Review: Paul

Paul

Paul: A Biography, N. T. Wright. New York: Harper One, 2018.

Summary: Wright translates his scholarship that gives a “new account” of Paul’s life into a popular biography, tracing the life and thought of the apostle through the letters he wrote and narrative of his journeys.

Over the last thirty years, perhaps no one has written more on the life and thought of the Apostle Paul than N. T. Wright, most notably his two volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Wright is associated with what is called “the New Perspective” on Paul. What he has done in this volume is distill his scholarship into a highly readable account of the life and thought of this apostle. Reading this, you will see some of the ways Wright casts the life of Paul in new perspective.

We see this in his portrayal of Paul’s Damascus road experience. He imagines Paul possibly reflecting on the vision of Ezekiel, perhaps praying the Shema, when suddenly he gazes upward…into the face of Jesus, whose followers he has been persecuting. Wright challenges us to see that this was not a conversion to a new religion, but the shattering and transforming realization that Jesus was the fulfillment of the scriptures Paul had studied so long–that he “had been absolutely right in his devotion to Israel and the Torah, but absolutely wrong in his view of Israel’s vocation and identity and even in the meaning of the Torah.”

He then traces the travels of Paul from the formative years in the wilderness and Tarsus where he rethought everything in the light of Christ, and then his successive journeys taking the message of Christ into Asia Minor, then later into Europe in Philippi, Athens, and Corinth. In the Galatian controversy with Peter and his subsequent letter, we catch the first glimpse of Paul’s transformed vision, where he sees both Jew and Gentile incorporated and included into a new people enjoying the blessing of Abraham’s faith. It is this that explains his methodology of teaching in synagogues, and then to Gentiles who will hear him and seeking to form new communities made up of those who give allegiance to Christ, and share table fellowship.

The biography offers some of Wright’s distinctive judgments on matters scholars have debated, southern versus northern theories of Galatians (he opts for south), and the origin of the prison letters, neither from Caesarea or Rome, but during an imprisonment in the latter part of his time in Ephesus. Wright explores this as a nadir of Paul’s ministry, both in the experience of prison, but also in the receipt of disturbing news from Corinth from those questioning his reputation. He proposes that this accounts for the somewhat disjointed style of 2 Corinthians, written after his release. He also believes that after writing this, he penned his magnum opus to the Romans, spelling out to a church where tensions existed separating Jew and Gentile, the purpose of God to include Gentiles with Jews as heirs of the promise of the covenant to make one new people.

Throughout, Wright explores the character of this apostle, who he describes as “bossy” on the voyage to Rome, and often troublesome in jumping into the fray. Paul did not let sleeping dogs lie. But Wright also argues, that like many “angular” entrepreneurs, it was these very qualities that, on a human level accounted for the success of this apostle in establishing these new communities across the Roman empire.

The work was a delight to read on many levels, as a reflection on the career of Paul and as an exploration of the relationship of Jesus and the hope of Israel revealed in Torah and the prophets. I savored his insights into each of Paul’s letters, and the vision of the church Paul articulated, that would sustain a movement long after his martyrdom, even as it continues to do so to this day.

Paul has often been maligned as a misogynist, as a heretic from his Jewish origins, and more. For others, we read him through Reformation glasses. Wright may or may not convince you otherwise, but this marvelous distillation of his scholarship will make you both think about, and hopefully rejoice in, what this apostle accomplished. And perhaps it will help you read his letters with new eyes.

Review: God and the Faithfulness of Paul

god and faithfulness of paul

God and the Faithfulness of PaulChristoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt, and Michael F. Bird, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers assessing N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God by scholars from a number of fields of theological study, with a concluding response from N. T. Wright.

In 2013, N. T. Wright published his 1700 page masterwork on Pauline theology, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (hereafter PFG). Since this time, the work has spawned numerous reviews, other scholarly works, and an extended response from N. T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, (reviewed here). What distinguishes this work, which comes to half the length of Wright’s, is that it represents assessments of scholars who are specialists in a number of the fields upon which Wright draws in his work, from Jewish studies, to exegesis, to biblical and systematic theology. Furthermore, noting that gap between English and German scholarship on Paul, this work brings together scholars from both.

The work is broken into five parts with a concluding epilogue in which Wright responds (in a mere 57 pages!) to the contributors. An online version of the Table of Contents may be found here. I will not try to discuss all thirty essays as well as Wright’s response but rather what were for me some of the most salient essays, realizing this does not do justice to the high quality of others.

Part One consists of a single chapter by Benjamin Schliesser that situates PFG in the scholarly landscape, noting it as a negative reaction to the work of Rudolf Bultmann, and setting it alongside the works of Dunn, Schreiner, Wolter, and Schnelle. Part Two consider a number of methodological issues from hermeneutics to history in six chapters. I found the discussion of Wright’s “critical realism” and its particular association with Ian Barbour of interest, as well as the critique in a couple of the essays of Wright’s exclusive focus on Pauline material on Paul to the exclusion of Lukan material.

Part Three focuses on contextual issues ranging from the Jewish context which plays such an important part in Wright’s work, particularly in a somewhat biting essay by James Charlesworth to a more irenic discussion of Wright’s lack of engagement with middle Platonism by Gregory Sterling. Wright conceded this latter critique in his response. Two other essays concern the cultic context and a significant essay by Seyoon Kim on Paul and the Roman empire.

Part Four is the longest section of the book, comprising twelve essays, on exegetical issues. I thought Gregory Tatum got Wright wrong in his chapter on law and covenant, attributing a forensic perspective to Wright more characteristic of his opponents. James D. G. Dunn takes Wright to task for how little he addresses the New Perspective.  Peter Stuhlmacher’s chapter on Wright’s understanding of justification and redemption is particularly outstanding for its discussion and critique of the ideas of exile and the role of Abraham in PFG.  There is also an essay on apocalyptic by Jorg Frey, highly critical of Wright’s account of apocalyptic in Paul, the one essay to which Wright responds at length in the epilogue.

Part Five concerns implications. Sven Ensminger’s work on Barth and Wright seemed to be mostly about his hero, Barth, with little engagement with Wright or Paul. More positively, Frank Macchia’s essay (and several others in this volume including Levison’s in Part Four) drew attention to Paul’s Pneumatology in Wright. Edith Humphrey extends Wright’s ideas about sacramentality and the sacraments. The final essay by Schnabel concerns both mission and the discussion of whether Paul’s experience on the Damascus road was one of conversion or call.

The concluding epilogue (Part Six) is devoted to Wright’s responses to the various essays in twelve sections. For the most part, the responses are gracious, acknowledging where the writer has challenged his thought helpfully, and sometimes, where the writer has misunderstood him, notably Frey, who gets ten pages of response. Often Wright’s response is to cite the length of his work and to go into matters further as some would have him would have resulted in a much longer, and perhaps more tedious work.

There are several strengths to this work, particularly the assessments from specialists of a number of claims Wright makes in his broad sweeping work. Also, one who has been around academics in scholarly conference will recognize the cut and thrust of serious scholarly work, where the function of critique is to refine and sharpen thinking.

The work demands close reading and one benefits greatly by having a copy of PFG at hand and having read it. I have to confess that I have only read summaries and reviews and so I honestly felt I was, for the most part, listening to one side of a nuanced conversation. What this collection underscored for me was what a singular work PFG is to evoke so much rigorous discussion from so many perspectives. Now to figure out when I can give a few months of careful attention to this work!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Summary: A collection of studies on the life and ministry of Paul that explores this unusual Jew who is comfortable moving among Greeks and Romans as he proclaims the Christ he encountered on the way to Damascus.

About the only thing scholars can agree upon concerning the Apostle Paul is that he was born a Jew. In an introductory chapter, Michael F. Bird surveys the options most commonly chosen to explain this apostle who claims on one hand that everything from his former life as a Jew is “crap” compared to the surpassing worth of Christ, and yet “becomes a Jew, in order to win the Jews.” Is he really a former Jew who has abandoned Judaism? A transformed Jew, an Israelite in Christ? A faithful Jew? Or a radical Jew? There is something to be said for each of these views and significant scholars associated with each one. Bird proposes an alternative–Paul is an anomalous Jew because he tries “to create a social space for a unified body of Jewish and Gentile Christ-believers worshiping God” (p. 28).

In succeeding chapters, Bird presents five “studies” (most individually published elsewhere) that underscore the anomalous character of Paul’s Jewishness, shaped by his mission to Gentiles and Jews. He begins by exploring Paul’s ideas of salvation, which both comes from the Jews and is for the Jews, but is also for the Gentiles and found in Christ, and not Torah. Chapter 2 shows how Paul is indeed apostle both to Gentiles and to Jews and how much the latter occupied his attention. Chapter 3 addresses the debate between apocalypticism and salvation history in Paul through a study of Galatians showing both elements reaching their height in the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. Chapter 4 focuses in on the incident at Antioch described in Galatians 2:11-14 as the beginning of Paulinism “understood as the antithesis between Christ and Torah when the salvation and equal status of Gentiles is on the line” (p. 203). It also marks a parting in the ways between Paul and the Jerusalem church, not absolute as evident in Paul’s efforts for the relief of that church. Finally, chapter 5 explores the “anti-imperial” undertones of Paul’s letter to the Romans. On its face it presents no civil or military challenge to Roman order. Yet its assertions of the kingdom of the Messiah and the new sociopolitical entity of the church in fact was a profound challenge to Rome which would ultimately supplant empire.

Bird writes:

    “In sum, Paul was a religious anomaly. He appeared on the scene of the Greco-Roman world like a sudden yet small ripple moving upon the waters of a still river. He goes mostly unnoticed in his own time, and yet by the time the ripple reaches the shore of the modern age, it has become a tsunami. Paul’s anomaly, offensive as it was to the Jews and odd as it was to Greeks, became the Gentile Christianity that eventually swallowed up the Roman Empire and that, even to this day, two millenia later, casts its shadow upon the religious landscape of the world. Not bad for a Jewish tentmaker from Tarsus!” (p. 30)

Of the writing of books on Paul, there seems no end! What makes this one distinctive is that it provides a reading of Paul’s life and mission that reconciles seemingly disparate threads of scripture and explains them by Paul’s vision of the new people, Jew and Gentile together, formed by Messiah Jesus. It explains both the consonant and dissonant elements in his Jewishness, his reaction at Antioch, and the content of his letter to the Roman church.

Michael Bird represents a younger generation of theological scholars from “down under” who are beginning to make their mark in biblical and theological studies. I look forward to hearing more from him and others like him!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Where Are The Reviews?

Partially Read Books.jpgThat’s a question some of you who follow regularly may be wondering for a little while. I wonder if other reviewers have ever had this happen? You end up in the middle of a number of books at the same time! The picture right now represents my current reading stack minus a couple books I’m reading on Kindle. Notice all those bookmarks in the middle of my books! So I thought I would give you some “mid-book” updates, that hopefully I’ll remember not to rehash in the reviews. Consider it a taste of things to come.

I Beg to DifferI’ll begin with the top most book. Tim Muelhoff’s I Beg to Differ is a very practical book on one of the hardest relational challenges–having those difficult conversations around disagreements without creating relational discord. Muelhoff outlines a set of questions and approaches that I’m finding very helpful.

Paul and His Recent InterpretersThe “meatiest” book comes next. N.T. Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters is described as a companion to his magisterial Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright’s definitive work on the Apostle Paul. In Paul and His Recent Interpreters, Wright engages the range of contemporary Pauline scholarship, including the criticism of his own work. Wish I had read Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but haven’t been able to wade through the two volumes that make up this work yet! Point is, we often read Paul in light of the Reformation rather than Paul’s Jewish context and may miss some crucial things as a result. Stay tuned to the review for more!

Destiny and PowerThe “fattest” book in the stack is Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker BushI’ve liked the things I’ve read of Meacham, and this is no exception. Bush, the 41st president was a complex mix of character and ambition, that both led to the presidency and was his undoing after one term. His single term, and the shadow of his son’s presidency may obscure the significant things this man quietly accomplished, both as president, and in the rest of his life.

A Commentary on 1 and 2 ChroniclesEugene Merrill’s A Commentary on 1 and 2 Chronicles is probably not something you’d pick up unless you were teaching or preaching on these books. I’m reading it because it was sent to me to review (and I am teaching a Bible overview that includes these books). Good introductory materials as well as enough depth to inform of textual issues without being overwhelming to all but the specialist.

Falling UpwardThe last two books are not in the photograph because they are on my Kindle. One is Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. Rohr sees our lives in halves, each with their crucial tasks, the first half, preparing for the second. I’ve just started this and find his basic premise intriguing. I’m clearly in the second half (unless there is a medical miracle) and interested to see what he says about this.

HolinessFinally, my last book is one our Dead Theologians group is reading at present, J. C. Ryle’s HolinessThe version we are using includes all twenty sermons on this theme. Unlike some 19th century writers, Ryle is plain-spoken without being simplistic. He argues that growth in holiness, or the idea of becoming more like Christ, involves faith that actively strives for this goal.

All of this is rich reading. One decision I’ve made though, particularly after a comment on yesterday’s post is that I’m going to move Nine Tailors to the top of my reading pile. This commenter thought it “just might be Sayer’s best mystery.” After all this meaty reading, I’m ready for a good mystery!