Paul’s Last Days: a book review

Scholars debate the center of Paul’s theology. Protestant Reformers saw ‘Justification by faith’ as their hermeneutical key. The Tubingen theory (from F.C. Baur et al.) posited a dialectic between Paul’s message of  ‘justification by faith’ with Peter’s ‘justification by faith plus the works of the Torah.’ A Third hypothesis reads a shift in Paul–from Judaism to Hellenistic religion. A fourth possibility is that Paul’s theology is ‘Jewish eschatology but in a revised form’ (14-16). This is the position that C. Marvin Pate argues for in Apostle of the Last Days: the Life, Letters and Theology of Paul-. 

There have been varying eschatological constructs for understanding the New Testament (Jesus and Paul). “Consistent Eschatology” argues for a wholly futurist understanding of ‘last days.’ At the other extreme, a “Realized Eschatology” argues that the Kingdom of God has already come in the person and mission of Jesus Christ. A mediating position, is “Inaugurated Eschatology.” This view acknowledges both that Jesus’ mission and life announced the Kingdom, but it has not come in its fullness. It is now, but not yet. Pate argues that this best describes the Apostle Paul’s apocolypticism (19).

However the genesis of Pate’s approach is his observation of a clash of eschatologies between Paul and his opponents.  Apostle of the Last Days examines the Pauline epistles and the issues that Paul addressed, While Paul had an ‘inaugurated eschatology’ with Jesus’ death and resurrection at the center, his opponents clung to diverse, eschatological hopes. The Imperial cult, Hellenistic religion and Jewish Merkabah Mysticism (sometimes in a Christian variety) had different  versions of a  realized eschatology. Non-Christian, non-merkbah Judaism had a consistent eschatology, which awaited God’s future (political) deliverance. The Christian Judaizers had an inaugurated eschatology, but by giving weight to the Mosaic tradition they downplayed Jesus’ significance.

In part one of this book, Pate walks through each of the epistles and shows how Paul answered each of these opponents and the way he expressed his own eschatological hope. Part two examines Paul’s theology in systematic categories with an eye towards how Paul’s eschatology shapes his thinking about God.

This is a good book. Pate’s eschatological read of Paul (and his opponents) illuminates his epistles. Paul’s Christological hope was grounded in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and Paul awaited a future reality where Christ returns to put the world to rights. So there is a lot that is fruitful here. Pate walks through the entire Pauline corpus. I found I didn’t always agree with his handling of individual passages and was occasionally bothered by a supercessionist tone which described ‘the Old Testament’ as ‘works righteousness’ and faith and Jesus as the gift of grace. There is a greater continuity between testaments than Pate allows. God’s choice of Israel was not rooted in merit, but in Divine pleasure. Yet  I appreciated his analysis.

Eschatology is a word which many of us are wary of. Certainly there has been an unhealthy fascination with what Christ return will look like (and who ‘the beast’ is). Nevertheless I appreciate Pate’s description of Paul’s eschatological hope. This book contributes to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Paul’s gospel. Anyone wishing to deepen their understanding of the Pauline Epistles will benefit from Pate’s walk-through. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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!