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World’s Biggest Book on Paul?

November 5, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I agreed to review for a journal N.T. Wright’s new book on Paul . . . sight unseen.  Thereafter, it arrived in the post:  a two-volume publication comprising nearly 1700 pages!  I had expected a big book, but not quite this big!  I’ve had to re-schedule delivery of the review (as I’m one of those peculiar fellows who actually reads the books that they agree to review).

I’ve only dipped into it at some places out of curiosity about this or that matter, and I’m not yet ready to comment in public about anything . . . other than its size!  In an earlier posting I mentioned Craig Keener’s huge commentary-project on Acts, judging that it was probably the world’s biggest commentary on a single biblical writing by a single author.  Well, I’d guess that Wright’s two-volume opus is the world’s biggest single-author work on Paul.  I’ll have more than that to say when I’ve had the time to engage its contents more adequately.

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  1. Mark permalink

    Hi! What a big book! Can’t wait to lay my hands on it. I’ve been following (not stalking! ;-)) you and Tom Wright’s insights on Christology. What can you say is your main difference with him in arriving at an early high christology? Also is there any way that Nicene/ Chalcedonian Christology informs your approach to ehc? Or from being an NT expert, is there even a benefit of approaching christology retrospectively from a Nicene perspective? Thanks in advance for your comments!

    • If what you want to do is historical inquiry (my own aim), i.e., understanding the concepts and beliefs and factors of the time of, e.g., Paul, then Nicaea is no help! They were dealing with a quite distinguishable historical circumstance and with different conceptual categories. I’d say that one difference between Wright and me is that he seeks a macro-conceptual/theological narrative through which to read the entire NT. To my mind the risks in this include imposing such a narrative monolithically upon texts. But whether that happens in Wright’s work is a matter of judging whether you think he succeeds in showing that his macro-narrative really is reflected in all the texts.
      I’m simply seeking a much less ambitious goal: To understand how earliest believers came to see Jesus as sharing divine glory and worship, and how these convictions were expressed, developed and influential across the earliest century or so especially.

      • Mark permalink

        Thank you for your response, Larry. My concern regarding Nicea and history is to find an appropriate (not necessarily perfect) bridge to Lessing’s “der garstige breite Graben” of history and reason, thus, my earlier question, “As an NT expert, is there even a benefit of approaching christology retrospectively from a Nicene perspective?” vis-a-vis, how would your approach to early high christology help form a robust christology from a theological perspective? I hope this makes sense. Thank you again for responding!

      • Mark: If the aim is to understand earliest Christological beliefs in their own context/terms, then, no, I don’t think that “a Nicene perspective” is helpful, nor is an “Arian perspective” helpful either. The issues and conceptual categories the led to Nicaea are simply different. There’s a historical relationship, but enough differences to make it unhelpful. So, my own aim has been to try to adjust myself to the terminology, concepts, phenomena, issues of the earliest material, and then one can think “forward” to see how these things had continuing effects in subsequent developments.

      • Mark permalink

        Thank you for your comment, Larry. I truly appreciate your patience in answering our queries. Reading your book, “How on Earth…” was very enlightening. I basically agree with your view on Christ-devotion. After you’ve answered, “How…”, a follow up question is “When did Jesus become [a] God?” If worship is the church’s response to the Father’s proclamation of Jesus, then chronologically, Jesus’ divinity is prior to worship. If approached from this way, do you think then Nicaea/ Chalcedon’s categories become a relevant/helpful aspect in early high christology as evaluated from our perspective?

      • No, basically, I don’t see how 4th century categories/statements assist us in understanding what first-century statements and actions meant. But, yes, I’ve emphasized over 35 yrs or so that the most significant expression of “Jesus-devotion” was in the “dyadic” devotional/worship practice that we see reflected (indeed, presupposed) in our earliest Christian evidence. This practice obviously involved convictions about God and Jesus, but doctrinal elaborations continued for centuries thereafter, and were driven and shaped in part by the early devotional practice such as we see in the NT.

  2. Having covered Tom’s book in his NT Seminar over 2012-2013, I’ll say it is all good, although some will criticize what they perceive as repetition on things due to the fact that Tom is often reminding (esp. middle- and lower-level readers unfamiliar with the concepts) about the contexts of his statements–which is understandable and forgivable considering the complexity of the positions.

    • Thanks, James, for your view. We’ll have to see what comes over in the review-process. I think that there may be more issues of difference than simply the size of the book, however.

  3. samtsang98 permalink

    So looking forward to your review.

  4. Can't Help But Say permalink

    I’m guessing that Wright is so thorough that Paul would’ve learned a few things about himself if he was to read it. 🙂

    • Well, I think authors often find themselves taken as saying things that they didn’t anticipate!

  5. Well, it appears that the old wisdom according to which “size is not everything – it is the only thing” (a saying which could easily be attributed to Karl Barth in the field of systematic theology) continues to haunt modern biblical scholarship. Without being in the very least manner unpolite towards Keener or Wright – the more so since I did not have the chance to hold these two works in my hand – I would simply like to share with you an old anecdote from the time of the Eastern “desert fathers” of the Early Christian centuries. Its source eludes me, but I remember the story.

    One day a bishop, who was also a commentator of Scripture visited one of the more “simple” fathers in the desert. To impress his host, the bishop brought him a copy of his recently published and quite voluminous commentary on one of Paul’s epistles (I think it was 1Corinthians), and encouraged the elderly monk to read it. A few months later the bishop returned to the old man and asked:
    – Well, did you manage to read my commentary?
    The old man replied:
    – You see, a very interesting thing happened. I was hoping that by reading your commentary I shall be able to understand better Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. The fact is, that I had to read the First Epistle to the Corinthians in order to understand your commentary.

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