My Interview with N.T. Wright on the Jewishness of Paul

I got to interview NT Wright, the world famous Biblical scholar and historian and former Anglican Bishop of Durham recently. Well, kind of, anyway. On his Facebook page, he solicited questions for the month of February. I solicited one and it was selected to be answered by Wright, which technically means that I was able to interview NT Wright – kind of, anyway. Close enough. Here it is:

 

N. T. Wright has answered! The question selected from this month’s ASK N. T. WRIGHT discussion topic came from Alan Cross.

Alan Cross’s Question:

“If Paul was a thoroughly Jewish thinker (which I do not dispute), what role did his upbringing amongst the Gentiles in Tarsus play in his perspective? How did the two ways of thinking interrelate?”

The Answer from N. T. Wright:


“There is a persistent myth, which goes back to the ‘history of religion’ school of a century ago, (a) that there was a great gulf in the first century between ‘Jewish thought’ and ‘non-Jewish thought’, and (b) that Paul, believing in justification by faith apart from works of the law, had obviously moved away from ‘Jewish thought’ and therefore into ‘non-Jewish thought’. Both of these ideas are completely wrong, and massive scholarship has disproved both. (a) All Judaism of the period is, in some sense, ‘Hellenistic’ Judaism. There is a complex commerce of ideas, and we can see Jewish thinkers struggling to stay faithful to their God while expressing their ideas using thought-forms that were widely known. Examples would be the Wisdom of Solomon, and Philo. (b) Paul remained a thoroughly Jewish thinker, retaining the Jewish focus on monotheism, election and eschatology, and insisting on the Jewish-style demand of not worshipping idols and maintaining a Jewish-style code of sexual conduct. What happened for Paul was that he came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth had been demonstrated in the resurrection to be Israel’s Messiah . . . and, according to Psalms 2 and 72 (the former of which in particular is enormously important in early Christianity), and passages like Isaiah 11 (also quoted by Paul), when Israel’s Messiah arrives he will be the rightful lord not only of Israel but of the whole world. So Paul did not have to abandon his Jewish heritage in order to have a message for the world; he only had to stand at that point in the Jewish heritage which says, ‘From this vantage point all nations are called to obedience to Israel’s God, and to his Messiah.’ That was precisely Paul’s stance.

“Of course, because Paul had grown up in one of the major philosophical and cultural cities of the day, he cannot have been unaware of the major debates about what we know, how we know it and how to behave (physics, logic and ethics). At various points in his letters – Colossians is a good example, but so is 1 Corinthians – we see him navigating through these issues from a decidedly Jewish point of view – which doesn’t mean he detaches himself from the rest of the world but that he claims to outflank it, to beat it at its own game. I have argued this out in chapter 14 of Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Paul’s way of putting it is typically and cheerfully combative: ‘taking every thought captive to obey the Messiah’ (2 Corinthians 10); or, more gently, ‘whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable’ . . . etc. (Philippians 4). Paul could see, quite clearly, both that the pagan world as a whole was stuck in idolatry and the destructive behaviour-patterns that went with that, and that nevertheless many non-Jewish thinkers were really grasping after, and glimpsing, aspects of truth and goodness which the followers of Jesus should respect and admire without losing their own distinctive stance.

“Basically, all this comes down to the belief that if Israel’s God is the world’s creator, and if all humans are made in his image, then the rescue and renewal of that image in Jesus must be good news for everybody – without having to leave its Jewish home base, except insofar as it is now defined as a worldwide family of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. Because of Jesus, Paul navigates the waters of non-Jewish thought differently from Wisdom or Philo, but he is recognisably doing the same kind of thing, living as a (messianically fulfilled) Jew in and for the wider world.”

N. T. Wright

 

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