#38—N.T. Wright on Paul and His Recent Interpreters [MIPodcast]
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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. In this episode I’m joined by N. T. Wright, a prolific New Testament scholar who recently completed a massive sixteen-hundred-page study on Paul. He joined me on Skype from the University of St. Andrews where he serves as research professor of New Testament and early Christianity. Some people have called him the C. S. Lewis of our times, and while Wright is a more detailed scholar of the New Testament than Lewis ever was, that comparison mainly speaks to Wright’s skill at making technical, academic, or theological stuff understandable around the dinner table.
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HODGES: N. T. Wright is one of the most prolific New Testament scholars of our time. He’s a former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. Now, a research Professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews. He’s written over seventy books, including a new translation of the New Testament and a massive set of books called Paul and the Faithfulness of God. He’s also a grandfather and he plays the guitar. Today we’re speaking about his new book Paul and His Recent Interpreters, this was just published by Fortress Press. It’s a survey of some of the leading Paul interpreters. Welcome to the show, Tom.
N. T. WRIGHT: Thank you very much. Good to be with you.
HODGES: So before we get to Paul in particular I wanted to actually begin with a question or two about your translation of the New Testament, The Kingdom New Testament. In your preface you write that “translating the New Testament is something that each generation ought to be doing.” Can you expand on that?
WRIGHT: Well, yes. All languages evolve, some faster than others. We don’t now speak the same language as in Shakespeare’s day or indeed the same language as hundred years ago. The English language has changed considerably, not only in the words we use and what they mean—what we mean by them—but actually in the way we put sentences together. And if you go back over time that has shifted a lot—the way we talk, and the way we write. For instance, the whole technique of how people write novels and how they describe speech has changed quite a lot over the last two hundred years. And if you translate the descriptions of Jesus conversations with people in the gospels, just word by word, it comes across very strangely to us today whereas it’s perfectly easy to reorder the sentences without getting anything wrong. But actually just to put “da da da da dum,” said Jesus, “da da da da dum.” And that reads how we are now used to reading in a novel or whatever. So there’s a lot of that going on.
But also the meaning of key terms, key words, changes very significantly. I was doing some work earlier today on the famous word hilastḗrion, a Greek word which is often translated “mercy seat.” And the mercy seat is the golden cover on top of the Ark of the Covenant in the original Tabernacle made in the wilderness and then in the first temple, Solomon’s temple. But what is a mercy seat? The way we use the word “seat” now is for something to sit on, like a chair. But in the 16th century when they started to translate it as mercy seat they used the word “seat” quite differently. They called the heart “the seat of the emotions,” the place where something happens.
So words change and shift, and so if we are to be accurate each generation has to say, “wait a minute, let’s just be sure that we’re not repeating the same old thing and it now means something slightly different as a result.” So we have to change in order to go on being faithful. And I think every generation of translators has known that because the English language is changing. And also because the idioms—the way we speak—and this’ll vary, actually, from England to America, never mind people for whom English is a second language or a third language. So, it’s a delight actually, it’s a constant, it’s an art as well as a science is what I’m saying. And it’s a very enjoyable art.
HODGES: How long did that take you to complete that translation?
WRIGHT: Well, I didn’t sort of sit down and do the whole thing straight off. It goes with my set of commentaries on the New Testament—The New Testament for Everyone, Matthew for Everyone, and so on. And what happened there was that I started working on that in the early summer of the year 2000. The translations went with the commentaries in each case. So I would translate Matthew and then I would do the commentary. And that will take quite a while, and I wouldn’t be doing any translation while I was doing that. And then I would do—well I didn’t actually do in that order. I think Mark was the first one I did, I think Mark, then Luke, then Galatians. And then I came back and did Matthew, then I did something else, then I did John. I darted to and fro. But so the final one was done after we moved here to Scotland actually, in late 2010. So it was effectively a ten-year project. And I didn’t expect that I would publish the whole translation. It was only when we got towards the end that somebody said, “well, you’ve translated all of the New Testament for these commentaries. Why not put it all together?” And that was a really exciting moment.
HODGES: Do you have any fondness or regard for any particular translation that you seem to return to time and again?
WRIGHT: Well, it’s difficult. Often these days in the UK, the version we use for teaching undergraduates is the New Revised Standard Version. But like all versions—including my own—it makes a lot of awkward choices, which in some cases—in the NRSV’s case—are mistakes. But I use it because it’s very widely used now in the UK and because I’m working the whole time from the Greek and the Hebrew. I’m just glancing across and to be honest I only occasionally look at others. I do have about ten others which I have close by me. But I haven’t bothered too much with them over the last two years.
HODGES: What are your thoughts quickly on the King James Version?
WRIGHT: Well, I mean I grew up with the King James Version like everyone in my generation did. I hadn’t even heard of the Revised Standard Version until maybe 1961-1962, something like that. So the first twelve or fourteen years of my life I was simply a King James person and I accepted that. That’s what was read in church, I was used to it. The trouble is, not only is the English now very different from our English—and several words have changed their meanings enormously. I mean not just subtle ways like the word “righteousness” has shifted over time, but in huge ways, we just don’t agree with it. But also of course, there are all sorts of questions about which manuscripts they were using. We now have literally thousands of better manuscripts that the King James translators had. And I know that there are some people for whom King James Version was dictated by God, and that’s the end of the matter. Then they get very cross if you start talking about other manuscripts. And yes, there are questions about which manuscripts are worth what, and so on. But it seems to me that’s looking in the wrong direction. The answer is not “let’s go and try and make everything exactly as it was in 1600” or whatever. But let’s actually get as much information as we can about how the earliest church was reading and transcribing this, and get it as sharply focused as we can.
HODGES: So, you mentioned a minute ago the series that you did on New Testament Books for Everyone, the “For Everyone” series—
WRIGHT: Yes, yes.
HODGES: —and as a New Testament scholar have you got any push back on the idea of “pop scholarship”—things produced for popular audiences?
WRIGHT: I’ve done a lot for popular audiences because I’ve always been working in the church. I’ve been active as a preacher and a teacher and I’ve led Sunday school groups and confirmation classes and done that sort of thing. So, I’ve always been aware there’s a need to translate the big academic stuff into popular mode. And for me the vocational moment—though I didn’t realize it at the time—was when I was quite young and I read C. S. Lewis saying that there ought to be a compulsory exam for clergy or theologians which would be to translate a work of academic theology into a popular idiom. And he said, tellingly, if you can’t do that you either don’t understand it or you don’t believe it—
WRIGHT: —and I thought, oh my goodness! That’s quite a challenge! So simply as responding to that challenge it’s been fascination. But also because I grew up in a family which didn’t consist of theologians, we were church goes, but nobody was reading academic theology. And both at home when I was growing up and then with my own wife and children, none of whom are theologians, if I would say something at the Sunday lunch table about the sermon that we’d heard that day, and if I started using long words, they would say “Come on, dad! You know we don’t talk that silly language. What do you actually mean? Can you say it plainly?”
So, I’ve been on the spot. And I enjoy that. I think that’s exactly right. If we can’t say it straight up, then we haven’t thought it through and we’re fudging with artificial fluffy language. That’s not a healthy way to be. So, I’ve done my best to resist that. And as it happens—very nervously when I was quite a young scholar, like about twenty-five or thirty years ago—I started to think “What I’ve been preaching and teaching on this and that, I wonder if that would make a little book!” And then one of the publishers that I’d had conversations with said to me one day, “Tom, you’ve read this, that, and the other, haven’t you?” It was 1992, when the funny books on Jesus by A. N. Wilson and Barbara Thiering and Jack Spong came out. And I said, “Yeah, I’ve read that.” And he said, “Well, why not just write it up, just four or five chapters, and it’ll be a nice little book just before Christmas.” And I thought, “eh, what?” And then I thought, hey that’d be rather fun! And so I had a go, and in its way—I mean, none of us write bestsellers—but as Christian books go it was, for a week or two, a bestseller. So, okay, maybe I can do this.
Then I did some journalism and I was asked to write on various topics to the Church Times in London, and then for one or two of the broadsheets—at the Times and The Guardian and The Independent in London—the regular newspapers, in other words. And I found again, that was fun. I enjoyed doing it. And if you can, and if you’ve got something to say and people say, “hey, that was good, I liked seeing what you did” then you carry on doing it. But I’ve never wanted that to take over from the serious side of my work, which is the big chunky tomes like the we’re talking about here.
HODGES: Have you received any pushback from more traditional believers within your own tradition about some of the ways that you try to bring scholarship into the conversation?
WRIGHT: Well, in my own tradition, which is the Anglican Church, the Church of England, occasionally people say various things about “oh, well no, we’re not sure we can cope with this.” But in England particularly, we have—surprisingly considering our heritage—we have a very anti-intellectual culture. A lot of people, including people who would be ashamed not to know the basics of nuclear physics or whatever it might be, they see a book of four or five hundred pages on Jesus or Paul or something, and they say, “oh, no no…that looks, that looks really… that’s a bit much, I mean uh it’s quite expensive, too, uh I think I’ll go for this little one” and they’ll pick up something sort of eighty pages. And I’m thinking, come on, you know, “A,” the book doesn’t cost you any more than you would pay for a night out at the theater, probably a lot less actually especially if you live in London. And “B,” you’re perfectly capable of reading quite serious arguments about other things, why not this? So, I’ve had to push against that, really, the sort of sense that we only want the short popular version, the thing we can read on a Friday evening in the bathtub or whatever, rather than the big serious thing. And so it’s been one of my minor missions in life to encourage people in my tradition that actually they can and should read the bigger things. And I’ve tried to write the bigger things in a way which is enjoyable. You know, I don’t believe in writing stodgy tedious prose if I can help it.
HODGES: Yeah, some people have got after you for that, too, but I quite enjoy your style.
HODGES: So, let’s talk about ‘Paul and his recent interpreters’ and the subtitle is some contemporary debates – this is a funny subtitle. What’s that about?
WRIGHT: Well, what that’s about is—and I explain that in the preface—that I set off on this project thinking, I had sabbatical time, I was in Princeton, it was 2009, I’ve got all the time in the world and one of the best theological libraries in the world. I will make sure I’ve lined up all the basic schools of Pauline interpretation from the last hundred years and nail it, whether it’s from Italy or Africa or Latin America, as well as Germany, France, et cetera, et cetera—the mainstream ones. And so inevitably you have to step back, you have to sort of say, “well, hmm, sorry. There just isn’t time for that, just isn’t space for that.”
One of the reasons for that, it’s very interesting, when I was starting out in Pauline scholarship we all knew basically where we were. There was Bultmann, there was Kaisermann, there were people like that—the big Germans. And in the UK there was people like C. H. Dodd and my own teacher George Caird, and Professor Charlie Moule in Cambridge. And you could see where the main lines of interpretation were. There were choices—do you could go this way or that on this passage? Do you think that Ephesians was by Paul, yes or no? Yes, there were some big questions but you could see where you were.
In the last fifty years that has exploded like somebody dropping a match into a box of fireworks. So, there’s stuff going on in all directions and it’s impossible, particularly for the average punter in the pew or the average post-graduate student, to figure out why is Wayne Meeks doing this when Lou Martin is doing that?
HODGES: And they don’t really talk to each other either, right?
WRIGHT: Well they’re not talking to each other. And the whole post-Ed Sanders thing as well. So, I decided to do a more detailed map work of some major trends in current interpretation which aren’t talking to one another at the moment, amazingly—which I think it should be—and trying to set them out on a map, show what questions they were coming up with, where those questions came from, and why they were then reading this Pauline text in this way or that.
And the more I did that the more it was a fascinating exercise in itself as a matter of twentieth- and twenty-first century intellectual history and locating it within the great cultural movements of thought from before the first world war through the very difficult between the wars period on into the sense of both frustration and reconstruction in the forties and fifties. And all these things had a massive impact on the way seminal thinkers were writing about Paul. The trouble with the English speaking tradition is we tend to be very pragmatic and positivistic and we just think of the scholars as scholars sitting in their rooms with lots of dictionaries and journals on the shelves behind them.
HODGES: [laughs] Like you have right there, I see your shelves—
WRIGHT: —yeah that’s right! And all they’re doing is just reading Paul and trying to say what did he mean. And the answer is yeah, of course, we’re all trying to do that. But we all live in a context, we live in a world which has pressures this way and that. So I thought it’d be really helpful to try to map that, and to show how the major schools of interpretation over the last generation or two have come about and how we might then navigate them wisely on into the future.
HODGES: And you compare your book to a moon because it was originally slated to be part of the introduction to another book that became its own—
WRIGHT: That’s right, that’s right. In my book Jesus and the Victory of God which is twenty years old now, I have an introductory chapter then I have three chapters talking about contemporary Jesus research. And in those chapters I set out the different schools and so on. And that doesn’t take too long in Jesus and the Victory of God, it’s maybe a hundred pages or so. So when I started out on this I thought, well I do exactly the same for Paul. I’ll have an introductory chapter, then we’ll have two or three or four chapters on recent Pauline study. And then the book itself grew far too long. And as I started to write those supposedly introductory chapters on the history and research they grew far too long. I remember sitting down with the publisher at the SBL [Society for Biblical Literature] meeting in 2009—which I think was in New Orleans if I remember rightly—and saying “look, what are we gonna do. The introductory section is already book length.” And he said “well, make it a book. That’s okay.” And so we used then, I think, the image of the moon circling the earth, so this moon has escaped from its parent planet and it’s sort of going round and sometimes you get a full moon—that is, a full treatment of Lou Martin and the apocalyptic school of Ed Sanders and all of that, and Wayne Meeks and the social history—and other times you get very little. So that there’s sadly very little about contemporary French interpretation or—
HODGES: Which to me is the most confusing, by the way—
WRIGHT: Well, it can be, it can be. And in the last section particularly, I just dipped my toe into the waters of some of the newer engagements of philosophical writing with Paul—which is fascinating and I was trained as a philosopher so I’m eager to do more of that. But it doesn’t belong with any of the other major schools and most of them ignore it. I just thought, well we have to say something there.
And of course there are other oddities about it, because, in the main volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God, I there do have quite a bit of engagement with some other contemporary scholars like John Barclay writing about Paul and Caesar or Troels Engberg-Pedersen writing about Paul and Stoicism. And because I’d done that in the parent volume—if you like, in the main planet—I wasn’t gonna do it in the moon as well. So in a sense it’s a bit ad hoc, but there’s plenty there. And do you know, I thought of it to begin with as a bit of a chore—we’ve just got to do this history of research—by the end I really enjoyed it. And some friends have said “it’s one of your best books!” Which is naturally very nice, except for what it says about my other ones, so—[laughs]
HODGES: [laughs] Yeah, it really is. It’s a fun book.
WRIGHT: Good, good.
HODGES: So, I wanted to ask how you came to be interested—you said in your family background your parents weren’t into theology or anything like that—how did you become interested in this? And then Paul in particular, how you came to him as a figure to focus on.
WRIGHT: I mean I guess…from my time in Oxford as an undergraduate when I was doing classics and philosophy a lot of us in the Christian circles that I was moving in were very interested in certain issues like predestination—so that always took us to Romans 9, or about the holiness movement—was it possible to have a second blessing which made you more holy than you were before? And that always took us to debates about Romans six, seven, and eight. And people were always talking about justification by faith, so you were always looking at Romans 3 as well as Galatians. So from an early age I found myself engaging with Paul.
In the big book I talk as well about how my first engagement with any of it in the Bible was when I was given a Bible when I was four-and-half years old, and the first bit that I thought I might just about be able to read was the letter to Philemon, it’s just a single page, and you can get hold of the sort of sense of the story. So Paul and I have a long history.
But so it was that undergraduate interest. And then when I was studying theology proper, which I did as a second degree, I went to the lectures of George Caird in Oxford, who is brilliant—a wonderful lecturer and a very engaging man who knew huge chunks of the New Testament by heart in Greek and would be arguing from it without even looking at it. That’s very impressive when you’re a young mind and you see this professor doing this. So I kind of got excited by this. But I made a sort of rational decision that if I’m going to do a doctorate, research, I want to do something which will be on the whole Bible. And that means—I was thinking it’s got to be something about the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament, the way the Old Testament comes through into the new. So, you do a New Testament book or author which will keep you engaged with the Old. And so the choice came down to Paul or John—and I could’ve taken Matthew I suppose, or Hebrews—but the choice came down to Paul or John.
And I went and talked to George Caird, very nervously, and he said, “Well, the trouble is with John right now there’s a lot of theories about Jewish lectionary hypotheses where people are guessing as to how Jews of the time in the synagogues read the Old Testament and maybe John was writing so that sections of his book would plug into that.” He said “The trouble is, it’s very hypothetical, everyone’s talking about it but there’s no solid ground under your feet, and you could spend three years and just sink into the mud.”
And so I thought, “Okay, well I actually really wanted to do Paul anyway”—
WRIGHT: —but that was testing the waters, so I said “Okay, it’s Romans I’m gonna do, Romans 9 to 11. Paul’s use of the Old Testament in Romans. And it was then, after about a year of reading commentaries and trying things out and having nervous discussions with George Caird, I realized that I wanted to say something quite new about Romans itself. About the way the argument as a whole actually works rather than just taking this section, lifting it out and expounding it and so on. And particularly about the relation of Romans nine to eleven through the rest of the epistle. That was regarded as very daring in the late sixties and early seventies. Nobody was doing that because most people were saying, “no Romans 9 through 11 is a separate treatise about the Jews and the argument goes without it.”—Uh, there were a few exceptions, but mostly in the mainstream tradition.
So, that’s how I came in. And I just found myself being drawn along by the intellectual as well as the spiritual excitement of trying to figure out how the argument actually worked. And realizing Paul was up ahead of me the whole time saying, “you haven’t quite got it yet. Come on, try a bit harder, look up these words again, go back and read Genesis again, read Deuteronomy, look at the Psalm that I’m quoting, what’s going on…”
Then when I started to get into dialogue with a dear friend, Richard Hays at Duke University—we met in 1983 at the SBL—discovered he was really coming at things in a very similar way and so our paths were crossing and crisscrossing. And that’s been a lifelong delight to engage in that conversation. Sorry, I could go on but that’s probably enough as an answer your question.
HODGES: Well the follow-up to that is about your spiritual biography later on. So how did your studies affect your faith as you continued to work?
WRIGHT: Well, I don’t think my studies on Paul had huge immediate effects on my faith. I think for many young Christians in the sixties and seventies the biggest challenge was always going to be the question of the historical Jesus. People would say “Oh well you know Jesus didn’t say that; we know Jesus expected the end of the world and it didn’t happen; nobody today believes that Jesus rose from the dead.” And see in the Anglican church one was just bombarded with that all the time. And so that in a sense studying Paul was a blessed relief from having to wrestle with the post-Bultmann tradition of “how do we know which sayings go back to Jesus,” and “do we believe in Q,” and all of this stuff about studying the Synoptics and is John historical or not.
So all of that was going on and when I was first ordained… I should go back and say I’m one of the curious people who knew from the age of about seven that I was going to be ordained. And that was just sort of a given. It was not a “Shall I? Shant I?” It was “Well, okay, so granted that’s what I’m going to do, how does everything else fit?” And I didn’t expect to have an academic career. I didn’t know there was such a thing as an academic career when I was a young boy or young man even. But then gradually the two paths came together and so that I followed a path of academic teaching, work, but also life in the church. And sadly you can’t do full-on both at once I’ve discovered. So I’ve had to oscillate from one to the other. But I always like it when there’s a bit of a cross over.
So, for Paul, there were always questions about what precisely justification is and what preciously the relation of justification and sanctification is—that’s the old fashioned way of putting it. And I found then, for me the real problem was holding Romans and Galatians together because Romans seems so much more positive about the law and Galatians seems so much more negative about the law. And many scholars would say, “Well that’s because Paul changed his mind between the two,” or just “his thought developed.”
And then in the mid-seventies before Ed Sander’s book was published I was wrestling with this and starting to come up—there were other scholars writing at the time less well-known, like George Howard for instance, trying out different ways of reading bits of Romans and Galatians, different ways of approaching the law. And I was starting to study the Jewish world as well and coming up with different approaches, like when Paul says in Romans 10 “they are ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own,” and some would read that as, “hey, this is about a righteousness, a status which is for Israel and Israel only rather than the Gentiles, instead of it being a works righteousness status.”
So, then when Ed Sanders’ book came out I seized on it eagerly. It’s analysis of Judaism I thought at the time was a great improvement on anything to date. It’s been improved on since, of course, and I hope I’ve done my own little bit in that, too. But his analysis of Paul was kind of tantalizing because having done what he did with Judaism, he didn’t really follow it through and see how Paul might go with it. He kind of let them fall side by side and so that was a real challenge to me—not a challenge on my faith, but a challenge to say “is there a way of reading Paul which will preach okay? It’s got to do that. But which will be coherent as an account of Romans and Galatians and everything else.
HODGES: That’s N. T. Wright. He’s a research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews. We’re talking about his new book Paul and His Recent Interpreters.
So Tom, for the rest of our time together I thought we’d do a little something of a little primer on how different people have reckoned with Paul. We’ll talk about how historical figures understood Paul, and how we can see how their immediate concerns shaped the questions they asked and therefore the results of their studies. Along the way hopefully we’ll get a better sense of who Paul is and why he’s been the source of so much theological disagreement, which is kind of ironic given that one of his major themes was [laughs]—
WRIGHT: Unity, yeah, yeah. But he’s always after a mature unity. It’s not the lowest common denominator unity. It’s about a sense of a hard-won growing up into unity rather than filing everything down into an easy unity. So, [laughs] we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re still having that struggle.
HODGES: And part of that struggle is the issue of relevance. This comes up time and time again. So, here’s a quote from your book. You say, “this book is about the struggle to hear Paul’s first century voice as part of our own task of addressing twenty-first century questions.” So, how do you go about justifying the discussion to twenty-first century people who doubt that an ancient figure like Paul has any relevance at all?
WRIGHT: Well, ultimately, this goes back to the question of how you understand Jesus and gospels. And of course, if you see successive generations of Christianity just as different varieties of more or less the same religion—or at least within a family of religions broadly called Christianity—then you might say “well, we’re doing it like this now, Paul did it like then, that’s of historical antiquarian interest,” whatever. But actually from the very beginning Christianity is not like that. Christianity is about something that happened in Jesus through which the creator God changed the world. The title of a forthcoming book of mine is something like The Day the Revolution Began, which is about the cross. That something happened which launched a revolution which is still going on. And Paul is the earliest witness we have to that revolution.
Now obviously if sayings in the gospel go back to Jesus, as I think they do, then that gives us an early witness. But in terms of the date of writing pretty well everyone agrees that Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian documents we’ve got. So, they are—if you like taking the astrophysics analogy—they are the closest bits of evidence to the Big Bang. And so when Paul says, “the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Bible, and this is what, as you know, all of us preach and believe,” we have to take it very seriously as primal evidence. And when I find then today Christians sliding away from that very Jewish take on the events, and saying, “well, let’s not call him Messiah, it’s just Jesus—Jesus died for our sins,” and then they have an accordance with some other scheme which has a vague reference to the Bible but is not really thought through. But I say, no, sorry. We are paganizing our tradition if we do that. We got to go back and keep out feet on that first century ground.
And, I mean, the proof of the whole thing is that as one does that—and as I’ve tried to do that certainly—I find all sorts of things bubbling up in the twenty-first century, which say now this enables me to address this issue of, say, aesthetics within the postmodern world. Because with Paul’s vision of new creation we can see all sorts of things which an older vision of Paul would’ve just found irrelevant. And so for me it’s been a matter, constantly, of actually being refreshed in finding the more we do the first century stuff the more relevant it is to tomorrow’s world.
Now, I’m not saying I’ve got it all right. But that’s been my experience over many years now, not just in these recent books.
HODGES: There’s a trick about relevance in that it can become a sort of magnet that pulls interpretation toward it and can, sort of, twist things. So, you talk about four tasks—four different tasks that researchers are at when they’re working on scriptures like this, and relevance is one of them. the other three are history, theology, and exegesis. So, we should quickly describe the practice of each of those before we move on because your book’s basically history of how various researchers have focused on one or more of these tasks. So, talk about those different tasks.
WRIGHT: That’s right. Well, this is a huge topic obviously. But the word “history” frightens some people because it’s sometimes used in an eighteenth-century sense as though it’s like putting everything into a Procrustean bed, that as historians we cannot believe this, we cannot believe that, so, history means cutting everything down to the size of our own view. That’s not what history is at all. History is the same thing that Thucydides and Herodotus were doing in the ancient world and that the great historians whether it’s Macaulay or Elton or people in our own day have done. That is to say, we’re gathering as much evidence as we can, we want every scrap of evidence about the period or the person that we’re studying, and as we engage with that we are telling ourselves stories about why things happened. Why did they think it was a good idea to start this movement? Why did that person think it was a fine idea to go out and explore the new world? What was going on in their society that made them want to do that? What was going on in their—It’s not psychoanalysis, but we can ask about motivation, we can say “why do they do that?”
I read a fascinating book eighteen months ago on the causes of the first World War. I may even have referred to it in this book, I referred to it somewhere just recently I think, in which there’s a whole chapter which is basically about why did they all think it was a good idea. And the author goes and looks at the Russians in the early years of the twentieth century and the French, and the Poles, and the Serbs, and the Austrians, and the Turks, and the British. And in each case she tracks the ways in which people were thinking in such a way that “yeah, having a war about this might be a good idea.” And none of them had the slightest idea what that was going to look like, they thought it would be over by Christmas, and Europe was sort of shake itself and say, “well, that was a bit nasty. Now, let’s get on with life.” And in fact of course, it was much, much worse than that. So, the law of unintended consequences—but my point is this: that the historian is trying to go back into that period and say, what were they saying? Let’s look at every possible letter. Every coin, every telegram, every bit of evidence we’ve got – archeological whatever. And try and tell a story which makes sense—which makes sense in terms of the way they thought then. And then if there’s stuff we can learn from it—we think very differently. Some things we find just find horrifying, some of their racist attitudes for instance a hundred and twenty years ago. We just think, “These were supposed to be civilized people, how could they think like that?” But they did. And so we have to allow them to be themselves.
And there’s a very interesting thing—an old friend of mine who’s now in his nineties, Asa Briggs, one of the great modern Victorian historians of our age, he was provost of Worchester College when I was chaplain there in Oxford. And he was, as a young man, recruited to be part of the team that worked at Bletchley Park which was where they were cracking the enigma code so that they could read the coded messages that the German commanders were sending to their troops, the submarines, et cetera. And he said that the reason they chose historians—he’d just graduated in history from Cambridge—was that historians were trained to think into the minds of people who thought very differently from themselves. And so they would be in a good position to think into the minds of German army commanders and try and see what was going on. That was a very revealing comment for me. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with the first century. They did not think the way we do. When they are talking about God, Jesus, Israel and the world, they do not start with our post-Enlightenment modern western assumptions. They start somewhere very different, and I find it fascinating then to do all that. That’s the history bit.
The theology bit is to say, actually, all human beings, all human societies live with an implicit view of God and the world. Some societies are actually, functionally, a de jure atheist—that is to say they’ve banished God—but they can’t then escape from divine signals within, as if it were, from forces within themselves, within their society which they put on a pedestal, which they say “this is, effective”—they don’t use this language—but they say “effectively this is what we worship, these are our gods, these are our goals.
HODGES: An “ultimate concern” type of thing?
WRIGHT: Yeah, exactly. Yes, yes Tillich’s phrase. And we can tack different type of theology, from pantheism where God and the world collapse into one another, to Epicureanism where they’re totally separate, to different bits of Platonism where God and the world sort of hover above one another and have some odd relation which is hard to track, to the Jewish world where in the temple and the Torah heaven and earth come together and there’s an overlap which is quite different from Stoicism or Epicureanism or Platonism or the sort of the easy going Deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth century which turns itself into the modern Epicureanism, which is what most people in the modern western world just take for granted today.
And so being able to track how that theology works is really important. And within the Jewish worldview, which then morphs into the Christian worldview, if you’ve got an overlap—at the temple, in the Torah—and then you’re saying “something new has happened. God has sent a Messiah and it’s Jesus, and oh my goodness he’s raised him from the dead,” then you start at once to talk about Jesus in terms of that overlap—that heaven and earth-ness, which is a totally different way to the way in which eighteenth and nineteenth century people tried to do Christology, by having this figure from a distant heaven who somehow lands up on our planet and we think of him as a spaceman or a man from outside, yeah, that simply going wrong.
So learning to think theologically integrates with learning to think historically. Studying ancient and modern societies, seeing how they put the God question together, seeing what they might do with the Jesus question in the middle of that.
Now in order to do the New Testament, obviously, you have to be a historian, you have to be a theologian, because that’s the subject matter. But those two meet with exegesis, where you take this or that passage—and I’m looking for a Greek New Testament, here it is, and it just happens to be opened at Luke 24 for some reason—and I take the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and I say, well okay, granted all the history, granted all the theology, what is Luke actually trying to tell us here? And then within the story, what is the particular force of Jesus saying to the two—”didn’t you realize this is how the Messiah must suffer and enter into His glory?” What does that mean, “enter into His glory?” So we can go down into that with all our theological and historical antenna waggling and talk about the meaning of “entering into His glory.” Does he mean there what Paul means by glory in Romans 8? Does he mean what the Satan meant by glory in the Temptation scene that, “I have the right to all this glory and I will give it all to you?” And somewhere between those we do the exegesis of this passage. And the aim of exegesis is to say, once we’ve done all this work we should be able to say, “A-ha, now I can read this passage and I can see that it means exactly what it says.”
One of the main things that I have to do is to pray, and I have to try to get to know the people—that’s not always easy because I often do pinch-hitting preaching in places that I don’t know them very well—but you pray and you hope and you trust that as you do the exegesis, prayerfully and thoughtfully and trying to think “what does this mean for us today,” that there will be a spark which will jump across. Because if you believe in the work of the Holy Spirit, then the spirit who has inspired the text, the spirit who was given on the day of Pentecost to make Jesus known, will be living and active. And that happens whether I’m reading the Bible privately, whether I’m studying it in a small group, whether we’re in a seminar, whether I am preaching in a cathedral, whatever. And you can’t second guess it because when you—well there are certain ground rules—but you never quite know what new things are going to emerge, that’s part of the fun of it! That you can never simply never get to the boring place, “oh yes we know this passage, and we know what its lesson is. Therefore, we just trot it out again.” No. There will always be something new and I think the day I stop believing that is the day I should retire. [laughs] Sorry, long answer, but it was a huge question.
HODGES: [laughing] Yeah no doubt, no doubt it was. Like I said the book lays that out in terms of specific individual people and what they each focus on.
One more question when it comes to relevance and how it relates to these other three tasks—relevance, history, theology and exegesis. On issues that are now difficult for people to wrap their heads around—for example slavery.
WRIGHT: Yes, yes.
HODGES: Paul seems to be kind of fine with slavery. So people that read that today would say “well look, if we want to accede authority to the Bible we need to view those statements about slavery as authoritative and take that seriously and…”
WRIGHT: Yeah, it’s difficult, isn’t it? Because actually the controlling narrative of scripture is about the God who frees slaves. Because the book of Exodus—okay, you’ve got Genesis as well—but Exodus is, in a sense, where the whole narrative dynamic of Genesis ends up, which is the God who reveals himself afresh as the slave-freeing God. And that story, the story of Exodus, just dominates scripture so that when the children of Israel were in exile they wanted a new exodus because they say “we’re slaves again.” And in the Gospels Jesus chooses Passover as the moment to go to Jerusalem and do what has to be done. And Passover is Jesus’s chosen grid of interpretation for the meaning of his death and resurrection. That’s why the church keeps Easter at Passover time to this day. So it’s built into the DNA of the gospel that this is all about freedom, about slaves being freed. Now at the same time I believe that new creation is built into the gospel. From the resurrection we have a vision of new creation, a world free of pain and tears and sorrow and trouble and travail. And I see that in Romans 8, I see it in Revelation, et cetera.
If you know anything about the first century, you know that maybe half of the population of the Mediterranean world is slaves. It’s, again, the historian’s task. Part of our difficulty here, particularly in America, is that the slavery issue is obviously sharply focused on America in the 1850s and 60s particularly, and it had to do with North, South, and it had to do with race.
WRIGHT: In the ancient world slavery was nothing to do with race, absolutely nothing. Anybody could be a slave, all you had to do was lose a battle and you would find yourself if you’re in the wrong army—okay you might have escaped with your life or might have had your life—but the chances are you would be rolling in a galley somewhere for the next twenty years until you could escape or buy your freedom or something.
So that slavery was a very different thing from how we think of it now. At the same time, what you see is not Paul saying “Yeah, slavery is fine.” He is saying “Okay, this is where we are, this is how to navigate it, slaves obey your masters but masters you jolly well treat them fairly and properly.” And then he says “if you get the chance at freedom then then take it.” And in that crucial little letter to Philemon he doesn’t say “I want you to let him free,” what he said is to Philemon is “I want you to treat him as a brother in Christ which is what he now is. And by the way I think you might want to do more than I ask.” In other words, he is not saying “you got to free him.” But he is putting a little time bomb beside the institution in this one case, and okay that time bomb took a long time to go off and one of the reasons it went off was the Industrial Revolution so that machines did things that people use to do, and so on. But it is a complicated issue.
So the trouble is that we have tended to treat the Bible as though it is a railway time table. “We have this issue, slavery. What we look it up? Okay here it is. Paul approves of slavery; therefore, we should approve it.” No that’s not what the Bible is. The Bible is this great drama. I’ve described it in one of my books as being like a drama in five acts and we are living in the middle of the fifth act. And we read the earlier acts of the play—including Leviticus and so on—which we are told in act five has now done its job and so it’s put in a position of honor, but we don’t live there anymore. We don’t live in acts two and three, et cetera. We live in act five which is implementing the whole story, and we urgently need to learn to read the Bible in that nuanced layered way—not to falsify it, but to treat it as what it actually is.
Sorry. That’s a whole other topic. The issue of relevance raises precisely those issues.
HODGES: Exactly, it touches on authority and all sorts of different things—
HODGES: —So as I mentioned, at any given time interpretations of Paul are influenced by the kind of questions that someone brings to the search. For example, there has been a longstanding debate over Paul’s relationship to the Law.
HODGES: And your chapter two takes this question up because that was the focus of Reformation figures, mainly through Martin Luther and John Calvin. So take a moment to give a basic overview of Luther and Calvin there.
WRIGHT: From where I’m sitting I can see on my shelves quite a bit of Luther and Calvin and I studied Luther and Calvin when I was a young man, but over the last thirty years my main focus has been New Testament and I have only dabbled back into the sixteenth century. So anyone who knows the sixteenth century will realize that this is very broad-brush.
But its broadly true that Luther’s main polemic is Law versus Gospel and Lutherans to this day see it like that. That we get the thunder of the Law, which frightens us we think “oh my goodness, God is cross with us because we can’t keep this law,” and then the sweet rain of the gospel comes and we are refreshed and we think “oh that’s wonderful because Christ has died for me and God loves me,” et cetera.
The danger with that—and this is a danger I think in Luther himself, in the commentary on Galatians he says at one point “Moses knows nothing of Christ.” The danger is sort of Marcionism. Of saying “Well, we’ve got rid of that now.” You can see it in commentaries on Romans. Older Lutheran commentaries, when they come to Romans 10:4, they will translate telos gar nomou Christos as “Christ is the end of the Law.” And they will mean by that, Christ has stopped the Law, the Law is now pushed to one side and we got something quite different. In the Reformed tradition it’s quite different again. Because in the Reformed tradition you have the strong sense of the goodness and God-giveness of the Law, and that the Law given on Mount Sinai was not a set of commandments that you had to try and keep and “oh my goodness it gets worst because we all fail.” The Law was given on Mount Sinai for the people who were already redeemed, they were bought out of Egypt and then they were given the Law—not to be a ladder of good works to climb up to salvation, but to be the way of life for a people who were already redeemed.
Now that’s very broad brushed, very over-simple and any scholars listening to this will say “oh my goodness!”—
WRIGHT: —but broadly that’s how those two traditions have gone.
Now the thing is, so much New Testament scholarship in the nineteenth and twentieth century was done by Lutherans. And they did a great job—Kaiserman, one of the great German Lutherans in the last generation, one of my heroes even though I disagree with them on all sorts of things. But it was assumed that when Paul was talking about the Law it was substantially a negative thing. So then when he says in Romans 3:31 “do we then overthrow the law by this means? On the contrary we establish it,” they’ll say, “well, all he must mean is, I can find some prooftext in Genesis which is what he is going on to in Romans 4.” And the Reformed response to that from people like Ridderbos in Holland and Cranfield in England has been massive. But it hasn’t really made its way into the bloodstream of many ordinary Christians, who still think in terms of the Law-Gospel antithesis. And for Paul, the Torah is God’s Law, it’s God’s good and holy and just law. But because of the purpose for which God called Israel, the Torah—which is God’s means of affecting that purpose—has a strange “no and yes” about it within the Israel story itself. And I have tract this in my works, through particularly Romans 7, which is very complicated, but rich and dense, and has to do with that purpose of God for Israel, through the law, heaping up sin onto one place, so that it can be condemned there, Romans 8:3-4. I think that’s enormously important; this was a good purpose even though it looks as though it’s had a negative effect of heaping up sin into one place, no, that’s so that it could be dealt with there.
And then there are other purposes to the Torah. Paul says in Romans 10, Deuteronomy 30, this is the fulfillment of the Law. And Romans 13 says that love is the fulfillment of the Law and that the Torah was always there in the background saying “this is God’s blueprint for what a genuinely human existence would be like.” And so when someone is in Christ and in-dwelt by the Spirit, then—as Paul says in Galatians 5—they will do those fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Paul says [laughs] “there’s no law against those things.” In other words, the Torah looks on at what you might call Spirit-led Christian behavior and says “Yeah. That’s the kind of lifestyle that I was really after.” But, because the Law was given to a people who were themselves in Adam, it couldn’t by itself achieve that. That’s what Paul says in Romans 8:1-4.
So it’s a complicated thing, and I can’t just set it out narratively. But in the history of the discipline, it’s often clogged our wheels and got in our way because people think they’ve either gotta be negative about the Law or positive about the Law, and that’s an oversimplification. And we have to get beyond that into the detailed narrative.
HODGES: So this is kind of what happens in the seventies with E. P. Sanders and this New Paul Perspective. And you kind of just described a lot of the elements of it. And it seems like some of it then was a pushback against some of the anti-Semitism that’s was going on in scholarship.
WRIGHT: That’s absolutely right. And very few scholars in the post-war period would admit to being anti-Semitic. But in the pre-war period, people like Gerhard Kittel who was one of the editors of the great “Theological Word” book in the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties—he had lectured wearing Nazi armbands in Cambridge in the between-the-wars period, and people didn’t grumble about that, because “Oh, well that’s his political position, so good for him.” It was only afterwards that people realized.
And the sea change happened with W. D. Davies—another of my heroes, who wrote on Paul and Judaism, and wrote on Mathew and Judaism as well—pointed out that a lot of the things that people had said about Paul—that Paul must have got this from the pagan philosophy or Gnosticism or something—could be explained in Jewish terms, even though he didn’t go very far down that road. He was Ed Sanders’s teacher. And I often said if the Reformed view rather than the Lutheran view had been the dominant one of scholarship, then Sanders wouldn’t have needed to do what he did. Because some of what Sanders said was actually kind of anticipated by Karl Barth in the 1950s. And Barth as a Reformed theologian could see already that some of Luther’s ways of reading, say, Galatians, was simply inadequate and were distorting what Paul was actually about. So, yes, the Sanders revolution really was, partly, a vote for a more Reformed—I don’t think Sanders saw it like that for a minute because he was reading the Jewish sources. But it also came out of a comparative religion milieu, where Sanders was not teaching in the seminary, he was teaching in the Department of Religion where you’ve got Judaism here, Christianity there. That brings other problems in his wake—as Wayne Meeks has pointed out, and others, that that treats them as alternative—
HODGES AND WRIGHT: Religions—
WRIGHT: —which is totally wrong for the first century. In the first century what we subsequently call Christianity is a messianic eschatological version of Judaism. And even the “ism” bit Judaism is probably misleading as well. They didn’t think of themselves—anyway, I could go on.
HODGES: Oh, yeah, yeah. Um, so, and there were other little things—Sanders was reading later Judaism into earlier Judaism for instance, so there’s a lot of work to be done since he dropped this kind of bombshell that revolutionized the field.
WRIGHT: Absolutely! Absolutely. I mean, the generation that I belong to, the generation who read Sanders and thought “My goodness, he is basically right!” But you can’t just put the rabbis, 4 Ezra, Josephus, Qumran, all together. Now, to be fair he didn’t. He made some exceptions—
WRIGHT: —but, he did over generalize. Somebody had to do that, somebody had to break the mold. And then, the generation that I belong to are the ones—we’ve tried to say, “Well now let’s look on Qumran in its own terms.” And that is very different from either Ben Sirach on the one hand or 4 Ezra on the other, or Josephus again. So let’s let these different texts have their own say and produce a polyglot varied picture of the options available, if you like, within first century Jewish world.
And I found that utterly fascinating, and it enables us then to get a differentiated set of angles of vision on what life was like in the middle of the first century when the New Testament starts to be written. And I just think that’s the way we’ve got to go. It’s not separate from the Greco-Roman world; we need the Greco-Roman sources as well. But we need to understand what it was that made first century Jews tick in different ways.
HODGES: So, and this plays out—for different people who really want a lot more information, Paul and his Recent Interpreters really covers this in-depth; it’s great. It also shows there were three main reactions to the New Paul Perspective. There were a couple of prominent scholars who built on it, developing fresh ways of reading Paul in his Jewish context. There are critics who have pushed back heavily against it because it counters long-cherished stories about how the Law was given to condemn humans as you talked about—
HODGES: —and there’s this really interesting thing you write, you put it really well on page ninety-five, you say “Once you do business with the actual historical context of the New Testament, there may well be elements of traditional exegesis and theology which have to be reconsidered.” That can be really difficult for believers.
WRIGHT: Oh, it can! It can, and I mean as an Anglican I believe in sort of steady modification rather than dramatic revolutions. There’s a wonderful saying from Archbishop William Temple that when a theologian or biblical scholar wants to say something new and different, they have an obligation to explain to the puzzled and worried faithful how it is that what was really at stake in the previous view—which they have clung on to—is in fact retained and enhanced in the new view.
Now I’ve tried to do that, I may not have always succeeded to do that, but that’s a noble ideal. That is to say, let’s go back and look, what was it that was really important to us here. About the freshness of the gospel. Yes, that’s all still there. About the dangers of sin, yes that’s all still there. And people take fright and they say “oh, you’re destroying the gospel!” or “you’re throwing it out.” No, not at all! It really is enhanced. We may not always have expressed it as well as we could, but it really is enhanced. And then it precipitates into—you were probably gonna say this—the other two main sections of the book on apocalyptic and social history, which are major movements within America at the moment, America particularly, which have taken their own separate ways. And maybe they remind us of things that we were in danger of forgetting as well, but we need to integrate them all.
HODGES: Yep, that’s the three groups. You’ve got the scholars that are building on Paul’s perspective, the critics who push back, the third is those people who claim to sort of just go beyond it all together, and that includes the apocalyptic school and social history, and all of that’s laid out into the book.
We are speaking today with N. T. Wright, he is a research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews. We are gonna take a brief break and be right back for the conclusion of the interview.
HODGES: OK, so we’re here with N. T. Wright. He is talking with us about his new book Paul and His Recent Interpreters. The last chapter “Paul in the Marketplace” had some of the clearest parts and some of the most unclear parts, I thought. I got a bit lost when you were talking about Paul’s place among contemporary philosophers. That’s a surprising place to find Paul, so people can read the details, but maybe you can talk about why the academic world took interest in a religious figure at this stage of the game when some of these academics are atheist’s or not religious, but they go to Paul.
WRIGHT: It’s fascinating and I don’t think any of us saw this coming. I mean twenty years ago this wasn’t happening. But in the last two decades we had some serious continental philosophers—of which my favorite is Giorgio Agamben who is Italian philosopher. I think actually Agamben is a practicing Italian Christian. I am not sure which tradition he stands in but I was talking to a friend who knows his work better than I do and she said she actually thinks he is a Christian—But then there is Alain Badiou who is certainly not Christian, Slavoj Žižek who certainly isn’t, and others like this.
And I think what happened is this. In European philosophy, as opposed to British philosophy by and large, since the second world war then there was this sort of hope among the serious philosophers who were into political philosophy and particularly on the left, that actually though Communism obviously had some problems that was clearly the way of the future and we were going to solve the world’s problems. And they sort of tell a narrative which goes back to the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, to the further revolution in the middle of the nineteenth century, to the Russian Revolution in 1917, and they tell a sort of “salvation history.” They’re Marxists, they believe in the succession of revolutions, but sooner or later the great new one will happen—the damp squib in Paris in 1968 was a puzzle, you know. So they are looking for the event, the “messianic event,” they sometimes use that language as a sort of secular metaphor.
And so in order to understand how you can have a history which is waiting for an explosive messianic event, well there is this fellow Paul who wrote two thousand years ago, and of course even if he had this strange idea of resurrection or of an actual God, nevertheless his ideas about a new order coming into being and so on, and what a community might have to be to be the people of that, that’s really helpful! Let’s have a look at it! And so I want to say [laughs] it’s actually hugely ironic at the time when the high priests of secularism—people like, Richard Dawkins and…
HODGES: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, all those guys—
WRIGHT: People like that, yeah. They all say “ah, no, religion’s dead, all that Bible stuff, that’s old hat,” et cetera. But actually some of the people who are at the cutting edge of a very serious philosophical investigation as to how we’ve gone wrong as a society and where we should go now, people who are deeply dissatisfied with contemporary capitalism and all of that, they’re saying “Let’s have a look at Paul, because he might just have something to say to us.” And I think that may be a way, also, of saying “We know really we ought to be looking at Jesus, but he is too scary”—
WRIGHT: —so we’ll look at one of his right hand men—
HODGES: —Well, like Paul talked about it more, too, right? I mean—
WRIGHT: Exactly. Exactly.
HODGES: —The Christ we get in the Gospels seems to be a bit more vague. Paul is a little more theoretical.
WRIGHT: So what I see in that is a real sign of hope that, kind of a bubbling up from an unexpected place, we see people who are saying “We need to ask the big questions about where society is going, about why it’s gone wrong, about whether something really good could happen.” And there seems to be, “Well we have Plato and Aristotle and all these other people, but in the middle of them we’ve got this really interesting guy. Let’s have a look and see.”
And so, though from a Christian point of view it’s a very sort of distorting lens, I want to say these are good questions and these are serious people. We should be prepared to do business with them. And I have only really just begun with that and partly because the philosophy in which I was trained was ancient philosophy and then modern British philosophy rather than continental sort of post-Heidegger, post-neo-Kantianism—
HODGES: It’s hard to get into!
WRIGHT: —It is hard to get into and some of the stuff is very dense—
HODGES: Yeah, it’s stylistically, it’s like what are you guys doing?
WRIGHT: —Stylistically, yes. That’s right. Sometimes some of the people in those traditions seem to take pride in writing in a peculiarly dense way.
HODGES: [laughs] yeah—
WRIGHT: And even some Christians, I mean the so-called “Radical Orthodox” movement, people often say the main thing about them is they deliberately write in a way which is kind of code for the in-group. And that the rest of us just look at it and say “Why I should waste my time with that? I don’t see anything good coming out of it.”
But that would be a mistake because people like John Milbank, who again I engaged with very briefly here, when they are writing about Paul—these are the people who aren’t saying “Okay, how do I preach Paul in the church so that Mr. X or Mrs. Y will get converted this week so they become good Christians?” There saying “Hey! There’s a big world out there! We’ve got refugees washing up on our shore. The planet is heating up. We’ve got hunger crises. We’ve got civil wars in the Middle East. Let’s actually see if Paul can help us address these issues.”
Now I don’t think they are necessarily going about that in the right way but I want to say, yes! Game on! Let’s get in with all the historical tools we’ve got and if we can help them let’s do it!
HODGES: So to conclude I just want to talk a little bit about two questions. Number one, how can you be so productive? You seem to put out something new all the time. Now you have new online courses that I’ll have you point people to. How do you find the time to do all of this?
WRIGHT: The online courses are easy because I have a colleague who’s actually running them in the Wisconsin Center of Christian Studies. He does all the donkey work and all that happens is that he brings a guy with a couple of cameras to this room where I am sitting every so often and I take two or three days out of my schedule and I simply look in the camera and I talk about Romans or about Jesus or whatever it is. It’s a bit exhausting but it can be done. Then he goes away and does all the backup materials. So that requires no extra preparation at all.
HODGES: Where are those found at?
WRIGHT: It’s ntwrightonline.org. So ntwrightonline is what you’re gonna look for. We have half a dozen courses out now and there are more on the way.
HODGES: But you’ve also got a bunch of books, and your conference papers and—
WRIGHT: It’s a funny thing. The first twenty or so years of my scholarly life from my early twenties, well to my late thirties at any rate, I didn’t write very much. I was doing a lot of teaching, and in Oxford the teaching system is by tutorials usually one on one where you have a student who reads an essay, a paper, that lasts maybe twenty minutes, you spend the rest of the hour discussing it. So I spent many, many, many hours in my thirties trying to explain complicated things in the New Testament to bright undergraduates who had never met these ideas before. And so I was constantly searching for more analogies and illustrations and trying to find diagrams and ways of explaining things. And when I turned forty [laughs] I remember saying to myself “For goodness sake I’m forty now. I ought to be able to write some of this stuff down. I don’t need to sort of feel I need to draw up anymore.”
And so I started trying to write the way that I would teach students, trying to make it accessible without dumbing down the academic content. And I really started to enjoy it. And something about words—I mean, when I was little my mother used to grumble that I always seemed to have too much to say to myself, and bless her she’s in the nineties now and she said to me rather grudgingly not very long ago, “I suppose maybe there a point to it then” [laughs] as she’s seen the words that have been coming. I was fortunate to come of age academically just when laptop computers were coming in—
WRIGHT: —and so whereas I started off writing everything longhand, then typing it out, then giving it to a secretary to type it out properly, now it’s so easy. You know I just finished an article today, I’ve sent it to three friends, I’m waiting for comments back from them, they will send me their comments electronically, I will be able to say “Oh yeah, of course you’re right, I need to add a bit there” or “yeah, I got that a bit wrong.” And you can do it. But because I spent twenty years reading and teaching, and teaching and reading, and doing some lecturing but not very much writing, I kind of—in my earlier impressionable years—put down a lot of treasure, like putting down wines in a cellar, reading and re-reading the New Testament. And when I was very young—well say from nineteen onwards—I started to read the New Testament in Greek on a sort of two or three times a year basis, and I still do that. So that it’s all there. So if I’m thinking through a train of thought I can say “Oh yes, then that passage, and this passage, and this,” and I don’t necessarily know how to exegete those passages, but I have an idea of where we are going.
And it seems as though that the work that I’ve done— particularly with a big academic series New Testament and the People of God and so on, I feel—to use an illustration from my own home area which is the northeast of England—it’s like a coalmine when you go down and “Hey, there’s a seam of coal here, let see how far it goes back, that’s some good coal! Hey, it gets bigger, there’s more there, let’s go on, why should we stop?” And so as long as the coal is there and as people are saying “Yeah, get us some more out of that seam,” why should I stop? I’m enjoying it, lots of people tell me they are enjoying it. Of course, lots of my fellow scholars are horrified, they say, “Oh, you can’t do that, you shouldn’t say that, you got that wrong.” Fine! Okay. We’ll have that debate. Scholarship is a public discipline. But as long as I’m seeing good stuff and getting it out and people are telling me that it’s helpful to them, I think I’m just gonna carry on.
HODGES: There is one more little book that you did as well, is it called The Paul Debate?
WRIGHT: Oh yes, yes, that’s right—
HODGES: That’s nice because it’s kind of a synopsis—
WRIGHT: I’ve got the UK edition here, which is by SPCK. But the uh…I thought I had it here, I must’ve just given my copy to someone else. The American edition is published by Baylor University Press who actually, they commissioned it and set it up—yeah that’s the one, and that was done because the flurry of reviews that came out about Paul and the Faithfulness of God—
HODGES: Which is a huge four-part thing, it’s huge.
WRIGHT: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right—the reviews were all over the map. And some people liked it, some people didn’t like it, some people hated it, some people raved about it, which is what you expect with a big sort of chunky academic product. But there were also some misunderstandings—places where clearly I had given hostages to fortune and I needed to come back and say “No, what I meant was such-and-such.” And my good friend Carey Newman, who was the editor at Baylor University Press, he’d read all the reviews and he came over and he sat down in my drawing room one Sunday night back last April, and he said “Tom, there are five areas you need to look at, and I think you need to nail this one, you need to have another go at that one, you need to go around the tracks with this one” and he kind a mapped it out. And so we argued about it and thought about it and did the map work. And we sat down on a Monday morning—after consuming a certain amount of good scotch, malt whiskey on a Sunday night—we sat down on a Monday morning and I started tentatively to write the beginning of it. And as I was writing it I was printing it out and he was reading it, and by that Friday we had the book.
WRIGHT: But we had great fun. It was a wonderful week, actually, we just brainstormed it—
HODGES: I think that’s a great thing—
WRIGHT: We kind of said “Here are the key issues as emerged from the reviews. Let’s try and summarize it.” And one or two colleagues have already said to me “Actually, this would make quite a good little class text for an undergraduate course, because it just simplifies, boils it down,” but I would only accede to that if, as well, the professor was going to say, “but actually, to get the whole thing, you need to read the big stuff.” [laughs]
WRIGHT: Ah, and you need to read Paul himself.
HODGES: It’s a great tribute to—even people who are critical of you as well, I think it manifests a good collegiality, even—
WRIGHT: I would like to think so. I’ve always tried to be collegial. It’s difficult sometimes, some of my critics get very angry about some, I think actually their misunderstanding, and then all I can do then is to back off and say, “Okay, I need to process this, there may be something here I need to hear.” But there is too much anger going on, then that’s actually hard to deal with. So we wait and we ponder and we pray and we try writing again and we see what we get. And so, so it goes around.
HODGES: That’s N. T. Wright. He’s a research professor of the New Testament early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews. We talked about his new book Paul and His Recent Interpreters today, we also mention N. T. Wright Online, it’s a website where you can register for courses on the New Testament from Professor Wright. He’s also got a small book called The Paul Debate, he’s got a huge series on Paul and the Righteousness of God—
WRIGHT: Well the whole series is “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” and the Paul book within that series is Paul and the Faithfulness of God—
WRIGHT: —and by the way there’s a book coming out in Germany, it’s all in English, essays about Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Thirty essays with my response, and that is called God and the Faithfulness of Paul. [laughs]
HODGES: [laughs] Do you have anything else you are excited about on the horizon that you wanted to mention before we go?
WRIGHT: I just finished writing a little book on the meaning of the cross which is about the same length as my book Surprised By Hope, and that’s the one will be called The Revolution Has Already Begunn or words to that effect, and God-willing that will be coming out in October. And I’ve done some fresh thing about the meaning of the cross in the New Testament, and that’s a bit controversial, so why change the habit of a lifetime?
HODGES: [laughs] Well good, we’ll look forward to it. Tom I really appreciate you taking time to be on the show.
WRIGHT: Thank you!
WRIGHT: Good to be with you, thank you very much, bye, bye.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)