N. T. Wright, Justification Chapter 2.2


The second plank in Wright’s method is establishing the proper context for reading the letters of Paul.   What he means here is that Paul needs to be read in the context of the first century, both as a Jew and as a Hellenistic Jew.  As he described in Fresh Perspective, Paul is a man with a foot in three worlds who is creating a fourth: He is re-interpreting the Jewish Scripture, speaking and thinking in Greek, communicating to a Roman world, and providing the foundation for Christianity.  As such, the “background to Paul” should be the Hebrew Bible, Judaism as described in  first century sources, and the literature of the Greco-Roman world.  To me, this seems obvious, and I spend a great deal of time academically studying what is loosely described as “backgrounds” to the New Testament.

What could possibly compete for this context?  As Wright explains it, many commentaries (and translations) place Paul in the context of the Reformation and Reformation doctrine.  This develops out of E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which savaged New Testament scholars for reading Paul as Luther, battling proto-Pelagians.  Sanders’ point was simply, “read Paul against the background of real Second Temple period Judaism, not Luther and Reformation theology.”  Perhaps where Sanders went wrong is intensity of his attack.  When scholarship shifts into polemic, it is usually on shaky ground.

Following Sanders then, Wright is correct in that Paul should not be read as Luther, but on the other hand there is at least a fair chance that Luther got quite a bit in Paul correct.  I am not willing to say that the doctrine of justification which developed out of the reformation is wrong, but I am willing to say that it is not the central idea within Paul’s theology.  Like James Dunn in his Pauline Theology, I think that justification is an important metaphor for salvation which Paul does in fact use, but it is not the primary foundation for all of Paul’s theology.

But context is not to be done for context’s sake.  The reason we study Second Temple period Judaism, or Greco-Roman culture, or “Proper evangelicals are rooted in Scripture, and above all in the Jesus Christ to whom Scripture witnesses, and nowhere else” (51).  In my copy of Justification, I have the whole sentence underlined, and three underlines under nowhere else. I am very interested in Second Temple period literature and have genuinely enjoyed reading books like 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I see so much in them that is useful for my understanding of the Gospels and Paul, but this literature are not the goal.  The goal of all this background” study must always be a proper understanding of Jesus and Paul.