Paul and the Faithfulness of Tom: A Conversation with Wright’s Christology of Yahweh’s Return

Tom Wright puts forward the “YHWH’s return” paradigm, which emphasizes the narrative of the return of Israel’s God to Zion in accounting for the deity of Jesus the Messiah (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [abbreviated as PFG in what follows], chaps. 9–11). With his “YHWH’s return to Zion” paradigm, which decidedly takes Bauckham’s “eschatological monotheism” (the term appearing in Bauckham, “God Crucified”), Wright claims that Paul understood the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit as fulfilling the ancient Jewish hope for YHWH’s personal return to Zion, expressed often in the terms and language of the exodus (cf. Isa 40—55).

The link between Paul’s divine Christology and the theme of YHWH’s return to Zion itself is intriguing. While there is much to commend about Wright’s approach, we can highlight two key strengths with respect to his broader project. First, Wright’s discussion of Paul’s Christology is wide-ranging and impressive, for it is able to relate Christology to suffering, ecclesiology, pneumatology, the Kingdom of God, and the problem of evil, among other topics. Second, more importantly, Wright’s holistic, integrative effort to bridge the discussions of Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology is commendable, given that often scholars have separated their exploration of Christology from other components constructing the apostle’s theology.

While Wright’s account contributes to the discussion of Pauline divine Christology in the manners just mentioned, it also seems to contain several problems. First, given that Wright adopts Bauckham’s divine identity paradigm (and then nuances it from the angle of YHWH’s return to Zion), we should direct to Wright a criticism normally raised for Bauckham’s use of “divine identity.” Since the term “identity” is not drawn directly from primary sources (i.e., Scripture or Second Temple Jewish literature) but is, instead, what Bauckham himself has coined, it is surprising that a scholar of Wright’s caliber has not made much effort to justify his adoption of that term (Cf. Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?, 144).

Second, although YHWH’s return to Zion was expected by many Second Temple Jews, it is not clear whether the majority believed that they themselves were still in exile while living back in their homeland. Wright does not seem to sufficiently consider diversity within first-century Judaism at this point. Some circles might have held this view proposed by Wright, but it is unclear whether that would apply to the bulk of first-century Jews. Also, as Timo Laato has pointed out, Wright’s language appears to be exaggerative, if not too simplistic, especially when equating (a) socio-political oppressions and limitations that Second Temple Jews experienced with (b) an “exile.” Those oppressions and limitations were certainly present at different points. However, whether Second Temple Jews identified those experiences as an “exile” is another matter or at least a matter at another level. While recognizing that the concept may possibly be present without the word itself, it is noteworthy that the New Testament does not explicitly speak of “exile” except one place (Matt 1:1-17, esp. vv. 11-17). Such rarity does not seem to work well with Wright’s assertation that first-century Jews were regarding them as still exiled. Various degrees and extents of oppression and problems were certainly there among the Second-Temple Jews, but those experiences cannot and should not be too hastily equated with an “exile.” To demonstrate that this notion is central to Paul (and the NT), Wright should answer the question of why, then, Paul (and the NT) does not express it often.

A few other issues should also be pointed out. To begin with, while Wright emphasizes that, in and as Jesus the Messiah, YHWH has returned to Zion, thus binding the identities of the two, he does not seem to give due attention to how Paul distinguishes Jesus from the Father. A more balanced and nuanced account would be appreciated in this regard (cf. Hurtado, “YHWH’s Return to Zion: A New Catalyst for Earliest High Christology,” 429–30). Moreover, it should be noted that Wright’s formulation of Paul’s divine Christology around a singular, narrow focus, i.e., YHWH’s return to Zion, seems to be reductionistic and is liable to all-or-nothing sort of fallacy. As Hurtado has observed, Wright has likely overstated the significance of the OT promise of YHWH’s return to as the “key initial christological resource appropriated in earliest Christian circles” (420). Across Paul’s writings and the rest of the NT, the language of YHWH’s return seems more frequently applied to the second coming of the Messiah rather than his first coming, and, if so, taking YHWH’s return in the person and ministry of Jesus in the first century does not seem to holistically capture the overall thrust of the NT/Pauline writings (430–32). Although one may apply here the notion of “already but not yet” and such an application seems to have some validity, more frequent use of YHWH’s return with reference to the Parousia necessitates a question that Wright himself should answer.

This paper contributes to the current conversations on Paul’s Christology and the related discussions on the core thrust for a divine view of Jesus by interacting carefully with one of the most influential proposals after Bauckham and Hurtado, namely, Tom Wright’s “YHWH’s return to Zion” Christology applied to Pauline (and NT) writings.

4 thoughts on “Paul and the Faithfulness of Tom: A Conversation with Wright’s Christology of Yahweh’s Return”

  1. Paul and the Faithfulness of Tom
    Although the paper focuses on the Christological claims of one of the world’s most preeminent NT scholars (N.T. Wright), it is questionable whether Wright’s assertions on this topic are sufficiently popular to warrant such attention and discussion.

    Reply
    • Paul and the Faithfulness of Tom
      Some things of interest here, but the exile debate has been covered a lot. An approach to Christ’s deity which looked at various options and added something fresh would have been better

      Reply

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