Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Chapter Two: “Like Birds Hovering Overhead” (pp. 75-196).
“Be it noted, my case is not that all Jews throughout the period understood themselves to be living in a state of ‘continuing exile’, only that such an understanding was widespread, and was particularly likely to be true of zealous Pharisees.” (158)
N. T. Wright’s goal in chapter two is to portray the beliefs of zealous Pharisaism. The ‘zealous’ Pharisee is chosen because this is what Paul identifies himself as prior to his conversion, and what the theology of the reborn Paul is opposing as inadequate in light of the revealed Christ. Understanding what the previous beliefs of Saul were, then, is seen as helpful for contrasting the beliefs of the reborn Paul.
Apart from the examples provided by Elijah, Phinehas and Mattathias (80-90), the beliefs of a zealous Pharisee also include the commandment of Deuteronomy 30, to keep all that is written in the law so that Israel can enjoy the promised restoration blessings. (Return from exile is a huge point for Wright. It is also the controlling hermeneutic of his book Jesus and the Victory of God. And his heavy emphasis on the motif in that volume did not escape the notice of some critics, including James D. G. Dunn who labels the motif — after translating it from the French Dunn uses — a “fixed idea.”)
Wright’s point here, though, is that God will be faithful to the covenant and bring deliverance to those who are loyal to his covenant. “Like birds hovering overhead so YHWH of hosts will protect Jerusalem, he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.” (Isa. 31:5, quoted by Wright on 77 and referred to again on 196.) Keeping Deuteronomy 30 is the faithful, biblical response to God’s own faithfulness “invoking the protection of the divine bird hovering over Jerusalem” (196). The overall portrait is fairly made and is finding increasing acceptance as the footnotes show.
I do have one criticism of this chapter though: Wright’s conclusions are often rich with New Perspective emphases surprisingly not established elsewhere in the chapter. This is seen particularly in his synthesis of what a first century Saul of Tarsus would have believed (187ff). I wonder: do these conclusions betray his textual analysis of the second temple literature? Wright’s dominant, if not sole, exegetical focus throughout the chapter is on the examples of zealous Pharisaism (using primarily Maccabees), and the widely held belief of a continued exile (with all of this belief’s narrative importance). But this does not necessitate that “keeping the law” be limited to the New Perspective boundary markers which identify covenant faithful Judaism in distinction from the pagan nations of the earth, or even other pagan Jews, as Wright concludes in his summaries. I think we have here a non-sequitur, i.e., the analysis does not point to the synthesis.
I am rather surprised Wright has not at least pointed to the relevant research. At best, I can find only a single paragraph which assumes — not substantiates — his NPP view (186). That being said, the rest of the portrait conforms very much to the “old perspective.” Further, if the NPP points are granted, I wonder, is it trivial after all? If we presume that a zealous Pharisee, such as Saul, understood keeping the law as more particularly keeping the sabbath, obeying food laws and circumcision, do we necessarily overthrow Paul’s theology of justification by grace through faith in Christ? I do not believe we do. Neither do I see how Wright’s extensive treatment here of the second temple literature corrects a “Lutheran” Paul.