Review of “Heralds of the Good News” by J. Ross Wagner

Wagner  Review

Timothy J. Christian. Review of J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul in Concert in the Letter to the Romans, (Boston: Brill, 2003).

INTRODUCTION

In this book review, I will critically evaluate New Testament scholar J. Ross Wagner’s Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul in Concert in the Letter to the Romans. I will begin by summarizing Wagner’s aims, methodology, and central theses in the book. Next, I will analyze it by judging whether or not it lives up to its claims and by discussing both places for improvement and the work’s lasting contribution. Overall, Wagner’s work here on the intertextuality of Romans and Isaiah is an invaluable contribution to the field of New Testament studies.

SUMMARY OF WAGNER

The Aims and Methodology

To begin, Wagner’s main aim is to investigate exegetically Paul’s use of Isaiah in Romans, particularly in Rom 9-11 and 15, and specifically regarding his reinterpretation of Isaiah and possible alterations of his Isaianic Vorlage. He attempts to do so by two primary methods, one being intertextual analysis through examining the OT (esp. Isaiah) echoes in Romans, and the other textual criticism through comparative analysis of the Septuagint (LXX), Masoretic Text (MT), Dead Sea Scrolls, and other versions of Isaiah with Paul’s rendition in Romans.

The Central Theses

Throughout Heralds of The Good News, I have traced about eight central theses that Wagner argues. First, he argues that the current “remnant of Israel” guarantees the future restoration of Israel.[1] Secondly, he asserts that Paul’s convictions are threefold: “God’s sovereignty, God’s election of Israel, and God’s fidelity to the covenant.”[2] Thirdly, he contends that Paul consistently interprets the OT christologically and that he adapts or reinterprets Isaiah for his own mission and theological purposes in Romans sometimes regardless of the original context. Another argued thesis is that Paul sees his mission to the Gentiles resulting in the restoration of Israel as prefigured in Isaiah. Next, he sees Isaiah as a fellow herald proclaiming with Paul the good news (gospel) of Israel’s restoration. Moreover, Wagner argues that Paul often conflates other OT texts with Isaiah in Romans, which serve as harmony to the Isaianic melody sounding in Romans. Thus, Isaiah is the prominent soloist and the other texts from Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Hosea are the accompaniment. Lastly, Wagner maintains that Paul uses a Greek Vorlage which is similar to the LXX and has little influence from the Hebrew or Aramaic versions. Overall, Wagner concludes,

[Paul’s] scriptural interpretations serve the ends of the larger argument he is constructing in the letter, an argument that is called forth by a complex set of circumstances and concerns that have arisen in the context of his mission to the Gentiles. And yet, at the same time, the letter to the Romans reveals, perhaps more clearly than any other of Paul’s letters, the deep and pervasive influence that Israel’s scriptures exert on the shape of his thought and on the contours of his apostolic ministry…Paul appropriates Isaianic images in order to depict his ministry of the gospel as the proclamation of Israel’s long-awaited release and restoration.[3]

ANALYSIS OF WAGNER

In my judgment, Wagner most certainly accomplishes his aims in Heralds of the Good News and gives a thorough and detailed analysis of Paul’s use of Isaiah in Romans. Furthermore, he interacts with a plethora of other scholars and touches on many of the main interpretive issues in Romans throughout his exegesis of Rom 9-11 and 15. In addition, his argument has both logical consistency and explanatory power. With regard to his method, Wagner executes the intertextual method and textual criticism with such obvious expertise and experience, and has done a stupendous job setting the standard for intertextual studies in Romans and the NT in general. Furthermore, since his whole study relies upon working with the primary text, he tends to remain faithful to the primary materials of Romans, Isaiah, and other OT texts.

Room for Improvement

There is, however, one main change that Wagner could make to improve his volume even more. While he does a fantastic job at setting out the data concerning Paul’s use of Isaiah and other OT texts in Rom 9-11 and 15, he is nevertheless quite sparse in providing the implications of that data. Most chapters end leaving one asking, “So what?” Even though the final chapter is set aside to display the full implications of the study, Wagner could still have given more to the reader at the end of each chapter.[4] Even though this is for a scholarly audience which will be patient enough to read through until the end, it would be far better to give some “pay off” to the throughout.

The Lasting Contributions of “Heralds of the Good News”

Despite this, Heralds of the Good News has made several important and lasting contributions to NT studies. First, it is a definitive work on Paul’s use of Isaiah in Romans. I am not aware of any other work that attempts such a feat, let alone executes it so well. Secondly, it is a definitive work on intertextual studies and OT echoes in the NT, and advances the body of knowledge as a superb example of how to do intertextuality. In addition, Wagner’s charts and tables comparing and contrasting the several witnesses to the quoted OT texts are indispensable for reference. Finally, this work is both an entry point and cistern for those who desire to understand better Paul’s use of, interpretation of, and adaption of OT Scripture. All in all, Heralds of the Good News is an excellent contribution to the field of biblical studies and I highly recommend it.

You can buy it on amazon for an arm and a leg (about $75): http://www.amazon.com/Heralds-Good-News-Isaiah-Concert/dp/0391042041/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1397321103&sr=8-2&keywords=j+ross+wagner


[1] Wagner says, “Paul joins Isaiah in insisting that the existence of a remnant of Israel in the present time vouchsafes the future redemption of ‘all Israel’” (41).

[2] Wagner 357.

[3] Wagner 356-57.

[4] That is not to say that he gives no implications, because he certainly does, but rather 300+ pages of detailed intertextual and text critical work with little momentary payoff  is quite difficult to trudge through. My point: he does not need to save the climax of implications for the end. It would benefit his work to add more inferences of the data in the chapters proper.

Was Paul a Cross-Cultural Missionary?

Via Sacra, Rome, Italy

For several years now, I have pondered the question, “Was Paul a cross-cultural missionary?” It seems that many today and in recent history have made it their assumption and presupposition regarding their theology of mission that Paul in fact was a cross-cultural missionary. Not only so, but that he was the founder of cross-cultural missions. Throughout my years of studying the New Testament, Pauline literature, and the Greco-Roman world of the first century, I have increasingly been leaning towards the opposite conclusion. Here are three reasons why I think that Paul was not a cross-cultural missionary.

1. Paul Lived in the Greco-Roman World

First, Paul was a product of his environment which was the Greco-Roman world. It is reported of him in Acts that he was from Tarsus and later was trained in Jerusalem, both of which are in the Roman Empire. He thus grew up in Roman Hellenism (Greek and Roman culture) which was so far spread in the Roman Empire that the lingua franca was Koine (or Common) Greek – that means that everyone in the Roman Empire spoke Greek. What displays this even more was Paul’s ability to speak to this Greco-Roman culture. The reason why he was so effective in doing this was because it was in fact his own culture. Missionaries today always say that the natives know how to best contextualize the Gospel in their own culture, and this, I suggest, is precisely what we find Paul doing. He is a native contextualizing the Gospel to his own Greco-Roman culture.

2. Paul Was Born a Roman Citizen

Secondly, Paul was born a Roman citizen. This is something quite noteworthy seeing that Rome was the reigning empire over all of the places where Paul evangelized (Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, etc.). He was not an outsider coming in to a new culture; rather, he was an insider, a born citizen knowing the ins and outs of the way this world worked and thought.

3. Paul Was a Native Speaker of Greek

Lastly, Paul was a native speaker of Koine Greek. This is the language that all of his epistles have been handed down to us in and this is also most likely the language that he used when evangelizing. Now of course, Paul was also a Jew and knew Aramaic and probably Hebrew as well, but Greek was the language he used on the road and he didn’t have to go to missionary school in order to learn some new language because he was himself a native speaker. What is more, his preferred Bible was the LXX or Septuagint which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.

CONCLUSIONS

In sum, Paul didn’t have to learn a new language, didn’t have to learn a new people group, and didn’t have to learn a new worldview. In other words, Paul didn’t have to learn a new culture. Why? Because he was a missionary in his own culture.

Now while the Greco-Roman world was by definition poly-cultural (i.e. many subcultures under the umbrella of one large culture), it was the norm for Paul to interact with people from the same culture in different subcultures. But this is not the same as cross-cultural which is two totally distinct cultures. (As a side note, I believe that  a great comparison for understanding Paul’s cultural dynamic in his Greco-Roman world can be made between America and Rome: think of America today and all of its different subcultures based upon geography. You have the subcultures of the South, the Midwest, the North East, the West Coast, the South West, etc. Now while these all have very distinct subcultures, they all fall under the umbrella of the broader American culture. Everyone speaks English and everyone knows what 9/11 means. I think this is a good comparison to Paul’s situation. Grec0-Roman culture dominated the entire empire, though there were multiple subcultures in all the various geographical parts of the empire.)

So if Paul was not a cross-cultural missionary, then what was he? In addition to being an “apostle” sent by God to proclaim the Gospel, I suppose that we could call Paul a cross-geographical missionary since he frequently moved from location to location throughout his ministry in the Roman Empire. But this is very different from a cross-cultural missionary who is faced with the challenges of overcoming so many cultural and lingual barriers. So if Paul was not a cross-cultural missionary, and thus not the founder of cross-cultural missions, then what are we basing our theology of cross-cultural missions on today? It could perhaps be founded on the Great Commission in Matt 28 or the promise that people from all nations will hear the Gospel and worship Christ from Matt 24 and Rev 7. It cannot however, as I have suggested here, be founded upon the assumption that Paul was a cross-cultural missionary, because he ministered, evangelized, taught, and preached to his own culture which was why he was so successful. Let this serve as an affirmation to us today that God has given us the great calling to be missionaries right where we are in our own world and culture.


 

For further exploration on this topic, check out NT scholar Phillip Long’s blog post on this subject and also Eckhard Schnabel’s book Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies, and Methods which you can buy on amazon.