This is a report on a paper of Shane Berg, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, presented in the Senior NT seminar at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, 26 Oct 2010.
The list of this term’s papers in this particular seminar is available here.
Shane Berg’s paper presented the interesting hypothesis that the anthropology and religious epistemology of the community hymns of the Qumran Hodayot (thanksgiving hymns) have similarities with those of Romans. Berg argued that both the Hodayot and Romans assert universal human sinfulness in light of the creation and Fall narratives of Genesis on the one hand and the remedying agency of the Spirit on the other.
Amongst other Qumran texts, the paper mentioned 1QHa 9:10-18; 6:13; 20:11-12 and 7:12-14 as examples of community hymns with universal sinfulness in their anthropology. They depict human existence in a negative fashion, emphasising human sinfulness, ignorance and frail and inadequate cognition to come to God’s will. Men are composed of dust and cannot know God – and idea that has its Biblical background in Gen. 2-3 (cf. Job 10:9; 4:19; 34:15; Ecclesiastes 3:20; 12:7; Ps 103:14; 104:29).
Berg pointed out that counterbalancing this kind of negative anthropology, the Hodayot also stress the agency of the Spirit in granting people right knowledge of God. God’s own understanding is granted through the Spirit in order to bring right knowledge of God to the human being (7:12-14). The Spirit establishes right hearing and knowing, and without the Spirit – the Agent of knowledge – the human being is incapable of those things.
It is very similarly, Berg argued, that Paul sees the human condition as universally sinful and in need of the agency of the Spirit. He honed in on 1 Cor. 2:6-3:4; Rom. 1:18-32; 3:9-20; 5:12-21; 6:11; 7: 7-25 and 8:1-17.
The presenter took 1 Cor. 2:6-16 as a “mini treatise” of religious epistemology in which the futility of human wisdom and rhetoric is contrasted with spiritual wisdom concealed in mystery. The concept of mystery echoes its use as the mystery of existence in apocalyptic Qumran texts, Berg argued. Paul uses it with regard to the divine plan for the unfolding of the eschaton and to the knowledge of God’s plan for history in the Christ event. The role of the spiritual realm was seen here as the agent revealing intimate knowledge of God, renewing the mind and thus having direct effect on the actions of the Christians. It is one’s pneuma, Berg maintained, that contains intimate knowledge of one, just as God’s Spirit does of God.
In Rom. 1:18-32, Berg also saw the importance of the concept of knowledge. Through the rise of idolatry, human knowledge of God was distorted. The knowledge of God that was possible through the created order went terribly wrong: humanity failed to give praise to God, which is exactly where knowledge of God should lead. Instead, knowledge led to indifference of God. As a punishment, human reason became futile and foolishness. In this way, Berg saw in Paul’s teaching an emphatic point about the lack of human knowledge of God: failure to acknowledge God leads to false worship.
In Romans 3, Paul underscores the sinfulness of both Jew and Gentile. There, Berg rightly pointed out, Paul teaches that knowledge of sin comes through the Law that forms an obstacle to the knowledge of God. In Romans 7, in its turn, knowledge of sin comes through specific commandments of the Law, resulting in an opportunity to sin by revealing what sin is. This is how human knowledge takes a tragic wrong turn again, Berg rightly noted.
According to Rom. 7:14-25, sin dwells in the flesh. Berg saw a close connection between Paul’s use of sarx and sôma, and since the mind resides in the body, sin does not leave the mind in peace either. The mind is, however, in some sense free from sin, as it is the sin in the body that is actively set against the mind.
Berg took Rom. 8:1-17 as Paul’s climatic point: law was not able to do its intended purpose because of sin, which is why the law is now fulfilled in those who walk in the Spirit rather than in the flesh. Berg argued that in Paul’s view, the body will be transformed through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. (This point of Berg’s raised some critical questions in the discussion that followed the paper, notably by Dr Simon Gathercole who argued that Paul sees the flesh as something that must merely be put to death so that the new creation in Christ may rise.)
As a point of comparison, Berg observed that Rom. 5:12-21 had no interest in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Instead, Paul there focuses on sin’s entry into the world through disobedience, transgression etc.
In his conclusion, Berg argued that for Paul human knowledge is compromised because of the entry of sin into the world. This led to the knowledge of God going wrong (i.e. idolatry) and the knowledge of the Law leading to sin. All humans have sin since all share in the flesh of Adam. God heals the knowledge of humanity via the Spirit in those who come to believe in Him. The gifts of the Spirit are, amongst others, comprehension of the gift of God and of the significance of Jesus Christ in the plan of God. All in all, Shane Berg saw Paul very much in line with the Hodayot despite minor differences. And, just as Rom. 6:11 shows, this kind of corrected religious epistemology (knowledge of God in Christ) touches on Paul’s ethical thought as well.
University of Cambridge