This is part one of a two part review. The second part may be found here.
In preparation for the Paul class I’m taking this fall, I’m looking back through N.T. Wright’s Paul in Fresh Perspective. The book is based of the Hulsean Lectures he did at Cambridge, and was published in 2005. The work contains a wonderful, short outline of Paul’s work. The first part deals with themes. Here, Wright addresses, “Creation and Covenant,” “Messiah and Apocalyptic,” and “Gospel and Empire” in successive chapters. The second part addresses structures, where the chapters are entitled, “Rethinking God,” “Reworking God’s People,” “Reimagining God’s Future,” and then “Jesus, Paul, and the Task of the Church.” I will address Part One in this post, and Part Two in a second.
Wright begins with an introduction that briefly locates Paul in the three worlds: Second Temple Judaism, Hellenistic Culture, and Roman Imperial dominance. It is against this backdrop that Wright works throughout the book. He deals cursorily with some of the interpretative movements over the course of the past 100 years, locating all within historical situations (and noting how this affected the exegesis). For instance, he notes that suspicion over Pauline authorship in Colossians and Ephesians arose “when the all-dominant power of New Testament scholarship lay with a particular kind of German, existentialist Lutheranism for whom any ecclesiology other than a purely functional one, any view of Judaism other than a purely negative one, any view of Jesus Christ other than a fairly low Christology, and view of creation other than a Barthian ‘Nein’, was deeply suspect.” (18). Of course, he also notes the “situatedness” of the movements he sees as helpful, understanding it as a providential grace of God and not a postmodern “deconstructive nihilism.”
Following the introduction, Wright jumps into the themes of “Creation and Covenant.” He locates these first within their Old Testament context. Psalm 19 functions paradigmatically here, where God is extolled in the first half for his creation and in the second for the covenant, the giving of Torah. Wright draws on themes from Genesis, the prophets, and the Psalms. Basically, Covenant should be understood as the solution to the problems in Creation (namely Sin and Death). Abraham is naturally quite important here. God’s promises to Abraham are the basis for God redeeming the cosmos. Particularly, through Abraham, the seed will come through whom “all nations will be blessed.” According to Wright, this is encoded in the phrase δικαιοσυνή θεού (righteousness of God). Wright understands God’s righteousness as God’s faithful fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham. This climaxes in Jesus, the Messiah, who is “the seed to whom the promise referred.” Wright looks at three passages here Colossians 1:15-20 (he notes the controversy of including Colossians), 1 Corinthians 15, and Romans 1-11. He traces creation and covenant through these 3 passages from a “bird’s eye view.”
Proceeding, Wright moves on to “Messiah and Apocalyptic.” Here, he notes the notoriously slippery meaning of the word “apocalyptic.” He argues that term, as it has often been used, is misguided. He takes issue in particular with the idea that Second Temple Jews expected an impending end to the space time universe, which has often been the assumption of “apocalyptic.” Rather, he argues that “apocalyptic” in Paul should be understood in terms of revelation. God has revealed his plans for the world. These include a “new heaven and a new earth,” not simply a destruction of the present world and a “whisking away” to Heaven. This revelation has taken place supremely through Jesus the Messiah. Wright spends a good deal of space debunking the claim that “Christ” functioned merely like another name by Paul’s time. He argues instead that the title “Christ” has royal and messianic connotations, and needs to be understood as such. This locates Jesus more easily within the OT themes which Wright explored in the prior chapter.
This brings us to the final pair of themes, “Gospel and Empire.” Whereas the prior two chapters locate Paul largely within Second Temple Judaism, this chapter pits Paul against the Greco-Roman society, especially the imperial Roman Empire. He warns readers that is all too easy to impose “post-Enlightenment” divisions of “religion and politics” back onto first century texts. The political situations which Paul faced are significantly different than those encountered in modern, Western democracies. Wright then proceeds to show the implicit imperial critique in Paul’s writing. He notes that Paul draws on imperial language quite often to explain the Gospel. Some of these words include ευαγγελιον(gosepl, or good news), κυριος (lord), σωτερ (savior), and παρουσια (royal appearing). For Wright, it is implicit that whenever Paul says “Jesus is Lord” he also means “Caesar is not.” He treats Philippians 3:20-21 in some detail here, and also briefly addresses 1 Thessalonians 4-5. The crux of the chapter is that Jesus’ gospel stands over against the “good news” of Caesar.
That wraps up the first section of the book. I’ll work through the second part of the book in a second post.