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“Paul and the Faithfulness of God”: 2nd Posting

March 18, 2014

Yesterday, I posted on Tom Wright’s 2-vol opus on Paul, and in this and  a couple of subsequent postings I’ll offer further comments about some features of this work.  My first observation in yesterday’s posting was that it’s massive, 2 volumes, over 1600 pages.  Wright seems to have taken this opportunity to lay out extensively his views, not only on Paul, but on a wide panoply of other/related matters as well.  For those who haven’t seen the work yet, I’ll sketch its contents.

In Volume 1, Part 1 (chapters 1-5), “Paul and His World,” in a leisurely fashion Wright discusses Paul’s Jewish context, the Greek cultural/philosophical setting, the wider religious environment, and the Roman political context.  In Part 2 (chapters 6-8), “The Mindset of the Apostle,” Wright sets forth his approach, which involves his emphasis on the “storied worldview” that he sees as framing all that Paul did and thought.  Parts 1 & 2 comprise some 600 pages.  Granted, Wright’s emphasis that we should take a historical approach, respecting Paul’s historical context, is commendable.  But I wonder if it really required this much preparatory discussion before we get down to the exposition of Paul’s theology.  (One acquaintance, somewhat impatient with how much space is given to these matters, grumpily complained about the several hundred pages of “throat-clearing”.)

Volume 2 comprises Part 3 (chapters 9-11, “Paul’s Theology”) and Part 4 (chapters 12-16, “Paul in History”).  In Part 4, Wright returns to the Jewish, Greek and Roman contexts proposing how Paul’s thought and work relate to them.  But it’s obviously “Part 3” (chapters 9-11) that form (in Wright’s own words) the “fulcrum” and crucial core of the work.  And so it’s to these chapters that I’ll direct my own observations and engagement in this and subsequent postings.

In Chapters 9-11, Wright organizes Paul’s theology under three main topics:  “The One God of Israel,” “The People of God,” and “God’s Future for the World.”  Wright contends that in each of these three topics, Paul presents a “freshly reworked” and “freshly imagined” treatment.  So, to start with the first topic, Wright proposes that Paul both affirmed “classic Jewish monotheism of his day” and also redrew it “around Jesus.” To quote Wright:  “That robust monotheism has been, for Paul, fully rethought around Jesus the Messiah,” producing a “Messiah-shaped monotheism” (687).  Indeed, Wright urges, “for Paul, Jesus is seen as the second self (so to speak) of Israel’s God” (696).

Wright engages at various points the work of other scholars who have explored what seems to have been a veritable explosion of christological affirmations in the young Jesus-movement in the earliest observable period after Jesus execution.   These others include in particular Richard Bauckham, Carey Newman, and myself.  Though appreciative of this work, Wright bids to surpass it in offering what he sees as a more adequate account of things.

So, e.g., citing Bauckham’s proposal that in earliest christological claims Jesus was included within “the divine identity,” Wright bids to subsume this idea within his own proposal that “the early Christians believed that Israel’s one God had returned in person.  In the person of Jesus” (654).  Indeed, Wright contends that in Jewish tradition of the time, this idea of a personal return of YHWH was well-known, and so became the crucial category by which Jesus’ divine status was understood and articulated in earliest Christianity.

By contrast, Wright doesn’t seem to like quite so much my proposal (originally in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism) that earliest (Jewish) believers drew upon (and radically adapted) what I called “chief agent” traditions (in which God is pictured as having this or that figure who serves as God’s vizier) in accommodating the exalted Jesus while also maintaining the uniqueness of the one God.  But it seems to me that Wright hasn’t really engaged my argument, for his references to it appear to me more a caricature than a fair description.

To be sure, as others have noted earlier (including David Capes on Paul’s christological use of YHWH texts; Larry Kreitzer’s Jesus and God in Paul’s Eschatology; Carl Davis, The Name and Way of the Lord; Carey Newman, Paul’s Glory Christology; et alia) there is a remarkably close linkage of Jesus and God in Paul’s letters.  But, at the same time, there is an almost equally emphatic affirmation that there are two– God and Jesus– and Jesus is consistently described with reference to God, not replacing God but serving as the one sent forth by God and acting as God’s unique agent of redemption.  That is, we have what I call a “dyadic” emphasis, two figures posited and a clear relationship between them.

Indeed, as I have observed in my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010), in NT writings throughout we have a “triadic” shape to the “God-discourse” involving references to “God”, Jesus, and the Spirit.  So, I agree with Wright’s discussion in Chapter 9 about how in Paul we see both a “christological” and a “pneumatological” emphasis in the view of God.

But, to engage critically some specifics, I really don’t see evidence in Paul’s letters of an explicit emphasis that Jesus is the “return of YHWH” embodied and in person.  To be sure, there are statements in some OT passages and subsequently in other Jewish texts that YHWH promised to renew Israel and come to Israel in eschatological redemption.  But my question is what evidence there is in Paul’s letters that this specific idea and these specific texts were particularly cited and central.  Granted, Paul cites Psalm 24:1 in 1 Cor 10:26 (to make a point about freedom to eat meat sold in the marketplace).  And, granted, later in Psalm 24, there is the reference to “the LORD, strong and mighty” who will come in through the “ancient doors”.  It may well be that Paul would have read the latter verses as referring to Jesus (as Wright proposes, 670), but such possibilities are one thing, and explicit evidence that for Paul the idea of Jesus as the embodied, personal return of YHWH to Israel is another.

Granted, in Colossian 1:15-20 we have the statement that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (v. 19).  If, as Wright presumes (and as I’m ready to accept as well for the purposes of argument) Colossians is taken as composed by Paul, this is surely an important text.  But isn’t it also the case that the passage defines Jesus’s significance with reference to God, linking God and Jesus but, at the same time, distinguishing them?  Jesus is pictured here as the unique vehicle (so to speak) or agent of God’s purposes and redemptive actions (esp. v. 20).  Is that, however, the same thing as Wright’s claim that for Paul Jesus was the “personal return of YHWH” to Israel?

There are other points that one might engage as well, but one further matter will suffice for this posting.  I agree that in Paul’s letters we see what I have termed (from as far back as my 1988 book mentioned above) a significant, apparently novel “mutation” in Jewish “monotheism” and in the typical devotional pattern/practice of Jewish tradition of his time.  As I have proposed (and as Wright, too, urges), in its earliest expressions, this “mutation” appears to be a novel development within Roman-era Jewish tradition (e.g., How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, pp. 31-55), and Paul certainly reflects this remarkable development.  Wright’s treatment seems to me, however, to credit Paul with a lot in the formulation of this “mutation”.  But I wonder if this is misjudged.

To be sure, Paul appears to have been a pretty intelligent and articulate fellow, and was perhaps particularly skilled in scriptural study and interpretation (from his Pharisee background).  But, so far as I can see, the only claims that Paul makes about any distinctiveness or originality concern (1) his conviction that he was specially called by God to conduct a mission to gentiles, and (2) his view of the terms on which gentiles were to be received as full co-religionists with Jewish believers (baptism/faith in Jesus without taking on Jewish observance of Torah).  So, was Paul really the creative figure that Wright seems to posit in developing the “high christology” that we see reflected (really presumed) in Paul’s letters?  Or, instead, do we have in his letters essentially the sort of claims about Jesus and the sort of devotion to him that Paul acceded to subsequent to the “revelation of his [God’s] Son” (Gal. 1:15) that changed him from persecutor to proponent of Jesus?  Indeed, as I’ve proposed, was it these claims and devotional actions that (at least in part) provoked the zealous Pharisee, Saul, to feel obliged to “destroy” (his term) the young Jesus movement?  (Something certainly got up his nose!)

Wright’s discussion can be seen as a classic “great man” treatment of a historical figure.  Now Paul can be thought of as a “great man” I guess.  But Paul himself seems to have been quite ready to acknowledge that he had predecessors in his faith, and that he shared basic faith with them and others.

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  1. Wilson Oh permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    I have just read you book “How on earth did Jesus become a God?” and considering this post, it’s seems like you do not ascribe Paul playing a big role in the “development” of the “high christology” once he just transmitted what he received previously, which I agree. So, in your view, what is the biggest Paul’s contribution to the early christian christology? Is there any new christological “element” from Paul?

    • I see little indication in Paul’s letters that he saw himself as formulating significantly distinctive views of Jesus’ person/significance. I’ve proposed that he adapted and applied Christological views to his gentile-mission (in Lord Jesus Christ, 126-33), and there may well be other instances where he did his own “rendition” of things. But, among the issues that he cites as under dispute with those with whom he took serious issue, there is no reference to Christological claims. That, in my view, is a meaningful silence from which to argue!

      • Ross Macdonald permalink

        Have you engaged at any length with Michael Bird’s ‘Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission’ (LNTS)? I read through it as I was studying Stephen Wilson’s book on Paul and the Gentile mission. I came away seeing Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles as being intimately bound up with aspects of Jesus’ fulfillment to Israel, contra Wilson.

      • I confess that I haven’t engaged much with the book that you mention.

  2. Ross Macdonald permalink

    Prof. Hurtado,

    I really am enjoying this review. I have been scraping pennies together to get the new Bousset re-release from Baylor that you introduced, and was wondering if that work, in general, has some bearing on the christological claims you’ve pointed out in Wright? Also, does he interact with Bousset and some of the older scholars in PFG or has that been relegated to the previous volumes?

    Looking forward to the next installment,


    • Wright briefly mentions Bousset, citing my own work as effectively correcting him.

  3. Is the “vizier” concept similar to Jesus as the co-regent of the divine council? Does Wright address the Jesus as co-regent concept?

    Look forward to the rest of your posts on PFG.

    • Hmm. I don’t recall Wright dealing with any “co-regent” notion, nor do I recall encountering it in any of the early Christian texts. Jesus is pictured as installed by God (the “Father”) as regent (e.g., 1 Cor 15), and as sharing the divine throne, if that’s what you mean. But he’s rather consistently pictured as there by God’s will, appointment, pleasure, etc. So, there is a clear “shape” to the dyad.

  4. Hi Larry,
    I like your observations on Wright. Personally, I have found his writing to be long on words with little to say. And his assumption that he has the exegetical key to unlock the metaphors employed by the NT writers is back ***words. His claims about the return of YHWH are based in a fundamental misunderstanding of the historical context. His notion that EVERYONE (rather than a minority) was waiting for the Messiah is naive. I suppose there were 3 wisemen too : ).

    However, I would add a third point to your two above about what Paul claimed. I do not think your first point: (1) his conviction that he was specially called by God to conduct a mission to gentiles goes far enough. It seems to me that Gal. 1:11-12, 17-18 makes a very crucial claim. He not only states the mission to the Gentiles, but the gospel he proclaims came to him as a revelation. That is important, particularly when it is Paul’s writings that are so fundamental for explaining the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I don’t think the significance of this claim or its implications have received nearly the attention they deserve. So, I would agree with Wright’s assessment that we have to acknowledge Paul’s creativity-he is just completely off track and playing by himself.

    Tim McLay

    • Well, Tim, Paul certainly felt that his conviction that he was specially appointed by God to conduct the gentile mission was a big deal: He calls it “my gospel”, and ascribes it to a divine revelation, and spent his entire mission defending it against detractors.
      I think you misunderstand Paul’s defensive statements in Gal 1 about “my gospel”, thus. Other Pauline texts make it perfectly clear that beliefs about Jesus’ redemptive death and resurrection were NOT his uniquely but were shared (inherited) with/from predecessors (e.g., 1 Cor 15:1-11). Likewise, in Gal 2, he professes to have rehearsed “the gospel that I preach among the gentiles” and says that the Jerusalem leaders had no objection. Among the things that he defends in his letters and the clear indications of conflicts in them, there is NO mention of Jesus’ redemptive death/resurrection as an issue. The discussion of Jesus’ resurrection in 1 Cor 15 is obviously occasioned by Greek difficulties with the notion of bodily resurrection, and Paul here is defending the “standard” line in the matter.

      • Hi Larry,
        Hmmm, I am into publishing now and have no interest in writing an article or anything, so you can do what you want. However, as an excellent scholar I am challenging you to think through this rather than sidestep : ).

        Obviously I am familiar with 1 Cor. 15 and Paul referring to the tradition he had received. Unfortunately, the comments in Gal. 1:11-12, 17-18 are just as plainly stated and make a very specific claim. On what basis are you preferring to subordinate, at least in your reply to me, his comments in Gal to I Cor, particularly when Paul is defending very vigorously in both places? Galatians is also earlier than I Cor.

        Personally, I don’t think people have stopped to think about the implications, and, far too easily do as you have, at least thus far, and ignore the text because of an established understanding of Paul and his relationship to the early community.

        As a matter of logic, If Gal, is true, then I Cor can also be true. However, your reading excludes the plain sense interpretation of Gal requiring it to be ignored or explained. So, please explain to me what Paul was plainly saying about the gospel he proclaimed was not of human origin and that he received a revelation?

        For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is NOT OF HUMAN ORIGIN;1:12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I RECEIVED it through a REVELATION of Jesus Christ.

        All the best,

      • Tim: Let’s be nice, OK? Accusations of side-stepping, etc., are . . . not nice. I didn’t side-step Gal 1 and Paul’s account of the origin of his gospel. I stated (with numerous Pauline scholars) that by “my gospel”, and “the gospel proclaimed by me,” in the context of Galatians (a highly defensive text responding to people questioning his adequacy to teach fully what gentiles needed to do to become full co-religionists in Christ), these expressions appear to refer to his gospel of gentile salvation, i.e., the terms in which he conducted his mission. So, in Gal 2:2, “the gospel that I proclaim among the gentiles” is pretty clearly (to many minds, including mine) referring to the particularities of his message for gentiles. He claims that his sense of being deputized to conduct his mission, and the terms in which he conducted it, were a revelation, and he wasn’t deputized by human authorities (contra those troubling the Galatian churches), but was appointed directly by God.
        So, in Christology, etc., he doesn’t claim originality, only in his message of gentile inclusion qua gentiles, without taking on Jewish Torah-observance.

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