Allan Bevere and I continue today our series on Tom Wright’s new book, Paul in Fresh Perspective.
In chapter three Wright analyzes the concept of messiahship and how Paul
understood Jesus as the Messiah. Drawing on Paul’s use of apocalyptic
categories and integrating them into the implicit narratives of creation
and covenant, Wright maintains that a fresh perspective on Paul will
emerge “in which the unveiling, or apocalypse, of the Messiah as
Israel’s king and therefore the world’s true Lord challenges, as
within Jewish thinking it was bound to do, the grand claims of pagan
empire” (p. 40).
Wright acknowledges the controversial nature of the discussion in which
he engages. There has been “much resistance” to the notion that Paul
believed Jesus to be the Messiah in its Jewish sense, as it was deemed
counter to Paul’s universal gospel. In the same way the notion of
apocalyptic has been something difficult to grasp. In the classic
discussions of the subject by Collins and Rowland, for example,
“apocalyptic” simply referred to a dualism entrenched within a
particular kind of Judaism; a particular kind of Judaism deeply
influential on Paul. This kind of apocalyptic dualism is antithetical to
any kind of covenantal theology. In opposition to this view, Wright
insists that Paul’s apocalyptic thought within the context of
second-Temple Judaism reinforced the implicit narrative of covenant.
2. Jesus as Messiah in Paul
In reference to Jesus’ messiahship, much of the evidence is heuristic,
that is, certain passages make much better sense if Christos is
understood as “Messiah,” instead of simply as a last name or a divine
title for Jesus.
Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ messiahship means six things: First,
Jesus is a royal Messiah. Second, he will fight Israel’s final battle
against evil and paganism. Third, the Messiah will build the Temple.
Fifth, he will bring the history of Israel to a climax ushering in a new
world; and sixth, the Messiah will act as Israel’s representative,
fighting on behalf of Israel, and he will act as God’s agent to Israel
and to the world.
In support of his argument Wright refers to such passages as Romans 9-11
in which Paul is engaged in an argument retelling of the story of Israel
from Abraham through the exile with a view to the remnant and to the
Messiah. In Romans 1:3-4 Paul refers to David as Jesus’ ancestor, which
is not simply a marginal comment, but frames the argument Paul will
make. Galatians 3 and 4 also involve a major retelling of the story of
Israel. The maturity Paul refers to in Galatians “is described in terms
of the coming of the Messiah, who both represents Israel and brings its
history to its ordained goal” (p. 45). Other passages mentioned are 1
Corinthians 15, in which Paul draws on the messianic texts of Psalms 8
and 110, and Colossians 2:14-15. Paul also uses Christos incorporatively
to refer to Jesus as the King “in whom Israel is summed up” (p. 46).
Paul also draws on wisdom and Torah translating them into messianic
terms. “In the light of all this the conclusion ought to be clear: Paul
saw Jesus as the true Messiah promised to Israel” (p. 48).
3. Apocalyptic in Paul
According to Wright, apocalyptic represents “what happens to prophecy
under certain historical and theological circumstances, notably
continued oppression and the puzzle of what God is going to do about it
and how” (p. 50). The great unveiling of God’s mysteries has already
come about in Jesus. The plan of the covenant has been worked out in
Jesus. God has at last done what he said he would do, even though it
does not look the way everyone thought it would. Paul’s apocalyptic
theology is inaugurated eschatology where the future is pulled forward
into the middle of history. God’s people live one and the same time in
the midst of God’s new world and the present world.
In chapter three, Wright puts forth his case for translating pistis
Christou as the “faithfulness of Christ” as opposed to “faith in Christ.”
He also suggests, with the argument to be given more fully in a
subsequent chapter, that justification by faith can only be correctly
understood within Paul’s covenantal and eschatological framework.
Response by McKnight:
Of the chapters in books of Tom Wright’s I have read, especially those designed (as this one is) for non-specialists, this one is one of the more difficult to read. The big ideas are not hard to grasp: Jesus is Messiah (in a fresh sense) and Paul’s theology is apocalyptic (also in a fresh sense). The problem I find is that Tom is sparring with other scholars and his critics in nearly every paragraph and it creates too many suspended sentences and thoughts as he nuances every significant point. Clearly, Wright is ripe to write a new book on Paul putting his views in the right. Paul in Fresh Perspective is an interim report of where he is going and I anticipate the fuller versions down the road.
First, Wright has moved beyond the “new” perspective by his theory of Paul’s theology as messianic. And Messiah for Wright has to do with Jesus’ universal reign over the whole world, a theme that Wright thinks is inherent to Jewish theology (and not to Paul’s contact with the Roman world). Thus, to say Jesus is Lord is to say Caesar is not. Inherent to Messianic theology is a new order with a new king. This leads to the “fresh” perspective on Paul. And clearly Wright is on to something here and it will be fun to see him unpack this theology. It has been noticeable in his works for at least five years (my guess). Here is a significant shift in Wright’s work and in the new perspective as it gives way to a broader Jewish vision than has been seen heretofore (so far as I know).
Second, unlike anything I’ve seen, Wright contends that Paul’s theology is shaped by his messianic theology: Romans and Galatians (huge portions) are about reading history as coming to their climax in Jesus as Messiah. And being “in Messiah” is to be incorporated into Jesus as that climax of history. And that means “faith of Christ” is really about Jesus’ own faithfulness to God’s purposes instead of Christians’ faith in Jesus Christ.
Third, apocalyptic for Paul is not “this world coming to an end in a new world” but the plan of God for history and the incursion of God’s plan in the Messiah in this world. In this Wright diverges from the end-of-the-world apocalyptic teaching. At the end of the chp, however, Wright then contends that his view of Paul is that Paul believed in inaugurated eschatology, and that there is something apocalyptic yet to occur. This means that Wright’s view is not that divergent from people like George Ladd (with proper nuances from all the changes since the mid-70s). But, Wright has always hovered on the edge of a non-apocalyptic (as end-of-the-world) and metaphorical perception of apocalyptic language. Now, so it seems to me, Wright has embraced a traditionalist theory that in Jesus Messiah there is both a genuine eschatological moment (something is realized) and yet a future consummation – making his view inaugurated eschatology. Justification by faith is to be set in that inaugurated eschatological context: something declared now that will not finally happen until later.
Fourth, Wright makes comments here about the Second Coming, but I wish they had been more complete – he can’t, of course, do what I’d like him to do, but he does raise the issue and makes four points: (1) parousia means presence; (2) 1 Thess 4 combines Dan 7 with Exod 19—24; (3) the parousia is a “meeting” with the saints; and (4) some passages along this line have been frequently misunderstood. The first point is clear; the next three deserve to be unpacked.
We’ll do chapter four this Thursday.