N.T. Wright on Paul

Reading N.T. Wright’s scholarly work is like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. As far as I am concerned, it is a fire hose spouting good wine. I am a few hundred pages into his massive two-volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a book he has been pointing toward for decades. It’s a pleasure.

I won’t try to describe his argument, but I thought I would pass on a few memorable quotes.

p. 12 “For Paul, much as he valued freedom, the mutual reconciliation of those who belonged to the Messiah mattered more than anything else. For Philemon to have responded angrily to Paul’s letter by giving Onesimus his freedom but declaring that he never wanted to set eyes on him again would have meant defeat for Paul. Reconciliation was what mattered. That is why Paul wrote this letter [Philemon].”

p. 20. “Paul is not only urging and requesting but actually embodying what he elsewhere calls ‘the ministry of reconciliation.’ God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself, he says in 2 Corinthians 5:19; now, we dare to say, God was in Paul reconciling Onesimus and Philemon.”

p. 32 “Slavery was, for both Philemon and Paul, simply part of the worldview. It was how things got done. It was the electricity of the ancient world; try imagining your home or your town without the ability to plug things in and switch them on, and you will realize how unthinkable it was to them that there should be no slaves.”

p. 42 “The distinction between ‘faith’ in the Reformers’ sense and ‘theology’ or ‘doctrine’ has by no means always been clear, producing as we saw the problem whereby ‘justification by faith’ has come to mean ‘justification by believing in the proper doctrine of justification,’ a position which, in attempting to swallow its own tail, produces a certain type of theological and perhaps cultural indigestion.”

p. 50 “The reason history is fascinating is because people in other times and places are so like us. The reason history is difficult is because people in other times and places are so different from us. History is, to that extent, like marriage….”

pp. 96-7 “The Temple, and before it the wilderness tabernacle, were thus heirs, within the biblical narrative, to moments like Jacob’s vision, the discovery that a particular spot on earth could intersect with, and be the gateway into, heaven itself…. The Temple was not simply a convenient place to meet for worship. It was not even just the ‘single sanctuary,’ the one and only place where sacrifice was to be offered in worship to the one God. It was the place above all where the twin halves of the good creation intersected. When you went up to the Temple, it was not as though you were ‘in heaven.’ You were actually there. That was the point. Israel’s God did not have to leave heaven in order to come down and dwell in the wilderness tabernacle or the Jerusalem Temple. However surprising it may be for modern westerners to hear it, within the worldview formed by the ancient scriptures heaven and earth were always made to work together, to interlock and overlap. There might in principle be many places and ways in which this could happen, but the Jewish people had believed, throughout the millennium prior to Jesus, that the Jerusalem Temple was the place and the means par excellence for this strange and powerful mystery.”

p. 181 “Like Marx, ancient Jews seem to have thought that the point was not to explain the world but to change it.”

p. 203 “In the western world for the last two hundred years the categories of ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ have been carefully separated, each being defined negatively in relation to the other. ‘Politics,’ for the modern west, is about the running of countries and cities as though there were no god; ‘religion’ is about engaging in present piety and seeking future salvation as though there were no polis, no civic reality.”


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