Reading Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2)


This is my second post as I’m reading through N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (= PFG). For introduction to the series, see here.

After his preface and introductory chapter, where he engages with Philemon and lots of methodological stuff, Wright turns to a series of four chapters on the dominant worldviews of Paul’s day: Judaism, Greek thought, Graeco-Roman religion and culture, and the Roman imperial scene. Chapter 2, which this post focuses on, is about Judaism, especially Pharisaism. This is a very readable chapter (as almost always with Wright) and I saw some things in this that I hadn’t recognised before or saw things from fresh angles—and those are the signs of good writing and research (they could also be the signs of my lack of learning, it must be admitted!).

Wright’s central thesis, signalled by the chapter title, is that first-cenutry Judaism is focused on ‘the faithfulness of the God of Israel’. He uses the image from Isaiah 31:5 of YHWH (his constant spelling of the name of Israel’s God) as ‘like birds hovering overhead’ to protect his people. Wright begins with preliminary points, including noting the limitations on our data about the first century: ‘We can sketch Paul’s world, but we cannot sail in it or sleep in it’ (p 75). He notes that he wrote quite a bit about this in The New Testament and the People of God (= NTPG; here chapters 7-10—you can read much of it here on Google Books), and points to that treatment as the basis of his work here, indicating that this chapter is a supplement to the earlier work. As in his introductory chapter, he stresses that his focus of investigation is primarily historical (p 79), that is, he is aiming to provide a ‘thick description’ (a trendy term from cultural studies).

He starts with the Pharisees, and argues cogently that the Pharisees of Paul’s day were political (in our sense of that term) as much as religious (again, in our sense of that term)—while noting that this is not a division anyone in Paul’s time would have recognised. Here he uses Paul himself as a source (Philippians 3:5-6; Galatians 1:13-14), and argues that Paul would have belonged to the ‘militant tendency’ of Pharisaism, for otherwise he would not have persecuted the church (p 86). Wright sees Pharisaism as dominated by a concern for purity, expressed in their dining habits as much as in their desire to see the Land cleansed of the hated Romans.

Wright then turns to praxis and symbol, centred on Torah and Temple. The Torah (the Jewish Law, principally the Pentateuch, but also, increasingly in the first century, the oral tradition too) was about a lifestyle, not just ‘religious abstractions’ (p 91). Thus it was both symbol and praxis of the distinctiveness of the Jewish people. Wright notes that there has been much work done on the Temple since NTPG, and he particularly identifies the work of John Walton (no relation, although a friend) on the OT and Greg Beale in biblical theology. Wright regards the Temple as the meeting place of heaven and earth, and thus the Holy of Holies (and perhaps the whole Temple complex) was a piece of heaven on earth. Not only that, but also (here using Walton and Beale) ‘the Temple was a microcosm of the whole creation’ (p 101). Further, the Temple had strong Davidic associations, and was thus tied up with the kingship of Israel. However, since Ezekiel 10, where YHWH leaves the Temple, YHWH has been absent from the Temple: ‘at not point does anybody stress that [the promises of YHWH’s return to the Temple] have at last been fulfilled’ (p 106, his italics).

So what does this mean for the stories and questions of the ‘Second Temple’ Jewish worldview? Essentially, the Jewish people have a story seeking an ending: they believe that YHWH will return, but do not know how or when. Wright sets out the story in the form of actantial analysis diagrams (familiar from NTPG), and argues that the Pharisaic worldview expected that the means by which YHWH’s return would be accomplished was through obedience to Torah. So Pharisaic Jews: (i) saw themselves as participants in a long story going back to Abraham, and beyond him to Adam; (ii) did not expect the end of the space-time universe, but the transformation of that universe; (iii) saw themselves as continuing to experience exile, even while living in the Land. This summary (pp 113-14) is followed by three sections expanding on each of these points. These sections form much of the meat of this chapter and involve a close reading of both OT and other Jewish texts. A key theme is the expectation of a Messiah (sometimes two, as at Qumran), although the kind of Messiah expected varies considerably—but with the common theme that the Messiah will bring the long story of Israel to its goal. Wright engages at some length with critics of his view that Israel saw herself as in continuing exile, especially Eddie Adams and Dale Allison (pp 139-62). He argues (cogently, in my view) that there is evidence that the sense of continuing exile was widespread in Judaism (while accepting, of course, that not every individual Jew might have seen things this way, p 158), and that in this context ‘exile’ means ‘the time of the curse spoken of in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, a curse that lasts as long as Israel is “the tail and not the head”, still subject to the rule, and often the abusive treatment, of foreign nations with their blasphemous and wicked idolatry and immorality, not yet in possession of the promised (even if laughably ambitious) global sovereignty’ (p 150).

The kind of salvation expected is thus this-worldly, not about escape from this world into an ethereal and disembodied ‘heaven’. Wright spends some time criticising the view that the parousia is about the end of the space-time universe, in terms that will be familiar to those who have read his earlier work. He shows, helpfully, that this is not just an issue in popular Christianity, but deeply affects scholarly reconstructions of early Christianity, not least in the belief that some early Christians were responding to a ‘delay of the parousia’—Wright regards this as a complete blind alley (and I agree). Here he engages with Eddie Adams, in particular, and argues that Adams is inconsistent in his reading of Jewish texts, as to whether they are metaphorical or ‘literal’ (i.e. they depict the actual end of the space-time universe).

Finally, the chapter sketches the Pharisaic answers to Wright’s five worldview questions (pp 177-79) and what Pharisaic ‘theology’ would look like, focused around monotheism, election and eschatology, the three great themes Wright enunciates in chapter 1 of this book (pp 179-93). The worldview questions are worth noticing, since (if Wright is accurate) these are the beliefs of Saul of Tarsus before the Damascus Road encounter.

  • Who are we? A group of Jews very unhappy with how the country is run and with our life more broadly. Hence we are Torah students, preparing for Israel’s redemption by YHWH.
  • Where are we? Although many of us live in the holy land, and some in the Diaspora, we live in the Roman empire in reality, and thus under oppressive pagan rule.
  • What’s wrong? There just aren’t enough of us taking Torah seriously, especially its demand for purity. And that’s why YHWH is leaving us in the hands of the pagans.
  • What’s the solution? We need to get lots more Jewish people to take Torah seriously, to pray, to live in purity, to keep the festivals and the fasts, to study Scripture. Some Pharisees would like to hurry along YHWH’s intervention by violence.
  • What time is it? We are debating exactly where we are in the scheme of Daniel, but we reckon we’re in the dark period of Daniel 9, which is the exile period of Deuteronomy 28. But on the sabbath we experience an anticipation of the way things should and will be—we live in God’s time (a fascinating way to put this, I think, and suggestive of Paul’s Christian view—as Wright doubtless intends).

Eschatology emerges as a key feature of Pharisaic theology, in the light of this worldview, and the question emerges: ‘how could one tell, in the present, who were “the righteous”, the ones who would be found to be on God’s side on the great coming day, the ones who would inherit “the coming age”?‘ (p 184). For the Pharisees, the answer is the ones who keep Torah, including the oral laws which nail down what Torah means in every detail of daily life (p 187). This is what Saul understood by ‘justification by works of Torah’, Wright argues, and that looks pretty convincing to me.

Where have I got to by the end of this chapter? I’ve learned lots about second Temple Jewish thought, and gained insights into texts I know less well than I should (and I’ve got pointers to primary sources I would like to look at in due course). I am, I think, largely persuaded by Wright’s picture of Pharisaism, including his view that at least some Pharisees, including Saul of Tarsus, were willing to use violence for their cause. I am also very attracted to his view of continuing exile (which I have had some scepticism about up to now) in the light of his critique of Adams and Allison and his reading of the primary sources—I’d like to hear their rejoinder to this part of the chapter.

So, onward and upward: the next chapter is on Greek thought. That should be fun!