Wright on the Psychology of Pauline Authorship

N.T. Wright suggests that behind Paul’s theology in Philemon, there lies a greater story of reconciled slaves – the exodus event. As an aside to this observation, he takes the opportunity to make an insightful hermeneutical comment about coordinating the context and the psychology of the human authors of Scripture. He argues that, in order to yield fruitful exegetical (and even systematic) results, we need to be willing to take interpretative risks with the author’s intention.  He comments,

“No doubt some will insist that to detect an [exodus] allusion [in Philemon] like this is out of order; that only those biblical echoes may be allowed which we can be sure Paul’s intended audience would certainly have recognized. But that is (to be frank) not how most writers write, and we may be confident that it is not how Paul thought. Take that route, and there will be nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon. Take, though, the risk of assuming that the texts’ footfalls echo in the memory of one familiar with them from boyhood; assume that there are indeed times when one can find the mind’s construction in the phrase; and the reward may be not only an insight into the way Paul’s mind worked but also a sudden clarity about what he was really saying in this particular instance.”[1]

We have been warned against the practice of psychologizing an author in order to find the meaning in his/her text, but we must keep in mind that, as Schleiermacher concisely states, “the task of hermeneutics consists in reproducing, as completely as possible, the entire inner course of the writer’s activity in composing.”[2] The shortcomings of Wright and Schleiermacher aside, we always implement a presupposition about the role of the psychology of the human author of an inspired text in our exegesis. Perhaps a helpful step forward in understanding the proper place of psychology in exegesis would be to at least admit what that presupposition is about the psychology of the human author, and what role it plays in our exegetical process. To what degree is it determinative? Normative? Prescriptive?

It seems to me that, whatever other disciplines we use to supplement our understanding of a meaning in a text (history, lexicography, morphology, sociology, etc.), and whatever philosophical approach we bring to the concept of the author (conceding its death, structuralism, post-structuralism, etc.), the entry point for exegesis must always be the “inner course of the writer’s activity in composing.”


[1] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 4 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 14.

[2] Freidrich Schleiermacher, “Über den Begriff der Hermeneutik,” in Hermeneutik und Kritik, 321. See Jean Grondin’s helpful discussion in Introduction to Philosophical Hermentics, Yale Studies in Hermeneutics, trans. Joel Weinsheimer (Yale University Press, 1994), 72-73.

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