With the thousand-page second volume ahead of me, it may be a bit premature to review NT Wright’s long-awaited Paul and the Faithfulness of God . If I wait until volume 2, though, I’ll likely forget what I wanted to say about volume 1. So here goes: Not a review but a report from a way station in a long journey.
For those who have been following Wright’s work over the decades, much of volume 1 is familiar territory. He sets Paul in the triple context (Judaism, Greco-Roman religion, culture and philosophy, the Roman empire) that he already developed in Paul: In Fresh Perspective . Wright gives his most thorough defense yet of the issue of “continuing exile,” with lengthy excerpts from Second Temple texts and lively, often very funny, polemics directed at his unfortunate critics. The new book includes vastly more detail, especially for the Greco-Roman context, than the earlier book, and Wright makes some tantalizing suggestions about Paul’s relation to Greek thought. Wright uses the worldview model familiar from the very first volume of his great project, The New Testament and the People of God , though applied now to Paul and early Christianity. He remains enamored - unfortunately in my view, of Greimas’s diagrams of narrative structure.
But there are, as always, some fresh insights along the way, and I want to highlight those.
First, on continuing exile. Wright makes it clear that the “continuing exile” theme is intimately connected to his claim that Jews operated within a story-formed world. Wright hammers on two basic points in his length discussion, first, that Second Temple Jews saw themselves in the middle of a grand story that had not yet ended, a grand story outlined in the latter chapters of Deuteronomy; second, more specifically, that Second Temple Jews believed their current condition was one of continuing exile, awaiting the full -filment of Yahweh’s promises concerning their return. He offers text after text as evidence, some of which do just what Wright would expect - put the notion of continuing exile in the context of Deuteronomy 27-30.
The evidence is convincing. But still: Wright seems to capture only one part of the situation of Second Temple Judaism. But he minimizes the significance of the return that did happen, and the new covenant pattern that emerges after the return of the exiles. That pattern includes: The spread of Jews throughout the Greco-Roman world; Yahweh’s call of Gentile kings to be His anointed Servants, quasi-Davids and Solomons - most strikingly Cyrus in Isaiah 44-45; the upgrade in the holiness of the city of Jerusalem (cf. the unprecedented attention given to city walls in Nehemiah).
One of his key arguments is that there is no fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to return in glory to His house, but this argument fails to do justice to the latter chapters of Ezekiel (where return from exile, sprinkling from impurity, rebuilding of the house, and the return of glory are all part of the same sequence) and Zechariah (whose night visions tell of the restoration of the priesthood, the purging of the temple, and the outpouring of the Spirit to empower the rebuilding). In the final vision (Zechariah 6), the horsemen of Yahweh emerge from a restored temple, charging between the bronze mountain-pillars at the doorway, to patrol the earth. But Wright also misses a bigger issue, which has to do with the shape of the narrative of Israel. Israel’s maturation from slave to son (Galatians 3-4) is in part a maturation from sight to faith; before “faith comes” Israel was already prepared to live by faith (Galatians again). Second Temple Jews had no king; they were to trust that King Yahweh was doing His will through Gentile kings. They saw no glory in the rebuilt temple; they had to trust the word of the prophets, who claimed that Yahweh had returned. This suggests a more skeptical reading of the voluminous evidence that Wright assembles; it is evidence that Jews believed in a continuing exile, but perhaps it is also evidence that of a failure of faith.
Second, and much more briefly, I found Wright’s discussion of Paul’s worldview confusing, as he attempts to stretch some of his categories to cover early Christianity. In his earlier work, Israel’s symbols included Torah, temple, land, kin. Those are all concrete realities. Wright admits that there is little of early Christianity’s “material culture” left to us, and so many of what he calls Christian “symbols” are more conceptual than concrete - the cross, for instance. He gets his bearings much more firmly when he insists that the church itself, and especially the church’s unity, are the key symbols in Paul’s worldview, and that the church is marked by the practices of baptism, eucharist, prayer, suffering.
Third, Wright may have gone overlong in his discussions of Greco-Roman philosophy, the Roman empire, and Greco-Roman religion, but the discussions are vivid and at several points make intriguing connections with Paul. Paul was no Stoic, but he knew something of Stoicism and other current philosophies, as well as the Jewish responses found in works like the Wisdom of Solomon . Wright finds parallels between Paul’s “diatribe” style and that of Epictetus, and he thinks that Paul’s subversiveness has its closest parallel among philosophers.
Fourth, one of his most interesting suggestions, only hinted at in volume 1, is that Paul gives a place to “theology” - to prayerful reflection on the nature of God and His works - that is unprecedented in either Judaism or paganism. The reason, he claims, is that Paul set about the redefine everything he inherited in terms of Jesus (this another theme from earlier work): He preached a Christological monotheism, retold Israel’s story in terms of its fulfillment in Jesus, redefined the people of God around Jesus and the Spirit, hoped for a future shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus. In order to achieve this redefinition, he had to give a more thorough and “systematic” account of God than was common in the religions around him. Theology takes on a “symbolic role” in Paul that it never had before.
Wright is far and away the best, most winning, writer among New Testament scholars, perhaps among theologians. And for all his obvious command of Pauline scholarship, he, like his subject, is a pastor. There are passages that read like excerpts from sermons, and that makes the book not only highly informative but deeply edifying.
Pause over. I’ve got 1000 pages to go. Time to move on.