Saturday, 17 January 2009

NT Wright and the New Perspective on Paul

NT Wright is the Bishop of Durham, and a New Testament scholar, who started out mostly writing about Paul, but has since embarked on a massive multiple-volumed work about Jesus as well as Paul.

The New Perspective focuses on one of the big debates in Pauline scholarship (that's the study of Paul, not Pauline (as far as I'm aware there's no name for that – Paulineine? Anyway, who's Pauline?)): what exactly does Paul mean when he talks about justification by faith? The traditional answer would be that it means that we can't ever be good enough for God by ourselves: we'll always sin, and can't pay for our sin out of our own resources, and so justification by faith means that we have faith in Jesus, and as a result, his holiness gets credited to us – a bit like handing in someone else's work as the coursework for a module you just couldn't get your head around.

But no! says our Tom, and the New Perspective along with him. That's not what it means at all. Actually, for Israel, justification meant something different. Being less hung up that we about the nasty things we think when no one is looking, their understanding of justification is a lot less internal and individualistic, and a lot more about God's covenant with them as his people. For them, God's grace came first: he called Israel and appointed them his chosen people, and covenantal observance wasn't about passing some sort of test to get into heaven, but about being invited into the exclusive club of God's chosen people and being asked not to be an arse, or the bouncers will kick you out.

The sense in Israel at the time of Jesus was that they had, in fact, been arses – they hadn't just got too drunk, but they'd gotten off with the bouncer's girlfriend, danced naked on the table and then started a fight. So they got kicked out, into exile, and although they'd made it back to Israel, they weren't in charge any more – they were ruled by the Romans, and were not happy about that. They'd been let back into the club, but instead of the special treatment God had originally promised them, they were the glass collectors. Exile was not over. For the Jews, then, justification was about longing for the day when God would come down and say hey, what are my people doing collecting glasses? And he'd kick out the Romans and put them back where they belonged, in control of Israel. The good news that Israel were waiting for was, in fact, deeply political – it was about independence from Rome, possession of the land that God had promised them, the real return from exile, and victory over the Romans.

Everyone was looking for justification at the time of Jesus. They all wanted to know what they had to do in order to be the people of whom God would say “these people are mine; let them back in the VIP lounge.” The Pharisees thought that they could mark themselves out as VIPs by sticking really strictly to the law of the Torah. The Sadducees thought they could do it by collaborating with the Romans in order to be allowed to run the Temple. The Essenes thought they could do it by running away to the desert and leaving corrupt society behind to live lives of chastity and purity. The Zealots thought they could do it by terrorism, and by constantly trying to defeat the Romans by violent uprisings.

This is the background to Paul's writing, then, and what he says about what Jesus has done is a lot more subversive than we notice a lot of the time. Jesus, he says, is the new Emperor of everything. He rules and the Roman empire does not (Jesus is the Christ – the anointed one and therefore the King, and the Lord – the term used to refer to the Emperor). Jesus is the new king of Israel, and what he has done announces the end of Israel's exile – they're back in the VIP lounge, only this time everyone else is invited too. What do you have to do to get on the guest list? Keep the law? Scrabble for power? Escape the world? Fight the Romans? No. Just believe in Jesus. You might have expected a war, you might have expected political power and the physical land God promised, you might have expected the temple to return to the hands of the true Israel, but this is what you get instead: Christ crucified, and the kingdom of God which looks a lot like a mustard seed.


Gabriel Smy said...

Great summary Marika. It takes a bit of discipline to stop reading Jesus and Paul individualistically, but there's a lot of life there. Keep it coming!


Anton said...

Of course, this all begs the question of what's actually in the VIP lounge? Front row tickets for when the Messiah lays the smackdown on Rome? A big treasure chest of earthly riches? Tickets to be redeemed at a future date for a new body? When you take into account Paul's eschatology and anthropology (and hence his own vision of what the VIP lounge did and would look like), it becomes less clear that the old perspective was really that wide of the mark in the first place.

But I definitely think that Tom would appreciate the nightclub analogy.