Studies in Galatians Episode I: N.T. Wright on Messiahship

galatians and christian theologyIn the summer of 2012, an assorted group of Pauline specialists and other scholars, including people like John Barclay, Richard Hays, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, gathered at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for a conference on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Out of this gathering came Galatians and Christian Theology, an edited volume of the papers given at the meeting.

These essays are divided into three broad categories: Justification, Gospel, and Ethics (pp.x-xi). Over the next few months, we will be periodically exploring a few of the more interesting essays from each of these sections, even as we continue to dive into other books. For now, let’s turn to our first essay, N.T. Wright’s “Messiahship in Galatians?”

It may strike some as odd, but the importance of Jesus’ messiahship in Galatians has long been minimized by certain parts of Pauline studies. These scholars assume that when Paul uses the word Christos in regards to Jesus, it functions basically as a proper name, emptied of most, if not all, messianic content (p.3). Wright rhetorically takes the view of these writers and asks, “Why… would this letter, warning Paul’s gentile converts against the attractions of Judaism, make use of such an obviously Jewish notion as messiahship?” (p.3). As one might expect, Wright intends to show that Jesus’ messiahship actually occupies a central place in Galatians.

He begins to make his case by pointing out how surprising it would be for messiahship to be missing from Galatians, given its overall prominence in early Christian writings:

[T]he idea of Jesus as Messiah was alive and well, actively not merely presuppositionally, in every other form of Christianity we know in the first century, including the Gospels, Acts, Hebrews, Revelation, and also the apostolic fathers. Some who suggest that Paul must have abandoned messianic belief as irrelevant or even repellent to the wider gentile world do not seem to notice that the same should then be true for Luke, or John, or Ignatius of Antioch, and it obviously is not. (pp.4-5)

Wright finds “the widespread and diverse Jewish practice of retelling the single ancient biblical story” to be an important piece of historical context for understanding Galatians (p.5). Whether we look at the covenantal narrative of Deuteronomy 27-30, Psalm 105, or prophetic literature like Ezra 9 and Daniel 2-9,  he argues that we can find the same basic story being told from richly different perspectives (pp.5-6). Wright claims that, “Works such as the Animal Apocalypse in 1 Enoch and the historical visions of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch tell the same story from different angles, as do some of the Qumran documents” (p.6).

This is not to deny the wide array of differences between these retellings. Wright acknowledges that, “There is no standard model” (p.6). Nevertheless, he does think there is a fundamental pattern common to most of them. As he puts it, “Ancient Judaism regularly told its story in terms of persistent failure and God’s fresh redemptive actions” (p.6). The Abrahamic covenant, for example, was often invoked during the time period in order to help sustain continued trust in God’s gracious purposes when the historical picture otherwise appeared depressingly bleak. More importantly for the topic of messiahship in Galatians, Wright thinks that:

[T]hese stories frequently point forward to a coming climactic figure, and that figure is often, admittedly not always, messianic: the warrior king in the Psalms of Solomon, the lion in 4 Ezra… arguably also the large white bull in the Animal Apocalypse, and not least the world ruler who, in first-century readings of Daniel, would arise from Judea… Not all Israel stories climax with a Messiah. Not all Messiahs, when they are there, look alike. But all Messiah narratives come at the point where an implicit Israel narrative is being resolved. (p.6)

Keeping this in mind, we can see that in Galatians 3-4 Paul is also retelling Israel’s story, with Christos being the one who both enabled the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and accomplished the long-awaited, new exodus of God’s people (p.13). Wright notes that, while reading any other Second Temple period text, “if we found a passage promising a new exodus and highlighting the role of one man as instrumental in bringing it about, this would probably be the Messiah” (p.11). There is no reason not to reach the same conclusion in Galatians. Given that Paul makes similar (and greater) claims about Christos, referring to Jesus, Wright declares that “it is ridiculous to say that he [Paul] did not mean the word [Christos] to carry this meaning, or that this meaning was merely residual but theologically irrelevant” (p.11).

Turning to the second part of his essay, Wright seeks to show that in Galatians, Christos (in addition to having messianic significance) functions as “the vehicle for Paul’s incorporative or participatory vision of the people of God” (p.14). This epistle contains some of the most prominent “in Christ” imagery in all of Paul’s letters, especially in passages like Galatians 3:24-29. Unlike Romans 3, which uses a juridical framework to discuss the justification of believers on the basis of faith in Christ, Galatians 3:24-29 speaks of this subject “in terms of incorporation into Christos, as a result of which believers are said to be ‘sons of God’ (3:26)” (p.15). This participatory language regarding believers’ identity “in Christ” is especially striking in verses 28-29:

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (NRSV)

In Wright’s eyes, these verses make two central claims, both incorporative, and both “having Christos as the focus of that incorporation” (p.15). First, the distinctions of Jew and Greek, slave and free, and even the duality of male and female have become in one way or another relativized because now “all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Because of this new incorporative identity possessed by believers, Paul is telling his Galatian audience that the old ethnic divisions of table fellowship and the exclusively male rite of circumcision must be left behind as distinctive markers of God’s people. According to Wright:

Paul’s whole argument has been that the Galatian Christians are already part of the family of Abraham. He has made the point by telling the story from Abraham to the present, from one angle after another, always bringing that great biblical narrative to its goal in terms of Christos. (p.15)

How does this theme of incorporation “in Christ” actually play out in Paul’s understanding? For Wright, the answer is obvious. Christos (who is Jesus), represents and sums up his people in himself. Wright contends that, “When God looks at the Christos, he sees all who belong to him, who have come ‘into him’ in baptism… and who, in particular, have died and risen with him” (p.18). Near the end of the essay, Wright persuasively pulls together the various threads of his argument into a concluding pièce de résistance:

When… we meet at the same moment (1) a Christos in and through whom God’s eschatological rescuing purposes are effected and (2) a Christos in whom God’s people participate and are summed up, one who is the sperma Abraam, in whom his people become “inheritors” of the promise, we are entitled to declare our own QED. It is because Jesus is the anointed king of Israel that he thus represents and incorporates the single family of Abraham. Messiahship is central, and theologically load bearing, for the entire argument. (p.21)

Thus, to treat Christos in Galatians as merely a proper name for Jesus is to miss crucial aspects of Paul’s conception of the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the Galatian believers.

Reading “Messiahship in Galatians?” was a refreshing mental exercise, touching as it does upon so many central theological themes and important historical contexts. I’m persuaded by Wright’s portrayal of the significance of messiahship for Paul (imagine that). Additionally, though, I found his section on the relationship between Jesus’ identity as Christos and our incorporative identity “in Christ” to also be stimulating. Discussions about the relative place and importance of “juridical” versus “participationist” understandings of salvation will continue, as they should, but I want to end by quoting one of Wright’s concluding passages, with which I deeply resonated:

[T]here is after all no distinction in Paul’s mind between two types of thinking, ‘juridical’ on the one hand, and “participationist” on the other. Just as those other false polarizations, “covenant” and “apocalyptic,” belong firmly together, so when Paul speaks of being “justified in Christ,” we should take him at his word. “Participation,” for Paul, is ecclesiological, containing within it the juridical soteriology that Paul develops elsewhere. And all is messianic.” (p.23)


One thought on “Studies in Galatians Episode I: N.T. Wright on Messiahship

  1. Pingback: Studies in Galatians Episode II: John Barclay on the Social Dimensions of God’s Gift in Christ | Tabletalk Theology

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