N. T. Wright – Paul and the Covenant

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Wright makes the point on page 23 that there are two key texts in the Hebrew Bible which bring together the ideas of creation and covenant.  The first of these is Deuteronomy 27-30, which I have often called the “most important chapters in the Hebrew Bible” since they are foundational for not only the historical books which follow, but also the prophets.  I really do not think you can have a fully developed biblical theology of the Hebrew Bible without coming to terms with Deuteronomy, and perhaps one’s New Testament theology is not complete until the contribution to the message of the Hebrew Bible is understood.

What is more, Wright’s second example is Isaiah 40-55, a text which describes the glorious return from Exile as a new Exodus.  The people in exile are going to return to Zion in a procession through the wilderness, which is now a well-watered paradise, blooming with al kinds of plants.  In fact, Isaiah 40-55 is not just a new Exodus, it is a return to Eden.  God will do something at the end of the exile will restore creation to the original, intended state.

What is remarkable to me is that these two sections of Scripture (Deut and Isa) are the most important texts in Second Temple period Judaism in general, but even more important, for Jesus and Paul.  Wright states that the combination of covenant and creation which we find in these texts is a part of the “implicit narrative” of the Second Temple period.  He is correct, this sort of language turns up at Qumran and in a variety of the literature crated in this period.  Certainly we must include the New Testament as texts which were deeply influenced by the “implicit narrative” of these texts.

Wright selects three Pauline texts to illustrate his point, let me add a third.  In Galatians 3:10-14 we have a series of biblical texts combined to argue that what Jesus did on the cross has in a very real sense dealt with the curse of the Law.  In fact, this text connects the promises made to Abraham to faith in Jesus.  Here is how Wright reads the text:

  • Verse 10 – Everyone who does not do the law is cursed (Deut 27:26, blessing and curse, exile = curse);
  • Verse 11 –  “the righteous will live by faith” (Hab 2:4).  When Israel goes into captivity, they are under the curse and can no longer be a blessing to the nations.  How can the blessing of the nations ever be fulfilled if the nation is in exile?
  • Verse 13 – Christ redeemed from the curse by become a curse for us.  Israel at it’s best is salvation by works, if you don’t accept the messiah you have to be saved by works; the only way to overcome the curse is the death of Christ on the cross. The death of Christ on the cross is a re-living of the exile on the cross.
  • Verse 14-16 – if Israel cannot redeem the nations, how do the nations be blessed? Through the death of Jesus the true seed of Abraham and will bring the blessing to the nations.
  • Back to verse 11 – no one can be justified by the Law.  Israel is divided into faith and works, some relate to the messiah in faith, some relate in terms of works.  Those who are doing works for salvation are cursed, those who are operating under faith are the true seed of Abraham (who believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.)

In effect, Wright says that Jesus took on the curse of the Law in order to end the exile for good, so that those who have faith in Jesus are no longer children under the Law (and therefore the curse of the Law), but the are children of Abraham (and therefore live by faith.)

The real problem here is the historical question – did Second Temple period really believe they were still in exile?  Were they really looking forward to God breaking into history in order to put an end to the exile and create some sort of solution to the curse of the Law?  Would this have taken the form a real kingdom (ie., the diaspora Jews all return to Zion where the Messiah rules over them, and the Romans are destroyed), or is this a more peaceful, perhaps metaphorical solution which deals with the problem of sin which corrupted the covenant from the beginning?

I suppose the answer depends on presuppositions concerning the nature and relationship of the Church and Israel.  But I am really not happy with the either / or on this issue.  It could be both are correct views, if carefully stated.