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by N. T. Wright

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Title:What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?
Authors:N. T. Wright
Info:Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (1997), Edition: 1, Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Your library, @Church
Tags:Non-Fiction, Paul, Theology, New Testament, Religion

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What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? by N. T. Wright



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  OCMCCP | Feb 4, 2011 |
An excellent if short analysis of Pauline theology and doctrine-- an attempt to navigate the shoals of modern controversy while remaining true to what Paul said.

The title is a bit sensationalistic; Wright does eventually get around to examining the question of Paul as founder of Christianity (and does well at showing how Jesus is the focus, and Paul the pointer to Jesus). Most of the book is an attempt to make sense of Paul as a first-century former Pharisaic Jew promoting the message of Jesus of Nazareth as the Crucified Lord.

Wright makes strong arguments regarding the nature of the Gospel, justification, and God as Paul believed and elaborated. He shows how Paul is no Hellenist but a Jew maintaining a strong criticism of paganism while also critiquing the Jews themselves.

I have a strong suspicion that this book sets out in short form what was most recently more expanded in "Justification" and, ultimately, will be more thoroughly demonstrated in the 4th volume of Christian Origins and the Question of God. In the meantime, an excellent book, one necessary for consideration when one attempts to make good sense of true, first century Pauline theology and doctrine. ( )
  deusvitae | Jul 6, 2010 |
The US subtitle of this book (Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity), and the blurb on the back about A.N. Wilson, are a little misleading, as this question really only occupies the last chapter, where Wright critiques Wilson’s Paul the Mind of an Apostle. Most of the book sets out Wright’s views on the theology of Paul’s letters. Wright has a grand synthesis, and it may serve as a corrective to some deeply ingrained Christian beliefs. A few of his distinctive and central points are:

1. Setting Paul’s letters against the Judaism of his day. Wright insists that only a proper historical understanding of Paul can make full sense of his writings. Wright analyses Paul’s attitudes and actions prior to his conversion and finds that Saul of Tarsus was a radical Shammaite Pharisee, an ideological fellow-traveller with the zealots who rebelled against Roman rule. Saul’s extreme zeal to see Israel return to Torah was transferred into an equally zealous attitude towards the Christ who revealed himself to Saul on the road to Damascus.

Wright insists on seeing all of Paul through the prism of the expectations of first century Judaism. It is certainly a necessary and fruitful exercise, putting much of what Paul wrote in new perspective, and making better sense of some things. I did wonder at some of the implications of needing detailed historical knowledge to grasp some of Paul’s basic doctrines. I wish at times Wright had emphasized more that Paul’s gospel was grounded in the Old Testament as much as being Jewish. But perhaps I reveal my cultural heritage which has seen the Jews as outcasts who missed the boat/ark.

2. Israel in Paul’s day saw itself as still in exile. According to Wright, while the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon and had a form of national government, the great post-exilic promises of the prophets had not been fulfilled. Jews, therefore, saw themselves as still in virtual exile, still awaiting the day of the Lord and their vindication when they would rule the nations. This perspective is, in a sense, undoubtedly true. Whether it controlled the perspectives of first century Judaism is another matter. And how much that perspective controlled the New Testament is yet another matter again. I suspect there is much truth in it, and some Jewish sects seem to have been influenced by this perspective. The trouble is that it doesn’t seem to be the central background idea of the New Testament writers, or even Paul. It is probably one key to unlocking the New Testament meaning of Jesus. That is it the controlling key, as Wright argues here and elsewhere, is less certain.

3. The gospel is about Jesus. Well, that may seem obvious. But the term “gospel” has been a muddled concept. Evangelicals, to whom Wright belongs and who (I’m guessing) are the main readers of his works, have traditionally seen the gospel as a message on how to escape hellfire or , on a more sophisticated level, as an outline of a theological transaction involving atonement and justification that shows individuals how to be saved. Wright says that the gospel involves these things, but is more. It is the proclamation of a royal message: that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the King is the pivot of history, and that we should submit to him as Lord (rather than to Caesar, or any other power).

Others have said the same, and surely they read the New Testament rightly. Much of what passes for “gospel” or “evangelistic” work in the church is too narrowly focussed on personal salvation, in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. If God has done these things in Jesus and he is Lord, then not only are we, as individuals, commanded to submit to him, but also all worldly (and spiritual) powers. It therefore challenges every ideology, every action, and every thought of everyone, Christian or not. This gospel from the Creator of all is a message for all: it is public truth, not just personal piety (although of course it commands our personal spirituality). To which I can only add my “Amen” to Wright.

4. Justification is not about how you become a Christian, but about what distinguishes those who are Christian. As Wright puts it, the gospel about Jesus is God’s message to the world. Justification is God’s message to the church. Wright here follows in the wake of E.P. Sandars (1977), while developing his own (more evangelical) view. The argument goes like this: the central expectation for a Jew like Saul was that, at the end of human history, God would intervene in the world and would bring the nations to account, as in a great law court, and declare his people, Israel—or those who were truly Israel by virtue of Torah observance—in the right, or justified. For Saul the central question was not about individual “salvation by works” (proto-Pelagianism, as Wright puts it), but about the vindication of God’s faithful people. When he became a Christian and responded to the gospel through the personal intervention of Jesus, Paul realised that God had done in Jesus in the middle of time (Wright could have acknowledged Conzelmann) what he expected him to do at the end of time.

This means that the great vindication had effectively happened, in Jesus. Against Jews (and Judaisers, such as those in Galatia) who claimed that the justified people of God are marked by Torah observance (with attendant marks such as circumcision), Paul says that faith—that is, faithful response to the gospel message—is the mark of the justified. In the great assize, it is not Israel against the nations, but all under condemnation before God. Torah observers are just as sinful as pagans. God graciously declares the faithful justified through Jesus. This is a message for the church because it destroys arguments about who is “in and out” according to class, ethnic, economic, or even doctrinal lines, because the ones justified are those who have faith. Justification is, then, a message to God’s people as much as to individuals.

There is a lot more to Wright’s argument about justification than this (such as God’s righteousness {dikaiosune theou} not being imputed to us, but a quality peculiar to God and distinct from the righteous status {dikaiosune ek theou} that God grants the justified), and I have to think (and pray) through it more. But it has the ring of truth. In stressing the communal aspect of justification present in the New Testament, Wright probably transforms its meaning for individual Christians. He claims it cuts across confessional lines because (viz. Richard Hooker) one can be justified without knowing it. Thus, many who respond faithfully to Christ but rely on their works are, in fact, justified. This all cuts across much of my understanding of justification, formed by conservative evangelicals, but I think it grows rather than supplants that understanding.

A very long review, but it helps to put my reactions down in black and white. While in the main I find much to commend in Wright, there are reservations, some of which I have voiced above. John Stott (2001) has queried Wright’s reluctance to say that Jesus considered himself God, and I sensed that reluctance in this book (although Wright does state that Paul considered God as Trinity, with Jesus and the Holy Spirit). On a more mundane level, an index would have increased the book’s usefulness. This book may not make full sense to someone without any background or reading in biblical studies. But Wright is a voice to be listened to, by evangelicals and by the broader church. ( )
  Iacobus | Jan 14, 2010 |
Caveat: this is only the second book on religion I've read since high school, lo these many geological ages ago.

This is a good book that could have been great. What I was able to get out of it was really good stuff. However, it seemed that he kept dancing around many of his points, without ever actually coming out and making them explicit, so that the reader had, finally, to infer them. Many of them are good points, to be sure; but dude, just spit it out. But it is unclear to me whether this experience is because I am inexperienced with this sort of literature, or if it really is more wordy and less straightforward than need be. For example, one critical, and technical, concept that he made much reference to is "redemption;" but while there was much discussion of other critical technical terms (such as justification), redemption was used as though the reader were already comfortable with it. Again, I don't know if this is my failing or the book's, but I found it a problem throughout my reading.

Perhaps in addition to, or because of, my inexperience with this sort of literature, there seemed to be a small but significant component of apologetics. I found this component annoying and distracting, as I was seeking explanation and exegesis rather than evangelism. It seemed to be largely responsible for the dancing around points rather than their clear declaration.

As it was, I had to work pretty hard to get as much as I did out of it, and I flatter myself that I'm no slouch at reading. I know I didn't understand a few important parts of his argument. I do hope to read it again someday. ( )
  drbubbles | Nov 20, 2009 |
Without a doubt, N.T. Wright is one of the most controversial and well respected New Testament scholar of our time. His work has been ground breaking. This relatively small book on Paul and his theology is packed with amazing insight. His ability to articulate the gospel has reshaped (and brought me closer) my view of God. I would recommend reading this book several times to fully grasp the implications of what Wright is saying. The book tends to get repetitive, but nonetheless, it is filled with some stellar scholarship. With all that said, I don't know how much I agree with Wright. His views of justification are different, but he may have a basis for what he is saying. I think he explains the gospel well, but I don't know if he implements it correctly. As with all theology, one must continue to read and discern before the Lord what is truth. Anyway, I found the book to be enlightening and refreshing. ( )
  erikssonfamily | Aug 10, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802844456, Paperback)

Was Paul the founder of Christianity? A.N. Wilson, author of Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, believes he was---but now hear what N.T. Wright has to say about it! Drawing from the latest research, Wright offers his view on Pauls actual contribution to Christianity and who the real founder of your faith is.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:59 -0400)

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