Wright Reviews Scholarship on Paul
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!