One of the Christmas presents my wife gave me was N.T. Wright’s latest big book (if you know his work you know what I mean by “big book.”), Paul and the Faithfulness of God. In Chapter 2 (which I just finished) Wright lays out his reconstruction of the worldview and theology of the Pharisees. Wright does this from the position that Paul’s previous life as a zealous Pharisee sheds light on his subsequent life as a zealous Christian.
In this very long chapter Wright does two things that build directly on claims he’s made previously, though never with the depth of analysis provided here.
First, Wright demonstrates the centrality of narrative in Jewish thought up through the Second Temple period. That narrative is essential to understanding and interpreting scripture and living under its authority, is an old claim of Wright’s. The earliest I’ve seen his explanation of the narratival authority of scripture is in his Laing Lecture of 1989, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” He later expanded his argument in the full length (though by Wright’s standards, fairly short) book, Scripture and the Authority of God. If you’re interested in the question of how a scripture text that is largely narrative in format can function as an authority, by all means check out these works. In Paul and the Authority of God Wright approaches the question from the backside, showing that his primary model for the narrative authority of scripture fits the actual use of scripture in this Second Temple era. He works from scripture itself (later scripture using earlier) and non-canonical writings to show that it was very common for Jewish writers to take themselves to be part of the same narrative depicted in scripture. Since they inhabit that same narrative, they can only learn what they ought to be doing now, by considering what has happened in the story up to this point. Wright’s coverage of this material is masterful.
Second, and relying on the same body of literature, Wright expands on his claim that many Jews of the era took themselves to be still waiting the end of exile. More than just the claim that they lived as individuals deeply aware of their personal sin and hungering to find a merciful God who would forgive them, they took themselves to be part of a people – the elect nation Israel – who were still ruled by the pagans, rather than by God. They hungered for deliverance, for an end to exile, for God to truly become King among them. When I first encountered this thesis in Wright over twenty years ago, I saw its obvious contrast with the entrenched individualist reading of the “plight” presumed in the New Testament. In arguing this way Wright has had to cut against the grain of centuries of Protestant theology, modern biblical studies, and a habitual de-Judaizing of the early Christian tradition.
Now on to chapter 3 and the background of the Greco-Roman part of Paul’s world!