N. T. Wright, Fortress Press, 2013, 605 pp.
In the first volume of his two-volume magnum opus on Paul, Wright lays the groundwork for his interpretation of the apostle’s writings. He begins by quoting from a letter of Pliny the Younger to one of his friends concerning the (apparently all too common) problem of a runaway slave and compares it with Paul’s letter to Philemon dealing with the same issue. Wright highlights the contrasting perspectives which these two nearly contemporary ancient works evince as a means of orienting his readers to the issues he means to address prior to exploring – and explaining – the thought of the apostle to the Gentiles.
He then offers extensive discussions of the intersecting influences which formed the religious, philosophical and political environment of the first century CE. Beginning with what is commonly referred to as “second-temple Judaism” during the intertestamental period, Wright seeks to understand as thoroughly and objectively as possible the Pharisaic tradition in which Paul was raised. He next discusses the philosophical schools, summarizing their development, teaching and impact in the early period of the Roman Empire. He also points out how the pagan religious practices were not grounded in any credible metaphysic but were a means of insuring social (and political) stability. Finally, he considers the impact of Roman political power throughout the Mediterranean world. Wright believes that only an adequate understanding of these forces and their interaction with each other can permit us, at a distance of 2,000 years, to correctly understand Paul’s environment and thought.
I found this extensive survey an important reminder that the world inhabited by the apostle was every bit as diverse and complex as our own. His ministry took place in a sophisticated and challenging milieu which offered a religious, philosophical and spiritual smorgasbord (to speak anachronistically!), as well as intense opposition both from hardened pagans and his fellow Jews.
Wright’s thesis is that Paul’s thought as expressed in his letters represents in its essentials a reinterpretation of the theology of Judaism, rooted in the Old Testament’s themes of monotheism, election and eschatology, in the light of the shocking and unexpected fulfillment of those prophetic Scriptures through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. In explaining Paul’s reinterpretation of Jewish theology and traditions, especially the temple, circumcision, the Sabbath and dietary laws (which formed the praxis of ancient Judaism, surrounded as it was by paganism), Wright interacts with a wide range of other scholars to demonstrate that where others have found the apostle’s thoughts confusing or inconsistent, they are in fact coherent, consistent and complementary.
Throughout this work, written in an engaging manner, Wright demonstrates a breadth and depth of comprehension, not only of the ancient world but also of our own times. This permits him to make comparisons which are as illuminating as they are thought-provoking. I was especially intrigued by his reference to the institution of slavery as in some sense the electricity of the past. As I noted above, he also explains the antipathy of the pagan culture to observant Jews and Christians, since they refused to participate in the social and religious traditions which were seen as essential to maintain public order and cohesion.
Finally, Wright aims not only to explain Paul’s reinterpretation of Jewish theology in the light of the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, but to understand how the apostle saw this revelation as the answer, not only to the plight of Israel but to that of humanity as whole, descended from Adam and corrupted by his sin. Based upon a lifetime of research and reflection, Wright’s work merits every bit of the time and attention thoughtful readers are willing to invest in it.