Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What Saint Paul Really Said 13

This year as I focus my reading on the Apostle Paul I am seeking to understand better the writings of N.T. Wright. So I am doing a chapter-by-chapter summary of his book, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997). Today we are looking at chapter 10.

Paul, Jesus and Christians Origins

Did Paul invent the Christianity that we know today? This is the question that Wright seeks to answer in this final chapter. He points to the author 'A.N. Wilson' as one who answers in the affirmative. For Wilson, Paul had departed from the Jesus of history and made him into a presence of divine love which had universal appeal. Wilson practically reinvents Paul altogether. He claims that he was a collaborator with Rome and developed his religion from paganism. Paul believed, according to Wilson, that the end of the world was imminent and his job was to get as many people as possible follow this new religion before it happened.

Problems with the Portrait

Although some of Wilson's points can be appreciated the bulk of what he says is questionable.

Saul's Background

Wilson believes that since Paul had to seek the authority of the chief priests for his 'persecuting mission in Damascus' that he was a collaborator with Rome. However, Paul was a zealous Shammite Pharisee who had no authority of his own (and had to seek it from the high priests) to act in this way. "The author of Galatians 1 and Philippians 3 would have laughed a long, hollow laugh at the thought of being a collaborator, in the pay of the high priests."

Judaism and Hellenism

Wilson sees Judaism as some sort of 'tribe' religion and Hellenism as the 'universal' religion, the one that everyone knew. So, he claims, Paul took the message of Jesus and transformed it from a Jewish one to a Hellenistic one that would would be 'relevant' to all.

The world, however, does not need a non-Jewish message. The creator God had chosen the Israel as the way of dealing with sin and evil in the world. As Wright says in a later book, this is God's message that is through-Israel-for-the-world.

The way Wright sees it, all attempts to show that Paul derived his message from paganism have revealed themselves to be failures.

Cross and Resurrection

According to Wright, Wilson has failed to grasp the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. These events fulfilled God's ancient purposes for the world; they were not a "matter of mystical speculation."

Wilson's portrait of Paul leaves no room for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This was not an event to look back on but one to look forward to. For Paul, however, the resurrection of Jesus was the great eschatological event that caused all of God's ancient promises to come true. Paul was living in the first days of God's new world order.

Paul's view of the cross and resurrection were rooted in Judaism. Wilson, on the other hand, starts with Hellenism and causes "the picture to fall apart." Wilson claims that Paul's view of the cross is incomprehensible. However, when it is rooted in the Jewish scriptures, the cross was the moment when God's (representative) Messiah dealt with sin and death. Paul understood these events in a Jewish context.

Wilson tries to hang on to the eschatological dimension of Paul; this, however, makes no sense in Hellenistic mystery religion. For Paul, the cross and resurrection were the events that inaugerated the Age to Come and God would one day complete the work he began.

Jesus and God

Wilson supposes that any attempt to place Jesus and God side by side is dabbling in paganism. But according to Wright, the passages which do place Jesus and God side by side are strong statements of Jewish monotheism with Jesus placed firmly in the middle of it. Ironically, it is went Paul is opposing(not standing with) paganism that he makes these statements.

A Distorting Image

Wilson's portrait of Paul fails on the historical, theological and exegetical level. He not understood that Paul believed that through Christ God what fulfilling his ancient covenant that he had made with Abraham. Wilson does not make much of application either yet he retains the sense that there is something great Paul's writings.

Wright then seeks to answer the question, "what is the relation between Paul, Jesus and the origins of Christianity?"

From Jesus to Paul - and Beyond

The answer to that question relies on what one thinks of Jesus. Neither Jesus or Paul was preaching a timeless message about how people could be saved but believed that they were participating in the fulfillment of God's ancient promises. Jesus and Paul cannot be pitted against each other but must be seen as playing a role within God's drama.

Jesus was the one through whom God would accomplish his purposes to Israel. He announced that God's kingdom was arriving, even though it didn't look like what many had expected. Through his work Israel's God would liberate his people and bring salvation to the world. Through his actions, Jesus embodied YHWH's return to Zion as judge and redeemer. He believed that he would die in obedience to the will of God and that he would be vindicated by being raised from the dead before the final day. All this makes perfect sense within the world of first-century Judaism.

When we look at Paul we cannot look for a mere parallel to Jesus but continuity. Paul believed that he was called to proclaim to the world that Israel's God has brought his saving plan to it's climax in Jesus. He was calling people to give allegiance to the world's true Lord. For Paul and Jesus it was not a matter of 'mere religion' but showing people what it meant to be truly human, to experience life.

There is coherence between Paul and Jesus. "Jesus was bringing Israel's history to its climax; Paul was living in light of that climax." This is what matters. God had acted in Christ to fulfill his saving promises and inaugurate the kingdom.

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