NT Wright has an article in the latest edition of the journal Theology (115/5) entitled “Israel’s Scriptures in Paul’s Narrative Theology.”
Wright argues that rather than simply seeking to perceive “echoes” or “allusions” to Scripture in Paul, we need to perceive an engagement with a singular “narrative” of Scripture, which Paul perceives to have reached a climax with Jesus, being carried further forward in Paul’s own ministry. That is, Paul shared a certain narrative thought-world with “many second-Temple Jews” of his time – but unlike most, saw this narrative as coming to shocking fulfilment in Jesus. So in writing his letters, he inhabits the narrative thought-world as he presents Jesus as its climax
The rhetorical style of Wright’s article involves an embodiment of the hermeneutical approach that he advocates: the article is drenched with echoes and allusions to Scripture (e.g. “Forgetting what lies behind, we should strain forward for what lies ahead” – p323; “What more shall we say? Time would fail me to tell of…” – p328). One is led to perceive that the echoes and allusions only work for the reader because of a shared thought-world. One recognises that Wright has not written these things with an open Bible, searching for prooftexts to cite, but has so imbibed the thought-world of the New Testament that its language comes out naturally in his writings. I think this is quite a powerful rhetorical move.
But still, I find myself hesitant to accept Wright’s project. While I absolutely agree that efficient and productive communication depends on a shared thought-world, I think it is more fruitful to see this as shared conceptualisation rather than a shared singular narrative. For Wright, “We have to learn to read the [Pauline] quotations [of the Old Testament] in the light not only of their own original larger context but also of the still larger context which is the implicit narrative presupposed by many second-Temple Jews; and then of the Pauline context, which is… a fresh telling of Israel’s story in the light of it shocking messianic fulfilment and the convenant renewal brought about by the Spirit” (327-28).
Is Paul really always re-telling the story of Israel? Rather than insist that Paul is consistently presenting Jew-and-Gentile Christians at a singular point in a shared narrative, it would seem that Paul is able to flexibly apply the conceptual imagery of his renegotiated inheritance (e.g. “reversal”) in varied ways. Sometimes believers are those who have died and risen; other times believers are those who have died but not yet risen. Sometimes believers have attained glory; other times they have not yet attained glory. The thought-world of the Scriptures is not always expressed in ways that betray a singular narrative.
Which leads me back to the rhetoric of the article: upon reflection, one realises that Wright’s own evocations of Scripture, while depending on a shared thought-world, work in fresh and unexpected ways, but do not themselves betray a common singular narrative.