The Nations in the Divine Economy

Paul's Covenantal Hermeneutics and Participation in Christ

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William S. Campbell
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , June
     424 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


An increasing number of scholars are challenging several of the standard arguments of modern Pauline scholarship. Among the most salient of these claims are that Paul abandoned his Jewish identity after his conversion, that he wrote to mixed Jew/gentile churches, and that his letters envision a Christian self-understanding that either transcends or eradicates ethnic identities—or that those in Christ are neither Jews nor gentiles, but constitute a “third race.” In The Nations in the Divine Economy: Paul’s Covenantal Hermeneutics and Participation in Christ, William S. Campbell joins scholars who challenge these modern perspectives by affirming that Paul identified as Jewish before and after joining the Christ movement, that he wrote to gentile audiences, and that he worked to preserve ethnic diversity in his churches. 

Campbell uses his introduction to describe his methodology and to define some key terms. He labels his approach as “identity theologizing,” and his interdisciplinary methodology includes historical-critical, theological, and socio-scientific strategies (1–3). The ten chapters that follow his introduction progress as a coherent set of arguments. Yet, since each chapter could function—or has functioned in a previous form—as a standalone piece, the work does not advance a narrow thesis or a singular argument. Thus, the volume fits somewhere between a collection of essays and a thesis-driven monograph. Campbell balances variety with particularity, providing diverse discussions that revolve around several interdependent themes. This arrangement does not lend itself to a chapter-by-chapter review. Instead, this review will summarize a number of the book’s central arguments. 

In the first part of his work (chaps 1–3) Campbell focuses on sources of anti-Jewish reception of Paul. He argues that “the Christ movement in its earliest formation saw itself as a renewal movement within Israel,” a movement that “did not regard itself as displacing Israel” (21–22). However, as Jewish and non-Jewish Christ-followers emerged with parallel expressions of the faith, Paul’s conviction that gentiles did not need to keep the law created “status inconsistency” for gentile Christ-followers. Over time, internal disputes between Jewish and gentile believers were “externalized into a repudiation of Christianity and Judaism itself, using both as a foil in negative self-definition with negative consequences” (28). This trajectory resulted, in part, from readings of Paul “in an anti-Jewish direction,” which not only enhanced anti-Jewish perspectives, but also created a long-term “identity deficiency” (27) for Christians—a deficiency that results from Christianity’s unwillingness to acknowledge its Jewish roots. 

Campbell then discusses trajectories of anti-Jewish interpretations of Paul from the second century to modern scholarship. Here, Campbell advances two key arguments. First, “the interpretation of Paul’s letters, though a contributory factor, by itself was not sufficient to account for their anti-Jewish impact” (67). Rather, the combination of Jewish rejection of Christianity with stories of early Jewish persecution of Christians eventually created anti-Jewish views among Christians (67). Second, Campbell argues that modern Pauline scholarship, shaped above all by F.C. Baur, maintains that Paul’s theology was either supersessionist or anti-Jewish, and that Paul portrayed Christianity as a universal religion over and against Jewish particularism. In contrast, Campbell claims that Paul understood the ethnē as joined to Israel without becoming Israel, as part of the divine restoration of God’s people. “Paul’s thought is actually universal but via the particularity of Israel” (93). 

Campbell also explores themes in Paul’s letters to consider their implications for ethnic identities. He argues that Paul neither creates nor advances a new religion distinct from Judaism (105–20). Moreover, Campbell argues that Paul seeks neither to transcend nor to eradicate ethnic identities in his churches. Rather, Paul upholds ethnic distinctions between Jews and gentiles who are in Christ. In Pauline thought, such distinctions remain, even if discrimination against either group is unwarranted (129–46). Paul also affirms that a remnant of Israel’s faithful persists after the Christ event, but gentiles are not part of Israel and thus, cannot be part of that remnant (193–214). How, then, can the ethnē share in Israel’s inheritance? They are, in Campbell’s view, “related to Abraham through Christ” and, as such, are part of the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. That is, “Paul seeks to locate his mission to the nations within the hope of the restoration of Israel; inclusion in the heritage of Israel for those from the nations implies a crucial state toward the realisation of Israel’s hope, not a failure of this” (245). 

Gentile believers, therefore,“required a differentiated but related identity to Jews … the ethnē in Christ are not Israel, nor are they individually Israelites, but have an identity sourced in their togetherness as representatives from the nations” (245). Although Paul’s letters contain few specific references to “covenant,” Campbell argues that Paul’s reasoning on these matters reveals a “covenantal perspective” (245): “God’s activity through Christ presents the re-ratification of the covenant, so that Israel and the nations both find blessing, not as one entity but as differing peoples retaining their distinctive roles within the divine purpose” (341). Given that gentiles cannot be part of Israel or its covenant, participation in Christ is the means by which the ethnē gain access to God’s promises to Israel (342–43). These points reflect an ethical impulse that runs through the book: gentile Christians should not define themselves over and against Israel. Instead, recognition of their Jewish roots should inform their self-understanding. 

The Nations in the Divine Economy is an impressive book. Rarely do we find in a single work its combination of careful exegesis, theological and ethical reflection, and concise, accessible engagement with the history of biblical interpretation. To be sure, not all will agree with Campbell’s claims, but convincing rebuttals will require close analyses of Paul’s letters, and the demand for detractors to return to the texts for closer readings is a mark of quality biblical scholarship. In short, this book makes a worthy contribution to discussions of ethnic identities in early Christianity and to contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue. It deserves a careful reading by anyone who is interested in this subject matter.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Frederick David Carr is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William S. Campbell has taught biblical studies at Westhill College, Selly Oak, Birmingham, and the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David.


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