Earlier this month saw the publication of the much-anticipated fourth volume in the Christian Origins and the Question of God Series. N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God is a tour de force in the field of Pauline studies. Weighing in at just under 1,700 pages, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) consists of four parts: (1) Paul and His World, (2) The Mindset of the Apostle, (3) Paul’s Theology, and (4) Paul in History. With each part Wright assembles a picture of the “historical” Saul within his Jewish and Greco-Roman world, which in turn allows us to see more clearly the “theological” Paul and all his intricacies. It will be tempting to turn straight to Part 3 and get into the thick of Paul’s theology—especially Wright’s understanding of justification! But the patient reader who works through Parts 1–2 first shall be rewarded with a fuller understanding of the Jewish and Greco-Roman world in which Paul was born into, and in which Paul operated from.
Part 1: Paul and His World
a. Return of the Runaway
A more traditional study on Paul and his theology will begin with a focus on one of Paul’s more substantial letters like Romans or possibly Galatians. But in typical Wrightian fashion, this is not so in PFG. In ch. 1 Wright begins his magnum opus with a comparison of Paul’s letter to Philemon with a letter of Pliny the Younger. Wright carefully draws out both similarities and especially the differences between the worldviews of Paul and Pliny. The 70+ pages of ch. 1 serve as an excellent introduction to the following chapters on Paul’s Jewish, Hellenistic, and finally Roman context. Thus “Paul stands where three great roads converge; and he has made of them another, travelled less, and making all the difference” (Wright, 75).
b. Like Birds Hovering Overhead: The Faithfulness of the God of Israel
Wright embarks on his survey of the world(s) in which Paul was born into in ch. 2. Wright notes that “Paul lived and worked, in fact, in at three worlds at once, each of which was subdivided” (Wright, 75). For the interpreter of Paul, this means that one must have a decent grasp of the cultural, linguistic, and historical sources in order to fully appreciate and understand Paul in his cultural and theological context. Wright begins with a thorough survey of the Jewish world of Paul. He discusses the Pharisees and their theology, the role and practice of Torah and temple, the driving story (narrative) of Israel, and finally the aims of the zealous Pharisees.
Chapter 2 leaves the reader with a lot to digest. One of Wright’s greatest strength is his ability to navigate through the grand narrative of Israel’s story. This navigation is possible due to Wright’s impressive grasp of the relevant literature related to Judaism. But his greatest strength may also be a weakness. The weary reader may find themselves lost in the narrative, bogged down by the vast amount of sources Wright appeals to. While it is necessary for him to examine this literature, it can be easy for the reader to lose interest, thus losing sight of the bigger picture Wright is painting. But blessed is the one who perseveres to the end; for they will be rewarded for their endurance! If one gets lost in the big picture, here is a good thesis statement of sorts that can help realign your view:
…[T]he Pharisee was passionately concerned about the ancestral traditions, particularly the law of Moses and the development of that into oral law, and about the importance of keeping this double Torah not simply because it was required, or in order to earn the divine favour, but because a renewed keeping of the law with all one’s heart and soul was one of the biblically stated conditions (as in Deuteronomy 30) for the great renewal, the eschaton and all that it would mean (Wright, 195–96).
c. Athene and Her Owl: The Wisdom of the Greeks
Not only is Paul a child of Judaism and all her practices, he is also a son of sorts of Greece and its intellectual legacy. There is nowhere in the known world of Paul’s day that was not in some form or another influenced by Hellenism. And although Greek culture and religion was not the main influence shaping Paul, it is no doubt a part of what formed his thinking and influenced how he conducted his ministry to the Gentiles.
In ch. 3, Wright offers a selective overview of some of the more important philosophers that shaped the first-century world in which Paul lived. Beginning with Socrates and Plato, Wright discusses the Cynics, Stoics, the Epicureans, and other important figures and philosophical schools that emerged throughout the history of Greece and into the Roman Empire. Each school and figured is briefly discussed, giving the reader an elementary understanding of their key influences on the Greco-Roman culture. This chapter is important in that it places Paul within a world that is very much concerned with some of the same issues that Judaism was likewise concerned with: ethics, morality, creation, God, etc. Further, because Paul spoke Greek—and arguably was educated in the gymnasium—he would have been directly influenced by such an education; take for example the practice of rhetoric.
Some Closing Thoughts
More can be said on these first three chapters of PFG; no doubt the new year will bring a swarm of reviews. Let me offer a few closing observations. First, while it is not necessary for one to read the first two volumes in this series, it may be wise to read volume one, The New Testament and the People of God, before reading PFG. Wright makes a number of references to this foundational work, and a careful reading will pay dividends for the diligent and careful reader. Second, make sure you read the Preface. It is always tempting to skip the preface and get down to business, but you will not want to miss this preface. Finally, it seems like Wright uses an analogy in every paragraph. This is no big issues; I just thought it interesting and amusing is all.