Paul and His Recent Interpreters, NTW, Part 3 (Gupta)

Wright PRIThis is a multi-part review of NT Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Fortress). Today we will look at chapters 3-5 on the New Perspective on Paul.

In chapter 3 (“The New Perspective on Paul”) Wright does a bit of pre-history and notes that the NPP path was already being paved by GF Moore, as well as Schweitzer and Davies to some degree. Interestingly, Wright makes the case that Ed Sanders’ work got a good hearing because it inadvertently  resonated with Reformed theology (i.e., a unification of Old and New Testaments; see p. 67).

One point that Wright underscores over and over again throughout these chapters on the NPP is that Wright, Dunn, and Sanders have a few common causes, but they also have disagreed on quite a lot. For example, Wright never fully took on board Sanders’ idea of “covenantal nomism” (CN). Rather, Wright wanted to see more of a story-dimension, thus Wright here introduces the terminology of “covenantal narrative” that would include many of the features of Sanders’ CN, but add the centrality of worldview and metanarrative – a hallmark of NTW’s approach to ancient and early Judaism and early Christianity (see 71).Thus, NTW faults Sanders for talking about “covenant” without making reference to key story-shaped texts like Deut 27-30 (p. 75).

Also, NTW points out that he never really agreed with Sanders on the latter’s argument of “solution-to-plight.” Yes, there is some way in which Paul was shocked and surprised by the divine redemptive solution in the crucified/risen Jesus Christ, but indeed Jews knew there was a “problem” all along.

Not, to be sure, Martin Luther’s personal problem, but the national problem of Jews under Roman rule, with scripture unfulfilled, Israel unredeemed, and, not least, Israel’s God still not returning in glory as had been promised. (79)

A final key critique NTW makes of Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism is Sanders’ narrow focus on “religion.” This effects how Sanders closes in a discussion of “getting in” and “staying in.” This makes it seem like Jews operated with a conversionistic framework, which most of them did not (see p 80).

Chapter 4: Life After Sanders

In chapter 4, NTW surveys the positive swell of interest in NPP “after Sanders.” He starts out by giving attention to Dunn, but doesn’t praise or critique Dunn too strongly: “My own view is that he has made a great many good points, but that his synthesis still lacks some of the dimensions necessary for a full account” (91). In NTW’s discussion of Dunn’s view on pistis Christou, I was surprised that NTW said this: “The [pistis Christou debate] might seem like a small exegetical either/or. But a good deal hangs on it, which is no doubt why the debate has run on in public, private and print” (97). I disagree – I think most scholars feel that it is more of a fun hobby than a serious theological matter, because both subjective and objective theological points can be true (and recognizable in Paul) whether or not Pistis Christou is interpreted as “this” or “that.” Funny comment in a footnote: at a public debate at SBL between Dunn and Hays on this, someone in the crowd called for a vote on Pistis Christou. The chair, Lee Keck, quickly killed the idea: “Nope. This ain’t the Jesus Seminar” (97n. 30).

NTW also adds the work of Hays in this chapter – not sure why. Hays has definitely supported a NPP reading, but not sure how his intertextuality work is directly related? (see 97-102). Next, NTW talks about Francis Watson – an important voice in the discussion. I wonder, though, why someone like Terence Donaldson was not included here. Or my colleague Kent Yinger.

Chapter 5: “The Old is Better”

Here NTW addresses the many and multi-faceted negative reactions to the NPP. Wright gives attention to Bob Gundry, DA Carson et al, Simon Gathercole, Seyoon Kim, and Martin Hengel. Wright considers the work of Friedrich Avemarie to be one of the stronger pushbacks. Here, NTW reaffirms that there was good resistance to Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” (repeating NTW’s move towards covenantal narrative; p. 111).

In this chapter Wright also responds to critiques of his own approach to Paul on “justification” (116-117; I have still not come around to Wright’s way of viewing this terminology). NTW also addresses the OPP defense of “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness. It is not that NTW does not believe in “imputation,” rather he thinks the evidence points to imputation of the “death and resurrection of the Messiah” – thus, Wright wants to push imputation more towards participation and away from substitution. I think Wright is correct about this, but I am not a fan of using the old-timey language of “imputation” (120-121).

In the latter part of this chapter Wright takes on Westerholm – and he has strong words indeed. Wright feels that he has been very much misrepresented and caricatured by Westerholm. But Wright himself has some potent words: “Simon Gathercole may be right, in his blurb, to say that Westerholm is ‘head and shoulders above almost everyone else’, but not ‘as an interpreter of Paul'” (128). Ouch!

I will stop there. I did a very quick run through various threads that NTW picked up in these chapters, but my little tour does not capture the outstanding analysis of Wright – again, this kind of “reading of the signs of times” is a speciality of Wright, so it makes for excellent reading. Next up – “Apocalyptic”

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