friend/colleague/dungeon master‘s book and blog through some highlights of my reading. First up is J. Louis Martyn’s fascinating, if a bit mystifying, reading of Galatians.

Martyn (d. 2015) is one of the main architects of the so-called “apocalyptic” reading of Paul. Within the broad sweep of Pauline scholarship, Martyn’s apocalyptic reading fits somewhere between the “old” and “new” perspectives. Inasmuch as Martyn sets up a sharp contrast between Pauline and Sinaitic/Torah-observant theologies, we are right to hear some echoes of Luther. Still, there is much in Martyn to differentiate him from Luther and Luther’s inheritors and, despite some strong disagreements over particular issues, I find much in Martyn with which to agree.

First, our agreements: I happily affirm Martyn’s characterization of Paul’s gospel as God’s “invasion” of the cosmos, resulting in the dawning, the revelation, of a new creation. The death and resurrection of Christ signal the beginning of a new age and this, for Paul, is of central import. Indeed, on this Paul is most emphatic: “a new creation is everything!” (Gal 6:15). In his review and critique of Martyn’s position, N. T. Wright also affirms this crucial foundational  agreement (N. T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, 168). On this count, I’m happy to have a seat at Wright and Martyn’s table.

Martyn’s apocalyptic reading gives me serious pause, though, in the categorical opposition he sets up between “forensic” and “cosmic” apocalyptic. “Forensic” (or judicial) apocalyptic has to do with divine justice and the forgiveness of sins. “Cosmic” apocalyptic has to do with God’s rescuing of humanity from fallen, at times tyrannical suprahuman powers. This schematic, which was heuristic and less strictly determinative in de Boer’s reading (cf. Wright, 167ff), forces Martyn to get creative with the text, as it appears in Gal 1:4 that Paul affirms both “forensic” and “cosmic” aspects of God’s apocalypse-in-Christ. Compare Martyn’s translation with the NRSV:

[Christ] gave up his very life for our sins, so that he might snatch us out of the grasp of the present evil age, thus acting in accordance with the intention of God our Father (1:4, Martyn’s translation; see Martyn, 3).

[Christ] gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (1:4, NRSV).

Note the quotation marks in Martyn. These are, by his own admission, marks of his own interpretation, deployed to suggest that Christ’s self-giving act as atonement for sins (forensic apocalypse) is a pre-Pauline confession and one that “is to a significant degree foreign to Paul’s own theology” (Martyn, 90). Martyn goes so far as to suggest that this forensic gospel coheres more with Paul’s opponents than it does with Paul’s typical confession, which Martyn locates in the latter half of 1:4 (divine rescue from a present evil age – cosmic apocalypse; see Martyn, 89).

While Martyn is on firm ground to remind us that the forensic aspect of this confession is indeed pre-Pauline (Martyn rightly cites 1 Cor 15:3), it remains to be seen how the wedge he drives between the first and second halves of the verse can be exegetically sustained. In 1 Cor 15:1-3, Paul refers to Christ’s atoning death as a chiefly important part of the good news that he himself preached at Corinth:

1Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures…. (1 Cor 15:1-3, NRSV)

If Paul himself elsewhere claims to have preached this forensic aspect of the gospel, how can we say that it is foreign to his thought? For this, Martyn’s reading cannot offer an account. Thus it is exceedingly difficult to agree with Martyn that Paul’s gospel represents any sort of rejection of a “forensic” aspect of God’s apocalypse-in-Christ in favor of only the cosmic.

As Paul himself puts it, without any indication to the contrary, Christ died for our sins so that (ὅπως, hopōs) we might be set free from the present evil age (Gal 1:4). The two aspects of the one event must go hand-in-hand in any reading of Galatians.


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