When we read through Scripture we often find ourselves assuming that we know all there is to know about a book or the thought process of an author. It is easy to assume that the way we read the Bible is the only right way to do it. I have found that it is often helpful to learn and read about how other theologians and people in the church read and interpret Scripture. Many within the church have grown accustomed to reading the Bible in with Reformed lenses. In What Saint Paul Really Said, by N.T Wright, we are introduced to one perspective within the emerging new perspective on Paul. Wright presents a different way of reading Paul’s writing, specifically looking at how Paul understands justification. Within this book he challenges the Reformed way of looking at Judaism, Paul, and justification. Wright argues that when Paul talks about justification he is not simply speaking of how we are saved or how we are able to come into a relationship with God. According to Wright justification in Christianity is similar to justification in Judaism. Justification is what demonstrates that we are in the covenant that God has made with his people.
What Paul Said, The Gospel
Wright does not start right off with looking at and defining justification. He starts with the gospel and what Paul meant when this term was used. In Chapter 7 Wright explains that “if you start with the popular view of justification, you may actually lose sight of the heart of the Pauline gospel; whereas if you start with the Pauline gospel itself you will get justification in all its glory thrown in as well” (113). So, Wright attempts to give a deeper meaning to Paul’s use of gospel. In the modern use of the ‘gospel’ it simply is how we describe how people are saved. Wright does not disagree with this use but he simply says that there is more to it when Paul uses it. Typically in Greek culture the word we translate as gospel was used to announce the birth or coming of a king. It was also used to announce a great victory. The Jews had the hope that God would one day come, deliver them from their oppressors and rule as king. One day God’s reign over all the earth would begin and the human rulers would be replaced by another, righteous king. As a first-century Jew, Paul held this same hope. After the Damascus road however, Paul realized that this had already begun to happen. Jesus was that king. Jesus came and through his death and resurrection he established his kingdom. His death and resurrection demonstrated to the kings of the world that God was the true king of the world. The gospel then “is not a system of how people get saved. The announcement of the gospel results in people being save…But the gospel itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus” (45). Instead of first focusing the gospel on us and what we get from it, Wright turns the focus on to Jesus and who he is. The gospel does have meaning for us but it is more about the fact that Jesus is King. This is the gospel that Paul is writing about.
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Wright does say that Paul did accept and proclaim Christ as Lord. However, Wright argues that “Paul did think that Jesus was divine, and that…he did so without leaving for a moment the home base of Jewish monotheism” (63). A main part of Wright’s argument focuses on taking another look at first-century Judaism. Reformed tradition has held that first-century Judaism was legalistic and works based. Most modern churches have taught that before he became a Christian Paul believed “that the point of life was to go heaven when you die, and that the way to go to heaven after death was to adhere strictly to an overarching moral code” (32). In our tradition what changed in Paul’s thinking was learning that Jesus was the Messiah and that believing in him was how we get to heaven. Instead of having to do a lot of good things to get to heaven, all that is needed is faith in Christ. Judaism has been thought of as trying to climb a ladder to get to heaven. We have to pull ourselves into heaven.
What Paul Said, First Century Jewish Tradition
But Wright argues that this is “radically anachronistic and culturally out of line” (32). He argues that first-century Jews were not as legalistic as we tend to think. Instead, he says that first-century Jews were not even concerned with going to heaven or what happened after they died. Their concern and their hope was focused on the covenant that God had made with Abraham. Their hope was in God’s promise to Israel. They believed that because of the covenant God would restore the world through them. God would use Israel to reveal himself to the rest of the world. But Israel fell into sin and eventually went into exile. The Jews believed that God would one day deliver them from those who oppressed them. They believed that their God, the one true God would, come in and take his place as king of the earth. This, Wright claims, is how a first-century Jew viewed justification. Justification for them was a term that spoke of the day when God would judge the world and Israel would be restored. Wright says that justification here was a “law-court” term. In this final court scene, God would judge the sinners and vindicate Israel. Wright thus moves onto argue that justification is closely linked with eschatology, referring to the point where history reaches its climax. Wright says, “The Jewish eschatological hope was hope for justification, for God to vindicate his people at last” (34). First-century Jews were not legalistic. They were not trying to earn their way into the covenant. They were already in the covenant. They kept the Torah because they believed that it kept them in the covenant. The Torah was what set them apart as truly Jewish. For a Jew justification was not so “much about salvation as about the church” (119). Justification was not about an individual getting into heaven or entering into the covenant. It was the mark of the community of the one true God.
So, what does this mean for Paul? Before his encounter with Christ, Paul held these same beliefs. He believed that God would vindicate Israel. He believed that one day the world would be judged and the one true God would rule the world. God would bring his kingdom in and the reign of earthly kings would be over. What changed with his encounter with Christ was he now realized that this had already begun to happen with Jesus. Jesus was that king. Jesus was the one true God. Jesus was the beginning of God’s kingdom. “The one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time” (36). Paul now began to proclaim the gospel, announcing that Jesus was the true king of the earth. He still held onto his Jewish concept of justification but now that concept was centered on Jesus. Justification is how we identify that we are Christians. Justification has nothing to do with getting to heaven when we die. It is the “badge of membership” for the Christian. When specifically looking at “justification apart from works of the law” Paul is not condemning the Torah or the law as Reformed tradition has typically taught. When most of us hear “justification by works” we think of it legalistically. We think of people trying to climb their way into heaven. But Wright does not believe that this is what Paul thought when he used this phrase. Wright argues that instead of the law being our mark, faith in the gospel message becomes the sign of our membership in the covenant. Paul centers justification on the gospel. Jesus did not simply come to bring people to heaven. He came to establish his kingdom. He came to fulfill the covenant and restore the world.
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I am relatively unfamiliar with the New Perspective and this book was the first that I had read about it. Overall, I think that Wright presented a convincing argument. As for my first reaction to the arguments he presented, I think that they did make sense. His point that Christianity is not simply about getting to heaven and how we get there was probably the point I agree with the most. I think that if we look at the whole Bible we can see the point that Wright is making. The overall story of the Bible is of God restoring humanity and creation. This starts with the covenant and Israel. Over and over we see that God is working through history to bring about his kingdom. His kingdom comes with Christ. Christ is established as the one true king of the earth. I think that Wright really makes this point clear.
As for the book itself I think that it was well laid out. There were some points of course where I had a difficult time understanding all of what he was saying, but that may be more from my inexperience with the topic. I do appreciate how he started each chapter by laying out exactly what he was doing He also presented his argument in a way that made sense. The arguments he made and the evidence that he used to back up those arguments were well organized and well connected. It was also helpful for him to explain some other scholars’ views on Paul and the basic history of the New Perspective. He presented each one in a fair way and then used that to show what he would expand on. That helped me to become a little more familiar with the topic. While I appreciate how much time he spent on the Paul’s context, I do wish that he would have spent only a little more time on what this view means for the modern church and modern people who read Paul. In the end, Wright’s book was helpful in introducing me to one scholar’s view on Paul and one new perspective on Paul’s letters. It presented an interesting argument and he made many interesting points about first-century Judaism and Paul’s definition of justification. I look forward to reading more on this topic.
Links Related to Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said:
- Ligonier: What’s Wrong with Wright
- Eerdman’s: What Saint Paul Really Said
- Auburn: What Saint Paul Really Said, Book Review
- Triangular Christianity: N.T. Wright’s “What St. Paul Really Said”