Paul, N.T. Wright, and What About MJ’s?

I am at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in New Orleans with about 8,000 scholars and students of Bible, theology, archaeology, and so on.

Last night, I asked N.T. Wright a question in front of 1,000 scholars.

For those unaware of N.T. Wright (how could you be?), he is perhaps the best-known theologian in the world. If you are having a television story on historical Jesus or Paul issues, you will most likely want to have N.T. Wright featured. His popular level books sell in high numbers (The Challenge of Jesus, Surprised by Hope, Justification, etc.). His trilogy (The NT and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and Resurrection and the Son of God) is core work to be reckoned with.

Wright gave a lecture and took questions on the subject of justification in the thought of Paul. The idea is how we are justified or made right in the sight of God. Since the room was full of scholars who have an awareness of traditions and schools of thought already, Wright mostly summarized how he came to his views.

He started with a view, in his evangelical youth, that he now recognizes as mostly Lutheran in character. The Jews in the Old Testament earned their way by law-keeping, it didn’t work, now God has given us plan B called grace. That’s pretty close to the way Wright described it.

The moral anarchy of the 1960’s led Wright to question a view of law that is so negative.

He then read Calvin and became converted to a more positive view of law. From Calvin he learned that God’s way with humanity is one way and not two or three or a series of dispensations. And law was given as a gift to those who were already redeemed, who had already walked through the water and had the promised land to look forward to. Law is for believers. Wright didn’t mention it, but the way this view works out in practice is that only the so-called moral laws of the Pentateuch apply today.

To make a long story short, Wright’s ideas became sharpened when he considered Romans 10:3, “Because they disregarded the righteousness from God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness.”

A thought occurred to Wright. The righteousness of their own is not fastidious law-keeping as Luther and others had assumed. It is the idea that Jewish identity in and of itself makes one righteous or acceptable to God. The problem with this idea is that Gentiles will never be able to be right with God unless they become, through circumcision and conversion, Jews.

Wright’s understanding now of justification, which falls into the category of the New Perspective on Paul (a category in which there is still variation, but which views Paul as a faithful Jew), includes the following:

(1) Being “in Christ” is more important for Paul than justification.

(2) Present justification is God’s announcement that currently he grants the verdict of innocence to all who believe.

(3) Future or final justification will be a judgment by works a la Romans 2:6-7 (the synoptic gospels also, 2 Corinthians 5, James, and many other places also).

(4) Paul’s great concern is for the total unity of the people of Messiah as one congregation.

I am with Wright on most of these points. The problem for me comes in how we apply the last one.

Wright has not thoroughly thought through some issues here. In his Anglican context it is easy for him to see a single community without distinctions perhaps.

But what about Jewish people who follow Yeshua.

So here was my question, “What about Messianic Jews? How do you see this working out for us who desire to be faithful to Torah and Christ so that our yes to Jesus is not a no to God?”

First, let me say that Wright was gracious and sensitive. He said that this issue calls for dialogue between Messianic Jews and Christians. He said the church has treated Messianic Jews badly, either as an embarrassment for those who see Jews as having their own covenant and path to God or as heterodox by those who denounce Torah observance.

Yet on a more disappointing note, Wright said that unity is too important for Paul for him to imagine a separate body of Messianic Jews in relation to the church. I say this is disappointing because Torah life is not possible without a community of shared values and Messianic Jews cannot give up connection to the broader Jewish world. A bilateral ecclesiology is necessary (the idea that the congregation of Messiah has two distinct parts: the Jewish and Gentile branches).

On an even more disappointing note, Wright said that even for Jews who follow Yeshua, we have to realize some of the Torah has been set aside. This is not because Torah was bad or insufficient, but that some measures were temporary due to the hardness of hearts. But Jesus, he said, has brought a cure for that hardness rendering such laws unnecessary.

I don’t think he thought this answer through carefully. It would be strange, for example, to argue that circumcision and Sabbath are now unnecessary since hearts are no longer hardened. Perhaps if we’d had more time, Wright could have clarified. Perhaps he views Sabbath and circumcision as still important for Jews who follow Yeshua. If so, I wonder if he has considered that Messianic Jews need their own community.

My point in sharing all this here is to say that Christian theology, in many places, is moving closer to a Torah-friendly view and away from supersessionism. I don’t think Wright has fully made the journey. Others have gone further. But he is trying and is sensitive to anti-Judaism in church theology. He did mention in his remarks that he agreed it is important for Messianic Jews to be faithful to God’s calling. I hope this indicates he is at least conflicted about what that should look like.

Meanwhile, the Old Perspective on Paul, which equates law-keeping with legalism, is shrinking, and this is a good thing.

Perhaps we are seeing in our days the beginning of the coming together of Christians and Jews. A relationship between faithful Jews and Christians must increase. Here at the Society of Biblical Literature, I am encouraged to see the interaction.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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23 Responses to Paul, N.T. Wright, and What About MJ’s?

  1. rebyosh says:

    Interesting. I so wish I was able to be there this year. But, oh well … maybe next!

  2. timfretheim says:

    Derek, my brother in law has written on Paul. I am sending him your comments. Very insightful. You have raised some questions I need more thought on – such as, how do I say yes to Jesus without No to God? Good work. Tim

  3. mjgot says:

    I agree that Messianic Jews must remain a part of broader Judaism. To many this position seems like building a wall of division in the Body of Messiah, but as I have seen for a great many years in Messianic congregations THERE ARE SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES. I think theologians need to give everyone the permission to be who G-d has called each one to be so the work of the Kingdom can come to fruition.

  4. judahgabriel says:

    Very interesting! Cool that you got your Messianic question in front of a big NT scholar.

    N.T. Wright is dead on – unity is broken when we venture down the path that calls for Jews to worship separate from gentiles. Messianic orgs should be aware of this and temper the “shun the gentiles” sentiment that is currently fashionable.

    • “Messianic orgs should be aware of this and temper the “shun the gentiles” sentiment that is currently fashionable.”

      Don’t worry Judah, one thing that the majority of MJs seem to agree on is that we only want to shun those who go around claiming to be Jews or Israelites (physical or otherwise) when they are in fact not, as well as those who teach that Gentiles must observe Israel’s Mosaic Law and take on Jewish religious and cultural markers (thereby seeking to obliterate a distinct Jewish identity). Everyone else is welcome (as long as they continue to respect the nature and mission of our community).

      Besides that, it seems that at least in Mr. Wright’s case unity means blending into the universal Christian (and by default Gentile) religious and cultural environment. This is a standard message of Christianity since 2nd century and by itself nothing new. Considering that non-Jews represent the majority of the Church, any distinct religious expressions of Jewishness would be minimized (as history so succinctly proves) and trivialized by default in the name of unity for the sake of majority, and eventually disappear all together (again, as history teaches us).

      • tnnonline says:

        Gene, I am just curious, have you ever read any of the works of Bishop Wright? Surely as one who has been associated as the C.S. Lewis of the Twenty-First Century, and as a responsible and well read congregational leader, you do know of him?

      • judahgabriel says:

        Hey Gene,

        I believe God’s commandments are good instruction for all God’s people. And yes, gentiles are part of Israel through Messiah.

        It is sad that people like me would be shunned in some congregations for these Scriptural convictions, but at the same time, I know God will work this out as the Messianic movement matures.

      • “It is sad that people like me would be shunned in some congregations for these Scriptural convictions, but at the same time, I know God will work this out as the Messianic movement matures.”

        I agree, G-d will work things out, although the maturity will come (in my opinion), when both Jews and Gentiles in the Body are comfortable in their “own skin” (can be themselves) and yet still work together towards the common goal(which ushering the Kingdom of G-d).

      • judahgabriel says:

        Agreed. Shalom, Gene.

  5. judeoxian says:

    Awesome Derek, simply awesome. I’ve never read NT Wright’s take on Messianic Judaism. It is good to hear his comments. But you’re right, I don’t know if he’s thought through the MJ issue as much as folks like us have. So, we’ll give him time :). But that idea that parts of Torah were “set aside” by Jesus, that has got to go.

  6. christian4moses says:

    Great stuff man! Were there any other sessions of particular relevance to MJ? Like the one on the Didache?

  7. christian4moses:

    I went to one of the Didache sessions. I was happy to find that current Didache scholarship sees it as a Jewish-Christian work and that the prayer is considered to come from the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after meals) of Jewish tradition. I did not know if this was an accepted theory and I am glad to find that it is. They talked about the anti-synagogue polemic in the Didache and the blatant anti-Judaism of Barnabas.


  8. jroush81 says:

    I’m glad that you were able to ask this question, though disappointed w/ the answer.
    Perhaps an “open letter to N.T. Wright” on the basis of ‘The God Of Israel and Christian Theology’ is in order. I would love to hear/see his thoughts on what Soulen offers up in this book.

    My overarching problem with Wright’s view is that it ultimately calls for the disintigration of the wonderful cultures that God has established here on earth.
    Sure, on a micro level we can make it specifically about Judaism, but the jewish culture isn’t the only one that God has created.
    An ultimate homogenization of all peoples is not what I think God is moving toward…


    • tnnonline says:

      There are always challenges when you set the ideal that there is to be a united people of God, and you fail to balance that there is going to be diversity within such a people. I believe that the premise of a united people of God should be based on the principle of mutual submission, where we strive to serve and respect one another.

      Commenting on Colossians 3:11, I think some of the thoughts of F.F. Bruce are well taken:

      “Natural and racial idiosyncrasies may survive, but in such a way as to contribute to the living variety of the people of Christ, not so as to create or perpetuate any difference in spiritual status” (NICNT: Col-Phlmn-Eph, p 149).

      Proper cultural diversity within the Body of Messiah should be encouraged–especially given the Jewish origins of our faith. Diversity within the Body of Messiah is to enable it to accomplish the Divine mandate of being a blessing, and recognize that all cultures have their strong and weak points, requiring us to learn from one another.

      • jroush81 says:

        “difference in spiritual status”…

        what is being referred to here? saved
        vs. unsaved? or is it not soteriological at all and more referring to everyone being of the same “communion”?

        I don’t know that I can put much stock in the idea of everyone having the same expression, if that is what he is espousing.

  9. tnnonline :
    Gene, I am just curious, have you ever read any of the works of Bishop Wright?

    J.K., my readings of N.T. Wright works can only be described as superficial (mainly the materials available online, short articles, etc.). However, my comment on how he “seem”s to me is based on his response to Derek, which indicated, in Derek’s own words, that it was “easy for him to see a single community without distinctions…”


  10. tnnonline says:


    You’d obviously need to evaluate the different opinions present on Colossians 3:11, in both Bruce’s and other commentaries. The basic point in the verse is that the power of Yeshua to change people knows no ethnic or cultural boundaries. The transforming power of the gospel is the common demoninator for those within the Body of Messiah, and everything else is second to this. Yet, within the Body of Messiah, there is going to be a natural diversity of ethnicities and cultures–and I would argue for a dominant Jewish flavor within that diversity–which should still all contribute to our usefulness in heralding God’s Kingdom and the parousia.

    I hope this clarifies what I was quoting from.

  11. yeze says:

    Very interesting!

  12. yeze says:

    Wright holds to an interpretation of Colossians 2 which would deny Messianic Jews any sense of religious or cultural identity as Jews. Wright writes:

    ‘You have already been circumcised, says Paul (v.11); the Torah has nothing more to say to you, following the Messiah’s cross (v. 14); you died and rose again, just as in Galatians 2 (2:20; 3:1), and you must let that redefined identity determine your path to holiness, rather than hoping to attain that goal by taking upon yourselves the regulations of Torah (2.16-23). In other words (v.8), don’t let anyone lead you away captive. But the word Paul uses for ‘lead away captive’ the very rare sylagogon, seems, like the equivalent words in Philippians 3, to be a contemptuous pun. All you have to do is invert the lambda (in cursive writing) or add a stroke to it (in capitals) and you get synagogon: συλαγωγων/συναγωγων; ΣYΛAΓΩΓΩN/ΣYNAΓΩΓΩN; in other words, ‘don’t let anyone en-synagogue you, drag you into the synagogue.’[N.T. Wright Paul In Fresh Perspective (First Fortress Press, 2005) p.127]

    This argument is easily undermined: it would be wrong of me to suggest for example that if you take the author’s name, cross out the ‘W’ and insert an ‘O’ between the ‘N’ and the ‘T’, then the Bishop of Durham is ‘Not Right’! In any case the word synagogon (συvαγωγω) is used in James 2:2 to denote a place of worship for followers of Yeshua. So Wright’s comments about the synagogue seem a bit unfair.

    • tnnonline says:

      This point of view is reflected in his Colossians-Philemon commentary (TNTC) as well. Wright and Dunn both take the view that the Colossians were being persuaded to join the Synagogue, and that Paul considers Judaism to be just another human “philosophy.”

      Contrary to this, Bruce (NICNT), O’Brien (WBC), and Moo (Pillar) see a pagan-Jewish-proto-Gnostic amalgamation of errors unique to the Lycus Valley to compose the false philosophy refuted in Colossians, with which I would concur. Wright is pretty much alone in his “en-synagogue” conclusions.

  13. Pingback: Derek Leman meets N.T. Wright « The Rosh Pina Project

  14. jonboze says:

    “Wright said that even for Jews who follow Yeshua, we have to realize some of the Torah has been set aside. This is not because Torah was bad or insufficient, but that some measures were temporary due to the hardness of hearts. But Jesus, he said, has brought a cure for that hardness rendering such laws unnecessary.”

    It seems to me as though he was indirectly referencing Matthew 19 when he said that. If that was his intent, I think it’s self defeating.

    Matthew 19:8-9: He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

    Divorce is the annulment of the marriage contract. By rendering that law unneccessary, Yeshua was actually strengthening the contract itself. He removed an escape clause. If we take this example and apply it to the whole Torah as Wright seems to be doing, we actually come away with a much less forgiving framework than previously, not a more lenient one.

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