A major part of N. T. Wright’s view of Paul (and Jesus for that matter) is that Paul stands within the overarching story of Second Temple Period Judaism. By this he means that Paul interprets Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection in the light of the “plot” of the Hebrew Bible as it was understood in the first century. Wright assumes that the majority of Jews in the first century shared some basic ideas about who they were and where the fit in the history of Salvation. There are five “big questions” which all world views answer: Who are we? Why are we here? What is wrong? What is the solution? What time is it?
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).
Most likely any Jewish reader of Paul’s letters would have agreed with the first three answers, although the solution to the problem would have differed greatly. Pharisees, for example, perhaps would have said “study of the Torah” is the key, while the Essenes would have agreed but urged a more faithful adherence to the Torah than even the Pharisees. Even a Hellenistic Jew living far from the Land may have agreed on the first three questions, but perhaps would have suggested the solution was commitment to Wisdom as a philosophy of life (someone reading Philo or Sirach, for example).
This is all well and good and I agree with Wright’s description of the narrative which controlled Jewish thinking in the first century. But Paul was not the Apostle to the Jews, he was sent specifically to the Gentiles. The answers to the world view questions would vary greatly in a Greco-Roman context. Unlike the Jews, the purpose of human life was not to worship the Hebrew God or enjoy his goodness. I would suggest that the common person was afraid of the capricious gods who controlled his fate and did not really have any desire to enter into a “personal relationship” with any god! What is more, the final question might not have resonated at all with the gentile world since the coming “new age” of the Hebrew Bible was unknown to them.
Paul would not have compromised his understanding of Jesus as the solution to man’s rebellion nor does he appear to have softened his eschatology for Gentile audiences. But how did Paul draw a pagan audience into a story which is decidedly Jewish? This will be the difficulty Paul faces as he does ministry further away from Jewish cultural centers in Acts 13-14. This is much more than an academic question since the task of the church has always been to re-tell the story in new and compelling ways to reach new generations of people.