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What Saint Paul Really Said Book Review

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The critique should include an introduction that locates Wright in contemporary Pauline scholarship, a description (in point form) of the key issues raised by Wright, an assessment of how Wright supports his case, and – as a conclusion – whether his argument and methodology will make a difference to how you read Paul.

The text What St Paul Really Said, written by NT Wright, explores Paul’s intention of writing as opposed to common understandings and interpretations. Although on a surface level Paul’s texts are sometimes thought to be easy reading, they are quite often difficult to understand at a deeper level, especially when one does not consider their cultural context. In this regard, Wright makes a clear attempt to correct many of the contradictory and misinterpreted concepts from Paul’s work.

Along with other scholars such as James Dunn, NT Wright fits within a group known as the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul (Thompson 2002, p. 11) This group is known for its fresh understanding on certain aspects of Paul’s thought, particularly its views on the doctrine of justification (discussed below) and first-century Judaism, and has caused considerable controversy amongst other Christians, particularly those who hold to more tradition perspectives. However, although various authors are all termed ‘New Perspective’, there are probably as many ‘New Perspectives’ as there are group members, as each has distinctive contributions to Pauline theology (ibid., p. 12).

Specifically this paper will consider justification (and the actual meaning of the term) and the three different types of languages used when talking about justification: covenant language, law-court language and eschatological language. The paper will also be discussing Wright’s opinion on the death of Jesus and how its occurrence has actually transformed this current age in which we live in, into the ‘age to come’. Justification
According to Wright, too often today Christians misunderstand what justification means in Pauline usage. According to historian Alister McGrath, the term “has come to develop a meaning quite independent of its biblical origins, and concerns the means by which man’s relationship to God is established” (Wright 1997, p. 117). This becomes highly significant as we read the New Testament. Wright argues that in the book of Romans when Paul mentions justification he does not actually use “justification” in the sense in which we commonly take it, and for hundreds of years this book has been misunderstood by many and “has done violence to the text” (ibid.). In order to correct this misunderstanding, Wright argues for a threefold position concerning justification language in Paul: firstly that it is covenant language, secondly law-court language, and lastly eschatological language (ibid.).

Covenant language
Wright says: “when Paul speaks about justification he is operating within the whole world of thought of second-temple Judaism, which clung onto the covenant promises in the face of increasingly difficult political circumstances” (Wright 1997, p. 117). Two things are to be said about this, the first being that this metaphor of justification is essential for understanding what the covenant was all about. Wright states that the covenant was there to put the world to rights, “to deal with evil and to restore God’s justice and order to the cosmos”. Second, Paul’s use of justification language can never be separate from the covenant setting: it cannot be made into a self-supporting concept on its own without doing damage to both itself and to the fundamental meaning of the covenant (Wright 1997, p. 117). In Paul, Wright sees the closest connection between ‘justification’ and ‘covenant.’

Law-court language
Throughout his book Wright constantly comes back to this law-court term of justification. Justification, as Wright puts it, is a law-court term: “in its Jewish context it refers to the greatest lawsuit of all: that which will take place on the great day when the true God judges all the nations” (Wright 1997, p. 33). In other words justification refers to the coming great act of redemption and salvation. According to Wright it was vital in underlying the meaning of the covenant, which was there in the first place to deal with the sin of the world (ibid.).

Eschatological language
As the above point suggested, Wright stresses the fact that one cannot understand justification except through eschatology. “It is Pauline worldview in which the creator of the world has acted, uniquely, climatically and decisively, in Jesus Christ, for the rescue of the entire cosmos, and is now, by His Spirit, bringing all things into subjection to this Jesus” (Wright 1997, p. 118). This essentially means that we are not to relate to a past event of salvation alone, but also to a present and a future event. Justification is the present-day declaration of who will be God’s people in the final day, based on the past redemptive action of Jesus Christ. Therefore justification is as much about the future deliverance of God’s people as it is about the past (Thompson 2002, p. 12).

The return from exile
Throughout his works, Paul explains that Christ had experienced death and has overcome it. We come to see that Paul understands this as a continuation of the biblical grand narrative. When mentioned in Ezekiel 37, resurrection was to be understood as a metaphor for the return of Israel from exile. We see that after Paul was faced with Jesus’ death and resurrection, he concludes that Jesus’ resurrection was actually the return from exile (Wright 1997, p. 51). Unlike Sanders, Wright understands Paul as working the problem down to the solution. However, Wright argues that the covenant people in the time of Paul believed that even though they had returned to inhabit the promised land, they still remained in a state of exile, waiting for God’s decisive action to restore his chosen ones and set things right. This aspect of Wright’s thought has also caused controversy, with certain scholars doubting it on the grounds that Paul seems to make scant reference to it in his letters (Thompson 2002, p. 12).

One of the most interesting things that struck me was the fact that Paul was a Jew! Although coming to understand that Jesus as the Messiah, he was still in his thinking a Jew. We can see this in Romans 10:2 where he states, “For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.” Here he clearly writes of his fellow Jews in a manner which ‘undoubtedly carries autobiographical overtones’ (Wright 1997 p. 25). I believe that when one comes to understand this in reading Paul we then come to understand the history of the text which leads to its correct interpretation. Paul was a Jew, and appreciating the Jewish background is of utmost importance for correctly reading his letters. This in itself made me think to how Jewish we as Christians are, and to conclude in order to understand a Jewish writer (Paul), we must in ourselves think and read the text as a Jew would.


Thompson, MB 2002, The New Perspective on Paul, Grove Books Ltd, Cambridge, UK.

Wright, T 1997, What St Paul really said, Lion Books, UK.

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