How did Saul of Tarsus understand the righteousness of God before his conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ? To address this question we first need to explore the eschatological hope of Second Temple Judaism. In his book The New Testament and the People of God, N. T. Wright describes this hope as historical, political, and covenantal: in fulfillment of his promises God will decisively act to establish his just rule over the entire world and restore Israel to peace and prosperity.
Israel still lived in a time of exile, explains Wright. Yes, she had physically returned to the land after her exile in Babylon, yet in all other respects she remained in exile. She was ruled and oppressed by pagan kings. Her Temple had been built by a cruel despot who had never truly been acknowledged by Judean Jews as their rightful king, and the Temple priesthood was judged by many as corrupt and politically compromised. The glorious prophecies of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel had still not yet been fulfilled. In the words of Ezra the Scribe: “Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that thou gavest to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our cattle at their pleasure, and we are in great distress” (Neh 9:36-37). “This perception of Israel’s present condition,” comments Wright, “was shared by writers across the board in second-temple Judaism. … Israel has returned to the land, but is still in the ‘exile’ of slavery, under the oppression of foreign overlords” (p. 269). Israel still lived in the “age of wrath.” YHWH had not yet returned to Zion.
Hence Jews fervently looked forward to “the age to come” when God would bring Israel out of her exile and renew his covenant. Note that the age to come, sometimes termed “the kingdom of God,” is thoroughly this-worldly. It did not refer to a transcendent realm; and despite the apocalyptic language in which Israel’s hope was sometimes expressed, it certainly did not refer to the cessation, destruction, or replacement of the space-time continuum. Wright explains:
Sometimes, no doubt, extraordinary phenomena were both expected, witnessed and interpreted within a grid of belief which enabled some to see them as signs and portents. No doubt eclipses, earthquakes, meteorites and other natural phenomena were regarded as part of the way in which strange socio-political events announced themselves. The universe was, after all, regarded as an interconnected whole (which is not the same thing as a closed continuum). But the events, including the ones that were expected to come as the climax of YHWH’s restoration of Israel remained within (what we think of as) the this-worldly ambit. The ‘kingdom of god’ has nothing to do with the world itself coming to an end. That makes no sense either of the basic Jewish worldview or of the texts in which the Jewish hope is expressed. It was after all the Stoics, not the first-century Jews, who characteristically believed that the world would be dissolved in fire. … Far more important to the first-century Jew than space, time and literal cosmology were the key issues of Temple, Land, and Torah, of race, economy and justice. When Israel’s god acted, Jews would be restored to their ancestral rights and would practice their ancestral religion, with the rest of the world looking on in awe, and/or making pilgrimages to Zion, and/or being ground to powder under Jewish feet. (p. 285)
Within the mainline Jewish writings of this period, covering a wide range of styles, genres, political persuasions and theological perspectives, there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe. There is abundant evidence that they, like Jeremiah and others before them, knew a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic socio-political events. There is almost nothing to suggest that they followed the Stoics into the belief that the world itself would come to an end: and there is almost everything—their stories, their symbols, their praxis, not least their tendency to revolution, and their entire theology—to suggest that they did not. What, then, did they believe was going to happen? They believed that the present world order would come to an end—the world order in which pagans held power, and Jews, the covenant people of the creator god, did not. (p. 333)
Land, Temple, Torah—the hope of Second Temple Judaism was simultaneously political and religious. When God manifests his righteousness and ushers in the new age, he will destroy the enemies of Israel and reconstitute her national life under godly rulers; he will rebuild the Temple and come to dwell there as he once did; he will pour out his spirit and the people will begin to live Torah from the depths of their hearts; he will raise from the dead all faithful Jews, thus consummating the restoration of the holy nation. All of these blessings signify the end of exile and thus the true forgiveness of sins. Jews debated how God would treat the nations of the world. Some believed that the restoration of Israel would be followed by the conversion of the Gentiles–all will acknowledge Israel’s vindication and embrace her God as their king. But others believed that the Day of the Lord will bring only judgment and holy wrath upon the unrighteous nations. We see this view expressed in the Psalms of Solomon (1st century):
See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the Son of David, to rule over your servant Israel. … Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth. (Ps. Sol. 17.21-4)
It is therefore not surprising that many if not most Jews were open to violent revolution against their Roman oppressors. How else was God going to liberate his people? The revolutionary hope, Wright notes, was sometimes joined to the hope that God would raise up a successor to David—hence the many messianic claimants in the century both before and after Jesus—but not always. Regardless of the nature of messianic expectation, Second Temple Jews were united in the confession “No King but God!” As Wright remarks, “If Israel’s god was going to become King, there were many who were eager to be the kingmakers, by whatever means might prove necessary” (p. 303).
How did Saul have map into all of this? Wright discusses this question at some length in his book What Saint Paul Really Said. He points to two key passages in Paul’s letters:
If anyone else thinks they have reason to trust in the flesh, I’ve got more. Circumcised? On the eighth day. Race? Israelite. Tribe? Benjamin. Descent? Hebrew through and through. Torah-observance? A Pharisee. Zealous? I persecuted the church! Official status under the law? Blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)
You heard, didn’t you, the way I behaved when I was still within “Judaism.” I persecuted the church of God violently, and ravaged it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age and people; I was extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. (Gal 1:13-14)
Paul identifies himself as having once been a Pharisee, but what kind of Pharisee had he been? Wright suggests that he belonged to the conservative Shammaite school. This means that he would have been very rigorous in his interpretation and application of the Halakhah. But it also means something more.
The question, as for many Jews in most of Jewish history, was: what line do we adopt vis–à–vis the present political situation? The Hillelites, broadly speaking, pursued a policy of ‘live and let live’. Let the Herods and the Pilates, and indeed the Caiphases, rule the world—let them even rule Israel, politically—just as long as we Jews are allowed to study and practice Torah (the Jewish law) in peace. The Shammaites believed that this wasn’t good enough. Torah itself, they thought, demanded that Israel be free from the Gentile yoke, free to serve God in peace, calling no-one master except YHWH, the one true God, himself.
This is what it means to be ‘zealous for God’ or ‘zealous for the traditions of the fathers’ in first-century Judaism. We use the word ‘zeal’ to indicate warmth of heart and spirit, eagerness for a cause. That is a not inaccurate summary of one part of its first-century meaning, too. But whereas for the modern Christian ‘zeal’ is something you do on your knees, or in evangelism, or in works of charity, for the first-century Jew ‘zeal’ was something you did with a knife. Those first-century Jews who longed for revolution against Rome looked back to Phinehas and Elijah in the Old Testament, and to the Maccabean heroes two centuries before Paul, as their models. They saw themselves as being ‘zealous for YHWH’, ‘zealous for Torah’, and as having the right, and the duty, to put that zeal into operation with the use of violence. ‘Zeal’ thus comes close to holy war: a war to be fought (initially, at any rate) guerilla-style, by individuals committed to the cause. (p. 27)
We readers of the New Testament tend to think of the Pharisees as akin to the some of the “holier than thou” pastors and laymen we have known in our lives (but never ourselves, of course!). As E. P. Sanders demonstrated years ago, this is a Christian distortion of the Pharisee movement. The Pharisees were, of course, committed to the devout observance of Torah; but many, perhaps the majority in the first century, were also partisans, committed to the violent restoration of Israel within the providential wisdom and action of God. Saul, posits Wright, belonged to this group. He yearned for YHWH’s return to Zion and the fulfillment of his covenant promises. He meticulously obeyed the mitzvot of Torah and zealously advanced the traditions of the fathers. And most importantly, he was willing to employ coercion to establish the holiness of the nation. Wright offers this summary of his speculations on Saul:
What, then, was the agenda of Saul of Tarsus? We may draw it together in three points. First, he was zealous for Israel’s God and for the Torah. This was a matter of personal piety, no doubt, and of fervent prayer and study. His zeal for Torah was not, however, a Pelagian religion of self-help moralism. It was zeal to see God honoured which necessitated stamping out, by whatever means necessary, all forms of disloyalty to the Torah among Jews, and throwing off, again by whatever means might be necessary the pagan yoke which polluted Israel’s land and prevented her from attaining the freedom that was her covenantal birthright. Second, Saul intended that he and others should keep Torah so wholeheartedly in the present that they would be marked out already as those who would be vindicated on the great coming day when YHWH finally acted to save and redeem his people. Third, he intended to hasten this day by forcing other Jews to keep the Torah in his way, using violence when necessary. For him, these three things went closely together. They provided a private and personal, as well as a political and public, set of aims and goals. (p. 35)
For Saul of Tarsus the righteousness of God, his covenant justice, would be revealed when the Lord of Hosts finally and decisively acted to fulfill his promises and establish his kingdom in the world. Israel would once again be the people of Torah.