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.