What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?

  • N.T. Wright
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Oxford: Lion; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Cincinnati: Forward Movement, 1997. 192 pp. $14.00 pap.

The title of this book combines two very different objectives of this volume that correspond to two stages in its composition. The heart and apparently original purpose of the book was to summarize succinctly Wright's perspectives on the life and thought of Paul, as a prelude to the much more massive vol. 3 (on Paul) in Wright's unfolding, magisterial series, Christian Origins and the Question of God. At a relatively late date in the project, A. N. Wilson's book on Paul as the true founder of Christianity (Paul: The Mind of the Apostle) appeared, and it made sense to try to respond to this relatively unscholarly but widely advertised work. So Wright has added a detailed, closing chapter on "Paul, Jesus, and Christian Origins," and also scattered occasional replies to Wilson throughout the body of the book. While market needs may have dictated the latter objective, and while Wright demolishes Wilson's Paul as easily as he did Wilson's earlier Jesus (N. T. Wright, Who Was Jesus?), the real strength of the work lies in its initial and primary focus as a summary of Wright's own perspectives on Paul.

For Wright, Saul of Tarsus was a Shammaite Pharisee. His persecuting of Christians can be viewed theologically as akin to the ultraconservative motives of a modern day Yigal Amir killing Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel--expressing zeal to hasten the Day in which God will redeem his people. The Damascus road experience, however, convinced Paul that God did for Jesus of Nazareth what he was to have done for Israel at the end of time. Jesus was therefore Messiah; the resurrection and the last days had begun. Because the Old Testament itself had promised blessing for the Gentiles at this point in human history, Paul's commissioning to be the apostle to the Gentiles followed naturally.

Paul's Gospel is thus the proclamation of Jesus as king, over against all rivals--the gods, emperors and even demons of the Greco-Roman world--in the context of a monotheistic Judaism that left room for Jesus to be ever so closely linked with Yahweh God, with parallel roles predicated of each. Contra so much modern scholarship, Paul's Christological and even Trinitarian formulae come early and appear in the most Jewish and monotheistic of contexts (1 Cor. 8:1-6; Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20). Paul is building on the precedent of Jewish use of Wisdom, Torah, Spirit, Word (logos) and Shekinah, but his formulations go even beyond the previous claims made for those agents of God. The crucifixion and the resurrection are the vehicles that create the triumph or victory of Jesus enabling him to be heralded as this remarkable king.

Paul's theology then reads as the announcement of the arrival of the realities that Greco-Roman religions parodied and that Judaism awaited as the fulfillment of prophecy. These realities included God acting as creator, the fulfillment of the function of cultic worship (sacrifice), the appearance of the true dispenser of power and the Lord of the empire, the model of true humanity and the definition of the ultimate goal of history.

"The righteousness of God" must be defined against the Jewish background of God's covenantal faithfulness as involving both his nature and his activity that demonstrate this faithfulness. "Justification" does initially not denote how one gets included in the covenant but defines who is in it already. God is in the process of rebuilding a new humanity corporately in holiness and love in anticipation of the bodily resurrection of all of God's people at the start of the age of perfect re-creation.

Contemporary application demands that Christians announce God's Lordship in Christ today over every arena of the cosmos. In all this, Paul was not the founder of Christiantiy but faithful to the original intentions of Jesus, even if drawing them out at times more explicitly than we might have discovered from the pages of the Gospels alone.

As with all of Wright's recent, prolific writing, this primer is full of provocative and creative insights that are largely faithful to historic, evangelical orthodoxy but fit no one theological label and challenge as inaccurate all previous Pauline studies at one point or another. Wright has found generally balanced ways to appropriate the insights of the famous "new look on Paul" (associated esp. with E. P. Sanders and now J. D. G. Dunn) without breaking as sharply from Reformation perspectives as some in the "new look" have. His comments about the "righteousness of God" and "justification" at times seem to introduce false dichotomies, which some of Wright's own comments in othen places acknowledge even if he then seems to retract these admissions (contrast pp. 102 and 103, 113 and 119, respectively). In other words, if one adopts Wright's broadest definitions of both of these concepts, the narrower, Reformation emphases appear as included, even though Wright alternates between affirming and denying this corollary. But this book is admittedly a "first draft," and the larger tome to come will doubtless smooth out the rough edges.

As one who for years has taught a survey course on the second half of the New Testament ("The Epistles and Revelation"), I have always sought for a brief textbook I could assign to complement the standard introductions to the New Testament books that have formed the heart of the course's reading requirements. To date I have used R. Longenecker's little Ministry and Message of Paul, longing for something to appear from an evangelical perspective that would up-date the discussion in light of the last two decades and the "new look." My ideal would be for Longenecker himself to make the revision and include the balanced critique of the Sanders-Dunn-Wright trajectories that appear interspersed throughout his Word Biblical Commentary on Galatians. Barring that (or someone else penning the equivalent), I intend to start using this short study by Wright himself. It is a delight to read and always worth pondering even when one disagrees. And it is a pleasure to see someone include (as Longenecker's earlier volume also did) incisive, contemporary application. For example, could any one in their right mind not believe in "lordship salvation" after reading Paul through the first-century Jewish lenses that Wright offers us? I, for one, think not!

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary