Paul and His Recent Interpreters, N. T. Wright. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.
Summary: N.T. Wright surveys the scholarship in Pauline studies over the past fifty years engaging scholars developing the “new perspective”, “apocalyptic”, and “social history” approaches to Paul.
It is hard to believe but N.T. Wright has not been able to say all there is to say about Pauline scholarship in his two volume (1700 pages) Paul and The Faithfulness of God. Paul and His Recent Interpreters is a companion to that work in which Wright develops his own understanding of Paul’s life and thought. Here he engages other scholars who have been working in this field, particularly in the last fifty years, carefully summarizing their work and offering a critique in light of his own scholarship.
After a preface which outlines the program of the book, Wright begins with a review of the antecedents of the current scholarship, particularly the work of F. C. Baur and the history of religions school and the discussion of Christian origins as distinct from Judaism as Christianity moved into the Hellenistic context. The other major figure he considers here is Albert Schweitzer who first challenges the “forensic” understanding of justification as central to Paul’s thought with the proposal that “being in Christ” is central.
Most of the book considers three schools of thought in Pauline studies. The first is the “new perspective”. Here Wright deals with the work of E. P. Sanders and J. D. G. Dunn, who worked to understand the Jewish origins of Paul’s thought, working with the rich emerging material on first century AD Judaism. In many ways, Wright’s own work is closely associated with this school, although he particularly differentiates himself from Sanders in arguing that the central idea of Paul’s thought is not “participation in Christ” but rather the “covenant faithfulness of Christ” which has been extended to the Gentiles. More briefly, Wright engages his “old perspective” (Lutheran and Calvinist) critics.
The second school he discusses is the apocalyptic school arising from the work of Kasemann, whose proponents include J. C. Beker, M. C. DeBoer, and J Louis Martyn. Wright, while indeed acknowledging the place of apocalyptic, the inbreaking of a new age in Christ, he strongly differs with these thinkers, and particularly Martyn, who make this a centerpiece of Paul’s thought, and especially with Martyn’s treatment of Galatians, where he strongly questions Martyn’s exegesis.
The third school is that of social history, whose leading figure is Wayne Meeks, author of The First Urban Christians. Here Wright is genuinely appreciative of the insights into the kind of communities Paul formed in the Mediterranean cities where he planted churches. What he wishes for is more exegetical work linking this historical work with the Pauline corpus. He concludes this section by briefly considering the more recent political readings of Paul.
One senses that in his critique, Wright is trying to do two things. One is to plead for the integration of these three schools, which he has tried to do in his own work. The other is to plead the case for careful exegesis in conjunction with the historical and theological work of these perspectives. He notes that of the figures he studies, only Martyn has actually written a commentary on a Pauline work, Galatians.
I found myself at a disadvantage on two scores in reading this work. While familiar with some of Wright’s basic ideas about Paul, and the New Perspective, I haven’t read Paul and the Faithfulness of God (yet). I also have not read any of the scholars with whom he interacts except for Wayne Meeks, so I have to take Wright at his word. That said, his review of the field serves as a helpful introduction to the last fifty years of scholarship and points the way for the New Testament and Pauline scholar who wants to pursue these matters more deeply. And Wright sets a high standard for scholarship that is both critical and generous in the pursuit of truth. It is a delight to observe virtuosity in any discipline. This was clearly in evidence in Wright’s engagement with these scholars.
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