Paul and the Story of Israel

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.

26 thoughts on “Paul and the Story of Israel

  1. Philip,

    This is all interesting, etc. but it is rather too suppositional for my taste at least. The whole Second Temple study is just not historical enough for me. And I am just not an NT Wright guy myself. I am myself one that seeks to work in the Text, and the exegetical, and here the hermeneutic should be driven, i.e. underscoring exegesis over hermeneutics, as we can see in Karl Barth.

    • Robert – this is a subject which is a bit “hot” right now in American evangelicalism. In my view, there is a great deal of material that ought to be read as “context” for the NT and Paul. I think we can construct a pretty good description of Judaism in the first century from the DSS, Pseudepigrapha, and other sources (including the NT). Sure that will remain a supposition, but think of it as a set of suppositions which are subject to revision and re-focusing as more scholars continue to read and understand this vast library of data. The DSS have not been published for all that long, let alone thoroughly studied and integrated into our understanding of the Second Temple Period!

      I think I state my case above as tentative (“probably” and “perhaps”), and there is nothing there that is totally out of step with the mainstream of scholarship on the Second Temple Period. I am willing to roll with the punches as more data comes to the surface.

      • Philip,

        Indeed sorry if I appear closed or “cold” on this, but I have read Wright also (almost all that he has written on this subject) and I too have and read his “Paul”, and I really tried to give his position a fair hearing, but he is just not fully exegetical, and poorly hermeneutical to my mind. And yeah I am not supersessional. But certainly Tom Wright’s best stuff is his work on the Gospels.

        To my mind, there is really no way to know the in’s and out’s of the First Century Judaism, at least at the depth that many suppose. We can make some good guesses certainly, but when I go to the Text, I want to count on the heart & mind of God and the Spirit! It is interesting how the work and ministry of the Reformers still effects the Church after over 500 hundred years! Though it is interesting too that both Calvin and Luther missed the depth of Romans chap. 9-11, at least to the covenant promises to national Israel! Yes, I lean toward the Historic Pre-Mill. And there has been a few Anglicans here too, I might add.. Henry Alford, etc. 🙂

      • You are fine, not everyone has to buy into this “backgrounds” method. For example, John Piper strongly objects to Wright’s use of extra-biblical texts, although Piper does so himself when it suits him. I am more confident that we can build a profile of the varieties of Second Temple Judaism, and I think that this profile helps us understand Jesus, Paul, James, Peter, and John better.

      • Phillip,

        Piper is a grand preacher! But not really a strict theolog. And its not the use of so-called extra-biblical aspects, but the depth and reliability of them, that I question. We all need and use history… the Church is a historical reality itself!

  2. I think in Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles it was very essential that instead of a lecture type sermon, he gave a narrative. People from every corner of the world can understand a story…not everyone can understand theological sermon! Today Christians get caught up in the “Christian culture” and forget that you cannot approach someone and say, “Do you know Christ? Let’s talk about predestination, ecclesiology, pre/post-trib, and the roots of dispensationalism!” No! We have to explain the foundations of salvation with simplicity and with humility –and still today, the most understood way of doing this is through a narrative.

    Also, as N.T. Wright Stated, “It is also a matter of sheer history” (Wright 8). You have to have a background to understand a concept. For instance, you cannot just assume that someone is going to understand the history and importance of something like a sonic screw driver, if they don’t have a background and a foundation, or even a basic understanding of Doctor Who. I think this shows that even today, it is still essential to be able to give that narrative of what Christ has done, a history , so that people can more fully understand the True and Divine nature of God.

  3. Just got a copy of Wright’s work today on Paul. I got it to see for myself what he says. I have not started reading it, will tomorrow. I did go over the content and the index. What has surprized me so far, not one reference in the Scripture index is from Acts. Makes me curious, if he says it is a matter of history, why does he not refer to the first historical writing of the New Testament–Acts? Do he not consider Acts a source? How can one write on Paul and not refer to Acts? Seemed odd to me. Guess I will see for myself.

    • I have Paul: A Fresh Perspective here on my desk, and there are a few references to Acts. I think you detect a little bit of the methodology of the academic world. People who write on “Paul’s Theology” tend to bracket Acts because the speeches of Paul in Acts are Luke’s recollections of Paul, not Paul directly. I am pretty sure you (and I) would see this as quite complimentary, but Luke/Acts people tend to do their work in isolation from people doing Pauline Theology. If I understand Wright correctly, he would likely be very comfortable with Luke as historical and a good reflection of Paul’s theology, although he seems to prefer to read Paul’s letters first.

      James Dunn might be an exception, but only because he has written both a massive Pauline Theology and a even more massive book on Acts and the apostolic era. My guess is the Theology is pretty much devoid of references to Acts, though.

  4. I think that Paul had to take a very apologetic approach to Christianity with the Gentiles, similarly to N.T. Wright’s approach in Simply Christian. Like Micah said, one can’t just jump right into the theological depth of Christianity with someone who has little to no understanding of Christianity as a whole. As we talked about last week with 1 Corinthians 9 and Paul making himself “a Greek to the Greek, etc” this is what he was talking about. He couldn’t just start using Jewish heritage and history to reach any gentile culture that had no idea of the story of God with his people. We’ve talked in past classes about the confusion that eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood would have with gentiles (cannibalism?), that wouldn’t have the same confusion with Jews due to the heritage and language associated with their history. Paul was aware of this and, “is at home, in fact, in the street-level world of Hellenistic discourse, while being aware of the need, as he puts it, to ‘take every thought captive to obey the Messiah’. He makes fruitful use of the language and imagery of the pagan moralists while constantly infusing it with fresh content.” (Wright, 4) (Sorry about the longish quote P Long) Acts 17:22-31 offers a perfect example of Paul’s approach. He finds a culturally relevant tool (idol to an unknown god) to start his discourse, and transitions into sharing the gospel. Without using language or examples that only those familiar with the Jewish culture would understand, he presents the gospel message of Christ and is able to speak it in a narrative way that the people would understand.

    • I cut a paragraph from my original post, in it I said something like “I think this is more than just Acts 17 style quoting of pagan poets….” I am not sure that Acts 17 is a perfect example since Paul still says that the gods all around him at that moment are nothing at all. He is far from a relevant multiculturalist finding truth in pagan philosophy. In fact, he is more or less twisting the pagan philosophy around to says something it really did not in the first place!

      Still, you are right, Paul had to adapt when approaching the Gentiles – I think the question is still open as to how far he was willing to adapt. (Or, how far *you* are willing to adapt!)

      • Myself, I tend to be like Van Till and his fine student John Frame, to see the presuppostional reality and authority of Holy Scripture! Also even Barth did not like or believe really in the force of evidential apologetics.

  5. In the chapters of Acts when Paul struggles with spreading this mainly Jewish way of thinking among the gentiles, we see that he is filled with the Holy Spirit at times. Paul was called specifically by God to do His work, and when he reaches adversity and situations where people may just think he is a joke; God intervenes and shows his true power. The same idea goes for the old Bible stories that are taught today in churches. Their is the version for the pre-school children, elementary kids, middle school kids, high school kids and college kids. The narrative of the gospel at that time did not need to be changed, but definitely needed to have a little flavor added to it to be suited for the gentiles to hear it and accept it.

  6. This is an interesting thought that P. Long brings up. And it is something that I have struggled with in the context of youth ministry in the 21st century even. But I do like what Dave is saying above. Paul had to be sensitive to his audience (the Gentiles) and to what their understanding of God was as he went to minister to them. But I think Paul is unlike most of the early Christians, especially those in leadership. Wright talks about how Paul “straddled at least three worlds”(Wright 3). It seems that Paul was the “best choice” for the Kingdom to be sent to the Gentiles because of Paul’s unique upbringing and understanding of the “three worlds” (which actually turn to four later on in Wright’s book). And because of Paul’s unique placement (geographically and spiritually) I can see why Paul was so effective in reaching the Gentile world. I think a great example of Paul using his experience of the “three worlds” is found in Acts 17 when Paul talks to the Athenians about the “unknown God”.
    I also would like to point out that Paul was not a “indoor evangelist”. What I mean by that is that Paul did not sit inside and then wait for the Spirit’s leading to go and tell others about Christ. Rather, Paul went out in to the highways and byways of those he was about to minister to. An example of this is in Acts 17:16-17, where we see that Paul was in the marketplace and in the synagogue hearing and “reasoning” with those who lived there. I think this “reasoning” is another reason Paul was so successful in ministering to the Gentile nations.

  7. In my own studies of the Bible I have never before thought about the Gospel from the perspective of the pagans. It is really fascinating to me that they would not “Have any desire to enter into a ‘personal relationship’ with any god!” Nowadays we assume that everybody would want that, but back in the day people feared their gods. That makes everything about Paul’s Gospel so much more interesting to me. How was he able to preach so well to the pagan Gentiles? Obviously God showed Paul what He wanted him to do, but it seems, in my opinion, like it would be a much more complicated task than just going up to someone and sharing the Evangecube.

  8. For this post I would like to discuss the question posed “how did Paul draw a pagan audience into a story which is decidedly Jewish?” (Phil Long). My answer to this question (and that of NT Wright as well) is that he took the narrative story of his Jewish background and elaborated on it by ‘adding’ a new chapter to it–one in which a new era had begun because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In essence, Paul was just continuing on the story he had heard as part of his Jewish heritage. “For Paul, to be ‘in the Messiah’, to belong to the Messiah’s body, meant embracing an identity rooted in Judaism, lived out in the Hellenistic world, and placing a counter-claim against Caesar’s aspiration to world domination, while being both more and less than a simple combination of elements within those three” (Wright 6). It did Paul good to tell a simple story rather than a lecture or sermon of sorts because everyone understands a story, not everyone understands a theological sermon—especially if they have, until that point, never heard of the topic you were preaching on. (I like how I realized that Micah said basically the same thing as me and I hadn’t even read her post.) Paul does a great example of this in his ‘reasoning’ in Acts 17:2-4. It’s just like those who go to the unreached people group or more specifically for my example, the missionary that went out to the Mouk tribe in the video EE-TAOW. He didn’t just go to that tribe and preach about Jesus. Instead he told the story of creation, fall, exile, restoration, etc., until they understood the history enough for him to preach about Christ. That way the tribe was more understanding and more willing to accept Jesus.
    I have to admit, I disagree a little with you, P Long when you say that it must have been hard for Paul to face the Pagan world to tell them the story of Jesus through a Jewish lens. Agreeing with Joe when he says “But I think Paul is unlike most of the early Christians, especially those in leadership. Wright talks about how Paul “straddled at least three worlds” (Wright 3). It seems that Paul was the ‘best choice’ for the Kingdom to be sent to the Gentiles because of Paul’s unique upbringing and understanding of the ‘three worlds’.” According to Wright “Paul lived, worked, and thought, and wrote within a complex and multiply integrated world” (Wright 3). Because Paul grew up and lived in a very diversely cultured world, I believe he was easily able to take his Jewish story and ‘re-amp’ it to fit any and every culture he came in contact with.

  9. For some reason I find I so often belittle Paul’s ministry in the sense of realizing the sacrifices he made for sharing the gospel and the mystery revealed to him by God (Eph. 3: 1-6). I view his accounts of persecution (2 Cor. 11:16-33) as a way of personal application and not much more. As if I can find comfort in the fact that Paul was terribly persecuted when I’m feeling bad about being made fun of for wearing my “Jesus t-shirt” (Just kidding, I don’t wear those, maybe I will if they ever come up with fashionable ones)… but anyways, you catch my drift. I feel like I forget the historical context, as well as how much of a pioneer Paul was. PLong pointed it out when thinking of the gentiles: “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!” Wright comments on this with Paul and the Jews: “This was the world from which Paul came, and in which he remained even though he said things which nobody within that world had thought of saying before and which many in that world found shocking, even destructive.” (4). I was reminded this week through our reading of Wright and Polhill how much I should appreciate the ministry of Paul as he was sharing the gospel and establishing churches, despite the horrendous persecution he faced.

  10. It is important to consider how to relate the gospel to an audience that has a culture that is opposed to the gospel. It is worth looking at what Paul did when he talked to gentiles about the gospel. Wright says, “He makes fruitful use of the language and imagery of the pagan moralists while constantly infusing it with fresh content” (4). Paul is able to use the same language and style of arguing like in 2 Corinthians 10:5 where it talks about “taking every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ”.

    I think we can learn from this. Paul does not compromise his message, he only presents it in a way that makes sense to his audience. His way of doing that was being a part of the culture and knowing the culture, while not compromising his beliefs. I find that this is true even still in present time. We cannot expect to effectively witness to people when we are separated by a big cultural barrier. This does not mean that we should give in to some things that society does, but it means that we should use our understanding of society to reach them.

  11. In my mind, Paul was well on his way to conversion, and I do not know if ‘totally unprepared’ depicts the situation correctly. “It has been argued, for instance, that Paul suffered from a tortured conscience. The figure of the dying martyr Stephen haunted him. He could not get the picture of the persecuted Christians from his mind” (Polhill, 55). When trying to put the pieces together, it is tough to think about Paul having all these thoughts without thinking of change, and without being prepared to change from the self-satisfying and sinful life he once lived. I think that what Paul is talking about in Romans 7:15 and some of the surrounding passages can be looked at in this situation as well, since Paul says things like “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” and “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” In this, it is seen that Paul is well aware of his need of a change, and even though it is never stated specifically, he may not have been “totally unprepared” for the event at Damascus.

    • oops….that post was for a different one.

      This question presented made me think of myself for some reason. I do not worship pagan gods, but at the same time I was not born a Jew, so I’ll consider myself a gentile at the time of Paul’s ministry in this case. I get Paul. I get his letters, and the way he presents the gospel, justification by faith, and how he presented his life experiences. The Old Testament and the way other experiences and the law is presented in the Bible is less-relatable for me today, and I feel like the gentiles of the time were in need of someone like Paul back in the day to present the story of Jesus Christ and his testimony as well, to them. Back in those times, the atmosphere of Judaism vs. Hellenism, and Jew vs. Greek somewhat hurt the potential of conversion for pagans, etc. Paul did things differently, and he was able to “mark out a firm platform within Jewish thought itself from which to address the inhabitants, and indeed the rulers, of the rest of the world” (Wright, 4). N.T. Wright got his apologetic and relational approach from Paul’s teachings, in my mind.
      In Acts 13 and 14, it is very respectable and amazing how Paul appeared to all these cities and presented the Gospel in the way he did, so many would be saved and understand.
      Acts 14:15: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.”

  12. I was really taken in by this reading as Wright began really laying out the necessity of reading Paul’s letters in a historical context as best as we are able almost two milllennia later. As he made an abbreviated case for the broad implications easily removed by Paul’s intended audiences, but signified by only a slight turn of phrase, I couldn’t help but notice the several references Wright himself makes to European history and geography of which I have no knowledge whatsoever.
    I may be marginally more ignorant of such things than the average bear, but as an American reading comments like his reference to a politician’s speech on pg 9. (Even when I don’t understand what Wright is referencing precisely, I still find his little stories and side-trails to be one of the characteristics of his writing that makes him so much fun to read.) Regardless, I feel that this particular sort of side-trail makes his point much better than many of the arguments he actually gives in support of what he refers to as this “new perspective” and the historiocity of Paul’s writings. As an American living in the same general time period as N.T. Wright, I am able to understand his point despite the occasional reference I do not understand, but if he ever made a similar reference that had significance all its own and used that as a primary basis to present an idea. I could not help but miss it entirely.
    In this light, reading Paul’s letters so much later with only a minimal understanding of his culture(s) and the narratives inherent in those cultures is a daunting, perhaps impossible task.

  13. I think that the thing that got many Gentiles into at least hearing or having an interest in the gospel is the narrative that Paul was telling when he went from town to town. Wright goes into great detail on this on pages 8-10. What I really think that got many Gentiles was the presentation of something new. Wright says that “one of the most significant developments within the world opened up by the new perspective” (Wright 10). One of the pillars of the Greek culture was the emergence of new ideas and philosophies. When Paul starts spreading this new spin off of Judaism, many people who held this Greek ideal highly would have been interested to hear what this new philosophy/belief was. The story of the Jewish nation would have been at least familiar to most people as they were often ridiculed for their obscure laws and practices but to say that this once closed society and heritage was now open to everyone would have at the very least, piqued some interest in the Gentile world.

  14. Paul managed to keep his understanding of Jesus as the solution to the fall of man and managed to keep his other core beliefs while presenting the gospel to the Gentiles. He did so by telling a narrative of the gospel. The narrative he tells begins by redefining the worldview of his audience. World view is defined by how they answer the five “big questions,” (P. Long). As seen in Paul’s address on the Areopagus in Acts 17, he begins by describing this unknown god as the God that created the world and everything in it. Then moves on the say how this God “…does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands…” (Acts 17:24-25). The God Paul describes is unlike any other God they had known. Paul then goes on in verse 26 and 27 to redefine two big questions of the five: “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” (P. Long). Paul continues to show a clear image of his world view to the audience throughout the rest of the address on the Areopagus. Paul also adds in quotes from Epimenides of Crete and Aratus’s poem “Phainomena” in Acts 17:28 (ESV). This use of their own culture is an example of how Paul found ways to describe the gospel in ways even the pagans would understand. “He makes fruitful use of the language and imagery of the pagan moralists while constantly infusing it with fresh content,” (Wright, 4). It is important to use Paul’s example of telling a narrative and also incorporating parts of their culture to reach the audience. Connecting to the audience in a way they can relate to is key to the audiences comprehension of what is being said. Paul would have had a much more difficult time doing this if he had not “straddled at least 3 worlds” (Wright 3).

  15. When Paul and Barnabas decided to focus their ministry towards the Gentiles instead of the Jewish population, they created for themselves the same pickle that we modern Christians still face today: how do we present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world that has either no knowledge or no desire to understand the distinct beauty that exists in a relationship with the One True God? Last week in more than a few comments, people used 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some”) as a point of Paul’s method of reaching the Gentiles, myself included. This passage is so often used as a guideline for evangelism, and for good reason. The four “worlds” of Paul that Wright talks about exemplify why. With so many different demographics of people in the world, it is difficult to be able to relate this one story of Good News to everyone, and I think God expects us as His Body to prepare ourselves to be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks us about the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). However, as Wright says: “Though his phrase ‘all things to all people’ often now seems merely to indicate someone prepared to trim their sails to every passing wind, Paul meant it in a more robust sense. He had been entrusted with a Jewish message for the whole world, and part of the way in which the message was to get out was by his embodying in himself (in ways that caused some then, and cause some still, to raise an eyebrow) the outreach of Israel’s one true God to the wider world of the Gentiles” (Wright, 5-6). So, in light of both 1 Peter 3:15 and Wright’s comment on 1 Corinthians 9:22, I think we are meant to take drastic measures for the cause of Christ. Paul, in his zeal for the Gospel, almost seems to enjoy being a thorn in the sides of those to whom he preaches, and he gives a wonderfully drastic example for us to follow.

  16. As Wright points out on pgs 10 and 11, Paul uses references to Genesis 15 to illustrate how Abraham is justified by faith in Romans 4. He uses this to ‘conjure up an entire world of thought’. Paul found the power of using history to make the points of the gospel more powerful. He understands the culture of those he is addressing and speaks to them accordingly by carefully choosing his illustrations to deliver the most powerful speech that God enables him to be capable of.

    Christians need to also become powerful story tellers to teach others about the Gospel. Paul shows that learning about others’ culture is a key to reaching out to others. The use of illustrating a speech with allusions to the past or to well known culturally relevant facts can put spice into a speech that may otherwise be misunderstood.

  17. “But how did Paul draw a pagan audience into a story which is decidedly Jewish?” Acts 14:46 – “Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, ‘it was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.” Wright elaborates on page 5 about Paul and his phrase of becoming ‘ all things to all people,’ Wright goes on to explain that Paul had been entrusted with a Jewish message for the whole world, and part of the way in which the message was to get out was by his embodying in himself the outreach of Israel’s one true God to the wider world of the gentiles. Wright’s main point I think is how closely Paul remained firm in his belief of monotheism. When it came to Paul witnessing to pagans, he had to first convince others of the One True God which Polhill explains further in his chapters. Polhil does mention about knowing God through general revelation and in creation. (Acts 14:17) The way that Paul strategized his mission is that he first engaged in dialogue within the synogogues to the Jews, normally would be rejected because of mainly the liberation of law and food laws for gentiles, and then turned to focusing mainly on gentiles who received the gosepl with gladness. Paul was also familiar with the customs and culture in which he preached the gospel; allowing himself to become all things to all men. Polhil states in chapter five on Paul’s missionary journies he normally stayed within roman providence with the background of his jewish heritage, being familiarized in greek culture, and was a roman citizen.

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