Here We Are, Slaves to This Day: A Review of “Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright” Edited by James M. Scott

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

At their best, good conversations are lively, wide-ranging, and sometimes even surprising. They push us to consider ideas from new angles and hammer out with fresh clarity why we see things the way we do. It’s not always easy to find these kinds of discussions, but the essays that make up Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright demonstrate for the most part what thoughtful scholarly discussion is meant to look like. The contributors are generally successful at avoiding the twin pitfalls of uncritical acceptance and blunt rejection in their responses to N.T. Wright’s influential (and controversial) proposal regarding the notion of ongoing exile as an influential “controlling narrative” for many Second Temple Jews and early Jesus followers (8).

The book opens with a lengthy essay by Wright himself giving a fresh articulation of his thesis. He delves into passages like Deuteronomy 27-33, with its sequence of sin-exile-restoration, and the great prayers of Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 9, as well as other literature from the Second Temple period like the Dead Sea Scrolls, all in order to demonstrate that many Jews saw themselves as continuing to live in a state of exile, even though a large number of them had geographically returned to the land of Israel (21-22). Turning to his critics, Wright asks:

Would any serious-thinking first-century Jew claim that the promises of Isaiah 40-66, or of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Zechariah, had been fulfilled? That the power and domination of paganism had been broken? That YHWH had already returned to Zion? That the covenant had been renewed and Israel’s sins forgiven?… Or—in other words—that the exile was really over? (35)

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Understanding Paul’s Identity: A Review of Michael F. Bird’s “An Anomalous Jew”

michael-bird-paulAn Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird’s newly published addition to the field of Pauline scholarship, begins with the obvious: the Apostle Paul was a Jew. Paul was born into a Jewish family and spent his early years studying the Torah. As he grew older, he became a Pharisee, and according to both Luke’s description in Acts and Paul’s own words in Galatians, he worked actively to eradicate the young Christian movement before himself becoming a follower of Jesus.

In the introduction, Bird draws attention to the fact that, even as a Christ-believer working among the Gentiles, Paul expressed concern for his “kindred according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3, NRSV) and affirmed the value of Israel’s election and covenants (p.2). In sum, the man was deeply Jewish. What makes the issue complicated, though, is that Paul also said some things that, as Bird puts it, “no Torah-affirming Jew could seemingly say” (p.3). Continue reading

What Does Worship Really Look Like?

forest-cottageWhen it comes to Christian worship, no shortage of images come to mind. Scenes both somber and vibrant. Sounds that can range from choral melodies to enthusiastic folk rhythms, depending on the stream of Christian tradition. All of these can emerge when the Church gathers together for worship—and that’s just in regards to music, much less other worship practices. For me, all of this brings up a larger question: what exactly is worship?

This is a question that has received a variety of responses. Therefore, it isn’t too surprising to find Andrew McGowan explain in Ancient Christian Worship that worship often means different things to different people in many Christian churches today (2014, p.2). For some, it refers to things like “communal prayer and ritual,” while for others it expresses something more like a deeply personal feeling of belief and inward orientation towards life. For still others, worship basically denotes a kind of Christian music (p.2). Continue reading

Do Paul’s Letters Have a Narrative Substructure? A Review of “Narrative Dynamics in Paul”

narrative dynamics in paulIn 1980, J.C. Beker declared in Paul the Apostle that, “Paul is a man of the proposition, the argument and the dialogue, not a man of the parable or story” (p.352). At the time, he was far from the only one who took that as an assumed position. A few short years after those words were written, though, the winds of change began to blow.

Over the last few decades, significant parts of Pauline scholarship have drawn enthusiastically from the field of literary theory, resulting in an increased amount of attention being given to the evocative ways in which Paul’s language engages with and alludes to earlier biblical narratives, among other things.  Continue reading

New Creation in John’s Gospel

st mary's episcopal church

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church of the Frescoes in West Jefferson, NC. Author’s photo.

New creation. It’s one of Paul’s more vivid ways of describing what has come about because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection from the grave. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he told them, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17 NRSV). 

In one of N.T. Wright’s books on Pauline theology, he argues that for Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection not only marked the decisive defeat of sin and death, but also accomplished nothing less than the launching of God’s long-awaited renewal of creation (2009, pp.34-38). Now of course, emphasizing new creation in Paul doesn’t necessarily entail minimizing justification or other important Pauline doctrines. Instead, the task is to integrate them. The same man who declared that Christ personally “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 NRSV) was also able to step back and, considering the accomplishments of Christ on a larger scale, write, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19 NRSV). 

Investigating the myriad of ways in which new creation fits into the larger whole of Pauline theology would be intriguing, but we are going to dwell this time on a slightly different, and maybe more interesting topic: is new creation a New Testament theme or merely a Pauline one? In order to begin developing something of an answer to this question, we are going to spend most of our time in the Gospel of John, a poetic and vivid text that at first blush bears little resemblance to Paul and his letters. Continue reading

Why Growing up in Christ Matters

plants*A version of this essay previously appeared at Theologues.com (RIP)

In much of Christian culture, a lot of attention gets paid to the need for people to reach a moment of decision and place their faith in Jesus, to be “born again.” This isn’t surprising. After all, beginnings matter, and birth is essential. Jesus Himself used birth as a metaphor during his conversation with Nicodemus early on in John’s Gospel. Jesus told him that in order to see the kingdom of God he needed to be “born from above” (NRSV) or “born again” (NIV). Later on in the same chapter, Jesus also (famously) told him that, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16 NRSV).

So yes, repentance and initial belief in Christ are important, and I don’t want to minimize that. However, I also don’t want to end with that part of the story. New birth in Christ is supposed to lead into the long, painful, and beautiful process of growing up. In his 2010 book, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ, Eugene Peterson notes that the twin metaphors of spiritual birth and growth aren’t meant to stand apart; one is supposed to flow into the other (p.3). However it seems that, in some quarters at least, so much emphasis gets put on making sure people get “saved” that the task of walking with them as they grow to maturity in Christ can be treated like something of an afterthought, and that isn’t healthy. Continue reading

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. Continue reading