Friday, May 8, 2009

NT Wright on the Jesus and Paul problem

"The question of the relationship between Jesus and Paul has normally been posed in the wrong terms... One normal way of stating it goes like this: Jesus preached about God but Paul preached about Jesus. Or, if you like, Jesus announced the kingdom of God, Paul announced the Messiahship of Jesus. This plays out in other ways: Jesus called people to a simple gospel of repentance, belief and the practice of the sermon on the mount; Paul developed a complex theology of justification by faith, something Jesus never mentioned, with all kinds of hard and gritty bits quite alien to the original message... These various ways of polarising Jesus and Paul, and other variations, simply miss the point. They assume that Jesus and Paul were both trying, essentially to do the same kind of thing, namely, to preach and teach a set of theological, religious, and or ethical truths, and that one can therefore line up the various elements of what we know of their sayings and play them off against one another... The framework in which we have to look at Jesus and Paul is not at all that of abstract teaching and preaching, so that one might compare them as one does with Plato and Aristotle, or even Luther and Calvin... The relationship between them, as Paul himself conceived it, was not at all like that of a second generation rabbi determined to pass on as much as possible of what the original master had said. Nor was it like that of a second generation reformer - to think again of Luther and Calvin - developing the original insights with certain modifications. The relationship between them, as far as Paul was concerned, was much more like that between a composer and a conductor; or between a medical researcher and a doctor; or between an architect and a builder... They were not intending to do the same sort of thing, not because they were at loggerheads but because they were at one in the basic vision which generated their very different vocations."

[Source: NT Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, p154-161]

And that heavily abridged quote will have to be the last from that book, of which I have quoted far too much already. But Wright is so interesting because what he says makes so much sense and answers so many questions that have been operating like the proverbial elephant in the room for so long. Wright is also impressive in his ability to write enormous tomes of scholarly work at the same time as churning out accesible but serious popular level stuff. This is the only reason why he gets so much flack. many other writers in the 'new perspectives' movement of Pauline scholarship are far more antagonistic to traditional protestant understandings of Paul, but they are making no attempt to engage a popular audience, which Wright does so well. Anyway the next task on my Wrightian reading list is to start his massive Christian Origins and the Question of God series. He has only written 3 out of the 5 projected volumes and if I start soon, I may get to read the first three before the next one is published! Let me know what you thought about the quote :-)


  1. If one group believers only had access to the Gospels and one only had access to the Epistles I wonder if we would end up with two groups of believers or one ... I have no idea.

  2. indeed - he sums up so much... so well... :)

  3. Thanks for the comments gents. Yes George, the thing to remember, which is often forgotten is that the Gospel are formational whereas Paul's Epistles are correctional. The gospels are written with a more general message towards a community through time (although still within reasonably narrow historic bounds and with historical agendas), the epistles have a specific messages to specific situations. Not that Paul's writings dont have a role in forming present day Christian communities, they do, but that we have to be careful how we do it. Paul is more an example of how to contextualise the truth about Jesus the Christ than another version of the gospel... at least that is where i am at at the moment :)