What Saint Paul Really Said

What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) by N.T. Wright

A Critical Book Review

N.T. Wright is one of the leading voices within New Testament scholarship today. Wright taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities. He has recently been appointed a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Wright, a prolific author, has written over thirty books, including both scholarly and popular works. His major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God is making no small contribution to New Testament studies.  There are six proposed volumes in this series. The fourth volume is anticipated as being Wright’s magnum opus on Paul.

Along the way in constructing his magisterial work on Paul, Wright has written several books that reflect his long admiration and journey into the mind of the Apostle, and he does so with a commitment and concern for interpreting Paul within his first-century context.

In his book, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, the preeminent British scholar gives a devastating but humble critique of the view that Paul is the force at work behind Christianity.[1]

Wright sets out to prove that there is certainly not a parallelism with Jesus and Paul, but there is an “appropriate continuity” between the two (181).

Wright begins his presentation with a brief review of Pauline scholarship in the twentieth century. Although Wright doesn’t agree with all of his views, he especially finds Albert Schweitzer’s four questions concerning Pauline studies a “benchmark for subsequent study” (14). The book is arranged according to the questions that deal with history, theology, exegesis, and application.

Rooting the historical ‘Saul of Tarsus’ within the radical wing of Shammaite Pharisaism, Wright sets the stage for some sort of dramatic encounter that converts Saul the persecutor into Paul the preacher. Wright is concerned to show that Paul never leaves his “home base of Jewish monotheism” (63).

This may be an appropriate summation of how Wright’s so-called “new perspective” is sustained throughout this book and his life’s work on Paul. It is what Wright has in mind as he interprets Paul’s use of “righteousness” and “justification” within his letters, particularly the epistle to the Romans.

There will no doubt be some scholars, pastors, and teachers that will find it most offensive that Wright admonishes his readers to “repent of the ways we have mishandled” Paul down through the years. He declares that it is time to “study Paul in his own terms” (23).

Wright definitely does not mince with words. His passion for his subject and his conviction born out of his in-depth study of Paul is commendable. For the most part, Wright’s exegetical honesty and his refreshing humility come through in his writing and potentially make allowances for his bold rhetoric.

However, it could be said that he rushes to conclude that he is the only scholar concerned with interpreting Paul within Second-Temple Judaism. Wright accuses Wayne Meeks and Hans-Dieter Betz as being secretive about an agenda that has Paul deriving his central concepts from the pagan world (77).

The reader could hear Wright say that any sort of interaction with first-century paganism in Paul’s thinking is headed for trouble.  Yet, a few pages later, Wright allows for Paul to adopt pagan concepts to express gospel truth (81). A little clarity might resolve what appears to be a touch of contradiction.

The real firestorm of current debate seems to be between those who resonate with Wright’s interpretations and those who have committed themselves to the sixteenth century reformed view of Paul and his theology. The center of the controversy, and what many reformed scholars take issue with, is articulated in chapters 6 and 7 in this book.

Wright says the Reformers were reading their personal problems with the medieval church into Paul—instead of reading Paul through the lens of Second-Temple Judaism. This has those committed to reformed theology gagging at Wright’s Pauline-pudding.

Wright redefines Paul’s use of “righteousness” and “justification.” Wright has been most outspoken that “righteousness” in Paul has little to nothing to do with “moral quality” and everything to do with God’s covenant faithfulness and the “status” of those who stand before the Maker of that covenant in the heavenly law court.

Wright says it has always been about faithfulness to the covenant, not about imputing moral goodness. Faithfulness to the law and covenant was never about achieving salvation through ethical living—it was about identifying with God’s divine program. The cosmic judge does not give his goodness to the accused, he pronounces the status of “righteous” (i.e. covenant faithfulness) to those whom he has set free.

Wright doesn’t deny some sort of imputation of moral goodness, just that Paul isn’t thinking of it with his employment of the biblical law court metaphor.

Paul’s use of “justification” follows in this covenantal reading to mark off those who are already included in the covenant of God. Wright says that “justification” is not how someone becomes a Christian, it is a declaration that they have already become a Christian (125). He says that there is so much to be said on what Paul meant by justification that it could easily occupy another book.[2]

It is rather difficult to criticize Wright’s re-interpretations of Paul when it appears to be consistent with recent scholarship on Paul within Second-Temple Judaism.

For Wright, a covenantal reading of Paul accentuates his entire message as it brings all elements of his thought together. Wright convincingly presents Paul as the zealous Pharisee who met Jesus on the road to Damascus, interpreted Jesus within Second-Temple Judaism, and still has a message for the world today.

In the last two chapters of the book, Wright attempts to make application to the church today. It is at this point where his conclusions are less than satisfying. He draws clear lines of distinctions between the factions within pagan life and the agape community that is to be found within the church (147).

Wright even points out the problems between Christian denominations and the task that lay ahead as believers bridge denominational divides (158), but he doesn’t seem willing to remove those glaring divisions called ‘denominations’ within the Body of Christ.

It begs the question: “Is there a respected scholar that is willing to consider that celebrating our differences by congregating with those like us does not allow for true ecumenism?”

Finally, Wright rightfully states that it is a “matter of urgency” (157) for the gospel to confront the realm of worldly politics.  Wright says part of the mission of the church is to proclaim Christ’s rule over Caesar. Tom, what does that look like in the age of presidents and prime ministers that have yet to deify themselves?

There is a diametric difference in proclaiming the gospel to politics and proclaiming the gospel through politics. Maybe Christ’s claims over us and his world speak the loudest when Caesar is truly seen as a parody not to be reckoned with in every age.

Overall, this book is so far the most readable of Wright’s books on Paul. If you have been wondering what all the fuss is about with Wright and his controversial views of the historical Paul of Tarsus who lived and died within Second-Temple Judaism, I highly recommend reading What Saint Paul Really Said.

The serious student of Paul should consider the claims that N.T. Wright makes in this wonderful treatment of the biblical text.

Is Paul of Tarsus the founder of Christianity? Did Paul invent Christianity? Wright says that Jesus went to his death clearly believing he was the culmination of Israel’s history. The resurrection vindicates Jesus and substantiates Christ’s claims.

Paul meets the resurrected Jesus while on his zealous way to opposing those who are unfaithful to the covenant. After meeting the resurrected Jesus, Paul believes his vocation is to announce the gospel to the whole world. Paul’s gospel is that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah and Lord of the cosmos!

Paul believes that in Jesus… the new age has already begun.

[1] A.N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, New York: Norton, 1997.

[2] N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.


About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 20 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Pennsylvania. View all posts by David D. Flowers

4 responses to “What Saint Paul Really Said

  • David D. Flowers

    Thanks, Joe. I hope you’re doing well, bro.

  • Paul Pavao

    A friend referred me to your blog saying he tends to like what you say. I got here, and I ordered _What Saint Paul Really Said_. I’ve read two chapters. I have to admit I started with chapter 7, wanting most of all to get some input from someone with an understanding of Jewish history, on justification by faith.

    The book was like a brain massage. I’ve had an *idea* of how to wrap up Paul’s statements on the security of the believer (“God will present you faultless”) and Paul’s seemingly contradictory statements on judgment (such as Eph. 5:5-8).

    Wright gave me words and a picture for the idea I already had. I’m surprised at the relief it gave me. It was like I had an armful of individual thoughts, and he gave me a case to put them in.

    That’s all rather abstract, but here’s on less abstract thought. I really liked his summation of the Gospel: Jesus is preached as King, the Spirit uses that message to produce belief, and the believer is baptized into the Christian community “and begin to share its common life and common way of life.”

    The idea that preaching the Gospel is not teaching justification by faith is one I strongly agree with. Jesus is at the center of the Gospel, and Wright says it very well.

    • David D. Flowers

      Good stuff, Paul. If you haven’t read any of Wright’s more popular reading, check out “Simply Christian” or “Surprised by Hope.”
      Thanks for listening to your friend and visiting the blog. 🙂

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