N. T. Wright, History, and the Bible

I am utterly astounded that an author of the renown of N. T. Wright would so completely ignore and/or distort the historical and biblical facts simply to maintain a pet theory. That the assumptions and sweeping claims of E. P. Sanders—claims that have formed the foundation of the New Perspective on Paul—have been so completely demonstrated to be false should still be employed as a foundation for Wright’s theories is absolutely beyond understanding. As D. A. Carson puts it, “Several of the scholars [in the book sited below] found that at least parts of their respective corpora could be usefully described as reflecting covenantal nomism. One conclusion to be drawn, then, is not that Sanders is wrong everywhere, but he is wrong when he tries to establish that his category is right everywhere [D. A. Carson, “Summaries and Conclusions,” in The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, vol. 1, Justification and Variegated Nomism, ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 543.]. Once it has been shown that Sanders’ claims do not characterize all, or even most, of Second Temple Judaism, any interpreter must put forward strong evidence that Sanders’ covenantal nomism is in fact the background against which Paul should be interpreted, evidence that is completely absent and is not forthcoming. It seems that some prominent persons are simply so far beyond the possibility of admitting when they were wrong that they will take whatever means to salvage their reputations and hang on to their pet theories (please pardon me for being so critical, but I am just utterly aggravated that this kind of writing—or Wrighting—is continually foisted upon a reading Christian public when the overwhelming evidence has so clearly proven that he is wrong).

In order to justify his claims about the definition of the phrase “the righteousness of God” as “God’s covenant faithfulness,” in his book, What Saint Paul Really Said, N. T. Wright launches into such a remarkable case of historical and exegetical gymnastics as to boggle the mind. After describing a “Hebrew law court” scene that has historical foundation neither in history nor in the Bible, Wright argues,

What happens, then, when we put the covenantal meaning of God’s righteousness together with the metaphorical level drawn from the law-court scene? God, of course, is the judge. Israel comes before him to plead her case against the wicked pagans who are oppressing her. She longs for her case to come to court, for God to hear it, and, in his own righteousness, to deliver her from her enemies. She longs, that is, to be justified, acquitted, vindicated. And, because the God who is the judge is also her covenant God, she pleads with him: be faithful to your covenant! Vindicate me in your righteousness! [N. T. Wright. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997),  98–99].

Before we look at the above claim, let us consider what Wright says as a preface to his mischaracterization of the Hebrew law court. First, he says, “For a reader of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, ‘the righteousness of God’ would have one obvious meaning: God’s own faithfulness to his promises, to the covenant” [Ibid., 92]. Of course, there is simply no justification for such a claim. Wright refers to “Isaiah 40–55” as if this were somehow evidence for his claim, but he fails to produce any statements or point to any specific passage(s) in this wide range of material that would support his assertions. Later he says, “There are many other passages which support this reading of ‘God’s righteousness’; for instance, the great prayer of Daniel 9” [Ibid., 96]. Of course, Daniel 9 offers no such support for Wright’s claims (it is understandable that Wright would not point to any particular verses since there are not any to which he could point). If anything, the prayer of Daniel in chapter 9 argues decidedly against Wright’s claims. Daniel points out several times that God is righteous and that is why Israel is desolated and destroyed. Because God is righteous, He has brought destruction up Israel because they have “we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances” (Dan. 9:5).

When it comes to Daniel’s supplications, Daniel does not call upon God’s righteousness since it is because of God’s righteousness that Israel is in the state of destruction and exile: “Righteousness belongs to You, O Lord, but to us open shame, as it is this day” (Dan. 9:7). Rather, Daniel calls upon God’s compassion and forgiveness: “To the Lord our God compassion and forgiveness . . .” (Dan. 9:9). So, neither Daniel nor any other biblical passages support Wright’s claim that the righteousness of God should be understood to mean God’s covenant faithfulness. In fact, that God remains true to His covenant promises is based on the fact that He is righteous. God’s righteousness is the foundation of His covenant faithfulness. As Mark Seifrid points out, “All ‘covenant keeping’ is righteous behavior, but not all righteous behavior is ‘covenant keeping.’ It is misleading, therefore, to speak of ‘God’s righteousness’ as his ‘covenant faithfulness.’ It would be closer to the biblical language to speak of ‘faithfulness’ as ‘covenant righteousness’” [Mark A. Seifrid, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism,” in The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, vol. 1, Justification and Variegated Nomism, ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 424].

Wright talks about the Old Testament law court as a way of understanding his sense of the phrase “God’s righteousness.” He says, “In the lawcourt as envisaged in the OT, all cases were considered ‘civil’ rather than ‘criminal’; accuser and defendant pleaded their causes before a judge. ‘Righteousness’ was the status of the successful party when the case had been decided; ‘acquitted’ does not quite catch this, since that term applies only to the successful defendant, whereas if the accusation was upheld the accuser would be ‘righteous.’ ‘Vindicated’ is thus more appropriate. The word is not basically to do with morality or behavior, but rather with status in the eyes of the court—even though, once someone had been vindicated, the word ‘righteous’ would thus as it were work backward, coming to denote not only the legal status at the end of the trial but also the behavior that had occasioned this status” [Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Romans.” In Acts, Introduction to Epistolary Literature, Romans, 1 Corinthians, vol. 10, The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 398–99]. In a footnote to this paragraph, Wright refers to Gen. 38:26: “A good example of this can be seen in Genesis 38:26, when Judah acknowledges that his daughter-in-law Tamar is in the right and he is in the wrong. This states a legal position; only secondarily, and by implication, does it comment on the morality of their respective behavior” [Ibid., 399,n5]. Wright’s characterization of the story of Judah and Tamar is, however, quite incorrect. The problem arose as a result of Tamar’s behavior, which was, because of her pregnancy, interpreted by others as the result of “playing the harlot” (ht;nÒz:, za4nt`a4h). According to the standard Hebrew lexicon, the verb hnz (znh) indicates “to become involved with another man, to commit fornication (as wife, betrothed) Gn 3824” [The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (2001), s.v. hnz.”]. The entire episode concerns the behavior of Tamar which has been identified as “playing the harlot.” When it is revealed that Tamar was pregnant by Judah, Judah acknowledges the unrighteousness of his own behavior, as he says, “She is more righteous than I;” Why is Tamar more righteous that Judah? Judah identifies his unrighteousness as his lack of action: “inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” It is precisely because of their relative behaviors that one is acknowledged as more righteous than the other. Additionally, the characterization of “more” makes sense only in terms of an absolute standard of moral conduct. Judah is able to acknowledge Tamar as “more righteous” because of the absolute standard of moral conduct by which each is judged. Wright has not only got the idea of God’s righteousness wrong, his example works against his own claims.

The supposed background to Wright’s claim that we quoted earlier in fact is a factually incorrect report of the actual historical background. Wright claims, “God, of course, is the judge. Israel comes before him to plead her case against the wicked pagans who are oppressing her. She longs for her case to come to court, for God to hear it, and, in his own righteousness, to deliver her from her enemies” [Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 98]. The problem with this characterization, or rather, mischaracterization, is that Israel is not standing before God pleading her case against the wicked pagans. In fact, God, as the Judge, is charging Israel with going after the pagan nations and abandoning the covenant. Israel is not “righteous” and longing for God to hear her case. God is the one who is bringing the case against Israel who is unrighteous, as Daniel said and as the other prophets repeatedly declared. In order to attempt to hold on to his discredited theory, it seems that N. T. Wright will go to any lengths, even distorting the historical and biblical facts.

About Tom Howe

Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages at Southern Evangelical Seminary
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2 Responses to N. T. Wright, History, and the Bible

  1. Tom Brant says:

    I have to wonder what motivates someone like the author of this post to demean and discredit the world’s most highly respected Biblical scholar. Every other sentence is a statement like “Wright says X, and X has absolutely been shown to be false.” These kinds of statements are very brittle and indicate that the author of this post has his own pet theories to defend. Anyone who has read Dr. Wright’s works extensively knows he is a thorough, learned, and brilliant biblical scholar, despite what’s being propounded here.

    • humblesmith says:

      I can assure you that Dr. Howe is fully capable in his own right and knows the issues about which he speaks. No scholar is above being questioned. Ignore the brittleness and judge the claims in the post on their own merits.

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