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

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.

15 thoughts on “N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective (1)

  1. Gotta’ admit that I’m begging to enjoy Wright’s writings. His opinion of how we… well, I’ll just quote him…, “But if our own positions are thus to be relativised, it may be high time to enquire about some of the supposed ‘fixed points’ of scholarship which, growing as they did out of a very different era to our own may perhaps have been allowed to remain more by fashion than by solid argument” (Wright 18). This challenge to throw out the presuppositions and doctrines that have governed our own way of thinking and that we so often read into the text of the Bible has become a reoccurring theme in the two bits of writing that I’ve read from him and I find that I’m enjoying the challenge. Questioning the doctrines that have been fed to me since my earliest years and challenging them in light of what the Bible, not man, has to say is a truly sobering thrill. Hopefully, we can all rise to his challenge.

  2. It is obvious to anyone reading through the story of Paul that he clearly had his finger in three different worlds. Both Polhill and Wright make this point, but one thing that I think Wright does a better job is integrating and basically pointing out the fact that these were not necessarily three separate identities that Paul had. I don’t know about other people, but when I read Polhill, the impression was that Paul was a Jew when he was with the Jews, a Roman with the Romans, and a Gentile with the Gentiles. But Wright takes it one step further. He says that these three world views came together to create a whole new group that Paul was now a part of. “For Paul, to be ‘in the Messiah’, to belong to the Messiah’s body, meant embracing an identity rooted in Judaism, lied out in the Hellenistic world, and placing a counter-claim against Caesar’s aspiration to world domination…Paul would have insisted that there was something unique about this fourth world.” (6)

    It is particularly the emphasis on the foundation in Judaism that I would like to call to attention at this point. It never really dawned on me how similar a Jews outlook on life would have been to the early Christian. In fact, most of the early Christians were Jews, even after Paul was called to the Gentiles. The Jews already had the foundation of a single God, redemptive properties through sacrifices, and the concept of a coming messiah to bring about the reign of the Lord. Both Polhill and Wright make this point abundantly clear and it begs the question…How much did Paul’s worldview really change after his conversion? I think the answer to that is not much at all.

  3. The answers to these questions cannot be answered without the direct guidance and wisdom of God. The Pharisaical party and Paul both had an extensive philosophical and religious background. And even though Paul had the most diverse, robust cultural background of the time, I would still say that his word alone, unguided by God, would not be sufficient to answer the five questions listed. It is common for an individual to base his opinion on presuppositions and contemporary influences. The difference Paul has in answering these infinately simple and infinately complex questions, is the inspired word of God speaking through him.

  4. I think that it is really interesting to think of it as a “new age.” But when you think about it and try to put yourself in Paul’s shoes, then it makes sense. He has been given this brand new task of preaching to the Gentiles, somthing that wasn’t a priority in the past, and it’s a message that hasen’t been told till now. It is all new, and Paul’s excited about it.
    Casey, I really liked how you brought up the fact that Jews would have already had a similar outlook on life as an early Christian. As I have grown up in church my whole life, I have never thought about it, or have been taught it. I say that because I have always thought of Jews having such a different outlook, and that when Paul was preaching to the Gentiles, the Jews were kind of put aside. Like now it’s the Gentiles turn. But that’s not what God says. He says that Jesus died on the cross for all. It’s exciting! I wish I could have seen Paul preach. I bet you would have been able to see the passion that he had for God.

  5. I have to agree with Duke. I like how Wright says that Paul was a part of a “fourth” group instead of three different identities. I do agree that Polhill does imply that Paul was a Jew to the Jews, Roman to the Romans, and Greek to the Greeks. But what does that leave Paul? A very confused individual? No, he lived to save all that he could and the way that it manifested was in different ways to everyone. He did not change his appearance or culture every time he entered into a new city. You just see a different facet of it.

    As far as changing after his conversion, I do agree that Paul probably did not have to radically redefine his theology of a monotheistic religion. However, he would have to redefine what he thought of the Messiah and how he would live. It is true, not many expected the Messiah to suffer like he did and even to rise from the dead. The expectation was for a Messiah that liberated them from oppressive rule. This is the key worldview they held! Now this would have to change since God still allowed them to be under Roman rule even after the Messiah died and rose from the dead.

  6. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 demonstrates exactly Paul’s style. I do not know how he did it, besides the assistance of God, but the sheer toll the he must have taken on him. I can’t imagine connecting with 3 different type of people that are so diverse, and yet clearly speak the message of God.

  7. Paul had a “Jewish message for the whole world” (Wright 5). A message of Israel’s God, but to the entire world. This message was about the called out group he was a part of (ekklesia). The true family of Abraham, and membership went beyond ethnic lines and social class. “The fulfillment of the covenant, resulting in new covenant and new creation, is accomplished for Paul, by the particular events of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (Wright 13). As Mr. Long said, this was “a radically new idea within Judaism”, and Wright, as usual, helps us look through the lens of historical context and culture to better understand what this message meant from Paul, a Jew, to the entire world. He sets up the importance of the behind the scene narratives of Jewish history, a whole world of thought that is central to everything Paul says.

  8. Nice posts.

    The most interesting thing has been how Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus changed…maybe directed his energy and focus. Paul goes from being an overzealous person with no love killing Christians to preaching Christ’s death, burial and resurrection almost exclusively. I definitely agree with Brent that this was a huge blow to everyone else, because it rocked their worldview entirely! It almost makes me wonder what would happen if I’m putting my hope in something else other than Christ – He is central to the faith, and central to the story of the bible. Because Paul was able to realize this, he was able to take everything he was in Christ, and proclaim Him in such a great way.

  9. Worldviews change as time goes on. Changes and technology, medecine, but in Paul’s case, was there that big of difference between the worldview of before the conversion or after it? I would agree with the bulk of the arguments made already. The essence of the Hebrew religion is hinged on the monotheistic principal. Paul would understand this and although the focus went from Jews to every nation, the worldview answers would not seem to change. I would say that the only change that happened was that God’s grace from nation-grace to world-grace.

    The substance of a worldview is made up of how you view life, such as the problems and solutions to those problems. While Paul’s conversion was miraculous, it didnt change Paul’s understanding of the world but his mindset towards the world.

  10. I think Paul was a very diverse individual. He was able to appeal to many different people. I think that fact was able to reach people that others were not able to. If we can not learn how to be able to respond to others and not judge them for being different than we are. If we just judge them and not try to understand how they live, they will not listen to us. I think we as Christians do that way to much. We do not try to understand things that are different than we think is right. Through judging them, we are not showing them God’s love and then they turn away. Because Paul was able to be different, he made a difference in others lives.

    No one expected Jesus to die the way that He did. They thought that He was going to be a king and set them free from the authority that was already in place. They did not expect to see Him at His lowest point in life. I think it would have been very humbling to see. To see that someone who loves us so much, go through what He did. I am sure that Paul had a really good understanding of what Jesus did go through. That would of had a great impact on him. Does the death of Jesus have an effect on our lives too?

  11. I think Paul was also a good man to help take the world into its new age because of his persecution of the church. Everyday Paul had to wake up and face those he persecuted. This had to have given him a unique sense of drive and motivation that the other disciples would not have had. I also think that the zeal that Paul had when he was persecuting the Christians originally was not altogether different then the zeal by which he brought Christ to the masses. I believe that Paul just wanted to bring glory to God in both cases. This time, however, Paul was at the recieving end of the sword instead of the giving.


  12. I agree with your comment Zakk that when Paul had his conversion his mindset changed toward the world rather than his understanding of the world. Paul’s understanding of the world would have stayed the same because things did not change drastically IN the world, but the fact that God gave eternal life to everyone, was the new news. This would have been the same for the Jews and Gentiles also. Everything in their worlds would have stayed the same, but this new mystery would change their mindset to knowing that grace has been extended to everyone.

  13. I love how as soon as we get into Wright, everything gets more interesting. His “fourth world” for Paul was a compelling concept that I’ve had a lot of fun pondering, and I think it is the additional tool needed to understand the otherwise fragmented picture of Paul’s cultural interaction. It’s easy, as has been stated, to slip into viewing Paul as a sort of multiple personality disorder freak, with Greek/Jewish/Roman influences splicing through his brain. But seriously, is that how we function as humans? I don’t think so. I think we are who we are, and different parts of us come to the fore as needed. I’m a Dutch Reformed homeschooled music professional, and I can honestly attest to the fact that those are three widely diverse cultures; but I don’t turn off my musician’s ears when I’m directing a church choir, however much I might sometimes want to. Neither do I wince or cover them. I smile sweetly, because I’m a Christian and I love my brother whether he can sing on key or not. I think Paul’s “fourth world” informed the other three, or, to grossly simplify Wright, for Paul “to be in the Messiah…meant Judaism…the Hellenistic world…and Caesar…while being both more and less than…those three.”

    It was Paul’s connection to Christ that enabled him to reach out in love through all of his cultural surroundings, and that formed his “narrative”. This is the difference I see between a garden variety second temple Pharisee’s answers to Wright’s five questions, and the answers Paul would give – for Paul, everything is in and through Christ. Christ is the culmination. And as any good philosopher knows, if you’re telling the same story with a different ending, it’s really not the same story at all.

  14. This book of Wright’s is also a favorite of mine. I’m strongly curious to see what he will do to expand on and add to this material in his 4th volume on “Christian Origins and the Question of God.”
    His other works in the series have been fantastic, though I’m still only partly through JVG.
    In Paul: In Fresh Perspective, I enjoy his discussions of Monotheism, Election, and Eschatology.

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