The Importance of Jesus Tradition in Understanding Paul

Kathy Ehrensperger writes

I consider it a necessary and fruitful enterprise to explore the significance of such research results that demonstrate Paul’s embeddedness in Judaism when dealing with the issue of the relation between Jesus and Paul, or, to put it another way, of the relation of the Jesus traditions as remembered in the Gospels and the Jesus as remembered by Paul and his team in the Pauline Letters.

So thrilled to read this in her essay “At the Table: Common Ground between Paul and the Historical Jesus.” I have earlier voiced the opinion that Paul’s theology be thought of first and foremost as influenced by and indebted to Jesus traditions (since the Gospels were written after most/all of Paul’s Letters). I think that the recent push to read Paul within Second Temple Judaism broadly will be misguided insofar as it ignores this foundational hermeneutical task in understanding his thought. So in some respects, Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which sees Pauline theology as a brand of Second Temple Judaism richly rethought around Jesus Messiah, is a step in the right direction. Ehrensperger’s essay in Jesus Research volume two continues by pointing out the rich agreement between Jesus tradition in the Gospels and 1 Corinthians on the subject of table fellowship / meals.


Completed Review of N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God

The final paper is not quite the project I’d hoped it to be, but in the interest of time I had to cut my work short. I have to move forward and get started on my Fall 2014 semester at Southwestern. Of the previously discussed aims of the essay, David G. Horrell’s material was omitted (what little I had!), and reviews of chapters six and seven of Paul and the Faithfulness of God were further omitted (which was significantly more material). Despite these setbacks, I think the final review achieves the aims I initially desired and I am proud to have worked through Wright’s massive book. I hope that readers find my thoughts helpful, but I welcome feedback to help me improve in my own understanding of Wright.

Readers may read the review below:

Concluding Paul and the Faithfulness of God Series Review

I have been busy with a significant load of coursework over the past seven months. To be exact, I have taken twenty-one hours at two different schools, attempting to complete two masters degrees simultaneously. This is largely the reason for having neglected the ongoing chapter-by-chapter review of Wright.

This summer a directed study on N. T. Wright became available at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and since I’ve made significant progress throughout much of Wright’s work already in my private studies, I signed up for the course, impressed with both the professor, a former student of James Dunn, and the course’s twelve books of assigned reading! Which is significantly more than any class I’ve taken to date!

This is where you, dear reader, will benefit: My review of Wright will soon be coming to an end. I will be using an edited copy of my semester review paper on Paul and the Faithfulness of God to complete my blog series. I will publish the paper to this website and Scribd both, and update you when this happens.

The review paper is already pushing thirty pages, the maximum allowable length, and will continue (perhaps at my own peril) to forty pages, or even more. It is still a work in progress and many parts of Wright’s book will understandably be omitted, but I want to mention a few things concerning the review that might make it worthwhile for a reader to read another thirty-plus-page review of Wright. In no particular order: (1) I am incorporating material from Wright’s co-released volume Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978 – 2013, including essays from some of the latter chapters. This will benefit those who have not yet invested time in his essays — which Wright frequently refers to in his footnotes — as well as those who have not yet considered how the essays might sit with Wright’s larger book. (2) I will directly interact with both Wayne Meeks and David Horrell and seek to show how they have influenced Wright and shed light on his work. (3) The review will specifically focus on chapter ten — the most critical chapter of the book in my view — and will devote roughly ten pages explaining Wright’s exegesis of both Romans and Galatians in context. (4) I have been too critical of Wright on my blog, something for which I’ve apologized before, so the critical evaluation of Paul and the Faithfulness of God will be more accepting of him and more brief — about three or four pages. (5) The review will go further than others have in explaining Wright’s work holistically. At least this is my hope. I will attempt to tackle the full picture, the masterpiece itself, which has really pushed my understanding given the breadth of the work and my limited familiarity with Pauline theology. I make no claims regarding the authority of the forthcoming review, as some (hopefully not much) of the review will reflect graduate level understanding when stacked up to a specialist the likes of Wright. (6) Lastly, the review will be very accessible. I’ve included a Table of Contents, and the subheadings system adopted will allow for smooth reading for those who might wish to jump around.

I am turning over a new leaf, now, with Wright and this has largely been a consequence of tracing his exegetical work in Romans and Galatians. His fresh readings of Paul are too often illuminating, specifically his concern to trace much of Pauline theology back to Abraham, to be dismissed as recklessly as I once did. I have come to respect Wright for this; it cannot be easy reading with a new narrative lens, and one of  your own critical creation at that. It has helped me to see where my own traditional evangelical theology has often narrowed my attention in Pauline theology at the detriment of other passages. In the end [spoiler] I will disagree with Wright, specifically on his reading of Romans, but not nearly in the unkind, poor-informed manner of my former days. I am grateful to have wrestled with his work and for how it has improved my understanding of Paul, and for this I have a new appreciation for Wright — I think Wright himself would be grateful for any and all students who would take up such a task and do the same.

While my interests are headed towards other areas of New Testament studies, I am glad that this chapter in my theological education is just about over. I am better equipped as a result. After all, how many students will invest four months, three- to four-thousand pages on N. T. Wright’s academic work, sort through it, grow from it, and move forward?

After Wright I hope to look into several other areas such as tradition history and James Dunn, and grow in my Greek abilities. Thank you for your time and for reading Jesus and Paul and the New Testament blog!

(I would like to mention that as a directed study class, my research has been driven by my own focus and interests in Wright, my acceptance or rejection of particular parts of Wright’s book are not reflective of my professor’s own understanding of Wright. As a directed study, the class does not enjoy the privilege of lecture, only tutoring and feedback.)

A Review Hiatus and New Perspective Pauline Thoughts

Please pardon the delay in the chapter reviews. I just wish to make two points with this entry:

First, in an effort to present thoughtful and critical reflection on Wright’s book, I have targeted the shortcomings of his coherence model often with concern for Wright’s lack of critical substantiation (though, for other concerns about the “pre-critical” leanings of Wright’s work, see Colin Brown, “Quest of the Historical Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013) 738-39). However, Wright is a fellow Evangelical I presume and I do not feel right in discrediting his fresh and stimulating views on the apostle Paul through the use of such criticisms. For this I offer the reader apology. Proceeding forward I will try to show more care for Wright’s coherence model as initially sought.

Secondly, my concern over New Perspective readings of Paul almost always involve dissatisfaction with the exegetical logic put forward by its proponents, specifically when, such as in the case of Wright, a larger though inexplicit metanarrative casts a burgeoning interpretive shadow over Christ and the cross (which are exegetically explicit and formative of Paul’s theology). By overly stressing the socio-political dimension in Pauline theology through a very pressing exegetical sensitivity for Jew and Gentile together, in contexts where they were traditionally not understood to be the subject of discussion, soteriological implications of these fresh readings for understanding why Paul was so passionate about the shortcomings of the Mosaic law continue to ring loud in the ears of the NPP critic or student. Indeed, the failure to appreciate the soteriological dimensions in both the person and work of Christ, as well as the wayward interests for fresh thinking with regard to the socio-political implications of much of what Paul is actually not saying, are the root causes of these misguided exegeses. Notable NPP critics who have written extensively from similar points of concern include Stephen Westerholm and John Barclay. To them and their work, I would like to point readers.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 4

Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Chapter Four: “A Cock for Asclepius: ‘Religion’ and ‘Culture’ in Paul’s World” (pp. 246-278).

The present chapter will be either omitted from our review of Paul, or revisited later, when its chiastic partner chapter is discussed. Please pardon the neglect at this point. I will be proceeding directly to chapter five.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 3

Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Chapter Three: “Athene and Her Owl: The Wisdom of the Greeks” (pp. 197-243).

(Due to the brevity of this chapter I will only hit on a few points and offer minor criticism.)

The point of the chapter’s title is that Athene’s owl — like herself — is described as “bright-eyed,” able to see into the dark ancient world and find the light of truth when others cannot (197). In this chapter significant emphasis is given to the leading philosophical schools of Paul’s day: (1) Stoicism (which is understandably of primary concern due to its close – though pantheistic – ‘theology’ of logos), and (2) Epicureanism (let’s eat!).

Of course the important question is: how influenced by the Greco-Roman world was Paul and his theology? To this Wright points to the relevant Scriptural passages, one being 1 Corinthians 1-2 where the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God. But Paul was brought up in the strictest traditions of his ancestors (recall the previous chapter), surely he was a fundamentalist with no words for pagan philosophers, save a single Barthian Nein! “This has been enough to convince many that Paul’s only word to the philosophies of his day would have been the same as that of Karl Barth to the merest suggestion of ‘natural theology’: Nein!” (200). (Points for using Barth.) So, “if Paul did not derive the central themes and categories of his proclamation. . . from pagan thought, that doesn’t mean that he refused to make any use of such things” (201). As Wright sees it, Paul was not so close-minded. He was a careful and critical thinker, and willing to engage opponents across the table intellectually.

Wright then explains Paul’s two-stage programmatic response to pagan philosophy: (1) direct confrontation, the most exciting being Jewish creational monotheism against pagan polytheism, and (2) adaptation, which on my reading of Wright means Paul’s adaptation of pagan philosophies for Christian interests (recall his visit to the Areopagus and his remarks about the unknown God).

Sounding very much like the great evangelical epistemologist/theologian Carl Henry, Wright states: “all the wisdom of the world belongs to Jesus the Messiah in the first place, so any flickers or glimmers of light, anywhere in the world, are to be used and indeed celebrated within the exposition of the gospel” (201). Wright then neatly criticizes the history-of-religions school of thought for essentially failing to distinguish between these two responses: “derivation” and “adaptation” (201). (Those who continue to lean on Greek categories at the expense of Jewish ones should hear him on this.)

Five pages are afforded to the Socratic philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, before proceeding to the more prominent philosophical schools of Paul’s day mentioned earlier. (Wright does the historical work of bridging these philosophical influences on Paul while in Tarsus by noting the ancient geographer Strabo who offers aid on this point). Provided Stoicism’s greater influence of the day, four leading and somewhat proximate Stoics are examined, with Seneca being the most important (219-229). Cynics and Skeptics receive a couple pages as well followed by a section on the “Philosopher’s Worldview” where Wright applies his worldview paradigm constructed for Paul in chapter one to the philosophers themselves (232-238).

Where the two worlds encounter one another, again, is the reason for the chapter title. Jewish-Christian categories such as wisdom (sophia) are seen as the bright-eyed Athenian owl, peering into the pagan philosophical world with the light of truth. An example of a Jewish response (such as a zealous Pharisee might hold?) is given in the classical work “Wisdom of Solomon,” where both, as Wright claims, Stoic and Epicurean ideas are implicitly challenged. Stoicism’s pantheistic logos which encompasses and exists in all nature (physis) is subverted by wisdom (sophia), which belongs only to YHWH and those to whom he gives sophia. We are here more or less seeing Wright as an artist and not a critical biblical scholar. There is nothing in the footnotes to suggest the case – as is often the case – has been critically substantiated, though it still forms an inspiring portrait.


Criticisms offered, then, are predictable. (1) Wright mostly avoids the question of Hellenistic influences on Pauline theology and his churches (though he admits this, and states it is certain to come later, cf. 200 n. 11). (2) Surprisingly, nothing is said of rhetoric or rhetorical criticism despite increasing favor by New Testament academics, particularly related to Paul. Though Wright discusses Cicero and devotes a small subsection to Epictetus (the man of diatribes himself), nothing on rhetorical criticism is said, and the word rhetoric only appears once in the large print, and off topic. (This would agree further with my primary criticism that Wright does not offer groundwork historical-criticism, only a naked sociological worldview model.) (3) Though he is a careful historian a few of the Stoics he discusses appear significantly later in history, such as the emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180). The anachronisms pretty much go unqualified, though I feel that is the point for this chapter. I am pretty sure Wright will accurately qualify Stoicism in its chiastic partner chapter.

In closing, don’t miss the handy chart on p. 244-45. Chapter four coming soon.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God Chapter 2

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.