Whenever reviewers call a book "magisterial," one of the things that they mean is that the book is too big to be read casually or digested quickly, and I will confess from the outset that I am reacting to my early reading in N. T. Wright's magisterial two-volume study Paul and the Faithfulness of God, not to a completed reading. I'm actually not rushing that completion. As I told Rowan Williams this week—he was one of two formal endorsers calling the book "magisterial"—what Wright has given us is the master class on Paul that I never had the chance to take in seminary. One of the greatest New Testament scholars of our age has spent a decade reflecting, gathering, and composing, and the result is a book (two, actually) about the greatest figure in Christian history besides Jesus himself—a figure who is loved, respected, and reviled, depending on the person, the question, the time.
What Rowan Williams and I were discussing over breakfast was the opening of Wright's epic reading of Paul, which begins with the tiniest bit of Paul that one can imagine, the slight book called Philemon. Most of us don't know what to do with the letter, 335 words in the original Greek, twenty-five verses in our Bibles. We don't know what this appeal to the slave-owner Philemon to deal mercifully with his runaway slave Onesimus has to do with, well, anything.
Paul notes that he has the authority to command Philemon, and yet he chooses not to (v. 8). Most contemporary readers are offended that Paul doesn't simply instruct Philemon to free his slave, or strike a blow for all slaves by condemning the institution itself. As S. Scott Bartchy argues in his entry on Philemon for the authoritative Anchor Bible Dictionary, Paul does not seem to "treat in the letter itself any of the obvious doctrinal or ecclesiastical issues that characterize all his other letters."
But part of Wright's brilliance in Paul and the Faithfulness of God (there is plenty more to go around) comes from his choice of this seemingly insignificant and even irrelevant Pauline letter as the starting point of his magnum opus. Instead of consigning Philemon to its usual status as minor work, Wright argues that in these twenty-five verses we are actually seeing the shortest and most concise version of Paul's argument that the coming of Jesus has changed everything—history, culture, society, and our understandings of ourselves.
Wright contrasts with Paul's letter to Philemon a similar letter written by Pliny the Younger wherein Pliny instructs a slave owner to deal justly with a runaway slave. In Pliny's letter, artfully written though it is, no one has any question about where the dynamics of power and influence are located and how they're being applied. Pliny is in the position of authority, and he is exerting that authority. It is business as usual in the Roman world.
But although Paul's letter is structurally similar, his rhetoric moves us in a radically different direction. As I mentioned, although he says he has authority he could call upon, Paul is choosing not to, preferring the more perfect way of Christian love and the new understanding of hierarchy brought by Christ. Onesimus, a Christian like Paul and Philemon, is now more than a slave, Paul writes. He is their brother (vv. 15-16).
Imagine in a world like theirs—imagine it even in a seemingly democratic world like our own!—the dissolving of barriers between classes of people because of the radical teaching of Jesus, the forming of a new community around the resurrection of Jesus. What Wright teases out of these few verses is an expert summary of the themes he intends to develop at length in the rest of the book, but what he is also offering is a brief but stirring exposition of the master scholar at work. In his clear, persuasive prose, Wright is also building the case for himself as the premiere expositor of Paul in our lifetimes.
So, no, I have not finished the books, which were in physical form too heavy to even carry in my baggage to Europe. I have been reading away at them on my Kindle, but I long to return to making notes in the margins, for in my early reading, I found myself remarking on one thing after another—and reminding myself of what I was learning on every page. This is the book on Paul I will return to over and over, long after I finish it.
I have learned from many of Wright's works over the past decade. I use his short "For Everybody" books as a part of my sermon preparation, have recommended his books on Christianity for parish reading, and have employed his recent books on evil and on heaven in classes and in my own books. But Paul and the Faithfulness of God may be not just the most imposing, but the most important thing N. T. Wright has ever written.
If you have always loved Wright, swallow that lump of apprehension in your throat and open the cover. If you have ever wondered why Wright has achieved near-celebrity status as a scholar, take the plunge. And if you have resisted Wright, for whatever reason, read this first section on Philemon and see if you don't find it convincing.
And every page since then has been a revelation.
For more conversation on Paul and the Faithfulness of God -- including a special Patheos discount on the book—visit the Book Club here.