Thoughts on Part I, Paul & the Faithfulness of God: Flipping the Bird at the Ancient World

Having waited years for the release of N.T. Wright’s major ‘Paul book,’ I’ve been pleased that, for me, it is living up to the hype. I have only finished part one (which is midway through book one of this volume). I have had plenty of ‘geek out’ moments along the way. I love the structure of the book.

Wright has organized his book into a chiasm which I think is  absolutely brilliant for exploring Paul: Part I introduces Paul’s world, Part II describes his mindset, Part III, his theology, Part IV places Paul in his World. Additionally, each of these sections is divided by the inclusion of poems by Michael O’Siadhail which illuminate the themes.At the close of Part I, is  O’Siadhail’s poem Collection:

Earlier three birds on a tree

But now only one

Imagine swoops of homing rooks

As evening tumbles in

Cawing and wheeling to gather

In skeleton brances

With nodes of old nest blackening

Into the roosting night.

 

Treetop colony

A rookery congregates.

Dusky assemblage.

 

Whatever instinct makes us hoard,

A desire to amass

Toys, dolls, marbles, bird’s-nests and eggs

We fondle and brood on

Or how we’d swoop like rooks to nab

Spiky windfalls stamping Open their milky husks to touch,

Smooth marvels of chestnut.

The collector’s dream

To feel, to caress, to keep.

A bird in the hand. (348)

 

I have no idea how O’Siadhail’s poetry functions later in the book, but this poem gives Wright an organizing image for presenting us the ancient world. After opening this book with an exploration of the book of Philemon (Wright’s own entry into Paul’s world when he was five. I am pretty sure when I was five, I was more enamored with The Little Engine That Could), Wright examines Paul’s Jewish context, his Greek philosophical context, his Roman religious context and his imperial context.  While Paul’s Jewish context does not have a named bird–it is the Spirit that broods here–the other three contexts each of an avian signifier: The Athenian Owl, the Cock for Asclepius, and the Eagle of Empire.

Part I is laying the ground for what Wright will do in the rest of the book. Wright’s exploration of Philemon illuminates how Paul was bound by his context and yet subverts many of the prevailing cultural values (i.e. he doesn’t overturn slavery but he does give dignity to Onesimus). Wrights exploration of Paul’s Jewish context, brings into sharper focus his discussion of the Pharisees in The New Testament & the People of God. The three birds of philosophy, religion and empire will each play apart in Paul’s articulation of the gospel. Wright is a good historian and most of his claims here are not particularly controversial. He is careful to say that the Pharisees were more than theological legalists (they were sincere believers in covenant trying to navigate occupied territory). The Greek-philosophical context illuminates points of contact with Paul, especially the similarity between some of his ethical claims, and that of the Stoics. Wright describes the religious landscape as both ‘pluralist’ and highly traditional. The public rites were expected and ‘new religions’ which challenged the status-quo would bring you into conflict with the wider culture. The Roman imperial context both allowed the free spread of the Gospel and represented a challenge: Jesus was Lord, which means Caesar is not. Also Paul’s background as a Pharisee already means he was formed by his opposition to the Empire.

This sets the stage for what Wright will say in the rest of the book (I’ve only sketched a few of themes that Wright explores here). Wright argues that for Paul, earlier there were three birds on a tree/ but now there is only one. While this is a book which describes Paul’s theological genius, it was Jesus that flips over these ancient birds. Wright says in the conclusion to this section:

The birds had hovered over Israel all those years had seen the story through. Instead of the wise owls of Athens, a descendant of Solomon would come who would see in the dark and bring hidden truth to light.  Instead of the sacrificial cock offered to Asclepius, a sacrifice had occured which, upstaging even the ancient cult and priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple, would bring healing at every level. Instead of the eagle with its talons and claws, Jesus summoned people to  a different kind of empire: peacemaking, mercy, humility and passion for genuine and restorative justice (346).

I look forward to how parts II-IV describe how Paul brought the news of this Jesus to the ancient world. Earlier three birds on a tree, but now there is only one (the three-in-one).  This book is so much fun!

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