Summary of The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism: Chapter 3: Who Are the People of God?

This chapter is concerned with addressing the collective aspect of election, which Thornhill believes is the primary emphasis of the material of the Second Temple period. There are two main ways in which the writers of this era showed this: (1) through metaphor, and (2) through a general focus upon collective election, “where the nation or its remnant takes center stage” (59). Thornhill once again surveys the Second Temple material and pulls out relevant data to relate within his pages. Roughly ten pages of evidence are offered for metaphors and another thirteen pages are given over to the general focus of the period.

Corporate metaphors abound in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Rule (1QS), for instance, true Israelites are spoken of as those in covenant with God. Yet, even these covenanted individuals can suffer damnation, since they can remove themselves from the covenant—the locus of election. The Rule also refers to the community of believers as the “plantation,” “foundation,” or “house.” These metaphors make it clear that the group viewed itself as God’s place of activity. The War Scroll (1QM) continues this corporate outlook by speaking of other Jews as separated from the elect group. These men are said to be “violators of the covenant” and are clearly to be thought of as those who have rejected the covenant of God. Moreover, these individuals are said to fight alongside the Gentiles against the hand of God. The metaphor that stands out in this section is the “sons of light,” which is applied to the group that has been chosen by God to continue faithfully in this life. This idea is furthered by 1 Enoch 10:16 where the “plant of righteousness” is applied to the faithful community. This is a particularly helpful metaphor because it is clearly a single plant that is mentioned. Although the expected meaning would be that an individual is this plant, it is instead applied to a group of people. The one plant represents all the faithful. And this plant can even be further divided. In at least one section of 1 Enoch, two elements of the one plant seem to exist simultaneously. As the number of faithful diminishes the plant does not “shrink,” but rather it splits. There is now a subgroup of the plant, which is considered the “true Israel” (1 En 93:10). In all of this, however, it is important to keep in mind that there is no focus on the individual within the plant. The plant as the chosen one is a metaphor for the collective.

Several other works move from metaphors like the ones above to more explicit statements about corporate election. In Wisdom of Ben Sira, for example, Israel is made out to be the special target of God’s affection. Within this group, there is once again a select remnant. Indeed, the blessings promised to the nation are said to be given to this latter group (Sir 47:22). Thornhill argues that Ben Sira may have had in mind the idea that not every Jew was part of the elect group. The group had rules (i.e., the Law) that had to be kept to remain in the fold. But even if Ben Sira did not think this, the concept is clearly articulated elsewhere (1 Macc 1:11, 34; 3:20). First Maccabees makes it clear that there are many who no longer fit within the chosen group. They are no better than the Gentiles. And in the Psalms of Solomon these who have strayed from the chosen group will be subject to judgment. The explicit motifs continue even more clearly in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1Q34 there is a rather lengthy explanation of how the Qumran sect believes God has chosen a remnant, even though the nation of Israel has been shown to be wicked time and again. The same is the case for the author of 4Q252, who sees his group as the inheritor of David’s throne.

After this material, Thornhill offers a thorough summary of the relevant material of Pseudo-Philo. The author of this material seems to have two strains of thought. In the first case, he clearly has a place for the perpetual status of Israel as God’s chosen. On the other hand, there are numerous passages that indicate that he also believed in the remnant concept. Thornhill believes balance is to be found by understanding the author as teaching that God has a covenant people, to whom he is always faithful, but “each individual’s fate is determined by their [sic] keeping or forsaking the covenant” (82).

Thornhill closes out this chapter by offering examples of this type of thinking in the Pauline corpus. His first discussion focusses on 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15. Although this passage is most commonly used to support the concept of individual election, Thornhill believes this overlooks a number of significant issues. First, there is some reason to believe that Paul thought of the Thessalonians as “firstfruits” of a great harvest. Second, Paul’s command for them to continue in the truth makes little sense if not understood within the context of continuing within the elect group. I Corinthians 1:18-31 showcases a similar thought, because here Paul is encouraging these believers to embrace the “foolishness” of God’s plan. Obviously, this is a sarcastic Pauline conception, intended to show that from the world’s perspective what God is doing looks ridiculous. What is this foolishness, though? It is God’s choice of a group of people who stand against the grain of the world. Paul believes that this group must be unified because of its grand purpose on earth. For Thornhill, this unity is challenged when the idea of individual election is forced upon this passage. This is because the focus, in this case, shifts away from believers remaining faithful in the covenant to seeking their own salvation. In other words, Paul is using the collective election motif of the Second Temple period to do something more than just affirm individual salvation. This, however, does not mean that Paul simply adopted the ideology, but rather mutatismutandis he applies it with Christ now as the central focus. Faithfulness to Christ is now the defining mark of the elect community.

Image: By  Valentin de Boulogne - vAHBpCifHgxB7g at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,