N. T. Wright, Apocalyptic and Galatians

In Paul: A Fresh Perspective chapter 3, Wright suggests we ought to be reading Paul’s use of “Christ” more apocalyptically.  Essentially, when Paul says “Christ,” he means “Messiah.”  That Jesus is the Messiah is not a major issue in the circles I travel in, but in New Testament Scholarship, a return to Jesus as Messiah is something can be controversial.

Wright wants to get away from a false dichotomy that the Messiah was either a political idea or a religious idea (49).  This is excellent, since there is no separate of church and state in the first century or in the Hebrew Bible.  In addition, Wright states that Paul’s used of Messiah was not “religious” over against “political.”  This is an excellent observation, and perhaps American scholarship misses the point because of an implicit acceptance of the separation of church and state.  While I realize this is anachronistic, there was no possibility of separation of religion and politics in the first century!

Wright applies this thinking to the book of Galatians by simply pointing out that Paul is re-telling the story of Israel and redefining the“messianic battle” the prophets described (45).  Rather than a physical destruction of Israel’s enemies, the Messiah will become Israel himself and fulfill their destiny by being obedient to the covenant yet suffering the “curse of the Law” in his death on the cross.  He certainly does not give any specific details, but I am quite sure the Wright would take a famous apocalyptic text like Ezekiel 38-39, the “battle of Gog and Magog,” as a less-than-literal description of a future attack on Israel.  While I am not at all in favor of the common (and hokey) interpretation that this text describes Russia invading modern Israel, I am equally unhappy with making these chapters a generic description of “good versus evil.” I suspect Ezekiel thought he was prophesying a real intervention of God in history.

For Wright, Paul is radically re-defining the story of Israel.  Instead of an apocalyptic battle between God and the nations led by a messiah, the messiah is a “suffering servant” who gives up his life on behalf of the nation.  The death of Jesus is the apocalyptic destruction of sin and death anticipated in the prophets.  The previous age ended with Jesus and a new age is dawning with the coming of the Holy Spirit.

If Wright is describing Paul’s theology accurately, then the status of Israel in the present age becomes a problem.  If Jesus “completed their story,” are they still God’s people?  If the story is complete in Jesus, then is there a future for Israel?  It may be ironic that these questions arise in Galatians, a document which deals with the status of Gentiles in the present age!  I suspect that Paul had to answer this question more than once, and that Romans 9-11 is in larger part the substance of his answer.

It is significant to me that Wright talks about the coming of the Messiah as God accomplishing his “many-staged plan of salvation” (53).  Even a text like Eph 3:8-11 is apocalyptic: God has called Paul to make know “the plan that through the church the many-splendoured wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places” (52).   That God has a plan administered in several stages to bring about the redemption of the world is a very familiar idea to me and it warms my dispensational heart.  Obviously Wright is no dispensationalist, but this emphasis on apocalyptic is helpful for reading Paul.

But is Wright correct?  Is he re-defining Old Testament prophecy (or at least apocalyptic) in such a way as to make it less “edgy,” lacking any future predictive power?  Is Paul really being “apocalyptic” when he re-tells Israel’s story through the lens of Jesus as the Messiah?  For me, Wright has the right idea, but I think he may take too much away from apocalyptic by describing it as wholly fulfilled in Jesus.

7 thoughts on “N. T. Wright, Apocalyptic and Galatians

  1. I believe there is still predictive power in the Old Testament prophecies, such as Gog and Magog and especially Daniel’s 70th week. Not /all/ of the prophecies could have been fulfilled in Jesus. Certainly most of the ones /about Him/ have already been fulfilled, but even then there are still the prophecies about Him coming back to Earth as a conquering King, which are yet future.

    And as I see it, Israel does still have future significance. Just as Romans 11:1 says, “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul goes on to explain in great detail how the nation of Israel is not finished and done but merely set aside for a time until the fulness of the Gentiles is brought in. God will restore Israel after this dispensation of grace closes with the Rapture. Then the 70th week of Daniel – the Tribulation – will commence, followed by the millennial Kingdom, leading on into the final battle of armageddon and then eternity with the new heaven and new earth.

    That’s how I see it.

    • Well Ryan, that all sounds familiar . Returning to the topic above, how does that standard apocalyptic (dispensational) “scheme” help interpret Galatians? I think that it can, but you are entirely focused on the future, (and Wright is focused entirely on the present). How does Paul’s apocalyptic world view aid our understanding of Paul’s view of the Law (for example)?

  2. I would agree with you P. Long. I would say Wright is mostly correct. When I first started to read this chapter, I was honestly surprised to learn that there were other ways to interpret Christ other than Messiah. It was interesting to hear Wright’s quick descriptions of the other views of the meaning of Christ, but I would agree with him that Christ means Messiah. On the other issues that you pointed out about apocalyptic prophesy, I would say Wright’s interpretation seems to lack the seriousness of the original authors. As you said, I doubt Ezekiel was just talking about a generic battle between good and evil. Yes, Jesus has fulfilled the Law and is the Messiah that Israel was promised, but most of the apocalyptic prophesies have yet to be fulfilled. In regard to the dilemma you proposed about the position of Israel in today’s age, it seems as though Paul is assuring the Romans of Israel’s status in Romans 9:1-5 as still being God’s people.

    One question I have is in your suggestion of their being no separation of religion and politics in the bible so there is no room for a divided Messiah. I am not suggesting a dichotomy for the Messiah but there seemed to have been a separation between Politics and Religion in Israel’s own government in their positions of king and high priest. Perhaps this could be the origin of the dichotomy idea in the Messiah. You have even suggested in last year’s New Testament Lit class that in Christ’s first coming He is more of the priestly figure that restores the relationship with God and in His second coming He comes as a conquering king.

    • I refer to no division between politics and religion in the ancient world as a whole, Judea was governed by a religious body and Rome created a religion to support its power. That there is a priestly / military messiah is a different concept, since both messianic ideals are present in the OT. This is why Qumran could talk about two messiahs and Christianity can talk about one messiah with two separate “arrivals.”

  3. I did not agree with Wright in this chapter, I was surprised at the fact that I disliked this chapter so much considering how often times I have agreed with what he says and the research he has done to form a theory. I think he had many great points and that in many sections (pg. 55-56) where he speaks on the people coming out to meet Jesus, as a prologue to the future “coming of the messiah” but still, this portion of the reading I did not enjoy.
    I did agree however with the different views of Jesus, instead of just the Messiah, although I have thought that way for some time (props to my Confirmation class in high school at my church), I think that most people get caught up in the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, and forget that he is Lord, he is teacher, he is love, and he is judge.
    I feel that in these passages of scripture; Ephesians 3:8-11 as P.Long has mentioned, Paul was saying in a way that he was chosen by God to reach others through his words. In Romans 3:9-18 he quotes from the Psalms of David, he speaks from previous men of God; which is looked up upon in those times, when you can quote an old scholar of the Lord, or David or Isaiah which Paul does. I do not think that Paul is preaching apocalyptic, I think he has some of the same ideas, but he is not really on the same train of thought.

  4. What really bugged me about this chapter in Wright is how he slams all these other scholars for saying that they are reading Paul wrong. He says that they have missed the whole point of Paul’s writings. Wright states, “Paul saw Jesus as the true Messiah promised to Israel” (48). To me, that is just plain obvious. Throughout the first half of the chapter I was waiting for Wright to say why his view was so novel, and he goes and says that. That is pretty much how I have always seen Paul’s writings. Of course Paul writes of Jesus as He is the Messiah; Paul was a Jew. He was a Pharisee; he was completely looking for the Messiah. Once he had his revelation from Jesus, He knew that Jesus was the true Messiah. “Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 9:22).
    I know this is a small issue, but I was just a little peeved when Wright said something that seemed so simple to me.

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