Paul and His World Part I

September 3, 2014 — Leave a comment


A long time ago, in a blog post far, far away, I mentioned I would do a review series on N. T. Wright’s Paul and The Faithfulness of God. 1 I went back and forth about whether to actually go through with it over the summer. But, as I was reading it, and finally finished it last week, I’m now ready to review. I thought about still just doing a concise review, but I think it’ll be too concise if that’s all I do.

Today, we’ll start, and you can refer back to the table of contents to see where we’re headed. We’ll get our feet wet with the first two chapters in the first part of the book. The focus is on establishing a context for Paul’s world. Much of the ground is retreading and expanding on Wright’s exposition of the New Testament world in the first volume in this series, The New Testament and The People of God (or when you’ve been reading Wright too long, NTPG).

Return of The Runaway?

Interestingly, Wright decides to set his opening context by an extended look at Philemon. He compares Paul’s letter to similar letters written by Pliny. This comparison leads Wright to conclude:

[T]he heart of this difference between Pliny and Paul is a difference of master. Two roads have here diverged. Something has happened, at the heart of Rome’s empire, that has made all the difference, not only to the social world but also to the world of power within which that society lived. Paul the Jew, whose controlling story had always included the narrative whereby the living God overthrew the tyrant of Egypt and freed his slave-people, had come to believe that this great story had reached its God-ordained climax in the arrival of Israel’s Messiah, who according to multiple ancient traditions would be the true Lord of the entire world. In being faithful to his people, God had been faithful to the whole creation. Paul lived under the authority of this ‘lord’, this ‘Messiah’, and devoted himself to making that authority effective in the lives of the communities that had come to share that same faith. Because, however, this ‘Messiah’ and ‘lord’ was the crucified and risen Jesus, this ‘authority’ itself had been radically redefined. Because of Jesus, Paul understood everything differently—God, the world, God’s people, God’s future, and in and through it all God’s faithfulness. It is that world of difference, intersecting with the world of Pliny but radically transforming it, that the present book now aims to explore (22).

Wright then digs further into Philemon in order to introduce the broad contours of Paul’s worldview and its similarities and differences with other worldviews in the first century. Wright notes, ““The study of Paul’s worldview leads to a striking, dramatic conclusion: this worldview not only requires a particulartheologyto sustain it, but also requires thattheologyitself play a new role, integrated with the worldview itself. (30, italics original)” This more or less sets the trajectory for the book which will do the historical background research to sketch out Paul’s worldview (parts I & II), then underlying theology (part III), and how that impacts Paul’s aims in his context (part IV).

Since he is dealing with the interface of history and theology, Wright reassures readers, “This book is part of a project in which I have tried to avoid collapsing either into the other, have tried to avoid history becoming a slave of theology or vice versa. The fact that I have been accused of failure in both directions indicates to me that I may be getting the balance somewhere near right, though presumably not completely (67).”

In wrapping up this chapter, Wright summarizes his purpose in writing:

The argument of the present book is that when we use the worldview method I have set out above, and thus bring a larger ‘thick description’ of Paul and his mindset into play alongside and as a way in to a fresh analysis of his central theological concepts, we find a fresh coherence. More specifically, we find that we can understand the deep and organic links between the history of Paul, and of his letters and his churches, and the theology which he articulated in those letters. We will not need to collapse the one into the other, whether theology into history, as with some of the sociologists, allowing the slave to come back and dictate his own terms, reducing Philemon to a mere puppet in his own house, or history into theology, as with some of the preachers and guardians of orthodoxy, allowing the slave back as long as he’s bound hand and foot and told to mind his manners in future. And, just as Paul’s way to a reconciliation between master and servant was through a complete identification with them both, reaching out either hand to embrace them so that they were to be united in him, with anything owing in either direction put down to his account, so the way of reconciliation between history and theology, between Christian Origins and the Question of God, comes to rest in this volume on Paul as the announcer and embodier of God as the faithful one, faithful to creation and faithful to covenant, the God whose faithfulness came to life and walked and talked in Palestine and died on a Roman cross to reconcile God and the world. The cross, indeed, will be central to our project here, both structurally and thematically, and part of the underlying and implicit proposal will be that Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death, while having of course other and better known highlights than that which we find in Philemon, may help us wrestle too with the question of reconciliation between the two elements of our split world (70-71).

Like Birds Hovering Overhead: The Faithfulness of the God of Israel

To begin sketching Paul’s worldview, Wright starts with his Jewish context. Importantly, he notes:

This chapter needs to adjust, perhaps even to correct, the balance in Part III of The New Testament and the People of God, which was designed as the equivalent introduction for this book as well as for Jesus and the Victory of God. Because I had Jesus particularly in focus at that time, and because I was heavily concerned then with the Jewish context for understanding Paul, I concentrated almost all that section on the Jewish world of the first century, giving particular attention in chapter 7 to the Pharisees and the movements of revolt, which remain extremely important in the present volume, and then to the elements of Israel’s worldview (story, symbol and praxis) in chapter 8, finishing with the two chapters, which remain foundational for the present volume, on Israel’s beliefs and hopes (chapters 9 and 10). The point of writing those chapters there was to avoid having to do so here, so I shall not repeat them, but refer the reader to them as part of the necessary preliminary work for the present book (77).

Then, frustratingly, he says, “In my mind’s eye I see the whole of NTPG Part III as though they were physically part of this book, perhaps as a kind of microdot within the running head for every page, and I encourage readers to do the same (77).” So, while this is a 1500 page book, you need to go back and read his other 400+ page book to have context. Not really, having read both this summer, it was helpful to be able to recall much of NTPG while reading PFG.

As far as the topic of this chapter goes, Wright says.

I hope in particular to bring out the way in which the faithfulness of Israel’s God functions as a theme throughout so much of the period. This was particularly so, I suggest, for the Pharisees, generating and sustaining a complex but essentially single narrative, the long and often strange story of God’s faithfulness which would—surely, they believed, it would!—work out finally in deliverance for Israel and justice and glory in the wider world. ‘Like birds hovering overhead,’ wrote Isaiah, ‘so yhwh of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.’ The echoes of Deuteronomy 32, a vital chapter in this great story, are clear, and picked up too at various points in the Psalter. We should be prepared to hear, underneath echoes such as these, the soft, slow beat of hidden wings, brooding over the dark waters to bring creation itself to birth (77-78).

The bulk of the chapter then is an exposition of the Pharisees. Additionally, Wright looks at the praxis that was most important to them (Torah), as well as the supreme symbol in their worldview (the Temple). This latter point is where Wright expands most on previous work:

The point of the Temple—this is where I want to develop considerably further what was said in the earlier volumes—is that it was where heaven and earth met. It was the place where Israel’s God, yhwh, had long ago promised to put his name, to make his glory present. The Temple, and before it the wilderness tabernacle, were thus heirs, within the biblical narrative, to moments like Jacob’s vision, the discovery that a particular spot on earth could intersect with, and be the gateway into, heaven itself (96).

All the other symbols of ancient Israel and the second-Temple Jewish world gathered around this majestic, potent building, and from it they took their meaning and power. This was where the great narratives clustered, too, the stories upon which the Jewish people had already been living for centuries before Saul of Tarsus came along, narratives that had developed fresh resonances in the years immediately before his day and would, through his agency, develop significantly new ones as he told them around the world in a radically reworked form (and, he would say, as he worked on constructing the new ‘building’ around the world). These are stories about Israel’s God, about his name and his glory; stories about who this God is in himself and his actions, stories about his power and his faithfulness, about his powerful wings hovering over his people to keep them safe. They are Temple-stories because they are God-and-Israel stories, and vice versa (100).

Helpfully, Wright points to the work of G. K. Beale and John Walton on the significance of the Temple in the Jewish worldview.

Wright spends the rest of the chapter examining the idea of Israel living in a “continuous story.” This leads to rearticulating a popular theme in his writing: Israel remains in exile during the first century, awaiting deliverance. To support his case, Wright traces how the story of the people of God was retold through Scripture, the Second Temple literature, and the literature post AD 70. He then circles back to reinforce his case for Israel’s mindset during the first century to be one of exile.

Wright then details the worldview, theology, aims, and beliefs of first century Pharisees. The short version is present in his conclusion:

The worldview of a first-century Pharisee has thus come into focus. Living somewhere on the spectrum between the extreme and possibly violent zeal of the ardent Shammaite and the extreme and possibly flexible caution of the ardent Hillelite, the Pharisee was passionately concerned about the ancestral traditions, particularly the law of Moses and the development of that into oral law, and about the importance of keeping this double Torah not simply because it was required, or in order to earn the divine favour, but because a renewed keeping of the law with all one’s heart and soul was one of the biblically stated conditions (as in Deuteronomy 30) for the great renewal, the eschaton and all that it would mean. It was what constituted the appropriate and faithful response to the faithfulness of Israel’s God, invoking the protection of the divine bird hovering over Jerusalem. Personal piety, and personal hope, were firmly held within the ongoing story of the life and hope of Israel as a whole. The controlling stories, fleshed out in symbol and praxis, gave the essential body to the theological soul of monotheism, election and eschatology (195-196).

To move through the different concentric circles: the Pharisaic worldview was about the whole business of being human; of being a Jewish human; of living in a Jewish community; of living in a threatened Jewish community; of living with wisdom, integrity and hope in a threatened Jewish community; of living with zeal for Torah, the covenant and above all Israel’s faithful God within a threatened Jewish community (196).

Hopefully this gives you a feel for the first two chapters. Next week, we’ll run through the next three in this part of Wright’s book.


  1. Thanks again to Fortress Press for the review copy!


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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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