N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective (1)

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This is the first of a series of posts which are based on N. T. Wright, Paul:  A Fresh Perspective (Fortress, 2005).  This little book has stimulated quite a bit of my thinking, these posts help me to sort it out a bit.

Wright starts out with many of the same observations made by Polhill.  Paul has a foot in three separate worlds, Jewish Greek and Roman.   In fact, one of the things Wright has done well throughout all of his writings is to place the New Testament writers into the worldview of the first century.  I will briefly define “worldview” here as the story a culture uses to answer the “big questions” of life.  Worldviews are expressed in terms of cultural symbols and practice.  For example, it is possible to describe the “American worldview” through the myth of the Old West as told in classic cowboy movies.  In fact, if American had to choose a god it might very well be John Wayne, the rugged individualist who rides into town, defends the orphans and widows, shoots up the bad guys and rides off into the sunset.  This is a story which is loosely based on reality which describes the way people in America think about their country.

N. T. Wright identifies five “big questions” in his description of the worldview of the Second Temple period (see NTPG chapter 5, JVG chapter 10).  All cultures have to answer these questions, but Wright is only concerned with the world of the first century – how might Paul answer these questions?

  • Who are we?
  • Why are we here?
  • What is wrong?
  • What is the solution?
  • What time is it?

In the first century, Paul would have answered these questions with a story something like this.  We are the people of God, put here in this world to worship God and enjoy the goodness of his creation.  But the world has become corrupted by sin and we are unable to fulfill that destiny.  The solution to the problem is to be found in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The last question is therefore critical – where are we in God’s plan of redemption?  For Paul, a new age has begun with Jesus – a radically different new age has already dawned when Jesus rose from the dead (Fresh Perspective, 6, 9).

If we were to speculate how a first century Pharisee might answer the “key questions,” I am not sure that it would be that much different than Paul for the first three questions, and maybe even the last question (the new age is about to dawn with the coming of messiah.)  It is the solution which is so very different.  Paul sees Jesus as the central piece in God’s plan of redemption.

The resurrection of Jesus is a radically new idea within Judaism.  For the most part, no one was expecting the messiah to die, let alone rise from the dead.  As such, Wright sees the resurrection as one of the central clues for understanding Paul.  For Paul, God revealed himself through Jesus, but Jesus was not simply a teacher, but “Christ Crucified.”  While Paul remained a monotheist after his conversion, Wright says it was a “disturbingly redefined monotheism (6), with implications which sake the foundations of the worldview of the Second Temple period.