Essays on the Apostle and His Letter
- ISBN: 9780310098683
- Published By: Zondervan
- Published: July 2020
N. T. Wright is a renowned scholar of the New Testament and an Anglican bishop. An expert on Pauline theology, Wright has combined historical analysis with modern teachings of ways in which Christian pastors and congregants can appreciate the importance of Paul. Interpreting Paul: Essays on the Apostle and His Letter repeats much of the material in his earlier books with reflections why he arrived at his conclusions (and sometimes changed his mind). In this volume, Wright presents a retrospective review of his work in the past six years because “he (Paul) keeps on surprising me” (ix). It is also a summary of a lifetime of historical analysis and theological interpretation.
However, Interpreting Paul is not for the faint of heart. For a complete and objective analysis of Wright’s arguments, the reader must be familiar with the latest research on Paul. In each of the chapters, Wright is in constant dialogue with scholars and historians (both past and present). This is particularly true in the chapters that analyze Paul’s letter to the Romans. A current focus of debate concerns the audience of Romans: Jews or gentiles, or both? (Chapter 2).
Wright’s work has continued the paradigm shift begun by E.P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Fortress Press,1977) that launched the “new perspective on Paul.” This perspective attempts to place Paul within the parameters of a Pharisee in Second Temple Judaism in the 1st century, without recourse to the Paul of Augustine or Martin Luther. Wright’s chapters are replete with emphasizing Paul’s concepts of Israel’s covenant and his constant references to the Jewish scriptures. But Wright has elevated Paul above and beyond traditional Second Temple Judaism, in what Wright describes as his radical and innovative worldviews. In doing so, Wright’s Paul becomes the true founder of what became Christian theology (Chapter 3).
Furthermore, it is particularly in Paul’s views on sin that Wright imports modern psychoanalysis to his letters. This is a valid study, as one can use the letters as direct evidence. But modern psychoanalysis will always be incomplete because one has no access to a dialogue with the person (one cannot ask Paul questions). Wright repeatedly offers what Paul was thinking and feeling at various times in his discussions of issues.
In his critique of the misuse and misunderstanding of Paul (particularly in Protestantism), Wright conceptually reorients Paul to the 1st century. However, he then proceeds to focus on the very same topics that were most important to Luther and John Calvin (and many modern Protestants)—works-righteousness, faith, salvation, and grace.
Wright’s discussion of works-righteousness and justification and salvation through faith is the heart of his description of Pauline theology. According to Wright, Paul’s teaching included traditional “covenantal Judaism,” law-court language, and philosophical metaphors of how to achieve justice. In this sense, Wright insists that Paul did not introduce an innovation in traditional Jewish thinking— “justification of the righteous” was there from the very beginning, something that God had always promised.
But Paul’s allusions to the history of Israel demonstrate that the original covenant had not brought about the “promises of the covenant.” In chapter 9, Wright analyzes the way Paul came to conclude that sending Jesus as Messiah, through his death and resurrection, was the only way to complete the will of God.
Paul utilized the prophetic criticism of both Jews and gentiles. Despite the covenant, despite ancestral traditions, people continued to sin. Many Jews in the first century turned to the scriptures concerning Israel’s past to explain the present. For Paul, the world was “under the power of sin” for both Jews and gentiles (Romans 3:20). The problem is that Wright treats this material as historical. He focuses on Paul’s use of the Prophets, particularly Isaiah, as “proof-texts” for the evidence of contemporary evil in the world in Paul’s day. In other words, Paul was right to challenge traditional views. By doing so, Wright claims to have rescued Paul from the charge of being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic.
But polemic is not “evidence” in either the books of the Prophets or the Gospels. In upholding Paul’s Jewishness, Wright’s analysis of the Prophets (like Paul’s) validates the necessity of God sending Jesus as the Messiah, because of the sins of the world. But this focus on sin appears to reiterate the traditional Christian claim of a Judaism that was inadequate and corrupt. Paul personally struggled with many issues, and it is important to analyze how he made his way through his experiences and his thoughts. But one cannot use Paul’s struggles to confirm an historical reading of an inadequate Judaism.
In chapter 11, Wright highlights Paul’s practice of “fraternity” with the inclusion of Jews and gentiles as one family. Paul did this by extending “table fellowship” as a symbol of unity. Wright presents this as an innovation on Paul’s part, as the way in which Jews and gentiles can be deemed brothers. But there is no discussion of how Jews and gentiles did share meals in the cities of the empire long before Paul. The chapter concludes a lecture on the modern treatment of “strangers among us” and the practical concerns of sharing and financial support for all.
Chapter 12 summarizes the purpose of this collection, the importance of mission for modern Christians. Wright revisits the concepts of works-righteousness and salvation through faith, admonishing Christians for maintaining a belief in “faith alone.” “As is emphasized in Wright’s other writings, the true nature of justification by faith will not be manifest until Christ returns.
Wright’s analysis of Paul in this collection reflects an intellectual and often existential view of one man’s struggle to understand the relationship of the cosmos to God’s divine will, and humankind’s place in that will. This is a valid study of the origins of Christian theology, but it also reflects Wright’s struggles with the continuing existence of evil and sin in the modern world.
Rebecca Denova is senior lecturer emeritus in the Early History of Christianity at the University of Pittsburgh.Rebecca DenovaDate Of Review:November 30, 2021