N. T. Wright’s “Big Book on Paul”

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend an informal colloquium given by N. T. Wright at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology on 10 May, in which he gave us a (necessarily, extremely compressed and) brief overview of the “big book on Paul” on which he has been working. Titled Paul and the Faithfulness of God, it has grown into a three volume work, totalling about 1000 pages. Volume one is a history of research; volume two is the book he actually set out to write; and volume three is a collection of pertinent articles that have been published here and there over the years.

His methodology has been to apply the worldview model that characterizes a culture as an analytical tool to explore the mindset of an individual (Paul, in this case), which is that individual’s particular instantiation of the worldview of the culture in which they live. Wright summarized the approach as examining the stories, symbols, and praxis of a culture, along with the answers to five significant questions:
– Who are we?
– Where are we?
– What’s wrong?
– What’s the solution?
– What time is it?

After exploring Paul’s worldview, the book will then develop Paul’s theology in light of that worldview, then look at the specifics of how these played out in Paul’s life.

Wright presents the worldview of the Second Temple Jews of the Diaspora (of whom Paul was one) as characterized by a number of important symbols: circumcision; keeping the sabbath; keeping the food laws; endogamy (marrying within the group); Torah; and the Temple. These symbols support and sustain the worldview of the minority Jewish culture surrounded by (and under pressure from) the majority Greco-Roman culture. A number of the symbols serve as boundary markers.

The Christian Paul, however, rejects circumcision as wrong for Christians; considers keeping the sabbath and the food laws as wrongish or at best irrelevant; keeps endogamy (where the group in question is now the Christian group); replaces the Torah with the Gospel; and replaces the Temple with Jesus and the Christian community, the church.

For Paul, the church in its unity and holiness is itself a symbol, a visible symbol that proclaims to the world that there is a God and Jesus is Lord (“and by the way, Caesar isn’t”). Thus, Wright perceives the church at the heart of Paul’s theology, rather than at the periphery as it is often treated; and sees the practice of theology itself as the praxis that sustains the community.

This practice, consisting of prayerful scripture-based reflection on who God is, who God’s people are, and what God’s purposes are, is the task that Paul sets the church. This practice sustains the community in dialogue both with the contemporaneous Jewish movements (Pharisees, Sadduccees, etc) and the Greco-Roman world.

Paul takes the three main doctrines of Judaism
– monotheism: there is one God
– election: there is one people of God
– eschatology: there is one future towards which God is working for the whole world

and reworks them in light of the Christian experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Wright sees 1 Cor 8:6

yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

as a deliberate reworking of the Schema, Dt 6:4

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

He sees this as particularly obvious in the Greek text, because Paul uses exactly the same Greek words (εἷς θεὸς , εἷς κύριος) that are used by the Septuagint in Dt 6:4, and thus in a sense “discovers Jesus inside the definition of the one God.”

Paul reworks the doctrine of election, often polemically, to refer to all Christians: all those who belong to Christ, who are indwelt by the Spirit (which is just another way of saying the same thing) belong at the same table: the table of the Lord, the table of the eucharist, which is a foretaste and promise of the eschatological feast.

Second Temple eschatology held that Israel’s God would return to the Temple, fulfill the covenant, restore the people, and judge the world. Paul reworked this doctrine to perceive all these elements as fulfilled in Jesus and yet to be fulfilled in the Spirit.

The most interesting point that emerged from the following question and answer period was that “being in Christ,” being in the Messiah, was actually a strongly multivalent symbol, and also had connotations of being in the Temple, being in the Garden of Eden, being in the place where sacrifice takes place. Wright strongly agreed with this and pointed at, for example, Ben Sira 24, in which Wisdom is identified with Torah, Temple, and Eden. David planned the Temple, Solomon built the Temple, and the Messiah would rebuild the Temple — thus the Temple was a potent symbol of kingship. There’s also the connection between the rebuilding of the Temple, the resurrection of the body, and the new creation. And the original questioner pointed out that “if you live in the Temple, you’re either a priest or a sacrifice.”

Wright outlined a story-arc reading of Genesis and Exodus that I found fascinating: in the beginning of Genesis, heaven and earth are together: God lives in the Garden with God’s creatures. Then all kinds of things happen that separate heaven and earth, but ultimately that separation is reversed: at the end of Exodus, after the Tabernacle is constructed, God comes and lives in it.

He pointed also at the end (last two chapters) of Ezekiel, which closes with the words

“And the name of the city from that time on will be: THE LORD IS THERE.”

Overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, and has definitely whetted my appetite for his new book.

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8 Responses to N. T. Wright’s “Big Book on Paul”

  1. Luke Johnson says:

    Wonderful! Any hints about when this might hit the bookstores?

    • I got the vague impression it would be sometime in 2013. He’s still writing, but he mentioned a deadline that’s coming up.. in a few months or so?

      • Luke Johnson says:

        That’s great news! I’ve read through most of the other books in the series, and got to hear him speak on the subject in Wheaton a few years ago, so I’m really looking forward to these volumes. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Pingback: Reading and Writing about Paul « BLT

  3. Byron says:

    I think this new release will be great! Also with any big book like this by Wright….I also look forward to all the reformed critics.

  4. Pingback: Second Blogiversary! | Gaudete Theology

  5. Michael Bird has posted a 25 minute interview with N. T. Wright on this forthcoming book.

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