Sunday, August 24, 2014



Please see the first part of the review here.

This is the second part of a review of N.T. Wright’s massive Paul and the Faithfulness of God and it covers the second chapter of the book. There are actually two books in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, divided into four parts, comprising sixteen chapters in all, which are sequential through each book and all the parts. Many chapters, however, are quite long, including this second chapter which is from 75-196, 121 pages in all. It is titled Like Birds Hovering Overhead: The Faithfulness of the God of Israel. I did not enjoy this chapter as a whole. In this chapter Wright intends to outline Pharisaic theology and what this means for the apostle Paul, and to do this in the context of what he sees as a basic theology common to most of Judaism during the Second Temple Period, what he calls “The Continuous Story.” This continuous story he sketches through the Bible, Second Temple Literature, and after 70 AD.  It is a story, as Wright tells it, for which I have some sympathy, but he often moves beyond the limitations of the data, ignores data that gets in the way of his continuous story, and flattens all of the data to create a rather univocal account.

Early on in the chapter, for instance, when he asks “who were the Pharisees?,” Wright acknowledges that we have little data that we can establish certainly came from Pharisaic sources or Pharisees, that is, apart from Paul. But Wright is optimistic that when certain concepts and even words appear (“zeal” for instance) in the letters of Paul we can be sure that he is describing his practices and beliefs as a Pharisee. The examples from Paul work well: in Philippians 3:5-6 Paul mentions his life as a Pharisee, including his persecution of the Church and his “zeal;” when in Galatians 1:13-14, Paul again speaks of his persecution of the Church and his “zeal,” without noting that he was a Pharisees, Wright says we can be certain that “though the word ‘Pharisee’ does not occur in the latter passage, we can be absolutely sure that he is describing the affiliation and stance to which, elsewhere, he gives that label” (82). This makes sense in the context of Paul’s letters, though each example and claim would have to be examined and not assumed.

It is the next step after this that is troubling: “the same kind of move enables us to identify Pharisees in other texts where there activity is described but their label withheld” (82). This is problematic on two counts: did only Pharisees engage in, to take Wright’s example, zealous behavior? Is Paul the prototypical Pharisee from whose example we can make assumptions about how all Pharisees behaved? Wright thinks so. He cites Philo on “the danger that faces someone who transgresses the ancient laws” (82), who wrote:

There are thousands who have their eyes upon him full of zeal for the laws, strictest guardians of the ancestral institutions, merciless to those who do anything to subvert them (De Spec. Leg. 2.253).
Wright says of this, “we should be in no doubt that he is referring to the Pharisees, and moreover to ‘zealous’ ones like Saul of Tarsus” (83). No doubt? It’s that easy? Any notice of “zeal” for the law, whether from Alexandria – were their Pharisees there? – or Palestine, indicates without doubt that we are dealing with Pharisees? Did Philo know of the Pharisees? The use of “zealous,” though evocative in Paul and elsewhere (1 Maccabees for instance), does not lead without question or doubt to the Pharisees. Yet this is the start of the chapter, on which much else of the next 100 pages and more depends. It is an attempt to “map the worldview and the theology of a Pharisee like Paul” (90), that is, to map the worldview and theology of the Pharisees.

While Wright has great and vast knowledge of Second Temple Judaism in general and the Pharisees in particular, a part of the problem with this chapter is that it attempts to do too much and covers this vast array of data with great erudition, but always in the service of the idée fixe which reduces the data to how it serves “the Continuous Story.” There is much in “the continuous story” which makes positive sense of the Second Temple data, but too much is left by the wayside, detritus that does not fit “the one, big idea.” What is also surprising in Wright’s reconstruction is that it is so linear that there is no sense of development in theology in Judaism at all, even over hundreds of years, until Christianity. And then with the remarkable addition of Jesus Christ, a few things change, but it is basically back to the linear story of Judaism, that is, “the continuous story.” 

After the focus on the Pharisees, Wright moves to a study of Torah and Temple, with the understanding that what we learn about these institutions will be applicable in particular for understanding the Pharisees and Paul. With respect to Torah, Wright stresses that Torah is not just rules and regulations, but a marker that set aside a particular people, given all of the divisions that might have separated them internally, as a particular people who ordered their lives and gained their familial identity through these documents. It is the Temple that plays a much larger role in this section as “part of the context for understanding the mindset of a zealous first-century Pharisee. The Temple in Jerusalem was the focus of the whole Jewish life and way of life” (95).

A key issue for this chapter, and really I would think for the whole book (though I have only read the two chapters), since it fits as an integral motif in the “continuous story,” is that the Temple “was where heaven and earth met” (96). This is something with which I wholeheartedly agree, having come under the sway early of my late teacher Ben F. Meyer’s thought on the Temple as the navel of the earth,[1] where the heavens and earth meet. The direction in which Wright will take this idea, a central element of his “continuous story,” is not so much incorrect as too narrowly defined and argued and without sensitivity to changes and development in Jewish theology, including that of Christian influence.

Wright traces “the roots of this Temple-belief…to the heart of the great controlling narrative: Passover, exodus, freedom, Sinai, covenant, homecoming (97),” which will be explicated in the rest of the chapter. As to the Temple itself, it is 1) a “microcosm of the whole creation” (101), 2) it was “inextricably bound up, in Jewish thought from a thousand years before Paul, with the royal house of David” (103), and 3) when the Temple and the royal kingship have been destroyed, God must do a new thing to restore Temple and King (104-05). Wright’s contention is that no post-exilic prophet or anyone during the Second Temple period claims that these conditions have been met (106), but that everyone continued to hope that “one day our God will act, and this will all be different” (his italics, 108). In Wright’s formulation, “we can and must say that most Jews of Paul’s day perceived themselves, at a deep, worldview level, as living in a story in search of an ending” (his italics, 109). The reason for explicating this story which has not yet been fulfilled is essential for Wright as it allows us to place Paul in his proper historical, theological and social context.

There is not a lot to disagree with in this at a general level: God will deliver Israel at some point in the future through a restoration of Temple, Torah and King; and once this great restoration took place, God’s kingdom would be established and “Israel will dwell secure” (111). It is in the particulars that disagreements arise for me, even in so simple a shift as Wright moving from calling this “the controlling narrative in the reform movements of the second-Temple period” (111) in one paragraph to calling it in the next paragraph, “the basic Pharisaic story” (111). It might be both, but his desire to turn everything into a significant element of Pharisaism is not necessary for this narrative to be significant to the Apostle Paul.  This small point leads to one of his major points, in which Wright is not so much trying to explain Second-Temple Judaism, but to set American Christianity, particularly it seems American fundamentalists and evangelicals, right. His historical journey gets stuck in 20th century Christianity.

Wright is arguing against Christian views of heaven as the true human destiny; his point is that the true goal of Jewish hopes was a restored Israel, from which God would reign, not individual salvation which would lead a person to heaven. “In such a ‘solution’ the ancient Jewish hope, of the creator God rescuing his entire creation, would be set aside, and replaced with the rescue of certain human beings from the world of creation” (112).  He goes on to say that “this scheme   has been the ruling paradigm in Pauline studies, academic and popular, for many years” (113).

Whether this has been the “ruling paradigm” in Pauline studies I cannot say – it is certainly not what I was taught by my teachers, among whom were E.P. Sanders and Stephen Westerholm – but to the extent that such an individualized, personalized view of “salvation” has become the dominant lens through which to understand the salvific paradigm of Second Temple Judaism as a whole, it is incorrect. 

To this Wright wants to make it clear that the hope of the Jews was not the “collapse or disappearance of the universe of space, time and matter. It would involve, rather, the transformation, redemption and renewal of that universe” (114). True, though again I do not know against whom Wright is arguing, as I do not know in particular who in Pauline studies makes such arguments. Finally Wright explains that Jews of the time, including the Pharisees saw the time in which they were living, prior to the restoration of the Temple and Kingship, as a time “of continuing exile” (his italics, 114; and 139). I take exception to the “continuing exile” language not to the concept that the Jews as a whole were awaiting restoration  of Temple and King in the eschaton, when God would make all things right.

Wright claims that “each of these proposals is controversial” (114) and “since previous attempts to explain them have not always been successful, it is sadly necessary to try one more time” (114). It is here where I want to call “Time Out”! If previous attempts to explain them were not successful, it might simply be because people do not believe you, not that you must explain it in greater depth and so win the applause and acceptance of all. It has been explained elsewhere, and here, fairly clearly. Shouting louder and longer does not make the argument better, or lead more people to agree with you, but now Wright will devote 82 pages more to explaining it! It is unnecessary and a clear example of how a chapter and books grow in such an unwieldy manner. More is not always better, in academia as elsewhere. As far as I am concerned, if the chapter stopped here it would be a success, but to more than double it in size is a defeat for the book and the reader. 

So, Wright now explains his continuous narrative through the biblical, Second-Temple and post-70 AD period. On page 139 he returns to the “continuing exile,” which he believes “ought by now to be non-controversial but which continues to be stubbornly resisted in certain quarters” (my italics, 139). Later, he says again. “whatever the underlying causes of resistance to the idea of continuing exile, it remains the case that previous attempts, by myself and several others, have not yet convinced the doubters” (142). Has he reckoned with the idea that the doubters might be right in one way or another? Does he consider that he might in fact need correcting? No, he will “assemble the argument” (142) one more time to get it through the thick skulls of those who disagree with him.

Wright sees this “continuing” exile as a political and theological state rather than a geographical one, quite obviously (139). It evokes for him that the story of Israel is a national and cosmic story, not the story of individuals. Given that this is the case, I agree with Wright on this score, I simply find the language of “continuing exile” problematic. I do agree that the Jews of the Second-Temple period yearned for the world to be made right, but I just think the language of "continuing exile" tries to shoehorn in every text of the period into this one phrase when others would make sense of them much better, such as awaiting the world remade, or awaiting a new age, or expecting the Kingdom of God.  

And this is where I have my real problem with this chapter. In the section “A World Transformed, Not Abolished” Wright takes issue with the understanding of apocalyptic thought as a destruction of this world and the taking of the righteous remnant to a heavenly domain. He says, “a good deal of the secondary literature on the hope of second-Temple Jews has assumed that ultimate salvation is emphatically otherworldly” (163). Let me say this about that: it is clear that apocalyptic hopes have to do with this world and the cosmos as a whole remade, utterly transformed, so I do not know what straw man Wright is jousting against here, but he is also wrong about this on a major point, and it is a major point which developed in light of the changes wrought by Christianity.

Wright is troubled by the notion of an interim period, where the souls of the righteous rest, until the world is utterly transformed into the Kingdom of God. He is correct that such an interim period might have been assumed by many Jews of the Second-Temple period, but it was not central to their beliefs since they awaited the cosmic transformation. It was only in light of the crucified Messiah who had not yet returned that Christians, including Paul, began to wonder both 1) when would the Messiah return and transform the world? and 2) what happened to Christians who died before the return of the Messiah? Paul deals with both of these issues in his earliest letter, in 1 Thessalonians 4-5. It became significant for the Christians because a resurrection had occurred, but not the general resurrection. So, I do believe that individual salvation became too significant in the working out of Christian theology, as did heaven, but it is not because these issues were created by western Christianity but because they are in the earliest texts of the NT wrestling with an interim period created by the death, resurrection and ascension of the Savior to…why, heaven! 

Wright believes that Christians have deformed apocalyptic views by seeing the kingdom of God as heaven and apocalyptic cataclysm as the end of the space, time and matter (166). Wright states that “one can no more assume that all users of this {apocalyptic} language system shared a worldview than one can assume that Shakespeare and Milton shared a worldview” (166), which is intriguing given that Wright makes just such an assumption with respect to his view of apocalyptic literature and even more broadly the “continuing story.” It is Wright who flattens all of the literature of the Second Temple period into a univocal story from a mass of data. The fact that Jews expected a transformed world and a Kingdom of God here in this transformed world, did not mean that they did not believe some people were saved and others lost or that the world of the old age was not consumed and destroyed and a new world emerged from it. Wright has put together a continuous story and what does not fit either gets jammed into place or is ignored. Wright says for example that Second-Temple Jews “did not expect the stars to fall from the sky. They did expect the creator God to do extraordinary things for which comets, earthquakes and other portents might be powerful and appropriate metaphors”(175). How exactly does he know this about Second Temple Jews when even people today believe it to be the case? 

Wright then applies all of this to the theology of the Pharisees and the thought of Paul in particular. I want only to make some summary statements. The ancient Jews, including Paul, did believe in a heavenly domain, where God and the angelic beings resided, where one could visit or where one might reside in the interim period before God made all things new. The two are not at odds. The Jews, including Paul, did believe that God would restore not just the kingship and the Temple, but all Israel and the world. They still believed that some would inherit this kingdom and others not. Who belonged or did not belong differed depending upon the group or person who was writing. The Jews of the Second Temple period believed that a great cataclysm would come upon the world, it can be described as destruction, but this was not at odds with a world made new, an absolute eschatology in which God was king.  In this chapter, Wright gives no sense of the conditional eschatology of, for instance, Zechariah 14 and the absolute eschatology of Paul in his letters. For someone who knows the texts of Second Temple Judaism so well, the only voice that truly emerges in this chapter is that of Wright.

John W. Martens
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies
I encourage you to “Like” Biblejunkies on Facebook.





[1] Ben F. Meyer, “The Temple at the Navel of the Earth,” in Christus Faber: the master builder and the house of God (Princeton Theological Monograph Series no. 29. Allison Park, Pa.: Pickwick Publications, 1992)