Monday, March 23, 2015

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.


At 3/23/2015 2:10 AM, Anonymous whitefrozen said...

So how much would Wright really differ from (1), since he situated his discussions of Paul comfortably within his history context -indeed, emphasising Paul's historical context to a degree that a lot of his opponents don't like?

At 3/23/2015 2:22 AM, Anonymous whitefrozen said...

I suppose what I'm wondering might be better phrases - Wright's understanding of the historical contingency of Pauline communities is such that it's informed by his narrative ideas - the historical contingency can't be separated from the narrative aspects, in other words. Wouldn't this be a fuller understanding of historical contingency that sees said contingency as situated *in* a particular narrative?

At 3/23/2015 10:55 AM, Anonymous Andrew Perriman said...

Chris, isn't the problem here that Martyn, et al., are working with a theological rather than a historical definition of “apocalyptic”? To my way of thinking, a biblical-apocalyptic reading begins with the assumption of an overarching story about the foreseen vindication of God and considers how the contingencies addressed in the letters of Paul work on that assumption. The problem is the solution: the name of Israel’s God is held in contempt among the nations; therefore, he will act to vindicate his name—by judging and restoring his people, by judging the pagan nations, etc. There is no theoretical distinction between the historical and the ontological: God is what he does. Call that historicist, if you like, but I don’t think Barth’s dictum makes much sense in New Testament terms. Wright seems to me to want to have his cake and eat it—he hovers between the historical and the theological definitions of apocalyptic. Campbell’s approach in the end fails to get to grips with historical perspective.


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