Paul and his Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright– Part Nine


In a candid moment, Tom reveals that Wayne Meek’s First Urban Christians provided something of a template for what he was trying to do in a major part of his Paul and the Faithfulness of God. He says this on pp. 260-61….
“One or two reviewers of my Paul and the Faithfulness of God have expressed surprise at the significant number of times I refer to Meeks’s book. There was a good reason. I envisaged Part II
of my book as corresponding, in a sense, to chapters 2—5 of The First Urban Christians, trying to map the worldview, not least the symbols, narratives and praxis, which Paul was inculcating. I envisaged Part III as corresponding to Meeks’s chapter 6, showing particularly how the ‘patterns of belief’ we find in Paul’s letters sustained the kind of community, and the
kind of worldview, we had discerned earlier on. Sharp eyes might have picked up that I began Part III with Paul’s reworked monotheism, just as Meeks did in his sixth chapter. Again, there was good reason. Looking back on the last generation of Anglophone Pauline scholarship, there remain
three great landmarks, Sanders, Martyn and Meeks; and the one I value most is Meeks.

“He saw with increasing clarity that when people had spoken of ‘historical’,
or ‘historical-critical’, study of the New Testament, they had often meant
the history of early Christian ideas as discerned on a hypothetical map of
religious history, a map moreover which was divided into two continents,
‘Judaism’ and ‘Hellenism’, with a significant ocean between them. This was
not ‘history’ in the sense that most historians understood it – the history,
that is, of actual communities, with their characteristic ways of life, their
social and cultural mores and morals, their challenges and hopes. Meeks
determined to plunge into that denser world…. Meeks determined early on, and has continued to insist on this point, that social history is not a matter of discovering large abstractions and
imposing them on the material. He has thus, notoriously, been persona non
grata with the ‘Context Group’.”

On p. 262, Tom quotes with approval Meek’s own judgment on the Context Group, and particularly on the quest to find one sociological key that unlocks the mysteries of early Christians. Meeks responds “There is no such key. Not the patron-client relation, not the honor-shame society, not status inconsistency, routinization of charisma, the dyadic personality, rational choice in a premarket economy, or group-grid dynamics. The constructs represented by some or even all of these metonyms and others like them may indeed help us to look from a new angle at some of the evidence at hand, or to discover evidence that we didn’t know was there. They remain, nevertheless, abstractions that can never substitute for deep and longterm immersion in the scattered and enigmatic traces left by the people of the first century. . . Putting the story together is finally more art than science – and the scientists I know are quick to acknowledge that there is much art in their science.” (QUOTED FROM THE 2ND EDITION OF FIRST URBAN 2002, p. xii).

Some of the things Wright agrees with Meeks about, and derives from his study of Meeks has to do with the unique features of the early Christian movement. For example, consider the following analysis by Tom….
“The ‘household’ was basic; the ‘voluntary association’ was common.
Both show considerable parallels with the Christian groups; both also
reveal considerable divergencies, of which the translocal character of the
group was again an obvious one. Likewise, the Christian groups saw themselves
as ‘exclusive and totalistic in a way that no club nor even any pagan
cultic association was’. Pauline converts underwent an ‘extraordinarily thoroughgoing
resocialization’, for which ‘the only convincing parallel in antiquity
was conversion to Judaism’. If, however, the Christian groups were in
one sense ‘exclusive’, they were in another sense ‘much more inclusive in
terms of social stratification and other social categories’ than the clubs or
associations would have been. Nobody else in Paul’s world was attempting
to found new communities in which social status counted for nothing. The
parallel with conversion to Judaism is significant in another way: the word
ekklēsia, though it has non-Jewish echoes as well, seems to have been used
by the Christians in such a way as to evoke the Septuagint translation of
qehal YHWH, the ‘assembly of the Lord’. This points again to the parallels
with the Jewish communities, which were simultaneously closed cultic communities
and members of a larger transnational entity…. But the culture of the early Christian groups we
glimpse in Paul’s letters was characterized, in a way that no other groups
were, by three things in particular: a set of beliefs, a new moral world, and
certain specific rituals. (We recall, once again, the way that ‘worldview’
functions: it holds together symbol, narrative, ethos, ritual and so on.)” (p. 266).

On p. 273 Tom asks himself why at points he finds Meek’s analysis insufficient or weak. He says this— “Why then do I find it less than fully convincing? Because though Meeks does indeed note the christological and eschatological interpretation of scripture, I do not think he gives sufficient
weight to the theme which, as I have argued elsewhere, drills down below
this. Scripture, for Paul, is not merely a miscellaneous, ahistorical source of
guidance. It is the earlier, and in some ways determinative, stage of the narrative
in which Paul believes that he and his communities are still living.
This narrative has indeed been broken in the Messiah’s crucifixion; but it
continues in its new cross-shaped form, and when Paul appeals (for
instance) to the exodus story in 1 Corinthians 10.1–13 he does so not simply
to pick out an example from long ago but in order to stress that the erstwhile
pagan converts in Corinth are part of the same, single family that was
once rescued from Egypt.”

This is where I personally find Wright least convincing. The example in 1 Cor. 10 has nothing to do with the Corinthians being told they belong to that story. It is about telling them that since we are talking about the same God, that same sort of behavior will produce the same sort of judgment. There is a big difference between using the OT as typology or moral example as Paul does here and suggesting a continuing family story. The Corinthians were never part of the Mosaic story or covenant. They were grafted into the patriarchal story and the Abrahamic covenant now fulfilled in Christ and in the new covenant.

Much of the rest of this chapter involves summarizing some of Meek’s key points, and making some minor corrections along the way. Here is how he sums up the analysis of Meeks contributions…

“What then has Wayne Meeks done for Pauline interpretation? Two
things in particular, I think. First, he has shifted the focus decisively from
‘history of religion’ to history, period – with a particular emphasis on social
history, but on that as falling within the larger ‘thick description’ of the
ancient Mediterranean world, and the particular cities in which Paul
founded churches. The question of ‘religion’ is included within that, but
Meeks, both in his 1983 work and in his important 2001 article, has stoutly
challenged the ideological construct which had taken ‘religion’ as its overall
subject and ‘Judaism and Hellenism’ as its particular binary opposition. The
fact that many works continue to be written as if this revolution had not
happened indicates well enough that the discipline still has much to learn
from him. At the same time, he has insisted, against continuing opposition,
that Paul’s communities did indeed have some decidedly distinctive features,
and that some of those features have their closest analogies with features
of the Diaspora Jewish communities. Once we get away from a false
religionsgeschichtliche opposition between ‘Judaism’ and ‘Hellenism’, the real
distinctives can stand out.

“Second, Meeks has placed the study of belief, in this case the beliefs which
Paul sought to inculcate in his communities, within the study of what I have
called ‘worldview’, the large clump which includes symbol, myth, ritual and
so on. He has demonstrated that, though one may indeed observe close correlations,
this is not reductionist in either direction, unless of course the
interpreter forces it to be so. He has repeatedly stressed Paul’s urgent plea
for the unity and holiness of the church, and indicated that the main correlate
of this is a Jewish-style monotheism reworked around Jesus as the Messiah.
Likewise, in line with Schweitzer and Wrede, and in parallel with the
so-called new perspective (though without apparently noticing any of this),
he has insisted that Paul’s language about justification is closely correlated
with the social reality of his Jew-plus-gentile communities, but he makes
this point without lapsing into the sort of reductionism some have observed
in Francis Watson’s 1986 monograph or in the ‘Context Group’. He has
likewise demonstrated that some key elements of Paul’s theology mean what
they mean within a missionary impulse which was seeking, not to snatch
people out of the world, but to generate a community which saw itself as the
vanguard of an entire new creation.” (pp. 282-83).