N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God

N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God November 10, 2018

Tom Wright published two volumes on Paul in his ongoing systematic treatment of the New Testament, Christian Origins and the Question of God. They bear the title Paul and the Faithfulness of God. There is a lot to appreciate and admire about them, and few things to despise unless the sheer size overwhelms you. They were the focus of a Patheos book club a long while back. I was supposed to participate, but they got these enormous tomes to us late and then moved up the date of the book club, which made my participation impossible. Now, more than two years later, I’m revisiting them, not because they’ve become available in audiobook form or anything like that (I’ve been digesting other books by Wright that way recently), but simply because there are a couple of features that I noted in a draft post when I started reviewing the book back around when it appeared, that still seem worth sharing.

To begin with, Wright’s two-volume book begins in an extremely unconventional way for a book about Paul. It starts with Philemon. I really did like this unique approach, asking what we could deduce about early Christianity if we had only that short work.

Wright reasserts his view that apocalyptic language did not mean an “end of the world” (in contrast to what it means to many modern apocalypticists) but was a symbolic way of expressing the radical transformation that was hoped for – much as we might talk about “earth-shattering events.”

You can probably see why I was drawn back to this topic, since it also comes up in the other books by Wright that I’ve been reading lately, focused on Jesus rather than Paul. As I’ve been teaching my historical Jesus class, the topic of whether Jesus was mistaken about the end has already come up, in the class focused on the Kingdom of God. I initially thought that Wright’s move away from a literal understanding of apocalyptic language was an attempt to avoid having Jesus and his earliest followers be wrong. But to the extent that they expected a non-literally earth-shaking change within the lifetime of those who heard Jesus speak, there is still a wrongness about that prediction. On the other hand, to the extent that one views this figurative understanding of apocalyptic as not merely a prediction, but a call to bring about the change that one hopes for, then Jesus and Paul were only wrong in the sense that the prophets of ancient Israel regularly were: they called people to change their lives individually and as a society, and sometimes that call fell on deaf ears.

Viewed from that perspective, Jesus and Paul may be judged “true prophets” after all. And I gather from what I’ve read here and elsewhere that Wright’s focus is – not inappropriately – less on the time frame and more on the impact of a revolutionary view of how revolution would occur in the world.

Have you read Wright’s massive Paul and the Faithfulness of God, or perhaps even the entire series of which this is itself but one part? What are your thoughts about Wright’s understanding of Jesus, Paul, early Christianity, and the application of their message and teaching for today?

For more about and from Wright, see the NT Wright Page, which recently added the text of two of Wright’s articles, one from NTS and one from JSPL. See too Susan Eastman’s review of another of Wright’s recent books about Paul (one that is of much more manageable size).



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  • I haven’t read those books, but the view that New Testament apocalyptism didn’t mean “end of the world” so much as “end of the world as we know it” I think is a very tenable view especially in light of Old Testament apocalyptism.

    • John MacDonald

      For me, Paul stresses that he is living in the time inception of the general resurrection of souls at the end of the age. He calls the resurrected Jesus the first fruits (ἀπαρχὴ) of the general resurrection harvest of souls at the end of the age (1 Cor 15:20). If Jesus is the firstfruits, the general harvest is at hand. I think Paul also stresses ἀγάπη as the state of things to be strive for now and to be realized “post-apocalypse,” but the principle point seems to be the general resurrection has begun, which is why Paul says “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is FUTILE and you are still in your sins (1 Cor 15:17). I guess this would mean the world “post-apocalypse” would be populated with friendly resurrected people.

      • There’s a lot you wrote in that paragraph that I don’t read the same way, such as:

        1. The end of the age is not the end of time. Time is a succession of ages, which is one reason why the words generally translated as “eternal” are actually plurals of “aion.”
        2. Jesus being the first fruits of those who have died does not necessitate that a general resurrection at the end of time is very near.
        3. We also have to account for the theology of the resurrection of martyrs that precedes the general resurrection, and when we read Paul, it’s important to suss out which he might be referring to at any given time.
        4. Understanding Paul’s thought on what it means for a non-resurrected Christ to mean that faith is futile also has to account for “you are still in your sins.” This has to connect with Jesus’ mission to save Israel from the covenant curse. So, I feel it might be too strong to read Paul’s phraseology here and conclude he must be talking about a general resurrection at the end of all time.

        Not that there’s anything in your reading that’s self-evidently problematic – a lot of very smart people read Paul that way. Just throwing more grist for the mill.

        • John MacDonald

          I’m about as far from a Religious Studies Scholar as you can get (lol), but I just kind of get the sense from Paul that while he thinks the social justice message is a nice add-on, compared to the general resurrection point (the inception event of which was Christ’s resurrection as “first fruits), nothing else really matters. Hence, Paul says: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” (1 Cor 15:32). If, as you argue, if the general harvest was not imminent, why bother calling Christ the “firstfruits?” The “first fruits” are the first agricultural produce of a season, so Paul must have thought the general resurrection season had begun.

          This fits in with Paul’s message to focus on the salvific act in the pre Pauline Corinthian creed, and also when he says: ” For I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).”

          This to me is a clue that the historical Jesus probably taught the “agape message,” because Paul seems to feel a need to emphasize it even though Paul’s mind is on other things.

          • Well, when the image is used apocalyptically, it doesn’t always mean that the rest are soon to follow.

            Take, for example, Jeremiah 2 where Israel is called “the firstfruits of God’s harvest.” The rest of the nations of the world coming to God is definitely on the prophetic horizon, but there’s no sense in Jeremiah 2 this is happening anytime soon. In fact, in Jeremiah 2, Israel has turned away from God, thus setting the plan back even further. So, even though agriculturally firstfruits and harvest follow within a single year, there’s no particularly good reason to use this image in such a strictly literal way. The Old Testament doesn’t.

            But for me, I think the issue in 1 Cor. 15 isn’t a distant general resurrection but a more proximate resurrection of the martyrs that occurs at the coming of Jesus.

            In v. 22, Paul says that all will made alive, but in v. 23, he says, “But each in order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ, then comes the end when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,” and that is the day that death is destroyed.

            So, we have this construction:

            Christ -> Those who belong to Christ at his coming -> the end when death is destroyed

            I think it’s highly likely that Paul’s point here concerns the coming of Christ and the resurrection of the martyrs which he does see as happening reasonably soon. I think this is likely the case in 2 Thessalonians as well which has thematic parallels to the 1 Cor. passage.

            Incidentally, this seems to be the same schema offered in Revelation, where in chapter 20 the martyrs are raised with Christ to reign for a thousand years while Satan is bound, and this is called the “first resurrection.” It’s after the thousand years that there is a general resurrection and final judgement.

          • John MacDonald

            There seems to be some evidence of early Christian communities who viewed God resurrecting Jesus (as the firstfruits) as the catalyst/sign for the first stage of the general resurrection harvest of souls.. For instance, Matthew says:

            The tombs broke open, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After Jesus’ resurrection, when they had come out of the tombs, they entered the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27:53)

          • Yes, Matthew’s bit is weird and pretty much every scholar is a little mystified at what that bit is doing there. Especially the strange timing statements. Did they rise from the dead when Jesus died (along with the earthquake and the tearing of the veil that immediately precede it) or after he rose from the dead?

            I think there are a few clues that help us understand how the original audience might have understood the theology of such an event.

            First of all, Matthew does not present us with a limited resurrection of all sorts of people, but a limited resurrection of the saints (hagion). This actually has a basis in Old Testament apocalypse.

            For instance, in Isaiah 26:19, we have the image of a resurrection of Israel’s dead on a day when God will deliver them from oppressors, but as v. 20-21 show, the judgement that liberates Israel will follow that event, as we see in chapter 27. In fact, 20-21 seem to recall a bit of the Exodus.

            A similar image is found in Daniel 12, where at the deliverance of Israel, many of her dead will be raised, some to life and some to contempt. Yet, the wise still lead people to righteousness in this time.

            Then, of course, there is the resurrection of some of Israel’s dead in the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 which serve as a sign of God’s impending deliverance and restoration of Israel.

            So, theologically, I think Matthew includes this resurrection story of some of faithful Israel’s saints as a sign that the day of God’s deliverance and restoration has come, especially since Matthew places a lot of emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes and prophecy. I think this is more likely than Matthew depicting a theology of Jesus being the firstfruits of a general resurrection – my opinion.

          • John MacDonald

            Well, Matthew says “After Jesus’ resurrection, when they had come out of the tombs,” which seems to suggest the Christian Night Of The Living Dead in Matthew followed Jesus’ resurrection, which would fit in with my model of the first stage of the general resurrection harvest of souls following Jesus’ resurrection as the catalyst/firstfruits.

          • He does say that, but the verses (51-52) immediately preceding that say:

            At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.

            Emphasis mine. This is immediately followed by the verse you quoted (53):

            After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

            If we’re reading that in a strictly literal sense, the tombs opening and the resurrection of the saints happened when the earthquake happened. After Jesus’ resurrection, they came out.

            It’s unlikely (to me) that Matthew intends to communicate that those are actually separate events separated by three days, but that’s precisely how the text reads, hence the ambiguity. It reads as though they were raised when Jesus died, but didn’t come out until after Jesus did. Maybe that -is- what Matthew means, I don’t know. It seems weird.

            I think it would be odd, if this is all meant to be understood to have happened after Jesus’ resurrection, that it would be mentioned -here- with the earthquake and the veil at the time of Jesus’ death and not with the pericopes talking about the resurrection, which occur not even after this, but after more information about Jesus’ burial. In your opinion, why would Matthew put this data -here- if all of it occurred along with / after Jesus resurrection? Why mention it here with the death and accompanying phenomena if it has no connection with them?

            But either way, let’s say for the sake of argument Matthew intends to depict this resurrection as happening following Jesus’ resurrection. That may fit your model, but the question is whether or not this would be evidence of an early Christian community that believed Jesus was the first resurrection of an imminent general resurrection.

            Obviously, neither you nor I can know for sure, we’re just bandying around possibilities. Again, I think this episode is best understood as an Old Testament fulfillment, which is something Matthew demonstrates a penchant for many times in that gospel. He already has a pattern of doing that.

            Is there other evidence from gMatt you have in mind that would help establish that Matthew includes this episode to teach an imminent general resurrection?

          • John MacDonald

            I think it might have been like the 2 donkey thing.

            Matthew assumed that Jesus must have ridden into Jerusalem on two donkeys, because for Matthew that would have been the best way to fulfill scripture.

            Analogously, the idea of the resurrected Jesus as the “first fruits” of “the general resurrection harvest of souls at the end of the Age” might have been floating around since Paul’s time, so Matthew just added the incidental detail to his narrative of the parade of zombies because Matthew thought something like this must have happened as the first stage of the eschaton. This could all be part of Matthew doing apologetics about the importance of Christ being resurrected: Not only is he raised (as others before him had been), but this raising was the “first fruits” or catalyst for the end of the age. Matthew doe something similar when he safekeeps the integrity/honesty of the resurrection appearances by placing guards at the tomb as an apologetic against the rumor that the disciples stole the body (Matthew raising the rumor apologetically here:  Matthew 28:11-15).

            I guess you could appeal to scripture fulfillment in Matthew (like the Jesus as the new Moses thing) to flesh out a hermeneutic here, but I think it’s just as likely that Paul and Cephas and the gang thought of the resurrected Jesus as the “first fruits” of the “general resurrection harvest of souls at the end of the Age,” and so Matthew added the incidental narrative of the march of the zombies to express this.

          • The 2 donkey thing, I think, would perhaps shore up my view. It would be an idea from the Old Testament that Matthew presents being fulfilled (rather literally) in the life of Jesus. That would be in line with the account of the saintly resurrections also being included to fulfill an idea from the Old Testament.

            I do want to reiterate that I think your reading is completely viable, and I appreciate you taking the time to continue to talk out our views. I think your view is a common one.

            I do think that, at least thus far, there’s a bit of circularity involved in your reading. In order for gMatt to be validating a teaching of Paul (or Peter), then that teaching would have to be found in Paul or Peter. But (and I might not be remembering this correctly), I believe you mentioned this passage as support for that teaching as Paul’s meaning in 1 Cor. 15. So, the hypothesis plays out in harmony if we -assume- that reading, but neither passage helps us to -establish- that reading. I think you may be assuming the existence of this teaching back of both of those passages, but I’m not sold on why we would assume the existence of that teaching.

            One thing I’ve noticed is that you’ve used the phrase “harvest of souls at the end of the age” a few times, now, and even specifically quoted it. This phrase isn’t in any biblical passage, so I just wondered if maybe there was a commentary or source you might be drawing from. “End of the age” does appear several times, although that’s not the same as the end of all time.

            There are no occurrences of “harvest of souls” that I’m aware of, but that -is- a phrase that is common in futurist/dispensationalist literature regarding Christian eschatology, and I wonder if maybe that’s where you might be drawing the idea from? It is a SUPER common view in modern evangelicalism, especially in America.

          • John MacDonald

            No, I’m not working from a commentary, lol. It’s more fun to just freestyle.

            My phrase “general harvest of the rest of the souls” follows from an analytic of the phrase “first fruits” that Paul uses of the resurrected Jesus. In other words, if the resurrected Jesus is the “first fruits of the harvest,” then everyone else’s souls would be “the rest of the harvest.”

            Regarding the resurrection of Christ as “first fruits,” I would point out there is nothing overly significant about someone being raised from the dead in the Hebrew Scriptures. Elisha raises the Shunammite’s Son, but once raised people didn’t start worshiping the Shunammite’s Son like they did the raised Jesus. So, I think we can infer that there was something significantly different when we contrast the raised Jesus with the raised Shunammite’s Son. I think the difference is that Jesus’ death supposedly reconciled humanity to God, and so he was resurrected as the “first fruits” who made possible ushering in the first stage of the general harvest of resurrected souls at the end of the age (I never said I viewed biblical time as ending with the eschaton, just that there would be a new age).

            The early Christians would have been an anti-temple sect, like the Qumran sect, and so would have seen Christ’s sacrifice replacing the need for the corrupt, Roman loving temple cult. Crossan in an unrelated context talks about the Peace through victory of Rome (Pax Romana) being replaced by the Peace through justice of Jesus.

            I think this model best represents what is going on in Paul, and Matthew as the “first stage of the eschaton” taking place with the risen Christ as the “first fruits catalyst,” followed by the mass resurrection of zombies.

            Anyway, that’s the best I can make sense of it. I’ll bow out and let you have the last word. It was fun chatting with you, as always!

          • Always a pleasure, John, thanks.

          • Nick G

            It’s unlikely (to me) that Matthew intends to communicate that those are
            actually separate events separated by three days, but that’s precisely
            how the text reads, hence the ambiguity. It reads as though they were
            raised when Jesus died, but didn’t come out until after Jesus did.
            Maybe that -is- what Matthew means, I don’t know. It seems weird.

            Well if you’d been dead, and suddenly found yourself alive again, wouldn’t you want a bit of time to reorient yourself and make yourself look as respectable as possible in the circumstances, before going into town? Admittedly, three days seems a bit excessive, but maybe they waited for the slowest and most pernickety :-p

  • kzarley

    On Jesus teaching “the end of the world,” with all due respect that I have for distinguished NT scholars, I don’t think they have this right. That is, Jesus and Paul did not predict the parousia-eschaton-second coming-world to come would occur within a generation of forty years or soon. Albert Schweitzer got this wrong even though he was right about Jesus being an apocalyptic preacher. Let’s just take Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. First, Jesus clearly said he didn’t know when he would return, that only the Father does (Mk 13.32 par.). Secondly, I think Jesus did not mean “generation” in v. 30 to refer to that current generation but the generation that sees all the things Jesus just predicted (excepting his actual return and the cataclysmic events that will accompany it in vv. 24-27). That includes the “abomination of desolation” (AofD) which Daniel clearly says will occur 3.5 years prior to the end (though all 3.5 year language in Daniel and Revelation does not provide knowing the exact day, as he says in Mt 25.13). Thus, the generation that sees the important AofD will see Jesus’ return. Third, Jesus said, “you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn” (v. 35; cf. Lk 12.38). This metaphorical language indicates a wide range of time periods. I think Ben Witherington has all of this right in his book Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World.

    • Mark

      You are reading the little apocalypse as if it were written or stated circa 30 AD, maybe one should be a little more critical? Mark is writing some time after 70.

      It is very hard to deny that Paul originally thought the parousia was imminent. 1 Thessalonians 4 13 is a typical text – where he consoles them about brethren who have died before the arrival “the dead in Christ will arise first, then we the living, those remaining, will be caught up together with them”, which surely entails some of ‘us’ will be living. Perhaps he became more reflective about his, as e.g. in Romans 11 where he says, “… blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved” which leaves the question ‘whats the fullness of the Gentiles?’ open.

      If we follow Acts and to some extent Paul’s references, we see that after the resurrection a bunch of Galilean farmers or fishermen drop everything and come to live with all things in common in Jerusalem near the temple. This doesn’t seem like a long term game plan, but more like emergency behaviour.

      Crucifixion fits poorly with standard messianic ideas, various as they are, But with immediate resurrection, cosmic war and glorious rule it can be made sense of as Paul does. He think’s it a little blip in standard messianic pictures – but one with a crucial function of course. It is hard to sustain this idea unless cosmic war and glorious rule are so close you can touch them.

      • I think Paul expected the mass acceptance of Jesus as Messiah by “all Israel” to happen in his own lifetime, precisely as an impact of his Gentile mission.

        • Mark

          Maybe, but he also envisages the possibility of dying before the end, no? – as e.g. in Philippians 1:20ff.

          I think he envisages Israel or ‘all Israel’ being ‘saved’ in the sense in which, before plumping for ‘Christ Jesus’ – as a somewhat apocalyptic Pharisee of some sort – he would have thought the appearance of a messiah saves Israel. The impact on Israel will principally come with the parousia itself. It’s a cosmic event, but has to include his ‘arrival’ as king over all Israel – and I suppose a sort of emperor over the rest of the world.

          If, with the resurrection, Jesus had simply started to rule (in whatever way Paul thinks he soon will rule) then all Israel would immediately have accepted him, of course. What else do you do with someone coming on clouds or whatever!? Paul’s picture of the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection would be unaltered, and ‘all Israel’ would be ‘saved’. In fact, though, there is a hiatus which makes room for the Gentile mission.

          This fits poorly with a line like “I want somehow to make the people of Israel jealous of what you Gentiles have, so I might save some of them” but the rest of the Romans 11 isn’t mostly thinking about individual salvation the way he typically does. Saving ‘some of them’ doesn’t sound like ‘all Israel is saved’.

          It’s certainly true that he thinks his Gentiles are somehow miraculous and a sign and any Jew ought to see this. It’s not something he can say, but I suppose the perpetual miracle of Gentiles becoming ‘holy’ – and not the slime he thinks they were – is part of what maintains his own conviction.

          • Paul did indeed contemplate the possibility of his death while in prison. Whether he continued to think that way, or backtracked after being released, is hard to say.

          • Why is it a cosmic event? Or, I guess before asking that, I should ask what you mean by “cosmic?” Do you mean Cosmic in the Greek sense of the word, or in the good vs. evil clash for all time sense of the word?

          • Mark

            I don’t know, I’m just thinking of e.g. the picture in 1 Cor 15, throughout. It seems that Paul thinks the resurrection is the ‘first fruits’ and beginning of some general transformation of reality, and bodies generally.

    • So, full disclosure, those readings are very standard futurist and dispensational defenses that I think are highly unlikely and do rather a lot of violence to Daniel’s historical context. But they are also fairly common in modern evangelicalism and I don’t mean to give the impression that they’re unheard of.

      That said, how do you read Matthew 10:23 –

      “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

      Do you think that’s an instruction for the disciples that Jesus is currently talking to and sending out, or do you believe that is an instruction for an audience many thousands of years later? If the former, how would that square with the idea that the return of the Son of Man would be an indefinite period of time long into the future?