N.T. Wright is releasing his big book on Paul Paul and the Faithfulness of God in his ‘Christian Origins and the Question of God’ series. It’s so big, that, in fact, it’s two books on Paul, each of which could be two books (2 volumes weighing in at 1700 pages.) Now, of course, this is the only excuse that I’ll accept given how long he’s taken to write it (10 years since RSG). In any case, I’m beyond excited to read this beast for multiple reasons, but as I was scanning through the table of contents (posted online), I was reminded of one of the biggest reasons I love reading Wright: he refuses to limit Paul’s horizons. His first volume is a few hundred pages simply tracing NT background in multiple fronts: Greco-Roman philosophy, Rome, and the OT/2nd Temple Judaism. He doesn’t get to Paul’s theology proper until the second volume!
See, for some Pauline scholars it’s all about Greece. Paul is a Hellenized Jew who is engaging and appropriating language and thought from the world around him to speak of Christ to the Greeks. For others, it’s all about Rome, and Paul is preaching a serious, counter-imperial Gospel that cuts to the heart of Roman political culture. And still, for others, he is chiefly an OT theologian, transformed by Christ, who is engaged in demonstrating Jesus as the Jewish Messiah who fulfills all the prophecies and, bringing about reconciliation with the Gentiles. For Wright it’s about Paul the OT theologian, transformed by Christ, apostle to the Gentiles, engaging Rome, and the surrounding Hellenistic culture with the Gospel of Jesus.
‘Gospel’ Backgrounds: Isaiah or Rome?
You can see this approach at work in an article of his on the gospel in Galatians. He notes that typically, exegetes have wanted to understand Paul’s use of the word ‘gospel’ (euangelion) in relation one of two backgrounds: Isaiah or Rome. Wright notes that the approaches are favored usually either by those who see Paul primarily as a Jewish thinker, or a Hellenistic one, respectively.
Gospel in Isaiah––
In the septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, the prophet Isaiah declares:
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings (ho euangelizomenos Zion);
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings (ho euangelizomenos Ierosaleme)
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’ (40.9)
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation.
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’. (52.7)
These passages talking about God returning to Zion as king, the return from Exile, the defeat of Israel’s enemies (Babylon, etc), and so forth. They are majestic passages of national hope that were taken up in the 2nd Temple period (Wright cites a number of texts here) as foretelling a future day of salvation and good news where God would return and become King in their midst. And, of course, it’s easy enough to see how Jesus fits in as the fulfillment of all of this.
Gospel in Rome
Of course, there’s a pretty good case to be made for the Roman context as well. To quote Wright directly and save myself some time:
In the Greek world, ‘euangelion‘ is a technical term for “news of victory”’. More specifically, it refers to the announcement of the birth or accession of an emperor. Not least at the time of Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor following a long period of civil war, the coming of a new ruler meant the promise of peace, a new start for the world:
The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere. . . ; the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him. . .
In which case, you can see where the whole counter-imperial thing comes from. In this view, Paul’s gospel is: “These things are not true of Caesar, but of Jesus, the world’s true Lord, whose birth was real good news.”
Yes and Yes
Now, I’ll have to admit, both of these answers were tempting to me while I was younger. As a good Evangelical boy, I knew Jesus was the fulfillment of OT prophecy even if I hadn’t read too many of them. Then, when I was a bit older, all of the counter-Imperial stuff made a lot of historical sense as well, plus it sounded awesome. (I’ll just be honest, when you’re 20, being against Empire is sexy.) In fact, it’s what I favored most, until the last few years when I really started to see just how deep the Old Testament thread ran, especially with works by G.K. Beale and such. Not that I’d rejected seeing Paul’s gospel engaging with the wider thought-world, but it hasn’t been a focus.
Still, reviewing this passage reminded me of why I fell in love with Wright as an exegete and historian, and why I’m looking forward to this new book:
Which of these backgrounds, then, is the appropriate one against which to read the New Testament evidence? Is ‘the gospel’, for Paul, an Isaianic message or an Imperial proclamation? I suggest that the anti-thesis between the two is a false one, based on the spurious either-or that has misleadingly divided New Testament studies for many years
Yes, he just called out a false either/or (which is a great way to make me your fan) in NT studies, and moves on to a constructive solution that has the best of both worlds.
Wright pushes us to understand Paul as the OT theologian who takes the Gospel of Isaiah and uses it to answer the Gospel of Rome. He points out that the 2nd Temple Jews didn’t live in ‘water-tight’ worlds closed off from the surrounding cultures, nor the OT Jews for that matter. The Gospel of Isaiah was always about God’s true Kingship over and against the pagan rulers like Babylon, and later, for 2nd Temple thinkers, Greece and Rome. What’s more, the false bracketing between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ that often underlay efforts to split the two backgrounds, makes no sense when Emperors and Kings are claiming divine honors. Again, it was always about the Servant King who would come to conquer Israel’s enemies and reestablish God’s rule where the pagan pretenders were claiming what was his alone.
So, with that in mind, how much of a stretch is it to see Paul, the OT theologian and 2nd Temple thinker, applying the Gospel of Isaiah, in a fresh and Christ-centered way, to the Gospel of Rome? In other words, (and I think I’m stealing this from Wright), you have to imagine Paul with both feet planted firmly in the OT, staring out at the Greco-Roman world, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus the Lord promised to Israel to a world that thought it already had one.
As Wright puts it:
The more Jewish we make Paul’s ‘gospel’, the more it confronts directly the pretensions of the Imperial cult, and indeed all other paganisms whether ‘religious’ or ‘secular’. It is because of Jewish monotheism that there can be ‘no king but god’…The all-embracing royal and religious claims of Caesar are directly challenged by the equally all-embracing claim of Israel’s god. To announce that YHWH is king is to announce that Caesar is not.
Basically Paul was saying, “You think your Caesar is the King who brings salvation? I’ve got real good news for you, one that’s been promised for ages, Jesus, the Servant King of Israel is the one whose rule brings true salvation.”
That works nicely doesn’t it?
Paul’s Gospel and Ours
This is part of why I like reading Wright on Paul. Despite my qualms, which are real enough, on what he has to say about justification, (I prefer Michael Bird’s Reformed-Hybrid view) he is still one of the most faithful, creative, thorough, and helpful exegetes of Paul out there. He gets that while Paul was an apostle called to deliver the Gospel with divine authority, he was still a genius who expounded it with great intricacy and care. What’s more, he’s not just a dry academic, but a churchman who wants to present pastors with a vision of how to preach this stuff. In a sense, his vision of Paul as OT theologian looking to proclaim the biblical Gospel of Jesus to the pagan world around him, helps him present Paul as a model for pastors looking to do the same thing today.
If you’d like to learn more about the upcoming book, I’d suggest this interview with Michael Bird and N.T. Wright.
Soli Deo Gloria