How does an apocalyptic reading of Paul differ from Wright’s?
A friend asked this question online, so I gave it a stab in the comments.
For me, at the level of methodology, apocalyptic readings do at least four things which are less obvious (though not absent) in Wright. It is late here, so in the morning I may remember that I have left out one or two important points, but indulge me. And of course, I am aware that “apocalyptic” does not designate a unified “school”. It has also developed considerably over the years. So I here think primarily of Martyn, de Boer, Gaventa, Campbell and such like.
1) In apocalyptic readings there is a greater focus on the contingent historical particularity of Pauline communities, and related to this, discussion of the character and theology of Paul’s opponents.
2) They work with a more inductive, letter focused reading of Paul, before they play with wider narratives. Though they certainly do not necessarily discount those narratives, be they Jewish or imperial “backstories”. These matters are, however, read in light of the network of themes and language within Paul’s letters. This is of course related to the next point.
3) An apocalyptic reading endorses a retrospective epistemology. For example, it makes sure that the “problem” addressed by Paul is disclosed by the “solution”, even if its explanation is not exhausted in those terms. Wright sometimes comes close to endorsing apocalyptic concerns in theory, but at least in practice things work differently, and “backstory” themes here dominate his reading of Paul.
4) An apocalyptic reading is likewise subject-matter or ontology orientated. For example, it will claim that historical-critical work is necessary (see point 1), but it is not sufficient. Divine ontology (understood in Trinitarian categories) impinges on the purpose, nature and method of reading Paul. In this way, they are deeply historical in their methods, yet at the same time they resist historicist tendencies. “Revelation is not a predicate of history, but history is a predicate of revelation” (Karl Barth), and this means reading Paul also involves attending to a lively Word of personal address.
To be clear, Wright also works with a trinitarian theological vision, he speaks of Paul “reimagining” and “rethinking” this or that Jewish “backstory” in light of Christ, he details, in hundreds of pages, historically orientated contextual issues, and he exegetes wide swathes of Paul’s letters. I am aware of all this. Nevertheless, this all tends to play into Wright’s main focus, namely wider narrative concerns that are of hermeneutical import.
So, largely irrespective of contingent particularities (1 above), the network of overlapping themes in Paul (2 above), and the implicit ontological claims a reading generates (4 above), Wright will exegete Gal 3:1-5 in terms of a purported "Exodus narrative", and linguistic links at this level will be elevated in his exegesis (and this is where 3 above plays a role).
Naturally, there are other key disagreements concerning specific themes in Paul, though not as many as some might think. Of particular importance in scholarly discussion is the different way both evil and justification language are presented by Wright, on the one hand, and apocalyptic readings on the other.