More N.T. Wright on Paul

Continuing my earlier post, here are more quotes from N.T. Wright’s blockbuster, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. These have to do with the Greco Roman context within which Paul preached. 

“Whereas the default mode of most modern westerners is some kind of Epicureanism, the default mode for many of Paul’s hearers was some kind of Stoicism. Observing the differences between the two… is therefore vital if we are to ‘hear’ Paul as many of his first hearers might have done. If, when someone says the words ‘god,’ we think at once of a distant, detached divinity–as most modern westerners, being implicitly Epicureans or at least Deists, are likely to do–we are unlikely to be able imaginatively to inhabit the world of many in Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus and elsewhere for whom the word ‘god’ might reasonably be expected to denote the divinity which indwelt, through its fiery physical presence, all things, all people, the whole cosmos.” [213]

“A world full of gods generated a human life full of… well, let us go on calling it ‘religion’ for the moment. Did the lightning strike to the left or the right of the path? Did you remember to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon before you got on board the ship? Hope you enjoy the meal; this splendid beef was from a sacrifice in the temple down the street, so it comes with a special blessing. How were the planets aligned on the night you were born? Don’t forget the festival tomorrow; everyone will be there, and the neighbors will notice if you don’t show up. Have you heard that Augustus has now become Pontifex Maximus? I know I was due to arrive yesterday, but some god must have had it in for me, or perhaps someone put a curse on me: the roads were all blocked. Don’t you like the new temple in the city square? Isn’t it good that they’ve reorganized the streets so you can see it from every angle! My nephew tells me he’s been initiated into this new cult from the East; he says he’s died and been reborn, though I can’t see much difference. Oh, and don’t forget; we owe a cock to Asclepius. This is not philosophy, though the philosophers regularly talk about it. Nor is it politics as such….Call it ‘religion;’ and judge not, lest we be judged.” [251]

“… The great festivals mattered, the proper performance of regular religious rituals (particularly sacrifices) mattered, and the appropriate investigation of omens and auguries mattered. To neglect those was to jeopardize the polis itself, and potentially to cast a blight on particular enterprises the polis might be conducting. ‘To refuse sacrifice was to refuse the gods.’ ‘Impiety’ like that might or might not be associated with the possibility of some kind of divine punishment in a future life, but that was a different matter; the more important charge would be that one was endangering the state by either ignoring or insulting one of the divinities involved in the civic life and in that particular project.” [275]

“Whereas for Christians, starting with Paul, ‘belief,’ and in particular belief about who ‘God’ really was, took center stage, this had never been the case for the Greeks and the Romans. For them, religio was something you did; ;even the idea of personal ‘belief’ (to us, a self-evident part of religious experience) provides a strikingly inappropriate model for understanding the religious experience of early Rome.'” [276]

“The Jews would not pray to the gods of Rome, but they would pray (to their one God) for the health and well-being of Rome; that principle had been well established as one of the ground rules for Jews in exile, as long ago as Jeremiah. Under the empire, Jews would not pray to the emperor, as everyone else had to do, but they would pray for the emperor. Why not? According to their creational monotheism, with its remarkable role for humans as the imagebearers of the one God, this one God desired and intended that rulers should rule, and would hold them to account according to the wisdom and justice, or otherwise, with which they had exercised power. The Christians, from the start, behaved not as a new variety of pagan religion but as a new and strange variety of Judaism, though with the added puzzle (for the watching world) that while the Jews (like everybody else) offered animal sacrifices the Christians did not.” [277-8]

“Rome brought ‘peace’ to the world, at the usual price: submit or die.” [284]

“The events surrounding Augustus’s coming to power are therefore ‘good news,’ euangelia…. not merely a nice piece of information to cheer you up on a bad day, but the public, dramatic announcement that something has happened through which the world has changed for ever and much for the better.” [327]

“When we find, during Augustus’s lifetime, an inscription dedicated to him as ‘to god, son of god’, and then similar language used in turn for Tiberius during his lifetime, it is hard to suppose that the average Greek speaker, reading such an inscription, was saying to himself or herself, ‘Of course, this is a translation of the Latin divus, so it doesn’t really mean ‘son of god’ but only ‘son of the deified one.’ Even if anybody did say that to themselves, it is not clear what practical difference such a conclusion might make.” [327-8]

“When Paul speaks of the Thessalonians turning away from idols to serve a living and true god and to await the arrival of his son, it would be very strange if he had not meant to include Roma and the emperor among those false deities.” [330]

“Augustus and his family were the new, and powerful, gods to be faced in city after city. Including, of course, the ones to which Paul went, and to which he subsequently wrote.” [339]

“The overall picture of [the emperor] as a model of pietas, leading his people in traditional worship while also being himself identified, in flexible ways, as the recipient of worship, enables us to glimpse a far more integrated world than most westerners have imagined since at least the eighteenth century. ‘The emperor may have been a god, but he was also the mediator between his empire and the Other World.’

“… the developing discourse of imperial cult in Asia constantly stressed the fact that the Roman empire, once launched, was going to continue, and to bring its great blessings to the world, for ever. ‘The discourse of imperial cults was committed to preventing the imagination from imagining the end of the world.’ No, declared Paul: God has fixed a day on which he will have the world brought to justice.

“That was, of course, an essentially Jewish view. The Jewish objection to the entire Roman view of the gods was not simply about monotheism (though that was of course the basis of the standard critique of idolatry), nor even about election (their belief that they, rather than the Romans or anybody else, were the chosen people of the one true God). It was about eschatology: about their belief that the one God had determined on a divine justice that would be done, and would be seen to be done, in a way the Roman imperial justice somehow never quite managed. Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel.” [342]


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