Paul: In Fresh Perspective

Jonathan Worthington

What was Paul's relationship to the Judaism(s) of his day? How Jewish was Paul? Did (and in what way did) Paul critique Israel? In Paul: In Fresh Perspective, N. T. Wright contemplates and presents his answers for questions such as these. This book is a presentation of "the Jewish theology of Paul's day and the ways in which he redefined it" (107). Wright attempts in this book to give people the basic mental categories and the fundamental theological structures that would have governed Paul's thoughts. In other words, Wright is attempting to reorganize our "natural" (21st century) thoughts about Paul. To do this he uses the basic Jewish theological doctrines, for that is how Paul grew up thinking. Wright also works out how Paul would have redefined many of the details of his Jewish theology, but the organization and structure of Paul's thought are essentially "second temple" Jewish.

This work is beautifully written and masterfully organized. The structure is wonderfully didactic and therefore incredibly helpful. Wright present's Paul's theology in a very simple way, yet in quite a profound way, and yet also in an over-simplified way. First we will look at the content of Wright's new book on Paul, briefly explaining what he says in each section and chapter. After attempting to present a fair summary, we then will briefly analyze some of Wright's basic messages, presuppositions and definitions.


The first half of Wright's book explains certain themes that must be taken into consideration when analyzing Paul's theology and language. Wright traces the background from where Paul was coming (Judaism's basic theological categories) and what he was trying to do (challenge/overturn idolatry, particularly the Caesar-worship of his day). The second half of Wright's book explains the theological structures about which Paul taught. Paul, according to Wright, believed in and taught basic Jewish monotheism, election and eschatology, yet he "rethought" each around Jesus and the Spirit. In the last chapter Wright discusses the relationship between Jesus and Paul, Jesus' role and Paul's role. He concludes his study with Paul's task for the church as it propels our own present-day task into action.

In chapter 1 ("Paul's World, Paul's Legacy"), Wright begins with the typical (and appropriate) topic of Paul's "historical context." We learn that Paul is very Jewish. But Wright correctly explains that it is not that simple. Paul lived a three-fold existence, that is, within a three-fold context. Paul was brought up and lived within the belief system of what is commonly called "second temple Judaism." Yet this Jewish world itself functioned within and interacted with the Hellenistic thought and culture of the ruling Roman empire. Yet Paul was not simply a Jew in the Roman world, nor a Roman citizen who was brought up Jewish; he was also a member of the "family of the Messiah," having its own unique system of thought, belief and action.

After describing these three-way cultural/religious dynamics, Wright proceeds to give his personal view of human thought: we think in stories. We live and act within the midst of an ongoing narrative and we communicate through telling our personal narrative. This notion of narrative thought leads Wright to read Paul's letters (especially Romans) as re-tellings of various aspects of God's (and Israel's) story. Paul had inherited this narrative from Judaism, but he now has a "fresh perspective" on God's/Israel's story due to his entrance into that third context of the Messiah. Paul therefore tells the same basic story that his contemporary Jews were telling, but he retells the story centered around the Messiah (centered around the Spirit as well, but more on this in a moment). Through this contextual and hermeneutical setup, Wright propels us into his book.

Moving to chapters 2-4, Wright takes his readers into the actual categories of thought in Paul's mind. Wright first moves us into the world of second temple Judaism. As within every culture/religion, so within the world of Judaism, certain themes govern the thoughts of the adherents. Wright explains that the basic themes governing the second temple Jewish minds (thus also, according to Wright, governing Paul's mind) were the interactive topics of (1) creation and covenant and (2) messiah and apocalyptic. Each of these four theological categories were OT and Jewish categories. They functioned like goggles through which the Jews saw God's actions, the world, even their own experiences. For Wright, Paul, being a Jew, naturally saw reality through these lenses as well. Yet due to the coming and work of Jesus the Messiah, Paul had "rethought [these four themes] around the gospel of Jesus" (59).

In chapter 2 ("Creation and Covenant"), Wright explains that the one God who created all things is the rightful Lord of the entire world. This one God established a covenant with Israel so that, through the covenant people, God may right the wrongs of the now fallen creation. (Wright summarizes God's righting of creation's wrongs via the covenant as Paul's dikaiousne theou, "the righteousness of God." He controversially defines this idea as "the faithful covenant justice of God"). But how are the covenant and (thereby) the creation renewed? This is the topic of Wright's third chapter, "Messiah and Apocalyptic."

In chapter 3 ("Messiah and Apocalyptic"), Wright teaches that the covenant and creation renewals will not actually come through Israel (for they failed in their role), but rather will come through Israel's representative, the Messiah. Wright challenges interpreters to take seriously Paul's use of the term "Christ," reading in it an intentional reference to the OT person and work of the Messiah. To reshape our thinking about the Jewish Messiah, Wright highlights the seven basic assumptions that second temple Jews had about the Messiah. Wright shows how all seven can be seen in Paul's description of Jesus as "the Christ." It is this Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, that will bring in--and actually already has brought in--the end of the present evil age. The righteousness of God and the new creation have therefore been "revealed" (apocalypto) in the Messiah.

Before moving on to chapter 4, a very important aside must be taken. Wright sees the combination of creation and covenant in OT, Jewish and Pauline thought as holding the answers to some issues within the "new perspective" debate. As Wright sees it, the NPP has rightly focused on the communal nature of Paul's discussion of "justification," since in each context where Paul mentions "justification" the topic under Paul's consideration is said to be the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. Wright then mentions that the NPP has, however, often neglected the fact that Paul is also "talking about how sinners are put right with God" (36), the focus of the "traditional" view. (For a glimpse of Wright's inclusion of the individual aspect of "justification by faith" read p. 147). As Wright understands this part of the issue, both NPP and traditionalists must work on integrating the two sides of Paul's justification coin, the individual aspect (sinners made right) and the communal aspect (Gentiles incorporated).

In chapter 4 ("Gospel and Empire"), perhaps one of Wright's most insightful chapters, we see that Paul was not merely an isolated Jewish Christian living in his own Jewish community. Paul lived in the Hellenistic world of the ruling Roman empire. Wright illustrates how the OT (especially Isaiah 40-55 and Daniel), some second temple Jewish writers (e.g. Wisdom of Solomon, Qumran, Baruch, Josephus), and Jesus himself (through his "kingdom theology") all leveled similar challenges against the pagan nations and their religious practices. With excellent continuity Wright explains that these challenges to idolatry are based upon his just mentioned interplay between creation and covenant: because God created the world he can challenge those who usurp his authority, and because God covenanted with Israel they are thus to announce such creational challenges to the idolatrous pagans.

As an OT-believing Jewish Christian, Paul brought similar challenges to his contemporary culture's idolatry, most notably the Caesar-cult. Wright teaches that such Pauline language of "gospel," "freedom," "justice," "peace" and "salvation" is also found within the Roman imperial cult of Caesar: the "gospel" of Caesar declared that it was the Caesar (the "lord") who would bring freedom, peace and salvation to the world, establishing justice (or "righteousness") throughout the cosmos. Paul declares that the good news ("the gospel") is actually about Jesus, the true "Lord" of the world. It is only through Jesus that freedom, peace and salvation truly exist. The justice (or "righteousness") of God is revealed not in Caesar but in Jesus, and it is only through Jesus that justice will reign in the world. According to Wright, Paul places in his letters subtle, yet at the same time quite forceful attacks against the pagan idolatry of his day.

In Section II ("Structures"), Wright teases out Paul's Messianic-Jewish theology in greater detail. Wright discusses what he considers to be the three major structures of Jewish theology: monotheism, election and eschatology. He then explains how Paul, though still agreeing with the basic structures of Jewish theology, has now reconsidered each doctrine in light of the full revelation of Jesus and the Spirit. Within each chapter (chapter 5 on Monotheism, chapter 6 on Election, chapter 7 on Eschatology), Wright helpfully structures his insights to show (1) the OT and Jewish thoughts on said topic, (2) Paul's similar thoughts yet reshaped around Jesus, (3) Paul's thoughts reshaped further around the Spirit, and (4) a combination of Paul's "fresh" exegesis of the Jewish (OT) scriptures, his engagement with his pagan targets, and his practical outworking of these new insights.

In chapter 5 ("Rethinking God"), Wright explains how Jesus and the Spirit are two "poles around which [Paul] redefine[s] the traditional Jewish doctrine of the one God" (101). Wright subtly and masterfully shows through exegesis that Paul believes in one triune God. Jesus is the revelation of this one creating and covenant keeping God. Turning to Jesus as Lord (instead of to Caesar as lord) is the proper worship of the one true God. Likewise, it is through the Spirit that God dwells with believers, and the Spirit causes even idolatrous pagans to believe this "strange" gospel of the one God revealed in a crucified Jew.

In chapter 6 ("Reworking God's People"), Wright explains how Paul "reworked" the Jewish doctrine of election around Jesus and the Spirit. It is in this chapter (basically on ecclesiology, the people of God) that Wright enters Paul's doctrine of justification. For Wright, justification is a subset of election, and it asks the questions, Who are the people of God? and How can you tell? (see p. 121). For Wright, it is not those people centered around the law (and therefore only Jews) that are God's elect. It is those people who are centered around (or "in") the Messiah through faith (therefore open to both Jews and Gentiles) who are God's people. One is not a member of the covenant family (Wright's "justified") simply by doing the "works of the law" (Wright's "boundary markers," or law-ordinances that divide Jews from everyone else: circumcision, food laws, Sabbath). One is rather a member of the covenant family ("justified") merely if he or she believes ("by faith," Wright's "badge" or proof of membership).

In chapter 7 ("Reimagining God's Future"), Wright paints for us the first-century Jewish expectation of eschatology, the future: "'Day of YHWH', 'Kingdom of God', victory over evil and pagan rulers, rescue of Israel, end of exile, the coming of the Messiah, the new Exodus, and the return of YHWH himself; and, in and through all of this, the resurrection of the dead" (135). Wright says, "That all this has now come to pass in Jesus the Messiah is a central plank in the theology of St. Paul" (135). He then traces out each of these Jewish expectations in Paul's writing (return of the king, new exodus, return from exile, etc.).

Although many scholars have stopped at tracing out Paul's reshaping of Jewish thought around Jesus, Wright rightly discusses the Spirit as well. Paul's language of the Spirit as a "down payment" is Paul's rethinking of Jewish eschatology. Ethics enters at this point, for moral behavior is not simply a following of rules from the law but a living a life in "the new age," empowered by the Spirit. Wright says, "It is Jesus' victory over death, on the one hand, and the Spirit's work within, on the other, that will make real this eschatological victory over pagan behaviour" (151).

In chapter 8 ("Jesus, Paul and the Task of the Church"), Wright's final (and perhaps best) chapter, he discusses three topics: (1) how Paul's language and mission relate to Jesus', (2) how Paul practically embodied his theology just discussed, and (3) how the church today can likewise embody Paul's theology within our 21st century context. Here Wright answers some modern critiques of Paul that say that he had departed from Jesus' teaching. He had not; he simply had a different role in God's plan. To use one of Wright's many helpful metaphors, Jesus was the composer (writing the music), and Paul was the conductor (orchestrating the application of the music in practical experience). It was not Paul's purpose to find new insights (or "write new music"), but simply to apply Jesus' to his own audience. Due to their different roles, their language will naturally be different, but they are working on the same purpose and toward the same end.

With his ongoing art of continuity, Wright introduces Paul's practical work in his contemporary culture based upon his aforementioned theology. Paul's mission was to evangelize, thus introducing this one God (monotheism redefined around Jesus and the Spirit). Paul's mission was to disciple, thus building God's people (election reworked). Paul's mission was to convince God's people of their new identity, thus encouraging the new and true humanity (eschatology reimagined).

Finally, Wright sees the task of Christians as "pioneer[ing] a way through postmodernity and out the other side, not back to modernity in its various, even in its Christian, guises, but into a new world, a new culture" (173). Wright highlights three ways to pioneer into this new world: (1) reconstruct the self (not as Modernity's egotistical and self-reliant "I," nor as Postmodernity's fluid and unreliable "I," but as a new creation rooted in the Messiah), (2) reconstruct our knowing (not as Modernity's cold and egotistical objectivity, nor of Postmodernity's total and unreliable subjectivity, but knowing through active loving, thereby affirming the objectivity and "otherness" of the one you are loving while also affirming subjectivity in the commitment you have toward the other), and (3) reconstruct the great story (not as Modernity's story of progress and enlightenment, nor as Postmodernity's story of how a grand narrative is simply a "power-play" that is attempting to "snatch the high ground and rule other stories out of consideration," but as a biblical story of the practical and powerful love of God in Christ Jesus' cross). These three ways to "pioneer" through our culture into the new world are summarized by Wright as a "dangerous and exhilarating task of being, knowing and telling" (174).



A number of things are highly commendable in Wright's newest addition to the world of biblical studies: Paul: In Fresh Perspective. First, it is very helpful, indeed crucial, to see the similarities between Paul and his Jewish upbringing and theological setting. Wright has seen striking similarities between certain Jewish structures and Paul's own teaching. These observations give us an historical depth to our understanding of Paul's theology. Likewise, Wright's description of Paul within the interactive three-fold context (Judaism, Hellenism, Messiah) is helpful.

Second, Wright believes in a God who is "passionately involved and compassionately committed" to his creation (86). Wright believes that Jesus is the rightful Lord of the universe. He is clear that worship should only be to the one God through Jesus by the Spirit. Sins are forgiven only in Jesus through his historical cross and resurrection. Because Jesus is the revelation of God, Wright reflects that "the cross of Jesus the Messiah stands at the heart of Paul's vision of the one true God" (96). Wright follows Jesus and seeks to engage and challenge our contemporary world just as Jesus and Paul engaged and challenged their own. According to Wright, a stand should be taken for Jesus and no other god or idol.

Third, the ground from which Wright launches such challenges is the Bible. In fact, one great quality of Wright is that he cares about and deals with the text of Scripture as it is. (He has even begun to reopen to the scholarly world the "unauthentic" letters of Paul and to critique some of the liberal assumptions about form-criticism and authorship). Whether at the end of the day one agrees or disagrees with Wright's conclusions is a slightly different matter; he is focused upon the text. Wright also cares more about what Scripture says than what church traditions have said. We must be wise, for the beliefs and interpretations of the historical church are very important. The Spirit of God has been involved. But it is refreshing when someone says, "Even if tradition has been pointing south, I still think Scripture points north; I will go north until I am proven wrong from the Scriptures." Even if we end up disagreeing with some (or many) of Wright's premises, arguments, exegeses and conclusions (and we will briefly critique some of each below), it is refreshing to hear a voice say something like, "Here I stand, I can do no other." Christian charity should note and appreciate such an attitude as Wright has demonstrated time and again, and grace and love should be reflected even as we now question some of Wright's understandings of the Word of God spoken through Paul.

Negatives: Some Broad Critiques

As was the purpose of his entire book, Wright reorganizes our thoughts about Paul based upon Jewish categories and theology. As Wright himself says, "it is of course vital to ground Paul not simply in the scriptures but in the traditions of his own day" (90). Many of Wright's descriptions of certain words and ideas are given under the rubric of "what a Jew would most naturally think when hearing/using this word." This could be fine, although it needs to be analyzed. Wright is right that Paul did not function in a vacuum. But Wright assumes a number of things about second temple Judaism without even contemplating (at least within the pages of his book) whether they are themselves biblical.

Wright says that they missed the fact that the OT spoke of the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And Wright says that Israel failed in their God-given mission to be a light to the Gentiles. But the basic tenets of Judaism, according to Wright, are assumed to be the proper interpretation of the OT Scriptures. But what if the Jews had an unbiblical view of sin (as had their forefathers within the OT)? If such were the case, to attribute to Paul the Jewish understanding of sin would actually be harmful to our understanding of Paul's theology What if Jews had an unbiblical view of dikaiosune theou ("the righteousness of God")? This would change a lot of Wright's assumptions of Paul's use of the idea. To use one last example, Wright does not seem to see a difference between the Jewish and the Christian understanding of grace. (This is one of the commonalities, and perhaps hallmarks, of the "new perspective" theologians). Wright does not discuss any kind of challenge that Paul levels against the Jewish understanding of grace. Yet is it not true that Paul not only contrasts the Jewish "works" with "faith," but also contrasts their "works" with "grace" itself (i.e. Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6)?

Some Particular Critiques

First, Wright has redefined much of Paul's language. "Righteousness" is different than we ever thought; "the righteousness of God" has been redefined; "faith in Christ" is different; "Christ's obedience" is different. The list could go on. A potential danger exists in Wright's redefinitions. Most of Wright's "stories" are biblical. He is just getting them from texts and terms that have never before given precisely those stories, and he is not getting the "stories" that those texts have given the church for much of her history. Is this good or bad? Wright often asks his readers to rethink old passages in new, or "fresh," ways. The positive side to this tendency is that it is easy for scholars and lay interpreters of the Bible to get stuck in exegetical ruts, pulling familiar doctrines from passages that have similar language to the doctrine but may not actually be expressing the beloved doctrine. The negative side to Wright's tendency is that he often falls into the exact same pit from a different angle. Wright often gets a certain doctrine from a passage that almost says what Wright says, but not quite. Due to Wright's emphasis on narrative thought, he often glosses over many details of a passage for the sake of the overall thrust (again, Wright's "story" or "narrative"), and then redefines the terms accordingly. Yet often it is the very details of the passage that would challenge Wright's stories. He has over-simplified many Paul's passages. Reading Wright, I am frequently left thinking, "The story he just told is biblical enough, but is that actually what this text says?"

Second, what is the gospel? Is Jesus just the Lord, or a savior too? Wright places a heavy emphasis on Jesus' lordship. Naturally this is not a negative emphasis. The problem comes in that it is only a small amount that he accentuates Christ's savior-ship. He does mention Christ as savior, to be true, but even here it is typically Jesus' ultimate salvation from oppression (of sin and injustice) that Wright discusses. Very rarely does Wright discuss the notion of salvation from the personal guilt of sin. Wright does mention the importance of the forgiveness of sin, thus assuming sin's guilt. The notion of guilt cannot be said to be absent from Wright's thinking, nor from his writing.

It is always dangerous to critique someone for not discussing a theological aspect enough, for author's have certain reasons for their emphases that their readers do not always see or understand. But, such an important notion as Jesus' salvation from the guilt of sin does seem to be more absent in Wright's "Pauline theology" than in Paul's. It could be said that in Romans 1-5, for instance, Paul deals mainly with sin as guilt (notice Paul's discussion of wrath, moral failure and disobedience) and that in Romans 6-8 Paul deals mainly with sin as power (notice Paul's language of freedom and slavery). (It is interesting, even vital, to note that Paul's discussion of "justification" and "righteousness" is embedded not within Romans 6-8 but within Romans 1-5). The least we can say as we critique Wright on this important point is this: in a book with the purpose of introducing us to Paul's theology it would be helpful to have a stronger (and Pauline) emphasis upon Jesus' salvation from the guilt of sin. Could this diminution be connected to an uncritical acceptance of certain Jewish doctrines (such as sin and grace)?

Third, and finally, it is commendable that Wright wishes to take the best from both the "new perspective" and the "traditional" views, specifically within the doctrine of justification by faith. The NPP stresses well the inclusion of the Gentiles, the traditionalists stress well the sinner made right. Wright therefore says that justification is the sinner declared right, that is, declared to be in the covenant (within the people of God) having his sins forgiven. See, Wright incorporates both. Or does he? Wright still largely defines justification according to the setting of Paul's use, inclusion into God's people. This is still a NPP hermeneutical move (which does not make it wrong in itself), but a move that does not seem to do justice to Paul's actual language of justification.

Perhaps traditionalists and NPP advocates can take each others' insights in a different way. Perhaps the NPP has been right to point out the communal setting of much of Paul's justification language. But perhaps the traditionalists have been right to point out the individual meaning of Paul's justification language. Perhaps Paul means that justification is the making of a sinner right in God's eyes--justification being about how God treats an individual--and then Paul applies this principle to how humans (specifically Jewish Christians) should treat other humans (specifically Gentile Christians). The best of both worlds?


Paul grew up Jewish. Paul continued to read, believe and apply the Jewish Scripture. Paul's teaching certainly interacted with the Jewish theolog(ies) of his time. He was constantly in both implicit and explicit "dialogue" with fellow readers of the same scriptural texts. But how Jewish was Paul? How much of his theological heritage did Paul take, and how much did he critique, challenge and change? How much did his conversion affect his understanding of his Jewish Scripture and theology? More study needs to be done. For the moment, Wright has just presented a masterful presentation of some basic Jewish themes and structures that Paul took and reshaped around Jesus and the Spirit. Wright has illustrated how Paul used such themes to challenge his contemporary culture, and he has in turn challenged us, the modern church, to take up Paul's mantle with courage. Regardless of our own answers to the questions raised by Wright's work, he is certainly Pauline in this challenge to us. Will we have the courage to stand up for the one God revealed in Jesus, courage to grow and defend the people of God, and courage to participate in the recreative work of God through Jesus and the Spirit?

N.T. Wright - Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005
Review by Jonathan Worthington