Here are my memories of my third and final day at SBL (Monday). Although the conference actually ended on Tuesday, I had to leave early for work.
On Monday morning, I went to hear Ross Wagner and Francis Watson give erudite papers on Paul’s use of Isaiah. Wagner’s talk was less interesting to me than Watson’s. Watson argued that Paul interpreted the Suffering Servant of deutero-Isaiah as referring to Jesus as Messiah. This is a debated point in NT scholarship, and I think he did a good job of making the case. He then showed that Paul (or perhaps the primitive community before him) interpreted the death of Christ as in some sense “for our sins” by utilizing the categories and even vocabulary contained in the LXX of Isa 53. It wasn’t entirely clear whether Watson was arguing for penal substitutionary atonement, but he came close and, when presssed by a respondent, did not wish to deny it.
I think Watson’s paper was on the whole persuasive, but I would have wanted him to be more clear on penal substitution. Also, I agree with Seyoon Kim that Paul’s theology has three sources: (1) the Damascus Christophany, (2) the traditions about the words and deeds of Jesus handed down by the primitive Palestinian church, and (3) both interpreted in light of the Scriptures of Israel. Watson tends to attribute the origin of Paul’s theology to Scripture alone and downplays the role of the Damascus Christophany and the Jesus tradition.
Watson claims that the early church took the negative event of Jesus’ death as a criminal and turned it into a positive thing (”for our sins”) by interpreting the cross in light of Scripture, especially Isa 53. I don’t doubt that the Scriptures played a huge role in providing the categories for interpreting the death of Christ as having saving significance. But I disagree with Watson to the extent that he seemed to be arguing that the death of Jesus was viewed as entirely negative until a later point (years later?) when it was transformed into something positive by the church as it reflected on the cross in light of Scripture. This is problematic for me because it either downplays or entirely neglects the role of Jesus’ own teaching concerning his death as a saving event: (1) the famous “ransom” saying of Mark 10:45 || Matt 20:28, (2) the several passion predictions, and (3) the cup-saying at the last supper in which he spoke of “the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.” The authenticity of these sayings of Jesus is, of course, disputed. But I would have liked to hear Watson explain why he neglected them. Is it because he thinks they’re not authentic? Or it is because he thinks they’re authentic but does not interpret them as expressing atonement theology?
In any case, it seems to me that a theology of Jesus’ death as having saving significance can be traced back to Jesus himself and did not only arise years afterward as the early church tried to grapple with the death of their Messiah. The disciples, to be sure, did not grasp the significance of Jesus’ teaching concerning his death, but once he rose from the dead and appeared to them alive, it seems that they pretty quickly put two and two together. Of course, I recognize that further development occurred as the church then developed a more advanced theology by means of further reflection on Scriptures such as Isa 53, but I would prefer to view this as a theological development rooted in Jesus’ own words, not a new insight unrelated to Jesus’ teaching.
I’ll write another post on the second session I attended that Monday afternoon. It was titled “Paul and Empire” with N. T. Wright and John M. G. Barclay presenting and debating. It was the scholarly equivalent of mixed martial arts.