Paul and His World Part II

September 10, 2014 — Leave a comment


Last week, we actually started our review series on N. T. Wright’s Paul and The Faithfulness of God. 1 Today, we’ll continue and finish Part I of the book. You can refer back to the table of contents to see where we’re headed after this. For now, we’ll focus on chapters 3-5 and round out Wright’s view of Paul’s world.

Athene and Her Owl: The Wisdom of The Greeks

Here, Wright turns from first century Judaism to first century Greek philosophy. The early Christians had obvious religious ties, but Wright notes three things they did that were more commonly associated with philosophy:

First, they presented a case for a different order of reality, a divine reality which cut across the normal assumptions. They told stories about a creator God and the world, stories which had points of intersection with things that the pagans said about god(s) and the world but which started and finished in different places and included necessary but unprecedented elements in the middle. Second, they argued for, and themselves modelled, a particular way of life, a way which would before long be a cause of remark, sometimes curious and sometimes hostile, among their neighbours. Third, they constructed and maintained communities which ignored the normal ties of kinship, local or geographical identity, or language—not to mention gender or class. (202)

Given this, Wright will spend this chapter placing Paul on the map of first century philosophers. To do this, he will sketch a brief history of Greek philosophy. He starts with pre-Socratics, moves through Plato and Aristotle, and then concludes with two schools of thought. Those schools are the Stoics and the Epicureans.

Wright then makes the key point of the chapter:

Here is perhaps the most important thing in this chapter for today’s readers of Paul to take to heart. Whereas the default mode of most modern westerners is some kind of Epicureanism, the default mode for many of Paul’s hearers was some kind of Stoicism. Observing the differences between the two, particularly at the level of assumptions, is therefore vital if we are to ‘hear’ Paul as many of his first hearers might have done. If, when someone says the word ‘god’, we think at once of a distant, detached divinity—as most modern westerners, being implicitly Epicureans or at least Deists, are likely to do—we are unlikely to be able imaginatively to inhabit the world of many in Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus and elsewhere for whom the word ‘god’ might reasonably be expected to denote the divinity which indwelt, through its fiery physical presence, all things, all people, the whole cosmos. (213)

With this in mind, Wright focuses on four leading Stoic thinkers: Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. He then compares the Cynics and Skeptics before sketching what he considers a basic first century philosophical worldview.

Wright closes the chapter showing a typical Jewish response to Greek philosophy via the Wisdom of Solomon. In conclusion he says.

When we ask, therefore, what has happened in the Wisdom of Solomon to the traditional topics of logic, physics and ethics, the answer must be that they are all present, but in a strikingly transformed mode. The underlying ‘logic’, the means whereby the writer apparently claims to know what can be said, is not simply the combination of accurate sense-impressions and clear reasoning. It is the scriptures of Israel, and particularly the narratives of the exodus and the monarchy. The ‘physics’, the account of the world’s creation and constitution, is a fresh reading of Genesis, with sophia filling in the picture. The ‘ethics’ is both a fresh statement of the Stoic development of Aristotle’s system of virtues and a fresh reading of the biblical tradition of ‘righteousness’. Athene’s owl has peered into the darkness and come back to report what he has seen; but, at the same time, the birds which hovered overhead to protect the wandering Israelites have told their own story. (243)

A Cock For Asclepius: “Religion” and “Culture” in Paul’s World

Wright now turns his attention to the wider world of first century religious and cultural practices. Wright initially shied away from treating “religion” as a separate chapter, but ultimately decided, “Hey, why not?” (he gives a more extended reason, p. 251).

After his all too brief survey of the religious terrain, Wright says,

This extremely brief summary of complex matters is, again, not merely of antiquarian interest. It is vital if we are to sense the flavour of life in a Roman environment; and much of Paul’s most important work was carried out in a Roman environment, albeit overlaid on a Greek base and with plenty of other imported material coming in alongside. Though we must address such questions properly much later, a moment’s thought will make it clear that Paul, in founding a ‘church’ in Corinth or Philippi or elsewhere, was not setting up a new ‘religion’ in any of the kind of senses we have been exploring. He seems to have had no interest in a sacred calendar, and indeed at one point has harsh words for those who do. He never suggests that one should sacrifice animals, whether to eat them or to inspect their entrails. He never indicates that one ought to pay attention to thunderstorms, or to the flight of particular birds. The sacred texts he interprets are of a very different order to the Sibylline Books. He does not attempt to establish anything remotely corresponding to the priesthoods of either Greece or Rome. (273)

While religion might not be the best category for analyzing what Paul was doing, “it is certainly a key and basic element in what his contemporaries will have seen him doing and heard him saying. And with ‘religion’, in all of these complex senses, we are dealing with what today we might call ‘the fabric of society’, the things which held people together and gave shape and meaning to their personal and corporate life (274).”

In his concluding reflections, Wright says,

The main thing to emerge for our purposes from this short survey is that what Cicero and others referred to loosely with the word religio penetrated more or less every area of life. From the home, with its hearth and household gods, right up to great affairs of state, noble works of art and culture, and the most important public buildings and civic ceremonies, ‘religion’ was everywhere, because the gods were everywhere. Paul, as ‘apostle to the gentiles’, believed himself to be sent by the one God of Israel into this world of many gods. (274)

Worth noting as well, is the Jewish response:

It is as well known today as it was in the ancient world that the Jews would have nothing, or next to nothing, to do with all this range of ‘religion’. They denied the existence of the pagan divinities. They regarded pagan worship, offered to cult objects, as ‘idolatry’ in the full biblical sense. They believed that pagan life was a distorted version of the genuine humanness to which the one God had called Israel and would, in principle, want to call the whole world. They did their best to remain detached and separate from the whole thing. (276)

While a short chapter, it does help to give a feel for the way religion permeated every day life in the ancient world. Christianity certainly fits into this religious territory in Paul’s account, but it is not merely a religion, and it is noticeably different than the pagan approach (similar though it may be in some respects).

The Eagle Has Landed: Rome and The Challenge of Empire

Wright closes out this section by moving to politics. In a way though, this is an extension of the religious discussion. Setting context, Wright says,

By the time Paul was born, the empire of Augustus Caesar stretched from one sea to another—the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean to the English Channel—and from the river Euphrates to the ends of the known world, the far western outposts of Spain and France. There, of course, lay the problem for the devout Jew: that was more or less the extent of empire which the Psalmist had promised to the Messiah. Whether many Romans knew or cared we may doubt. Rome’s military adventures had not been undertaken in obedience to such ancient visions. It had acquired its foreign territories piecemeal. One conquest led to another and, with tax and treasure flowing in to the centre, it became advantageous to annex the next country, and then the next, first as allies, then as buffer zones, then as clients, and finally as a new piece of straightforwardly ‘Roman’ territory. Rome brought ‘peace’ to the world, at the usual price: submit or die. (284)

From here, Wright sketches a brief history of Roman emperors, starting just after Julius Caesar, on to Augustus, and ending with Vespasian. With a feel for how the empire was established (or at least how it solidified around the turn of BC to AD), Wright then turns his eye to the rhetoric this empire employed. To clarify, he says,

It was not by military force alone that Augustus consolidated his power, or that his successors maintained it. It has been shown in great detail that from the beginning the empire used every available means in art, architecture, literature and culture in general—everything from tiny coins to the rebuilding of entire city centres—to communicate to the Roman people near and far the message that Augustus’s rise to power was the great new moment for which Rome, and indeed the whole world, had been waiting. This is what I mean, in this broad sense and in the present context, by ‘rhetoric.’ (294)

Key to his analysis of the Roman empire’s rhetoric is how the empire constructed a narrative in which it was the culmination of where the story was going. This then leads to a discussion of the “religion” of empire, or more commonly, the imperial cult. From here, Wright then traces how the emperor was gradually “divinized.”

Concerning this and other Roman perspectives on deities, Wright says,

The Jewish objection to the entire Roman view of the gods was not simply about monotheism (though that was of course the basis of the standard critique of idolatry), nor even about election (their belief that they, rather than the Romans or anybody else, were the chosen people of the one true God). It was about eschatology: about their belief that the one God had determined on a divine justice that would be done, and would be seen to be done, in a way that Roman imperial justice somehow never quite managed. Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel. Thus, though their resistance to empire drew on the ancient critique of idolatry, the sense that Israel’s God would overthrow the pagan rule and establish his own proper kingdom in its place led the Jewish people to articulate their resistance in terms of eschatology. Sooner or later, the eagle would meet its match. (342-343)

Wright then concludes the chapter and the book as a whole with a typical rhetorical flourish of his own:

The birds that had hovered over Israel all those years had seen the story through. Instead of the wise owls of Athens, a descendant of Solomon had come who would see in the dark and bring hidden truth to light. Instead of the sacrificial cock offered to Asclepius, a sacrifice had occurred which, upstaging even the ancient cult and priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple, would bring healing at every level. Instead of the eagle with its talons and claws, Jesus summoned people to a different kind of empire: peacemaking, mercy, humility and a passion for genuine and restorative justice. Saul of Tarsus, born and bred a Pharisee in a world shaped by the wisdom of Greece, the religion of the east, and the empire of Rome, came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and that this Jesus had called him, Saul, to take the ‘good news’ of his death, resurrection and universal lordship into the world of wisdom, religion and empire. That transformative vocation, articulated through the worldview which it provided and the theology which it produced, is the subject of the rest of this book. Earlier three birds on a tree; now only the one. (346-347)


  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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