Larry Hurtado, professor emeritus of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, has been blogging his reflections on N. T. Wright’s new two-volume work Paul and the Faithfulness of God. In response to Wright’s claim that Paul views Jesus as the God of Israel’s returning—in the flesh and in person, so to speak—to his people, Hurtado writes:

I really don’t see evidence in Paul’s letters of an explicit emphasis that Jesus is the “return of YHWH” embodied and in person. To be sure, there are statements in some OT passages and subsequently in other Jewish texts that YHWH promised to renew Israel and come to Israel in eschatological redemption. But my question is what evidence there is in Paul’s letters that this specific idea and these specific texts were particularly cited and central.

So Hurtado isn’t convinced that Wright is correct in his reading of Paul’s Christology. In response, Hurtado offers an alternative reading of Paul:

To be sure, Paul appears to have been a pretty intelligent and articulate fellow, and was perhaps particularly skilled in scriptural study and interpretation (from his Pharisee background). But, so far as I can see, the only claims that Paul makes about any distinctiveness or originality concern (1) his conviction that he was specially called by God to conduct a mission to gentiles, and (2) his view of the terms on which gentiles were to be received as full co-religionists with Jewish believers (baptism/faith in Jesus without taking on Jewish observance of Torah). So, was Paul really the creative figure that Wright seems to posit in developing the “high christology” that we see reflected (really presumed) in Paul’s letters? Or, instead, do we have in his letters essentially the sort of claims about Jesus and the sort of devotion to him that Paul acceded to subsequent to the “revelation of his [God’s] Son” (Gal. 1:15) that changed him from persecutor to proponent of Jesus? Indeed, as I’ve proposed, was it these claims and devotional actions that (at least in part) provoked the zealous Pharisee, Saul, to feel obliged to “destroy” (his term) the young Jesus movement? (Something certainly got up his nose!)

Hurtado, in other words, wants to see Paul as borrowing and adapting, here and there, the Christology he learned from others. Paul’s real “originality” as a theologian lies elsewhere, in his development of a novel view of the Jewish law in relation to his Gentile converts.

But can Christology and the law-free mission to the Gentiles (as J. Louis Martyn has dubbed it) really be kept apart in that way? I don’t think so. Certainly Hurtado is right that Paul isn’t singlehandedly responsible for whatever “high Christology” is found in the New Testament. But he’s wrong, I think, when he implies that Paul thought about the Jewish law and Gentile inclusion without grounding his thinking at every turn in a particular construal of the identity of Christ and the meaning of Christ’s history for the world.

If you read the opening of the letter to the Galatians, you might think Paul is simply citing a traditional early Christian formula without much modification. The “Lord Jesus Christ,” he writes, is the one “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4). It could be that this is so much prolegomena, inserted to demonstrate Paul’s alignment with his forebears in the faith, before he moves on to contributing his own distinctive call for the Galatians not to accept circumcision. But that overlooks how Paul’s later arguments against circumcision draw on the apocalyptic, invasive Christology that he adumbrates with this opening.

It is precisely because of the particular shape of the Christ-event as Paul understands it—as a gift (1:6, 15) given without regard for its recipients’ worth, status, honor, or cultural capital, whether Jewish or pagan (1:14-15; 6:15), delivering them from enslavement to cosmic powers (4:1-7)—that Paul deems circumcision unnecessary and, in the Galatians’ case, at least, positively forbidden (5:4). It is precisely because of his Christology—one that sees the Christ-event arising from no prior conditions and plotted against no prior coordinates (2:20; 6:14)—that Paul develops his peculiar understanding of Gentiles’ freedom from the requirement of becoming Jewish proselytes. Trying to tweeze apart Christology and the Gentile mission, as if Paul only marginally reworked the former and maximally developed the latter, misses their fundamental interconnectedness.

Paul and the Jewish Christian missionaries he opposed in his letter to the Galatians shared some basic convictions: that Jesus was God’s Messiah, that he had been sent and authorized by God, and raised and exalted as Lord by God too. In that sense, Paul’s Christology was unoriginal. But when he came to delineate his differences with his opponents—that Gentile Christians need not adopt circumcision, Jewish food law observance, and the keeping of Jewish festivals and holy days—Paul traced those differences back to his own, unusual (by his opponents’ standards) version of what God had achieved in sending Christ. There is something about the coming of Christ, Paul argued, that has severed the root of all previous allegiances, relativizing every other human commitment. And it’s that Christological commitment that energized the Gentile mission.

This is why many recent critics of the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul—I have in mind names like Francis Watson and John Barclay at Durham in the UK, Martinus de Boer at VU University Amsterdam, Susan Grove Eastman at Duke Divinity School, and even the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who, despite his atheism, finds Pauline theology to be a powder keg of possibility for addressing matters of the day—have faulted other scholars like Krister Stendahl and James D. G. Dunn for presenting a relatively de-theologized Paul. Did Paul’s convictions about the Gentile mission arise from some ancient seed of modern, Western egalitarianism and social justice? Reading Stendahl and Dunn, you might be tempted to think so. But a body of newer work on the apostle—including, perhaps, as Hurtado notes, Wright’s own new books (which I haven’t had the chance to finish reading yet)—reveals that Paul may, after all, look less like a liberal Westerner than the New Perspective has taught us to think and more like a Christ-haunted figure whose radical social practices arose directly from his pioneering, innovative thinking about the identity and achievement of Jesus Christ. In short, there was a creative, peculiar Christology in Paul, and it is part of Paul’s greatness as a missionary and a letter-writer to have articulated it.

Articles by Wesley Hill