Friday, July 25, 2014

There are, thankfully, two new reviews available online of the complete book of N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. One is by Simon Gathercole and the other by Larry Hurtado, both eminent scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity. They are both generous scholars because even though they have major misgivings of Wright’s work, by my reading of their reviews, they have finally kind things to say about what Wright has accomplished in this major work.  Hurtado ends his review, for instance, by saying,

Hurtado is, to my mind, far too kind about the length of this book, about which I will have something to say shortly. Gathercole ends his recent review by stating,

And Gathercole is far too kind about the hard work this book is, and I will get to that in a bit too.

All of these scholars have far greater reputations than I – I am laughing as I type this since it goes without saying – and this generosity of academic spirit might be only one of the reasons they have such deserved reputations; the fact that they have already read the whole book and reviewed it is another sign that their reputations are more than deserved, for this whole book by N. T. Wright is far too much. I say this even though I acknowledge that Wright is clearly a virtuoso who knows the ancient world and Paul in particular in an intimate and thorough manner that I could only hope to do. 

This is only the beginning of a sixteen part review because I have not even read a half of the book right now and I want to toss it aside. If I waited until I read the whole book before I reviewed it, I would have to put aside all of my other academic and writing projects and my teaching for a year to get it done within a year, or read it over a few years and then by the time I was ready to review it, I would have to start reading it again since I had already forgotten what the book was about.  My solution is to offer a review and to give my impressions chapter by chapter. It is entirely possible that by the time I finish this review, Wright will have published many other books.

The length of this book is not an insignificant matter. It raises practical and scholarly concerns. I used Wright’s Justification for a recent graduate seminar on The Epistles of Paul and it was useful, helpful and enjoyable (and great fun knowing that we were only a long stone’s throw from John Piper’s church and seminary in Minneapolis).  Most graduate students remember courses on Paul and often we were all assigned a book to review, one a week, by various scholars, such as Raisanen, or Sanders, or Westerholm, etc.  I could never use this book in a graduate seminar on Paul. We would wind up studying N.T. Wright and not Paul. We could use no other secondary literature and Paul’s letters would be relegated to footnotes. I say all of this even though I have a genuine fondness for his thought and find myself in agreement with most of it. But if it could not be used for a graduate seminar, how much less could it be trotted out in my undergraduate courses on Paul? It cannot be used, it seems to me, in any classroom setting unless the course is actually on the work of N.T. Wright.

The book itself is too long partly because, as one can see immediately in the first chapter, the tone is too paternalistic, like a chatty uncle speaking down to his dim-witted nephews and nieces. Listen to his description of slavery: “It {slavery} was how things got done. It was the electricity of the ancient world; try imagining your home or town without the ability to plug things in and switch them on, and you will realize how unthinkable it was to them that there should be no slaves” (32). Really? There was slavery in the ancient world? No one ever questioned slavery? To whom is this being written? Fellow colleagues for the most part, as the book could scarcely be used in the classroom and I cannot imagine even interested readers outside of the academy investing the time to read it all. Is this how you should speak to Gathercole and Hurtado? 

The bit on “Philemon as Allegory,” comprising pages 68-74, tells of the reconciliation between history and theology. It grows out of his earlier discussion on history, theology and critical realism and it is a discussion for which I have a great deal of sympathy for his position, which is to say: I agree with him. Wright begs “indulgence” and “pardon" for this section (68) in which Philemon and Onesimus stand for history and theology, but I cringed as I read it and it should simply be cut and a footnote added to Ben F. Meyer’s Critical Realism and the New Testament or Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship, both of which handle the question on the relationship of history and theology with depth and deal with critical realism more fully. 

Much of this is simply editing, or lack of editing. Editing is not the enemy. You must kill your darlings and if you cannot do it, your editor must. The style is often rather unctuous, too, and it wears you down after a while and turns you off of the serious content. For example, “How very convenient. And how very untrue. If we take that route, a supposed ‘Pauline soteriology’ will swell to a distended size and, like an oversized airline traveler, end up sitting not only in its own seat but in those on either side as well” (31). Well, okay, on its own, one of these groaners is fine, but after ten of them, especially when the chapter goes on and on, it is not unfair to desire some editing. 

On the other hand because Wright wants to cover everything in the world that pertains to Paul and the study of Paul, the book is too short on many occasions to cover the material well and the hard-won findings of generations of scholars is presented as if he had just stumbled upon them. A couple of examples must suffice. At the beginning of chapter two, he writes, “gone are the days when scholars could cheerfully assign this or that material or idea to ‘Judaism’ or ‘Hellenism,’ as though they could ever be separated in a world which Alexander the Great had transformed three centuries earlier” (76). Yes, but this reality was something scholars such as Saul Lieberman, Arnaldo Momigliano and Elias Bickerman (cited once, but not in this context) had established decades ago and scholars who were still engaging in such assignation were simply wrong. One sometimes gets the impression in this book that now that Wright says it is so, it has been established. The other example is in a footnote (117 on page 50) in which Helmut Koester is commended for his attempt at a geographical account of early Christianity but which Wright finds “significantly flawed through several of the controlling assumptions.”  We are never told, though, in the footnote or the text what the controlling assumptions are and which of the controlling assumptions are flawed. 

The chapter itself presents the letter to Philemon as a control or entrée for Wright’s study of Paul’s world and letters, which is a nice choice, but I wonder if the real control is Paul’s letter to the Romans, itself divided like these books into sixteen chapters. My operating suspicion, not even hypothesis yet, is that the sixteen chapters in Wright’s work equate to the sixteen chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is chapters 9-11 in Wright’s work, and their titles which have overtones of the content in Romans 9-11, which have put this in my mind. If that is the case, then in Wright’s first chapter we have had a long Salutation and introduction to Paul’s Gospel, just as in Romans. 

Sometime in the future, I will return with my review of chapter two. It is, though, hard work to go through this book, given the length (Gathercole says the book, over 1,600 pages, is
"roughly 800,000 words, or 25 times the length of the 13-letter Pauline corpus"), the depth of scholarship, and the regular citing of his earlier work in the footnotes for detail on  particular issues discussed in the text. Though I have read much of Wright's work, I cannot remember his previous discussions in earlier books simply by page number and so this task requires re-reading as much of Wright's instead of Paul's corpus.

To summarise a book of over 1500 pages - roughly 800,000 words, or 25 times the length of the 13-letter Pauline corpus and probably longer than the Bible - See more at:
To summarise a book of over 1500 pages - roughly 800,000 words, or 25 times the length of the 13-letter Pauline corpus and probably longer than the Bible - See more at:

John W. Martens
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