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Wright Reviews Scholarship on Paul

April 16, 2012

Probably writing sometime ca. 70-120 CE, the author of 2 Peter refers to a collection of Paul’s letters as already enjoying a scriptural status, but observes that “there are some things in them hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15-16). Such has it ever been, so it seems, now perhaps more than ever. Hence, the major industry comprising Pauline scholarship today. The latest issue of Expository Times (vol. 123, number 8, May 2012) features two large articles by key “players” today that illustrate the continuing controversies and developments. In this posting, I focus on the review of Pauline scholarship by N. T. Wright. In a subsequent posting I’ll take note of Douglas Campbell’s effort to summarize key points in his massive study, The Deliverance of God (2009).

In “Paul in Current Anglophone Scholarship,” N. T. Wright reviews and gives brief assessment of major developments in Pauline scholarship over the 35 yrs or so. Wright excuses the Anglophone focus by noting (correctly, I think) that it reflects the “new dominance, in biblical studies as a whole, of North America” over the last 30 yrs. But his survey quite rightly also notes the several important British contributors.

The survey begins with the high-impact book by E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), from which came the so-called “new perspective” on Paul. The “basic elements” of this shift in perspective comprised a move from portraying Judaism as rigid legalism to seeing it as a “covenantal nomism”, an analysis of Paul’s theological thought as moving from “solution” (Jesus’ redemptive death) to “plight” (humanity’s sinful plight) and as more concerned with “participation” (in redemption) than with “justification”, and a recognition that Paul’s critique of Jewish Law was mainly directed against fellow Jewish Christians who thought that gentile converts needed to add committed Torah-observance to their faith in Jesus. Wright briefly reviews Sanders and other key contributors to the “new perspective”, including J.D.G. Dunn and Wright himself. Other key “post-new-perspective” works cited by Wright include Richard Hays’s “groundbreaking” Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989), with which Wright expresses strong agreement, and also Francis Watson’s Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles (2007).

Then Wright engages the renewed emphasis on “apocalyptic” in Paul, represented in J.L. Martyn and J.C. Beker, and now Douglas Campbell. Wright faults these scholars, however, for not doing justice to the Jewish setting and some key features of ancient apocalyptic thought.

In the section on “Paul and Politics” Wright discusses a “new wave” of Pauline studies that focus on questions about Paul’s relationship to Roman imperial structures. Richard Horsley has been prominent in this discussion. Then Wright reviews Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s insistence that Paul incorporates Stoic ideas, which Wright finds faulty.

Wright offers a more positive evaluation of scholarship on “Paul and ‘Social History’,” citing particularly Wayne Meeks’s The First Urban Christians (1983), which Wright calls “one of the most important books on Paul written in the last fifty years”. He also cites David Horrell’s Solidarity and Difference (2005) as “a sophisticated and many-sided account,” and draws attention to the new book from John Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews (2011).

Wright concludes by focusing on “the theological task,” asking whether there is “a way of articulating Paul’s core beliefs which does not depend on arranging these and other themes in a tight structure, but will allow each to play its contributory part in a larger whole than scholarship has yet imagined”. He expresses the belief that “this can in principle be done,” and confidence that there are “ways forward” that situate Paul accurately in his first-century context and that show that his letters reflect a coherent theological outlook. Word on the street is that Wright himself is soon to launch the Paul-volume in his multi-volume project on NT theology. In this light, perhaps this article is both a useful review of scholarship by a seasoned scholar and also a “watch this space” posting!

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12 Comments
  1. Mr Hurtado,

    Speaking of Paul, what do you think of this article of Mr Tabor on the earliest Christian view on the ‘resurrection': http://jamestabor.com/2012/04/14/why-people-are-confused-about-the-earliest-christian-view-of-resurrection-of-the-dead/ ?

    He argues that you could be in the presence of a corpse and yet believe that this person, or rather their ‘spirit’, had been resurrected into a ‘new, spiritual body’. The later ‘empty tomb’ story would have come into existence because of a misunderstanding and a confusion between ‘reviving a corpse’ (resuscitation) and ‘recalling a spirit from the realm of the dead and clothing it into a new body’ (resurrection)?

    On the other hand, if a ‘resurrection’ would indeed require a corpse then what those people whose corpses have already turned to dust or had been burned. Can’t or couldn’t they be resurrected therefore?

    Thank you.

    • I know of no EVIDENCE that ancient Jews or christians used “resurrection” for anything that didn’t involve a bodily form of (new) life. Paul’s reference in 1 Cor 15:1ff. to the burial of Jesus shows that death, and perforce resurrection too, involved a body for him. As to your final question, it’s one that ancient Jews and Christians handled with ease. They’d say, if God can create life from the dust he can resurrect bodies from scattered dust too. Paul would say (as he does in 1 Cor), “God can give it a body”. I.e., the basis of resurrection hope wasn’t predicates of the body but the power of God.

      • Thank you very much for your answer, Prof. Hurtado.

        I assume then that you disagree with Prof. Tabor’s conclusion, as explained in his article, that the Jews (and Paul) believed that resurrecting someone meant recalling the spirit of the deceased from the realm of the dead and give him a new, ‘spiritual’ body for a new life on a new earth?

        I’m not sure what you mean with ‘resurrect bodies from scattered dust’? So he will first reassemble the ‘dust’ into corpses, then transform these reassembled corpses into these ‘spiritual’ bodies (1 Cor 15:44) and ‘add’ the spirit of the deceased to it? Why not immediately create the new ‘spiritual’ bodies with the spirit of the deceased then, especially since those bodies will be quite different from the current ones? Why the unnecessary step of recreating the corpses first?

        And what about Paul saying that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom’?
        What about Paul longing to shed his current body in order to get the new one and be with God (2 Cor 5:1-9, and especially: 6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.)?

      • You’re getting way ahead of me and reading into my brief posting things. All I meant to say was that “resurrection” in all ancient Jewish and Christian sources always involves some kind of new embodied existence. As to what kind of body that involved, there were varying views. The closest Paul gets to giving a response is in 1 Cor 15:35-50, where he ascribes to resurrected bodies four qualities (vv. 42-44), “imperishable”, “glory”, “power”, and “spiritual” (but NB for Paul “spiritual” here connotes divine-Spirit empowered, not the modern notions of immaterial). Then he simply says in v. 49 that “we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (Jesus). I.e., the resurrection of believers will be what Jesus’ resurrected life is. My reference to scattered dust referred to some of the things said by ancient Jews and Christians when pagan critics made fun of their belief in resurrection. They answered that it was no problem for God to provide a body, even if the mortal body had been eaten by beasts or lost at sea or whatever. Fundamentally, ancient Christian belief in resurrection isn’t about physics but a confidence in the power of God, even over death.

      • I agree that they expected this new body to be physical in some way (although not in a human way obviously – more like ‘the angels’) and that it’s not about physics.

        But what I am curious about is whether you think that the Jews at that time, and Paul, could have imagined a ‘resurrection’ indeed ONLY as a revivification of a corpse or if it’s possible that they could have imagined a ‘resurrection’ as the spirit of the deceased (and the spirit had to be somewhere while the body was dead and rotting away, right?) getting reclothed with a new, spiritual, glorious, imperishable body, and this independently of the old, human one (if it still existed)?

        That’s seems to be the case that Prof. Tabor makes: Jesus’ earliest followers believed in his resurrection even though there still was a corpse in a tomb or wherever, since the ‘resurrection’ is NOT dependent on that corpse. God could and would create these new bodies for the spirits of the deceased at the moment of ‘resurrection’.

        And that would fit in with Paul’s desire to get rid of the ‘earthly tent’ because as he writes: ‘as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord’. At the ‘resurrection’ then that which survives the death of the body (= the spirit) would finally get that new and improved body and be able to ‘be at home with the Lord’!

        Paul also writes: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” > this ‘while in the body’ indicates that on Judgment Day people are NOT ‘in the body’ anymore (I assume Paul meant the previous, human, natural body).

        So why imagine a resurrection as the revivification of a corpse if the ‘resurrected body’ greatly differs from the original body anyway? Why not assume that the belief was (at the time of Jesus’ death): people die, their bodies rot and turn to dust while their spirits are somewhere else, waiting to be resurrected in new, glorious, spiritual, imperishable bodies? And Jesus’ spirit was the first to be resurrected like that! As a sign of things to come.

      • I repeat: I know of no Jewish or Christian evidence that a “resurrection” could be imagined with the mortal body left intact in a tomb. Paul speaks of the mortal body being transformed (1 Cor 15:51-56). He appears to imagine the mortal body being totally transformed in nature, not simply left in a tomb.

      • Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:35-38 is ambiguous. He may very well leave open the possibility that the body may just be left in the grave when a new soma pneumatikos is created:

        “35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.”

        When Paul says “When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be” he’s clearly pointing out that seeds shrivel, die and decay and the new plant sprouts from the seed – the analogy very clearly leaves open the possibility that the resurrection leaves the dead body in the grave.

        See Lüdemann, 1994, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (trans. John Bowden), SCM Press, London. p. 46. You might note that the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:35-38 in this sense goes back at least to Heinrich Holtzmann, “Das leere Grab und die gegenwärtigen Verhandlungen über die Auferstehung Jesu,” ThR 9 (1906): 79-86, 119-132 (p. 128ff.).

        “Paul speaks of the mortal body being transformed (1 Cor 15:51-56).”

        Paul says:

        “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”

        His remarks about being “changed” apply to the living Christians at the parousia. But many dead Christians’ bodies would have already decayed by the time. Clearly they get a new “pneumatic body” (soma pneumatikos) at the parousia: and Paul says explicitly: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”

      • Andrew, we simply disagree, and I’ll leave it at that. I can see NO indication that Paul expected that the body of Jesus still lay in a tomb in Jerusalem, which is the question that started this thread.

      • I don’t want to turn this into an endless debate or appear stubborn but just a comment on 1 Cor 15:51-56 then:

        I think it’s still up to debate as to what Paul really means there, especially since he just earlier contrasted the first Adam with the second one, describing the former as having been created as a natural, physical, living being and the latter as having been turned into, or created as, a life-giving spirit (‘pneuma’, which definitely refers to something intangible – also, what does ‘heaven’ or ‘heavenly’ actually refer to?).

        That passage is also interesting though because Paul seems to think, as he does in other places, that he himself will still be alive at Jesus’ return: ‘For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.’ > he contrasts ‘the dead’ who will be raised IN those new, imperishable bodies with ‘we’ whose current bodies will be changed TO those new, imperishable bodies. I don’t see where ‘the dead’ here refers to, or includes, the rotting bodies of the deceased. Why couldn’t or wouldn’t it refer to the spirits of the deceased?

        And according to ‘Isaiah 65’ (and later ‘2 Peter’ and ‘Revelation’) the first heaven and earth will be replaced as a whole anyway. So those rotting corpses, left in their tombs or wherever, would not bother the ‘resurrected’: “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”

      • Jerome, you’re right that this shouldn’t turn into an endless debate. So, I won’t attempt to engage adequately your comments here. Any decent commentary, or adequate treatment of Paul’s theology will do so. In my posting and initial comment, all I was doing was responding to your query about the idea that “resurrection” to ancient Jews and Christians could involve a mortal body lying still intact in the grave. And I simply stated that I know of no evidence of such a belief. I reiterate that, and let’s draw line here.

  2. I am not sure if Wright mentions the following, but one would think that Gerd Lüdemann’s Paul: The Founder of Christianity(2002) and Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity (1989) are impossible to ignore in any survey of scholarship on Paul.

    Michael Goulder’s Paul and the Competing Mission in Corinth (2001) and St. Paul Vs. St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions (1994) provide a modern revival of the two missions hypothesis.

    Though it is not strictly speaking on Paul, Pierre-Antoine Bernheim’s James, Brother of Jesus (1997) provides an important reconstruction of Paul’s relationship with James, without going to the speculative excesses of Robert Eisenmann’s James, the Brother of Jesus (1996).

    • Wright mentions none of these. And I would have to say that none of them seems to me to have made a substantial impact in scholarly discussion. That’s not to say anything other than, rightly or wrongly, they haven’t succeeded in getting scholarly attention and regard. But, sometimes books take a while to come into their own.

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