Thursday, October 24, 2013

N.T. Wright on Philemon (from new book PFG)

From Scot McKnight who has access to the as-yet unreleased book (note: several more sneak previews on his blog here):

 ...[the book begins] in a most surprising place, with Philemon. That little letter often ignored. But Wright opens up with a letter from Pliny the Younger writing to a friend about a runaway freedman and then Wright compares that letter with Paul’s letter to a friend, Philemon, about his “wandering” (not quite runaway) slave who had become a Christian while Paul, of all places, was in prison in Ephesus … all to show that instead of hierarchy and power and benevolence we’ve got brotherhood and family and love and forgiveness. In other words, a “world apart” (6).
Instead of a fugitive Onesimus is a brother and Paul’s own son. In those terms we see the heart of the Pauline experiment of grace flowing in all directions. Paul’s word is “fellowship”: he is creating a new family, or God is creating a new family, that includes people from all tribes and nationalities and statuses. Gone, then, is the power hierarchy so typical of Rome.
Wright has a wrinkle on “for ever,” where he sees a possible looking back to the Pentateuch in which a slave could choose to be a slave forever by refusing manumission. Wright then suggests Onesimus will say Please let me back and I will serve you forever. And then v. 21 might suggest manumission as the far reach of what Philemon can do.
Classic paragraph from Tom Wright:
These discussions about the actual situation and the request Paul made have tended, as I said, to make exegetes overlook the point which is just as important in its way as the question of what Paul was asking for, namely the argument he uses to back up this central appeal. In order to make his triple (and increasingly cautious) request, Paul adopts a strategy so striking in its social and cultural implications, so powerful in its rhetorical appeal, and so obviously theologically grounded, that despite the chorus of dismis- sive voices ancient and modern the letter can hold up its head, like Reepi- cheep the Mouse beside the talking bears and elephants, alongside its senior but not theologically superior cousins, Romans, Galatians and the rest (16).
What we have then is a radical revisioning the monotheism and power on the basis of the cross and resurrection’s power to create one new body in Christ. It’s all about learning to think through this thing called “worldview”, as Tom says it:
In particular, this way of approaching the matter explains why the tendency since at least medieval times in the western church to organize Paul’s concepts around his vision of ‘salvation’ in particular has distorted the larger picture, has marginalized elements which were central and vital to him, and – because this ‘salvation’ has often been understood in a dualistic, even Platonic, fashion – has encouraged a mode of study in which Paul and his soteriology is seen in splendid isolation from his historical context. Paul experienced ‘salvation’ on the road to Damascus, people suppose; his whole system of thought grew from that point; so we do not need to consider how he relates to the worlds of Israel, Greece or Rome! How very convenient. And how very untrue. If we take that route, a supposed ‘Pauline soteriology’ will swell to a distended size and, like an oversized airline traveller, end up sitting not only in its own seat but in those on either side as well. In particular, it will become dangerously self-referential: the way to be saved is by believing, but the main theological point Paul taught was soteriology, so the way to be saved is by believing in Pauline soteriology (‘justification by faith’). For Paul, that would be a reductio ad absurdum. The way to be saved is not by believing that one is saved. In Paul’s view, the way to be saved is by believing in Jesus as the crucified and risen lord. …
The hypothesis I offer in this book is that we can find just such a vantage- point when we begin by assuming that Paul remained a deeply Jewish theologian who had rethought and reworked every aspect of his native Jewish theology in the light of the Messiah and the spirit, resulting in his own vocational self-understanding as the apostle to the pagans LINK

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