Book Review: What St Paul Really Said by Tom Wright

Continuing my look at the New Perspective on Paul, I move onto one of the earlier books by Wright on the topic of Paul. Earlier this summer, I read & reviewed E.P. Sanders’ short introduction to Paul.

From the outset, Wright states that this is only a short introduction, something of a ‘taster’ for his forthcoming much larger work on Paul, which, at the time of writing this review, is due out in the summer of 2013.

Wright begins his discussion by asking what world Paul inhabited, as this seems foundational to discussions on the nature of the origins of christianity. Wright refers to David Wenham (one of his books on this topic is reviewed here) and stresses Paul’s Jewishness. It seems, though I will confess to some ignorance on this, that at the heart of many accusations over the falsity of the early church is the notion that Paul abandoned his Jewishness and instead brought to the primitive community a quasi-Hellenistic religion, distorting the message and legacy of Jesus. Of course, if one subscribed to this view, then the grounds of christianity (or at least the whole history of what has become christianity) would be severely undermined. Consequently, it is a view that needs to be looked at carefully, with all due consideration and seriousness.

Wright then goes on to give an account of why he believes Paul never abandoned Judaism, but rather, his understanding of it was radically reformed. As a persecutor of the early church, Saul of Tarsus had great energy and enthusiasm for his work. As an apostle, Paul of Tarsus was no less “zealous” in his aims.

So far, so uncontroversial.

Out of this, though, Wright comes to the question of “what did Paul mean when he talked of ‘gospel’?” Here, Wright veers away from the traditional reformed answer which focuses on how one is “saved” (technical term: soteriology) and instead states that the gospel is an announcement about Jesus and how God is made known through Jesus.

Though evidence is presented above on how thoroughly Paul stays faithful to Jewish monotheism, one does then face some thorny problems with certain statements he makes about the Jewish law, particularly in Galatians and Romans. Wright tackles these in much the same way as Sanders does, by arguing that statements about the law and about circumcision are not about moralism or legalism, but rather that they were statements about Jewish identity. i.e. if christians find their identity in Christ, then there is no longer a need to adopt the identity markers of Judaism now that in Jesus, Judaism has been fulfilled.

An important figure in Wright’s arguments is that of Pelagius, a figure I doubt the majority of christians will be familiar with. In short, he was a late 4th/early 5th century theologian who believed that people could be saved by living to strict moral guidelines. You can read more about him in Alister McGrath’s Heresy. Wright’s use of this figure is to demonstrate what many modern christians think Paul meant when he spoke of salvation through the law, but which Paul did not mean at all. There is no historical evidence which supports the idea that Judaism was prevalent with those who sought to save themselves by their own efforts. Rather, they were the chosen people of God and their observance of the Torah was what distinguished them from other people.

The second half of the book is then almost entirely devoted to the question of what Paul meant by ‘justification by faith’. With the background given earlier, Wright’s view was that ‘faith’ is the identifying mark by which christians are identified rather than the means by which they become christians. In other words, he swaps round the traditionalist viewpoint of which is the cart and which is the horse.  There’s a very helpful diagram which outlines various different interpretations of the word “righteousness” – though Wright chooses to focus on just a couple of these, rather than going into much depth on each of them.

The apparent conclusion of the book then asks how Paul’s teaching, understood in this new light, ought to affect the church. At this juncture, as in Surprised by Hope, Wright seems to leave his world of ancient academia and applies his sharp judgement to the modern church – or at least, to some aspects of the church. He gives a powerful and thought-provoking challenge which should be of interest to all christians.

However, the book doesn’t quite end there. The final chapter seems somewhat tacked onto the end. Here, Wright effectively gives a critique of a book by A.N. Wilson called Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. I might, at some point, pick this up and have a read myself. The main content of the book is said to be greatly opposed to the view put forth by Wright, and the key arguments are countered by reference to Wright’s own analysis as laid out in earlier chapters. This final chapter does come across as a little ungracious, and its tone jars slightly from that of the previous chapter.

That aside, it is a very good read and I’d highly recommend it to anyone else wanting to gain an understanding of the new perspective on Paul.