Monday, 30 June 2014

N.T. Wright, Ben Meyer, and Paul of Tarsus

N.T. Wright's admiration for Ben Meyer and Meyer's critical realism (which is itself of the Lonerganian variety) is well-documented. He mentions it throughout the series Christian Origins and the Question of God, of which the two volumes of Paul and the Faithfulness of God are collectively the fourth volume, and he also wrote the introduction to the 2002 reprint of Meyer's 1979 work, Aims of Jesus. Wright acknowledges a crucial debt to Meyer, from whom he derives the term "critical realism" to describe his own work. Thus I find it truly surprising that, despite Wright's familiarity with and appreciation for Meyer's work, despite adverting to Meyer as the source of the term by which he describes his entire approach to the New Testament, in Faithfulness of God Wright fails altogether to engage with Meyer's work on Paul.

Now, it is certainly the case that Meyer is better known for his contributions to historical Jesus studies than to Pauline studies. This, I think, is unfortunate. Yes, his best-known work, Aims of Jesus from 1979, is in my mind as well as Wright's one of the most important contributions ever made to historical Jesus scholarship, and in fact it was in reading that monograph that I began on the course of investigation that has led to my own interest in Lonergan and Lonerganian thought. Yet I think his later study, The Early Christians: Their World Mission and Self-Discovery from 1986, is in fact an even stronger work. In Aims Meyer at times seems to be yet struggling to to fully integrate his highly robust hermeneutical reflections with his equally robust exegetical work; seven years later, when he writes Early Christians, he seems to have resolved many of those struggles. That is to say, like any great thinkers, Meyer had a mind that was in progress and thus problems that baffled him at one point in time no longer do so at a later point.

The neglect of Meyer's thought on Paul probably has to do with the fact that Meyer never wrote a monograph specifically devoted to Paul. Due to a protracted illness, which from what I understand began around the time that he wrote Early Christians, this volume ended up being his last major empirically-oriented study. There would be other volumes, but these would be focused on hermeneutics and tended to retread ground that he had already covered in previous publications. As such, even if it had been his intent to write a monograph more specifically focused on Paul, in the end he lacked the time and energy to produce one. Among the great losses to contemporary New Testament studies are the works that Meyer never got to write.

Still, Early Christians contains not a little insight into Paul of Tarsus. What is interesting about Early Christians is that whereas recent scholarship is focused upon Paul's grounding in Judaism Meyer is more interested in considering how Paul contributed to the development of Christian identity and self-definition. Now, the focus upon Paul's Jewishness has constituted a necessary corrective to older narratives that identified him as a source of discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity. Yet in emphasizing Paul's Jewishness one must be careful not simply to identify a comparable discontinuity in the post-Pauline period. Otherwise one ends up either with Christianity being discontinuous with its Jewish antecedents, with the question merely being whether it was Paul who introduced this discontinuity. Meyer's perspective allows us to recognize that the movement from Second Temple Judaism and to what emerges eventually as orthodox Christianity was developmental, which is to say that it entailed a series of transformations lacking any discernible discontinuity.

Wright offers a decent if perhaps overly wordy (does it really have to weigh in at 1700 pages? I mean, really?) account of how Paul's work and thought represent developments within a Jewish milieu. What I would have liked to have seen, what Meyer began to give us in Early Christians, is a fuller treatment of how Paul's work and thought contributed to the development of Christianity. How Paul built upon his antecedents is an important part of the story, but so is how he helped prep the stage for subsequent developments. And when that story is told with careful attention to both its pre-Pauline and post-Pauline parts perhaps the "parting(s) of the ways" won't seem quite so mystifying to us.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post. I am very much enjoying this blog, and hope to pick Meyer's Early Christians at some point...

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  2. It's probably the only book I've ever read three times in one month. First time I finished reading it I thought "This book is so rich, I must have missed a lot going through." So, I read it again, and having finished I thought "This book is so rich, I must have missed a lot going through." So, I read it again. Time well spent.

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  3. I'm beginning my PhD study this fall, and my research interest is in spiritual insights in Pauline thought. I'm intending to reference Meyer's and Lonergan's works as hermeneutic epistemology from the perspective of critical realism. I'd like to pick your brain in understanding the ideas of these two great scholars.

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    1. Absolutely. If you have not yet read Meyer's "Early Christians" I would heartily recommend it. As I noted above, that's where he most fully engages with Paul. Also, if you haven't read Lonergan's "Method in Theology" that's a great place to start with his thought. Anyways, please keep in touch. You can always email me directly at jbernier@mail.alumni.uwo.ca.

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  4. I'm beginning my PhD study this fall, and my research interest is in spiritual insights in Pauline thought. I'm intending to reference Meyer's and Lonergan's works as hermeneutic epistemology from the perspective of critical realism. I'd like to pick your brain in understanding the ideas of these two great scholars.

    ReplyDelete