Paul and the Faithfulness of God“Paul lived and worked, in fact, in at least three worlds at once” (p75), namely, Israel, Greece, and Rome. I’m working through N.T. Wright’s leviathanesque Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and in this first major ‘part’ (348 pages) he is first attempting to situate Paul in history before turning to his worldview and theology, parts 2 and 3 respectively.

I am no historian, haven’t a PHD in theology, and haven’t engaged much with Second Temple Judaism. So much in this section was new to me. Why should you read my thoughts then? While I can’t offer much of a critique on Wright’s arguments here, I can present the thoughts of a relative newcomer as I imagine many of my readers would be as well.

Like Birds Hovering Overhead: The Faithfulness of the God of Israel

To understand Paul’s world better in order to better understand Paul, “the obvious place to begin is where Paul himself tells us he began: in the politically charged, religiously zealous and intellectually demanding world of a first-century Pharisee.” (p80).

Wright begins with a discussion on the Pharisees and the division between the more radical and moderate positions of Shammai and Hillel respectively. Paul most likely sided with Shammai due to his persecution of Christians in his ‘zeal’ (Phil 3:6), despite his teacher being Gamaliel, the grandson of the moderate Hillel (Acts 22:3). Wright also brought 1 Maccabees to bear on the concept of ‘zeal’. This section on the Pharisees and how these insights can be applied to Paul was fascinating.

After surveying the importance of Torah and Temple to the Jews Wright argued that, “despite the danger of generalization, we can and must say that most Jews of Paul’s day perceived themselves, at a deep, worldview level, as living in a story in search of an ending” (p109). This brings us to the heart of this chapter and the point I want to focus on. Wright argues that the Jews of Paul’s day saw themselves in a continuing exile. Despite their being back in the land of Israel, the promises of the prophets had not come to fruition; Israel was still under the oppression of the Gentiles, the Messiah had not come and was not ruling the land, and the Gentiles were not flocking to God.

Some scholars dispute this claim of Wright’s, but I have to admit I find it hard to disagree with. Wright argues from Second Temple Jewish texts that this concept is not of his own making, but his strongest argument is found in Daniel 9. Often we get caught up in debating the chronology of Daniel 9, the identity of the ‘covenant’, or even the one making it! However, we often overlook the fact that the vision is in response to Daniel’s prayer for God to restore Israel to the land in light of Jeremiah’s prophecy of a 70-year exile. That Daniel is told of a period of 7×70 years is not insignificant. In effect, Daniel 9 presents the return to the land as not completing all of Israel’s hopes. There are in fact two ‘returns’ from exile. Wright doesn’t dwell on the reason for this, but I think the answer is found in the fact that the Jews exile from Israel is much like another exile – Adam and Eve’s exile from the garden. Adam’s sin brought sin into the world, which is the cause for Israel’s exile from the land. So the solution to Israel’s exile is not just a return to the land, but the need for their own sins to be dealt with, hence the two exiles. For more on this, see Jim Hamilton’s post The Two Exiles.

It’s in light of this question of continuing exile that Wright presents the Pharisees as pursuing the Torah not so much in a legalistic sense, but in a desire to obey God’s commandments and see Him act (Deut 30:19-20) in restoring Israel. I suspect this will be a foundation that Wright will later build his New Perspective on Paul viewpoints on, but that remains to be seen.

Of course, Wright has much more to say in this chapter, and I disagree with some of the details, but this is his big idea. As last time, I will end with some stray quotes.

We know for certain, however, that Saul of Tarsus persecuted the early church and was himself persecuted. We can be sure that neither of these activities were random activities, unrelated to the structure of what Pharisees believed was required by ‘zeal’. This violence was what they were called and authorized by God to do, in defence of Torah and covenant. p194

The Pharisaic world- view embraced the whole of reality. It was not simply about ‘religion’, whether in the ancient or the modern senses. It included a ‘wisdom’, an understanding of the world and of its creator, which belonged with what the ancients thought of as ‘philosophy’. It included a community-oriented agenda which belonged with ‘politics’. That is why, if we are to understand Paul the apostle, we must see him within this rich, many-sided world. To move through the different concentric circles: the Pharisaic worldview was about the whole business of being human; of being a Jewish human; of living in a Jewish community; of living in a threatened Jewish community; of living with wisdom, integrity and hope in a threatened Jewish community; of living with zeal for Torah, the covenant and above all Israel’s faithful God within a threatened Jewish community. p196

Next up: The Wisdom of the Greeks. The first part of my review can be found here. Comments are welcome!

[Many thanks to SPCK for providing a copy of this book for review. I was not required to give a positive review]