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.)

N. T. Wright and John M. G. Barclay on Paul and Empire


Paul and Empire in N. T. Wright

Just as the good news in Isaiah is the heralding of Yahweh’s regal return to Zion (particularly chs. 40 and 52 of Isaiah) – which Wright understands as having taken place in the ministry of Jesus, and the events in Jerusalem his final week – so it is with Caesar’s gospel which also announces a new world order.[1] “…[F]or Paul ‘the gospel’ is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord. It is in other words, the thoroughly Jewish (and indeed Isaianic) message that challenges the royal and imperial messages abroad in Paul’s world.”[2] Paul’s gospel, therefore, “could not but be construed as deeply counter-imperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman empire…”[3] However, euangelion in Roman literary and archaeological evidences is not nearly as common as anti-imperialist readers would desire. Wright admits that the “relative scarcity” of its occurrences “should not obscure” its importance.[4] But such a concession clearly has the effect of dampening his narrative presentation.

The ideology of Caesar’s empire is explained as a new world order established primarily through militaristic conquest,[5] but also established and preserved by means of what Wright labels the “the rhetoric of empire” – i.e., imperialistic propaganda in the guise of coins, “art, architecture, literature and culture in general.”[6] Rome further had her own historical narrative encompassing centuries of history – not unlike Paul’s Jewish creational narrative understanding of the world, now reshaped around King Jesus. [7] But Paul’s intentionally, according to Wright, anti-imperial euangelion of King Jesus, the risen and rightful King of kings and Lord of lords, is of a theological sort that Caesar’s reign and worship was directly challenged.

The anti-imperial agenda of Paul is presented exegetically by Wright in passages concerning God’s revealed righteousness in Romans, and in the “coded” imperial challenges of Philippians.[8] It should be noted, however, that Peter Oakes, a former student of Wright’s, has some exegetical disagreements with his former teacher: “Paul does not seem to be wishing, as such, for Rome’s overthrow. He is not writing anti-Roman polemic.”[9]

Also important for understanding Paul’s anti-imperialism is understanding how the cross has adjusted his (political) theology. As Wright rightly emphasizes, Paul is no longer the zealous Pharisee, who would have had no problem joining the revolutionaries of the Jewish War, that he once was. Wright also shows appreciation for the cross’s apocalyptic nature, much as John M. G. Barclay does. Wright states: “The much larger transformation came with the apocalyptic unveiling of the saving plan of Israel’s God in the form of the crucified Messiah.”[10] And as he states in Paul: In Fresh Perspective, “the symbol which had spoken of Caesar’s naked might now spoke of God’s naked love.”[11] It is because of the cross, that a “different kind of political theology” resulted.[12] No longer the zealot Pharisee, Paul’s anti-imperial agenda is now expressed in a non-violent manner.

Methodologically, Wright draws on Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.[13] But Barclay’s comments concerning Wright’s use of Hays, admittedly trenchant, still merit attention: “Hays’ intertextual method proceeds from the said to the unsaid, from numerous explicit citations of Scripture to echoes that surround and supplement that solid sound of citation; Wright is working from nothing explicit in the text, from thin air to even thinner.”[14]

Paul and Empire in John M. G. Barclay

Barclay often targets the hermeneutical assumptions upon which Roman imperial cult studies are founded and offers helpful correctives. In his chapter “Paul, Roman Religion and the Emperor,” he frequently points out how the imperial cult does not exist on its own, but rather in a sort of syncretistic manner alongside local deities within Rome’s empire. In one place he writes, “It is important to stress here that ‘cults of the emperor were not an independent element of religious life’, but were generally incorporated into already existing traditions (Roman or local) or linked with traditional deities in location, name or practice.”[15] This is an important criticism by Barclay since Wright portrays Paul’s missionary efforts as fundamentally competing with the imperial cult, largely neglecting the greater Mediterranean religious context.[16]

The most repeated but sadly often ignored criticism of anti-imperial readings is the absolute silence of Paul regarding the imperial cult, and to an extent Rome herself. Barclay writes: “…despite the obvious importance of the imperial cult in practically every city he visited, there is no special mention made by Paul of the cult of the emperors.”[17] In Barclay’s next chapter, “Why the Roman Empire Was Insignificant to Paul,” he writes, “Although his name is Latin [Paul] and although (according to Acts) he had Roman citizenship, and although much of his mission was conducted in cities which were either Roman colonies or had strong Roman allegiances, Paul never describes the world he inhabits in terms that allude to its Roman character.” [18] Despite this complete neglect of Caesar worship and empire in Paul’s epistles, anti-imperial hermeneutics continue to run right over Paul.

This chapter also has a specific section offering formidable responses to Wright which are presented in the following block quotes.[19] Under the subheading, “Rome and Pauline Epistemology,” he writes,

We may perceive the imperial cult as the dominant mode of ‘pagan’ religiosity, and as an insidious expression of Roman hegemony, but it is another matter how Paul perceived the religio-political context in which he lived; his interpretative frame may have been different from our late-modern modes of historical interpretation and ideological analysis. If everywhere we look we see ‘Rome’ as the stand-out feature of Paul’s landscape, it is not necessarily the case that Paul saw likewise…[20]

Under the next subheading, “‘Political’ Vocabulary in Paul,” Barclay states: “Paul never places the terms ‘good news’, ‘salvation’, or ‘faith/loyalty’ in antithesis with a Roman form of the same; the righteousness/justice of God is contrasted with that of the Torah, not of Rome.”[21]

Under the final subheading, “Reading Between the Lines,” Barclay criticizes:

For all of these reasons, the case for tracing a hidden ‘code’ in Paul’s letters appears extremely implausible. Rather than reading between the lines, or supplementing Paul’s text with ‘and especially Caesar’ additions, proper exegetical method requires us to read precisely what is on the lines. If this does not fit what we imagine Paul must have said, it is not Paul’s texts that need revision, but our preformed expectations of his political theology.[22]

Summarizing Thoughts

While largely agreeing with the basic premise of Barclay’s apocalyptic understanding of Paul and the Christ event – which Barclay takes as the new age breaking in through the resurrection of Jesus[23] – Wright maintains that the conclusions Barclay draws from it are not fully informed. Wright understands the imperial cult, not simply as a dependent component of a much larger cosmic narrative, but as the very real and principle expression of it.[24] Wright protests that even though Rome is an agent of the “powers” in Paul’s theology, it remains that Paul “almost certainly saw Rome as the final great empire prophesied by Daniel.”[25] For Wright, it is not enough to say, as Barclay does, that what mattered most to Paul was the cosmic forces at work through the growing imperial cult – it is rather the imperial cult itself. But once again, the methodology of anti-imperial hermeneutics reveals its flawed nature when arguments from complete silence are allowed to anchor a supposed subversive agenda in Paul’s writings.


Despite the rich and compelling anti-imperial Paul presented in Wright’s work, it is exegetically difficult to uphold. Sincere exegetes cannot entertain so grand a narrative without some solid footing upon which to stand. Because the reconstruction-theories of Paul are built upon disproven methodologies, agreement with Wright’s anti-imperial reading cannot be credibly espoused. Barclay’s cosmic narrative, where Rome is understood as only an underwhelming part of a much larger cosmic threat of evil addressed by Paul under the label of “powers,” clearly has more exegetical merit since it would answer for such a silence.

However many Roman coins with imperial inscriptions of Caesar, or cities designed and built for Caesar’s glory, complete with glorious arches lining their entrances with forums in between, in addition to impressive temples in the distance and nearby; any of these coins that Paul would have held in his hand; any of these cities where Paul would have lodged – or been imprisoned; any arches or forums he might have walked through, or temples that met his gaze; Paul nevertheless remained silent concerning the imperial cult. Because of this, Barclay’s model carries more merit by making the best sense of the data; and making the best sense of the data is something Wright frequently voices appreciation for. As Barclay notes, and as pointed out above, Paul had an apocalyptic worldview of the “powers,” and he interpreted his historical reality likewise; he does not seem to have thought in the terms scholars such as Wright desire for him. No matter how confronted Paul certainly was by the imperial cult, or a temple dedicated to the goddess Roma, or Jupiter, or other Roman deity – if Paul envisioned the world differently, honest exegetes of Paul must follow in their understanding of him.

Apart from his reading of Paul and empire, however, general agreement with Wright’s very impressive Roman history and imperial cult research presented in chapter five of Paul and the Faithfulness of God and discussed above, should be heartily received.


[1]Wright has probably not explained himself more clearly than in his earlier work, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 44: “It is, rather, that the Isaianic message always was about the enthronement of YHWH and the dethronement of pagan gods; about the victory of Israel and the fall of Babylon; about the arrival of the Servant King and the consequent coming of peace and justice.” But see all of ch. 3, “Herald of the King,” pp. 39-62. Concerning Caesar’s euangelion, Adolf Deissmann continues to inform recent studies; Light from the Ancient East, 4th ed., trans. by L. R. M. Strachan (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927). Deissmann demonstrates significant parallelism between Roman imperial and New Testament vocabulary (see pp. 338-78). In Wright’s own words: “In the Greek world, euangelion is a technical term for news of victory. More specifically it refers to the announcement of the birth or accession of an emperor. Not least at the time of Augustus…”; Wright, “Gospel and Theology in Galatians,” in Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013) 82. Originally published in Gospel in Paul: Studies on Corinthians, Galatians and Romans for Richard N. Longenecker, ed. by L. Ann Jervis and Peter Richardson, in Journal for the Study of New Testament Supplements Series 108 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1994) 222-39. See also the very compelling block quotes Wright laboriously provides in ch. 5 (titled “The Eagle Has Landed,” pp. 279-347) of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press): the classical references are to: (1) Velleius Paterculus’ glorifying description of the empire at the end of Augustus’ reign (302); (2) Horace’s poem concerning the pax Augusta (300; but ch. 5 passim); (3) and, primarily, Virgil (304-11, passim). (Chapter 5 is nothing short of breathtaking for students, probably the best chapter in the first volume of the two-volume book.)

[2]N. T. Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013) 174. Originally published in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel Imperium Interpretation. Essay in Honor of Krister Stendahl, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 2000), 160-83.

[3]Wright, Pauline Perspectives, 171.

[4]Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Pauline Perspectives, 173 n.10. But to this the student cannot help but disagree. Simply put, “scarce” is not a quality that one would predicate of something considered “important.”

[5]“The means to it all was simple: war.” Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 310.

[6]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 294ff.

[7]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 294. (See the classical references discussed in n.1 above.)

[8]See the revealing subheadings in his essay, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Pauline Perspectives, 178-82. But cf. the exegetical critique of Wright by Seyoon Kim Christ and Caesar: The Gospel in the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 16-21.

[9]Peter Oakes, “Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 (2005): 321.

[10]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1306.

[11]N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005) 73.

[12]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1306.

[13]Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[14]John M. G. Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews: Studies in the Social Formation of Christian Identity, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 275 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010) 380.

[15]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 352-3. See further, “…prayers were typically made on behalf of the emperor to other deities…” (353); “The reason why the imperial cult sits firmly within a larger context of religious tradition and practice is that the emperors were not independent deities…” (354); “It was precisely because it was incorporated into local interpretations of this pervasive divine order that the imperial cult became so successful so quickly” (355); “…the imperial cult is not viewed, by either the Romans or the Christians, as a self-standing entity, but as enmeshed within the much larger structure of Roman religion.” (360).

[16]See his essay “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” in Pauline Perspectives, 169-92.

[17]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 356.

[18]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 374-5.

[19]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 373-87.

[20]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 374. (Original emphasis.)

[21]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 379. Contra Wright’s exegesis of Romans (see p. 2 above).

[22]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 383. The “coded challenges” that Barclay has in view here are seen in Wright’s exegesis of Philippians. Cf. also the work of Kim Christ and Caesar, 11-16 (Philippians), and 32-33 (“coding”).

[23]Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 384 n.70, “Where Wright placed Paul in ideological continuity with the biblical/Jewish tradition of monotheistic critique of paganism, I would place stronger emphasis on the new division of the cosmos created by the Christ-event (cf. Gal 1.4; 1 Cor 1.18-2.16), which strongly reshapes and reapplies the biblical categories themselves.” And further evidencing Barclay’s apocalypticism: “…the subversive and redemptive power of divine grace in Christ…” (383); “…the world is divided anew around the event of Christ.” (384).

[24]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1310.

[25]Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1310.


Barclay, John M. G. Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews: Studies in the Social Formation of Christian Identity. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 275. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.

Deissmann, Adolf. Light from the Ancient East. 4th edition. Translated by L. R. M. Strachan. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927.

Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Kim, Seyoon. Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Oakes, Peter. “Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 (2005): 301-22.

Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Vol. 4 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

_______. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005.

_______. Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.

_______. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Some Writing on Wright and Piper and Justification

Wright’s Narrative Context for Justification

Wright weaves a simple yet complex narrative of first century Judaism in which his exegesis operates. Keeping with his usual motifs elaborated in Paul: In Fresh Perspective, and later revisited and significantly elaborated in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright interprets Paul broadly in light of the worldview structures of monotheism, election and eschatology.[1] Regarding justification Wright focuses on the related trio of (1) eschatology, (2) covenant, and (3) lawcourt, pointing out the importance of each for correctly understanding Paul’s teaching.[2]

Wright frequently identifies his narrative model in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision as God’s “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world.”[3] He explains that “many first century Jews thought of themselves as living in a continuing narrative stretching from earliest times, through ancient prophecies, and on toward a climactic moment of deliverance which might come at any moment.”[4] And further, “this continuing narrative was currently seen, on the basis of Daniel 9, as a long passage through a state of continuing exile.”[5]

Covenant and Justification

Wright’s narrative rightly centers around God’s covenanted and solemn promises to Abraham in Genesis 15, which, according to Wright, are to “put the world to rights,” and “undo Genesis 3 and Genesis 11, [i.e.,] sin and the fracturing of human society which results from that sin … [and] to bring about new creation, through Abraham/Israel and, as the fulfillment of the Abraham/Israel-shaped plan, through the Messiah, Jesus.” [6] The sacrificial and atoning death of the Messiah, then, eventuate a new exodus for God’s people and fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises.[7]

Lawcourt and Justification

Wright customarily caricatures Piper when he faults his understanding of righteousness as it relates to the final judgment. But Piper is not too far from Wright in his own understanding. Wright states regarding justification: “This is the present verdict which anticipates the verdict that will be issued on the last day…” [8] While Piper similarly writes, “This is not to deny the reality of a future court scene in which God will judge on behalf of his people.”[9] The two are more complimentary than contradictory in this regard. The difference is one of emphasis; while Piper emphasizes Christology so that justification centers on the judgment already born in the atoning work of Christ which Jews and Gentiles identify with, Wright emphasizes the eschatological scene of divine judgment when the verdict is truly passed. But neither seems to deny explicitly what the other states with regard to lawcourt.


The greatest disagreement between Piper and Wright primarily turns on imputation, which Wright stringently denies because he denies any association of righteousness language with moralism or virtue.[10] According to Wright the righteousness of the defendant within the divine lawcourt is purely the status he receives from the Judge as a result of the Judge’s verdict.[11] It is not a moral quality of Christ’s given or credited to the defendant in the manner of traditional teaching. But Wright’s portrait, as mentioned before, has significant soteriological shortcomings of which imputation is but a part. When Wright’s Paul is compared to the Bible’s Paul, the student cannot help but sincerely inquire: Where have sin and the gift of grace gone?[12] Why does Wright not treat, as Piper discusses, righteousness in relation to sin, particularly when the two are frequently juxtaposed in Romans?[13] Why the sharp polemics of tradition which never seem to land on a targeted theologian or scholar?

Lastly, it strikes the reader as odd when it is noted that many of the criticisms that Wright has for Piper, are the very same that Piper has for Wright. For example, Wright declares that Piper’s exegesis of δικαιοσύνη, which Piper takes as “God’s concern for God’s own glory,” is exegetically untenable;[14] while Piper states that Wright’s own narrative model of righteousness language as “God’s covenant faithfulness” breaks the back of exegesis.[15]


[1]N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), ch. 5 monotheism; ch. 6 election, and ch. 7 eschatology; idem, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), ch. 9 monotheism, ch. 10 election, and ch. 11 eschatology.

[2]See N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009) 101.

[3]Wright, Justification; understood within his narrative formulation: 66-8; 94-9; 103-4, 105; within his exegesis of Galatians: 122-4; 122-32 passim; within “the righteousness of God,” 164-5, 179; within his exegesis of Roman 194-6, 200-209, 243-4.

[4]Wright, Justification, 59 (original emphasis).

[5]Wright, Justification, 60 (original emphasis).

[6]Wright, Justification, 99. Wright is on to something when he points out that justification language is closely related to the subject of Abraham in Paul’s thinking. On this point critics should pursue his lead. By dismissing Abraham as a “faith example” that Paul employs, critics miss a critical covenantal connection: “But the obvious parallels between Galatians 3 and Romans 4 should indicate that, if Paul is referring to the promise of Genesis 15 in terms of ‘covenant’ in the former passage, there is no reason why he should not also be referring to it in the latter.” Justification, 98. And p. 99: “This is why ‘covenant,’ albeit clearly a shorthand, is an excellent way of understanding the full depth of Paul’s soteriology. It is Paul’s own shorthand, in Galatians 3; and, in Romans 4, he can say the same thing with the word righteousness.” (Though exegeting covenant and righteousness as lexically synonymous is very tenuous.)

[7]Despite Wright’s polemics against understanding righteousness in relation to morality – e.g., “righteous” does not mean “morally virtuous” (see p. 206 as one example) – he curiously states (within the very narrow scope of two pages) that the Messiah’s atonement actually makes right “the cosmic moral deficit” of those sins previously passed over by God (204). But how can Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness be seen as morally deficient and God’s faithfulness to the covenant, which according to Wright is “God’s righteousness,” not be seen as moral? Is righteousness/justification language moral or not? It is allowances such as these by Wright that create frustrating confusion for readers who really desire to understand him.

[8]Wright, Justification, 204.

[9]Piper, The Future of Justification, 58.

[10]See Wright, Justification, 104-5 as a fair example.

[11]Wright, Justification, 134-5.

[12]See John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), 53, 57, 98; esp. 93.

[13]See Piper, The Future of Justification, 179, writes, “Not surprisingly, Wright makes nothing of the coordination of ‘sin’ in the first half of verse 21 and ‘righteousness’ in the second half of the verse.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,
so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The most natural way to think about ‘righteousness in this verse is as the counterpart of ‘sin.’”

[14]Wright, Justification, 69-70. It is ironic that Wright regards Piper’s exegesis as “torturous argumentation” (p. 70) when one reflects on Wright’s own exegesis of 2 Cor. 5:21, which virtually every scholar rejects.

[15]Piper, The Future of Justification, 163-80.

A Brief Academic/Literary Biography of N. T. Wright


N. T. Wright, if nothing else, is an impressive scholar. He has written extensively in New Testament studies and has received nine honorary Doctorate of Divinity degrees from various universities, including Durham and St. Andrews – the latter university is where he currently resides as Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity.[1] He is presently working on four extensive projects, one of which will be the fifth book in his highly acclaimed Christian Origins and the Question of God series and is due in 2014 or 2015; another volume will be a commentary on Philippians to be published in the International Critical Commentary (ICC) series, also tentatively due in 2014.[2] Recent publications have been an incredible sixteen-hundred page work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which was published in two volumes; this book was also co-released with a collection of essays, previously published by Wright on Paul, titled Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013; and further intended to be co-released is an almost four-hundred page work by Wright on recent Pauline scholarship titled Paul and His Recent Interpreters, now scheduled for November 2014. This amounts to about two-thousand five-hundred pages on Paul. Considering these recent labors it is nothing short of amazing that Wright is closing in on the quickly approaching publication date for the forthcoming fifth volume in the series covering the gospels.

There has not yet been a meaningful personal biography published of Wright though his curriculum vitae, which is available through his unofficial webpage, reveals much about his scholarly life. His curriculum vitae does state that Wright is married (since 1971), and has four children and three grandchildren.[3] Wright was born in Northumberland, England on December 1, 1948.[4] He was primarily interested in classical literature and the New Testament as a young man, achieving a Bachelor of Arts in classics from Exeter College, Oxford in 1971. His second Bachelor of Arts, this time in theology, was awarded in 1973. This degree, completed at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, prepared Wright for ordination as a priest in the Church of England.[5] Both degrees were first class honors. Wright received the Master of Arts in 1975, presumably also in theology, and his Doctorate of Philosophy in New Testament at Exeter in 1980 under the famed professorship of G. B. Caird (whose influence on Wright’s work is still evident).[6] Wright’s dissertation, “The Messiah and the People of God,” argued for representative/incorporative messiahship in Romans.[7]

The Church and the Academy – Together

Wright ambitiously embodies a critical concern for bringing together history and theology,[8] and the academy and the church. In one brief autobiographical piece, he movingly writes that: “Alone, I continued to read the NT in Greek and the OT Hebrew day by day, constantly finding a combination of personal address and intellectual stimulation which I have never been able to separate. (I was once advised to keep separate Bibles one devotional and one ‘academic’. Fortunately I took no notice.)”[9] Wright’s concern for reading Scripture outside of any traditions drives his many fresh readings that so many find stimulating or frustrating depending on the vantage point.

Christian Origins and the Question of God Series

Early in his career Wright desired to write scholarly works on Jesus and Paul, but it became clear to him that to do so would require significant housekeeping. This is how Christian Origins and the Question of God got started. In the Preface to The New Testament and the People of God Wright states “The result is a project which, though still focused centrally on Jesus and Paul, is also inevitably about the New Testament as a whole.”[10] Because of the limitations of the present biographical sketch, each of the subheadings which follow afford only a short description for each volume in Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Focus, therefore, is given primarily to each volume’s most distinctive features. Comments on Wright’s latest work Paul and the Faithfulness of God will be given in a later paper and are omitted here.

Story-Based Knowing

In volume one Wright fashions an impressive hermeneutical and historiographical methodology. Although subsequent volumes in the series elaborate on the narrative critical realism outlined in The New Testament and the People of God, the initial volume earned its distinctive place among all the rest for the method’s first presentation. Wright spends over one-hundred pages defining his methodology in Part II’s “Tools for the Task.” In sum, the method is a story-based knowing composed of both a literary-historical, narrative worldview synthesis and an epistemology which critically embraces the reality of external objects, objects truly existing external of sensory input, justifiably called critical realism: “…I suggest that we must articulate a theory which locates the entire phenomenon of text-reading within an account of the storied and relational nature of human consciousness.”[11] Further, “This critical-realist theory of knowledge and verification, then, acknowledges the essentially ‘storied’ nature of human knowing, thinking and living, within the larger model of worldviews and their component parts.”[12]

Return from Exile[13]

In the second volume of the series, Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright interprets a significant amount of the parables of Jesus within his famed return from exile motif, including the parable of the sower which is interpreted by Jesus already, but which Wright boldly corrects.[14] Jesus’ teachings on faith, repentance and the forgiveness of sins are additionally seen within the controlling narrative of return from exile;[15] and further seen through the light of his narrative retelling are the covenantal promise of a renewed heart and the Sermon on the Mount.[16]

Concerning the death of Jesus Christ, Wright explains that Jesus takes upon himself the vocation of Israel as identified in the servant songs of Isaiah. Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem committed to paying the steep covenantal price for Israel’s sins.[17] The intentional sacrificial death of Jesus in turn affects a new exodus for the true Israel, the Israel who is now regathered around and identified in Jesus Christ.[18]


Volume three of Christian Origins and the Question of God is an incredibly rich seven-hundred page treatment of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from death. The Resurrection of the Son of God is considered by many to be the premier volume of the series in terms of importance – at least until 2013 – but also considered to be the most formidable defense of Jesus’ resurrection in at least a century. The book was originally planned as the final chapter of Jesus and the Victory of God but became too lengthy, requiring its own publication.[19]

Wright speaks of Jesus’ resurrected body using the invented term “transphysicality.” This term “puts a label on the demonstrable fact that the early Christians envisaged a body which was still robustly physical but also significantly different from the present one.”[20] Wright explains that for the evangelists the risen body of Jesus is able to do “some things that ordinary bodies do and other things that ordinary bodies never do.”[21] The gospels portray a Jesus who is “both recognized and not recognized, who comes and goes through locked doors, who is solidly physical, with wounds still visible, and yet who seems to belong in two dimensions at once.”[22]



[1]Nicholas Thomas Wright, “Curriculum Vitae – Web Version,” accessed May 28 2014,


[3]Wright, “Curriculum Vitae – Web Version.”

[4]John J. Hartmann, “Nicholas Thomas Wright,” in Bible Interpreters of the Twentieth Century: A Selection of Evangelical Voices, ed. by Walter A. Elwell and J. D. Weaver (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999) 434.




[8]Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 366: “An understanding of history which is incompatible with a Christian doctrine of revelation is bound to land the New Testament scholar in grave perplexities; a true theological understanding of history would not of itself solve any New Testament problems, but it would, so to speak, hold the ring within which a solution can be found.”

[9]Tom Wright, “My Pilgrimage in Theology,” accessed May 29 2014,

[10]N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992) xiii.

[11]Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 61.

[12]Ibid., 45.

[13]It should be noted that Wright has conceded that his motif was too careless, at least for some parts of Jesus and the Victory of God; concerning the parable of the prodigal son he writes: “There, too, I allowed that parable to say more than it did on the lips of Jesus.” N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 68.

[14]N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 230-9; “It will not do to object that, in the parable’s interpretation, the ‘seed’ is the ‘word’” (233). Surely it does!

[15]Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God; “repentance,” 248; “faith,” 260; “forgiveness of sins,” 268.

[16]Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God; “renewed heart,” 282-7; “Sermon on the Mount,” 289.

[17]Ibid., 553-611.

[18]Ibid., 557; 576-97.

[19]N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, vol. 3 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003) xv.

[20]Ibid., 477-8.

[21]Ibid., 609.

[22]Ibid., 609.


Hartmann, John J. “Nicholas Thomas Wright.” In Bible Interpreters of the Twentieth Century: A Selection of Evangelical Voices. Edited by Walter A. Elwell and J. D. Weaver. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

Neill, Stephen, and N. T. Wright. The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Wright, N. T. “Curriculum Vitae – Web Version” [online]. Accessed May 28 2014,

_______. Jesus and the Victory of God. Vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996.

_______. Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

_______. “My Pilgrimage in Theology” [online]. Accessed May 29 2014,

_______. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Vol. 4 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.

_______. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

_______. The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993.

_______. The New Testament and the People of God. Vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.

_______. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Vol. 3 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.

_______. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

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.