12 December 2013, The Tablet

Paul and the Faithfulness of God

by N. T. Wright

Apostle as a man of his time

his massive work comes accompanied by enthusiastic endorsements from a dozen of the most distinguished biblical scholars in the English-speaking world. This speaks more for the standing of the author, former Bishop of Durham and now back in academe as research professor in the University of St Andrews, than for their own detailed knowledge of the work.

Tom Wright is a master of words and writes with a fluent and ebullient ease, whether at the popular (a series commenting on each book of the New Testament) or academic level (especially two major works, The New Testament and the People of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God). The style is friendly and informal, full of current expressions like “off-piste” and “in the driving seat”; Paul was “offering a heart-transplant”; there is humour only just below the surface. One sometimes wishes that he could have been more succinct; as he remarks, writing is habit-forming, and the reader has to learn to cope with chapters of nearly 300 pages, and a quick summary that lasts 40 pages. It is a quintessentially English work, richly illustrated from the author’s background of classical and English literature, with extended comparisons to Jane Austen and especially Shakespeare and above all the “play within a play” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tom Wright’s great love of singing is also evident in the frequent musical images he uses.

It is impossible to summarise this massive work in a few lines; however, the reviewer is helped by the clear presentation of a fourfold plan. In the first volume, Parts I and II, we find the cultural and religious context, Jewish, Greek and Roman, all of which play their part in making up the world in which Christ lived and Paul wrote. One feature in each context here held my attention: the generous documentation from contemporaneous sources as well as the Bible of the expectations and hopes of the Palestinian Jews, the emphasis on the importance of Hellenism even to the world of Palestinian Jewry, and the full treatment of the Roman imperial cult, even as seen in literature and architecture. In Part II the field is narrowed to Paul’s own mindset, his own world view, through which he sees everything: the narrative of Israel is the narrative of the Torah, that divine gift which shapes God’s people. It is within this framework that Paul views the narrative of Jesus.

The second volume starts with Part III, the bases of Paul’s own thought, which are monotheism, election and eschatology, expressed through Paul’s view of Christ and the Spirit, both in a thoroughly Jewish mode. On Christology, Wright will have no truck with a gradually developing understanding of Christ. He demonstrates by firm discussions of key passages in Paul’s letters that a “high” Christology was there from the beginning, a starburst from the Resurrection meetings with Christ. With similar firmness he shows that Paul’s view of the Spirit is in direct continuity with Judaism; the novelty is that the new Temple is the person of the Christian, the new dwelling-place of the divine glory.

Part IV is designated “Paul in his world”, that is, the application of Paul’s viewpoint to the diverse currents of thought which were dominant at that time, so Paul and the Roman Empire, Paul and the late Antique religious world, Paul and the pagan philosophers. Within this neatly balanced and symmetrical framework a vast range of aspects, approaches, theories and theorists is discussed, with detailed and repeated exegesis of key Pauline passages, particularly the two favourite letters, Galatians and Romans. The book constitutes a magisterial summing-up of the whole Pauline endeavour and the ways in which it has recently been understood and misunderstood.

Wright’s basic contention is that Paul is still within Judaism. The Torah is the divine gift which shapes God’s people. One powerful imaginative passage is Paul reciting his revised Shema (1 Corinthians 8:6) as he waited for the Roman soldier to behead him, just as Rabbi Aqiba would recite the Shema, the basic confession of Israel, as he waited to be tortured by the Romans in the next century, after the failure of the Second Revolt (p. 773), for Paul’s thought is summed up in his prayers (p. 1516). The unifying theme of Paul’s thought is the covenant, the importance of election and the divine call to Israel to fulfil God’s purpose for the nations.

A remarkable thing about Wright’s approach is that he starts from a very English evangelical background, and yet his whole case is founded on the insistence that for Paul the issue is not the Protestant preoccupation with faith, sin and justification, but the one people of the Messiah. This is reflected in the treatment of details also. So emergence from the waters of Christian baptism is seen as a continuation of Israel’s emergence from the River Jordan into the land promised to God’s people. A basic preoccupation is not “How can we be justified by faith?” so much as “Who are the children of Abraham?”

This book is a noble summary of decades of work by a dedicated Pauline scholar. Doorstopper though it is, it is so well written that I would not hesitate to recommend it for holiday reading – provided, of course, that you have a good, long holiday, or perhaps convalescence, ahead of you.

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