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What Saint Paul Really Said: Book Summary and Review

Updated on July 22, 2013
Saint Paul (c. AD 5 – c. AD 67), one of the most influential figure in the early advancement of Christianity. A considerable portion of the New Testament was ascribed to him.
Saint Paul (c. AD 5 – c. AD 67), one of the most influential figure in the early advancement of Christianity. A considerable portion of the New Testament was ascribed to him. | Source

This book delves into the quest of finding the historical Paul, his thought and legacy. Wright's goal in this book is to present St. Paul, arguably the greatest teacher of Christianity after Jesus, as he really is, the apostle and servant of Jesus Christ. Issues and arguments that misrepresented St. Paul as the founder of Christianity is given a coup de grace. In this book, Wright is doing an archeological work on St. Paul's mind, rediscovering the ancient treasure that is missing in our generation today. Some theological phrase that we use often, e.g. faith, justification, righteousness, etc is given a new colour, redefined and reconstructed according to St. Paul's teachings.

He begins with a summary of scholarly work on this topic, and advance through these baffled opinion into the major questions being studied, starting from history and theology. To begin his journey, he started to construct the beliefs and hopes of Saul of Tarsus. Of course, the study of the major beliefs and communities of the Jews of that time needs to be done. Wright demonstrates that Saul belonged to the Shammaite Pharisee group, which is the zealous people that is longing to bring the prophecies to fulfillment through the observance of Torah. Thanks to E. P. Sander's revolutionary work on covenantal nomism, Wright was also convinced that the early Judaism was not a religion that achieves salvation by works (proto-Pelagian). However, the lack of argument for the supposedly zealous Saul yet at the same time Torah-centered, and how these Pharisees evolved to believe these theology, may be detrimental to his argumentation.

With the conversion of Saul, Wright defines gospel as the royal proclamation that Jesus is the King, unlike our common conception of the meaning of the word gospel. This understanding of the gospel is hence not only the way of how people get saved, but also the announcement that Jesus has overthrown the power of evil. The long-awaited climactic moment in history has come and it also implies that those who hear the gospel should submit to the kingship of Jesus. In his proclamation of gospel, Paul is thus acting as the herald/messenger, officially sent by God himself, to make every knee bow to the King.

On the core of his argument is how Judaism Saul continues to Christian Paul in terms of their theology. For this, Wright meticulously starts from the understanding of justification and eschatology for the people in Saul's time. Justification for the Jews is a law-court term, that God as a judge will vindicate God's people from the accusation brought by their plaintiff. This understanding of God's justice as vindicating his people is different from our common understanding of justice. Unfortunately, Wright does not provide a solid argument in justifying this unconventional justice that underlies his main thesis.

Yet this event (justification) is also eschatological, which is the climactic moment for Israel's history. For the exilic Israel, this event will be the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, the redemption from the exile by the Messiah. Wright then relates between faith, justification and covenant. He understands the coming of Jesus Christ as the righteousness of God, which is the faithfulness of God to his covenant despite the unfaithfulness of his people. Jesus then stands as the true Israelite, fulfilling the covenant of God.

Wright then asks the right question: who is the member of this God's people? Relating this back to the law-court sense, the true children of Abraham then was given the righteousness from God through faith, which is the badge of membership for the true people of God. Righteousness in the Hebrew law court then, was not a measure of moral upright, but it was the status given by the judge. Wright was very shrewd here to build his argument that this faith is not work, as the people come to the membership through the covenantal initiative of God. For Judaism however, the badge of this membership was Torah, but for Christians the badge was faith in Jesus Christ.

Wright's main thesis in the book, has attempted to bridge the theology of justification and eschatology in a Jewish sense into the Christian one, understood through the coming of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the covenant. This covenant, properly understood, was a mean of God's saving act, not only to Israel, but also to whole humankind. Not forgetting the aspect of love, Wright beautifully remarks that God's justice was God's love in action. This whole theology was then seen as one, which stems from Paul's Jewish background that was renewed and empowered by the fulfillment of the covenant, the coming of Jesus Christ. Wright has been successful here in giving a strong argument that Paul was not the founder of Christianity; he didn't abandon his Jewishness to embrace Christianity, he simply continued his Jewish belief that has now been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The remainder of the book was dedicated for the application of this theological construct: the renewed humanity. Here Paul has the vision of the church, as the embodiment of Christ, that is characterized by love, holiness, worship, and mission. Wright's book as a whole has exquisitely blended the theological aspect into the church life. An attempt to provide a complete understanding of justification, righteousness, eschatology, and the gospel is defined according to St. Paul's thought. In addition, most of his arguments are well-written and highly suggestive. This book has shed a new light in the studies of Pauline theology and made an excellent attempt to rediscover what St. Paul really said.

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