N.T. Wright on Paul pt. 1

24 Sep

This will be the first post in a series about a book by N.T. Wright, entitled Paul in Fresh Perspective, and I will also look a bit at his book entitled Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision when necessary, as the latter is a more in depth book, while the former is relatively brief.  Wright is an Anglican who served as the Bishop of Durham, but has now returned to full-time academic work, serving as a research professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland.  In addition to serving in the Anglican church, he is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars.

Here is the Wikipedia article on N.T. Wright, which is unfortunately not particularly well written and documented, but good enough to give you some general info on him.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N.T._Wright

I have not written any posts specifically dedicated to any of Wright’s books, but as he has been profoundly influential in my own thought, you will likely recognize many of his ideas in much of my writing.

Wright is considered to be within a strand of New Testament scholars who are a part of what is called the “New Perspective on Paul.”  Check out the Wiki article on the New Perspective, which defines it at the outset as, “a significant shift in the way some scholars, especially Protestant scholars, interpret the writings of the Apostle Paul.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Perspective_on_Paul)  I would even go so far as to say that that the New Perspective is not only a significant shift within Protestantism, but even away from classic Protestant theology, especially Reformed theology.  However, as a matter of clarification, there is a fairly wide spectrum of beliefs within the  New Perspective, and many still hold to key Protestant and Calvinist beliefs, albeit understood quite differently.

Within the book, Wright looks at a bit of background, a few themes within Paul’s writings, and then looks at a few ways Paul transformed the existing Second-Temple Judaism thought of his day in light of Jesus.

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This first post will deal with the first chapter in Wright’s book, which deals with some background issues in understanding Paul.  While maybe not super exciting, having the right background in mind is crucial when reading Paul if we are to understand him for what he truly is saying, rather than just reading our own views and questions onto the text.

Wright, as a bible scholar, seeks to locate his understanding of Paul’s writings within their cultural/historical contexts.  The first context that Wright looks at is the world of second-Temple Judaism, which he describes as a “many sided and vibrant mixture of what we would now call religion, faith, culture, and politics.” (3)  He goes on,

“But even its clashing elements were usually clashing about the same issues: what it meant to be part of God’s people, to be loyal to Torah, to maintain Jewish identity in the face of the all-encroaching pagan world, and (above all in the view of some) to await the coming of God’s kingdom, of the ‘age to come’ promised by the prophets, of Israel’s redemption, hoping that when that day dawned one might have a share in the vindication and blessing.  This was the world from which Paul came, and which he remained even though he said things which nobody within that world had thought of saying before and which many in that world found shocking, even destructive.”(3-4, emphasis added)

The next context, or world, within which Paul lives and works is that of Hellenistic, or Greek culture, which was pervasive throughout most of the eastern Mediterranean world at that time.  While not as central as second-Temple Jewish thought, Paul is at home in this world as well.  “He makes fruitful use of the language and imagery of the pagan moralists, while constantly infusing it with fresh content.” (4)  The third context of Paul that Wright discusses is that of the Roman empire, of which Paul is often critical.  This is because, “Judaism had a tradition of critique of pagan empire stretching back nearly a millennium, with Egypt and the Exodus as its ultimate backdrop.  It was not hard for a first-century Jew to retell the old stories of oppression and liberation and envisage a new actor playing the lead villain.” (5)

But Wright goes on to add another context.  He writes,

“to the three worlds which form Paul’s content, we must add a fourth, already in being by the time of his conversion… He belonged to the family of the Messiah, to the people of God he referred to as the ekklesia [translated as Church], the ‘called-out ones’, corresponding in some ways (though not others) both to the Jewish synagogue community and to civic gatherings in the Gentile world.  A good deal of his effort was devoted to arguing, from one direction and another, that through this people was the true family of Abraham… The church, the assembly of Jesus the Messiah, formed (in Paul’s view) a world of its own, standing in a unique relation to the other three worlds, and deriving from them, in various and overlapping ways.” (6, underline added)

So Wright sees Paul working within the worlds of second-Temple Judaism, Hellenistic culture, the Roman empire, and the Church.

One thing Wright addresses is the narrative dimension of Paul’s thought (and the thought of 1st century Judaism).  What he likely is reacting against here is a view that sees Paul’s thought as a series of doctrinal propositions that can stand alone with stories serving as mere illustrations of these timeless doctrines, as opposed to the framework of thought that sees Paul’s ideas in terms of an ongoing narrative of God’s saving action in the world, and the working out of where we are in that narrative as a result of Jesus death and resurrection.  This seems at first like a superfluous distinction, but has some definite implications when it works itself out in practice.  Wright writes, “Paul invokes the great stories of God, Israel and the world because his view of salvation itself, and with it Justification and all the rest, is not an ahistorical scheme about individuals come into a right relationship with God, but rather tells how the God of Abraham has fulfilled his promises at last through the apocalyptic death and resurrection of his own beloved son.” (10, emphasis added) He goes on later to say, “the point about narratives in the second-Temple Jewish world, and in that of Paul, is not simply that people liked telling stories as illustrations of, or scriptural proofs for, this or that experience or doctrine, but rather that second-Temple Jews believed themselves to be actors within a real-life narrative.” (11)  That is to say that Paul writes and thinks in terms of what God is doing at this point in the story of God’s world and God’s people, not (only) in terms of a set or sets of timelessly true propositions of doctrine.  The result of this approach is that the New Testament scriptures and the ‘new’ covenant is far more connected to and integrated with the Old Testament and old covenant.  This means that Jesus’ work is seen as the true fulfillment of the promises and commission made to Abraham.  Another result of seeing Paul as operating from a more narratival, historical framework (as opposed to an abstracted, ahistorical framework of self-standing propositions) is that Wright sees Paul as “arguing for a particular view of salvation not as an ahistorical rescue from the world but as the transhistorical redemption of the world.” (12)  He goes on to say that, “the fulfillment of covenant, resulting in new covenant and new creation, is accomplished, by Paul, by the particular events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

This is just some of the background contexts Wright discusses in the first chapter, which, while not being quite as riveting as some of the other parts of the book, is crucial.  There will be more posts to come soon.

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