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

Paul and his Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright– Part Three August 29, 2015


Where exactly did the phrase and notion of ‘the new perspective on Paul’ come into play? The answer is, after Sander’s landmark work, and it seems to have been first mentioned by Tom Wright himself. Interestingly, Dunn credits Tom Wright for coining the phrase ‘the new perspective on Paul’ in a lecture given at Tyndale House in July 1978 [at which I was present, I believe, and first met Tom]. But the ‘movement’ itself really began with Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. And there are five reasons it had the impact it did: 1) the long growing chorus of rejection of how Judaism had been treated in Biblical scholarship for aeons; 2) Paul is basically a Jewish thinker, not a Greek one, but a Jewish thinker with a critique of contemporary Judaism; 3) his views got a hearing also because a good deal of what he said resonated with Reformed theology (i.e. Judaism as a religion of grace and the law as a good thing); 4) he was bringing to light a neglected but important tradition of Pauline exegesis. 5) Sanders was comparing patterns of religion, not looking for the origins of this or that Pauline thought. He had the impact he did because as an American where comparative religions was a dominant methodology he represented the rise of the American dominance in the Pauline discussions. Sander’s book was an ‘idea whose time had come’, it came at a propitious moment.

Wright himself is clearly indebted to Sanders in several key ways, and he quotes him approvingly in this chapter when it comes to the concept of covenantal nomism, namely that obedience to the Law is the response to God’s pre-existing gracious choice of Israel and saving actions on her behalf. Obedience to the law is not an attempt to earn right standing with God in the first place, says Sanders. Wright quotes Sanders approvingly on p. 71 as follows—

“The pattern is this: God has chosen Israel and Israel has accepted the election. In his role
as King, God gave Israel commandments which they are to obey as best they can. Obedience
is rewarded and disobedience punished. In the case of failure to obey, however, man
has recourse to divinely ordained means of atonement, in all of which repentance is
required. As long as he maintains his desire to stay in the covenant, he has a share in
God’s covenantal promises, including life in the world to come. The intention and effort
to be obedient constitute the condition for remaining in the covenant, but they do not
earn it . . . [The rabbis’] legalism falls within a larger context of gracious election and assured salvation. . . they did not think that they earned their place in the covenant by the number
of misvot [commandments] fulfilled. Nor did they think that the transgression of more
commandments than were fulfilled would damn them . . . The failure to understand the
relationship between the framework of covenantal election and assured atonement on the
one hand, and the intra-covenantal reliability of God to reward and punish on the other,
has led to the complete misunderstanding of the essentials of Rabbinic religion.” Along the way, Tom seems to agree with Sanders that Paul reasons from solution to plight, not the other way around.

However, and it is a big however, Tom objects to the major two categories Sanders uses to talk about Judaism and Christianity as ‘religions’ indeed he objects to the category religion as a way of talking about these things. Here is what he says…. “the categories with which Sanders conducts his ‘religious’ analysis seem more inappropriate the more one looks at them. ‘Getting in’
and ‘staying in’, Sanders’s major categories, are not topics suggested by the
Jewish material. Apart from the occasional discussion of proselytes, and the
question of initiation within the Qumran community, the sources are not
interested in how someone ‘gets in’. Again, apart from occasional questions
of discipline within that kind of community, the matter of ‘staying in’ is not
a focus either. Nor would ancient greco-roman religion have been comfortable
with a discourse framed in that way. Apart from what happened in relation
to the mystery religions, ‘getting in’ and ‘staying in’ are simply not what
ancient religions were about. Such categories might conceivably apply to a
philosophy, but apart from the official ‘schools’ themselves there were no
structures to police who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. No: these phrases look
like the retrojection of modern categories of ‘religion’, where ‘religion’ is
something that you choose, that you enter, and from which you might perhaps
be ejected.” (p. 80).

Here at the end of Chapter Three we begin to see another telling difference between Wright’s perspective and that of Sanders. Wright says that Sanders main thrust is that participation language is central, transfer terminology, and that the critique of the law is not about the law enticing people to try and save themselves by keeping it, rather the law consigns all persons to sin and to being sinners. Wright thinks that the very solution he himself favors for bringing the participation language and the justification language together in Paul’s soteriology is the very one Sanders rejects. It is Sanders’ view that the body of Christ is not analogous to Israel, and being in Christ is not formally the same as being in the covenant between God and Israel. In my view, Sanders is exactly right, and this is one of the places where Tom’s analysis of Paul simply does not work. It especially does not work when it comes to the interpretation of Rom. 9-11 where Israel means non-Christian Jews, many of whom have been temporarily broken off from the people of God, so the Gentiles may be grafted in.

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