N.T. Wright, “Paul”

I generally like N.T. Wright — I have favorable posts on other books he’s written on this blogsite — and I enjoyed his biography here of St. Paul.  The book is readable and of manageable length (432 pages plus notes).  It’s straightforward in its organization, basically following Paul’s life, and necessarily discusses Paul’s letters and Acts, and also has quite a bit on Paul’s theology (sometimes more than is to my taste, but that really is not intended as a criticism, since discussing Paul without discussing his theology really is Hamlet without the prince).

Paul’s life was an amazing one, and any recounting of it could not be dull, but the best things about this biography are the historical knowledge that Wright brings to his account (which helps immeasurably in explaining what was going on), and — most of all — Wright’s analysis of Paul’s character.  Here again, it would be difficult for any sentient author to miss the fact that Paul was a remarkable man, to understate the point considerably, but as a serious Christian Wright’s discussion of the  apostle’s remarkable character is frequently not only insightful but inspiring.

I should note that one important theme of Wright’s is that Paul never stopped thinking of himself as a Jew, just one who believed that the Messiah had in fact come; this does not seem particularly controversial to me, and indeed it seems obvious from the text of the New Testament, but one reviewer suggested that it might startle some readers.

In all events, for a Christian, who — besides Jesus Himself, of course — is it more important to understand than Paul?  That, and the fact that his life was an exciting and inspiring one, and the fact that N.T. Wright is a trustworthy narrator — well, this is a book well worth reading.

Some short notes I made:

  • Daniel 9 is “one text in particular that loomed large in the minds of eager, hopeful Jews like Saul of Tarsus” (19-20) since it seems to predict a major restoration to the Jews seventy-times-seven years after the Babylonian exile, which works out to around Jesus’ time.
  • Wright has an important discussion of the meaning of the Greek word pistis (90; see also 411-14), which denotes not just faith in the sense of simple belief, but also “loyalty” or “allegiance.”  (See post on “Faith and Works” on this blogsite.)
  • We don’t know why Saul switched names to Paul, but Wright discusses some possibilities (115-16).
  • Wright notes 2 Peter’s reference to Paul’s letters as Scripture (169).
  • Paul’s appearance in Athens on the Areopagus is seen by Wright as a literal trial, which Paul wins (chapter 8).
  • Wright has an interesting discussion of the poem/hymn at Philippians 2:6-11 (272-74).
  • Romans and Colossians are the only to letters sent by Paul to churches that he had not visited (293).
  • Wright has an interesting take (314-15) on Paul’s 2 Corinthians summation of his travels:  It is not at all boasting, but a self-effacing parody of Roman boasting.
  • I’d always wondered how Paul could prove his claimed Roman citizenship, since whenever he does so in Acts it is in a dangerous crisis; most likely (357) “Paul had kept safe about his person all along, perhaps on a chain or string … the small wooden badge (known as a diploma) that, much like a passport, gave official details of who he was and where his citizenship was registered.”
  • I like this (418-19):  “If loyalty to the one God and his Messiah was Paul’s watchword, one of the reasons why this strange movement he started thrived in the coming days was because his associates were, for the most part, fiercely loyal to Paul himself.  He loved them, and they loved him.  That is how things get done.  It is how movements succeed.”

And I noted some key paragraphs.  From the first chapter on Paul’s missionary journeys (105):

   The early Christians did not focus much attention on the question of what happened to people immediately after they died. If that question came up, their answer might be that they would “be with the Messiah” or, as in Jesus’s remark to the dying brigand, that they might be “with Him in paradise.”  But they seldom spoke about it at all. They were much more concerned with the “Kingdom of God,” which was something that was happening and would ultimately happen completely, “on earth as in heaven.”   What mattered was the ultimate restoration of the whole of creation, with God’s people being raised from the dead to take their place in the running of this new world.  Whatever happened to people immediately after death was, by comparison, unimportant, a mere interim.  And however much it might seem incredible, the early Jesus-followers really did believe that God’s Kingdom was not simply a future reality, though obviously it had a strong still-future dimension.  God’s kingdom had already been launched through the events of Jesus’s life.  Unless we get that firmly in our heads, we will never understand the inner dynamic of Paul’s mission.

Wright begins the last chapter of the book with a paragraph asking one question after another, about Paul and why he did what he did, why he traveled and wrote so much and in the face of such danger.  The paragraph ends this way (399):

What assessment can we make of this brilliant mind and passionate heart?  What motivated him in his heart of hearts, and how did the event on the Damascus Road set that in motion?  And finally, out beyond all that why did it work?  Why did the movement he started, against all the odds, become in a fairly short time the church we see in the fourth and fifth centuries?  What was it about this busy, vulnerable man that, despite everything, seems to have been so effective?

Wright proceeds to answer all these questions in that last chapter, but I have to admit that I thought he was going somewhere else with that opening paragraph and these questions, namely that the answer to them all was some variation of “Because it was all true.”  In all events, Paul’s life should give Christian skeptics pause.

I also noted two other paragraphs in the last chapter.  First (420, my italics):

   When we ask why Paul, with seventy or eighty pages of text to his name in the average Bible, has succeeded far beyond the other great letter writers of antiquity — the Ciceros, the Senecas — and for that matter the great public intellectuals and movement founders of his day and ours, this range of writing, from the urgent to the winsome, from the prophetic to the poetic, from intellectual rigor to passionate advocacy, must be central to the answer.  The man who could write Philemon and Romans side by side was a man for all moments.

And second (428):

   It was Paul too who provided some of the major intellectual infrastructure for this community.  Here again this was not because the other major intellectual constructs of the ancient world had run out of steam.  The Stoics, the Epicureans, and the up-and-coming Middle Platonists had serious, articulate, and in many ways attractive spokespeople.  With hindsight, however, Paul’s Jesus-focused vision of the One God, creator of all, was able to take on all these philosophies and beat them at their own game.  They were all, in the last analysis, ways of understanding the world and ways of finding a coherent and meaningful human path within it.  When later generations wanted to articulate the Christian version of the same thing (which was, to say it once more, the Jewish version with the Jesus-based reframing), it was to Paul that they looked for help.  Of course, other sources remained vital.  The prologue to the Gospel of John, a piece of writing that I think would have had Paul himself on his knees, is an obvious example.  But it was Paul’s robust engagements with the triple traditions of Israel, Greece, and Rome and his translation of them all into the shape of Jesus and the spirit (Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the spirit as the agent of resurrection, the ultimate hope of Israel) that offered a platform for the great thinkers of subsequent generations.

Finally, let me share my own tongue-in-cheek observation about Paul, namely that he was the world’s first neoconservative: brilliant in speech and text, an outspoken intellectual, not one to suffer fools gladly, a good fundraiser and organizer, and of course a Jew who switched sides — not for personal gain, but because he saw the truth.