Paul: A Biography (N.T. Wright) -- A Review

PAUL: A Biography. By N.T. Wright. San Francisco: Harper One, 2018. Xiii + 464 pages.

As the title of one book puts it, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?  It is common place to hear people declare that Jesus did wonderful things and had great ideas. It’s too bad Paul messed things up. There is only one problem with this scenario, Paul’s writings came before any of the Gospels were written, whether canonical or not. I will grant that there are those whose quest for the historical Jesus leads them to believe that they have ascertained the “true words” of Jesus, but these are reconstructions based on presuppositions that may or may not hold true. In the meantime, there are the letters of Paul, some of which may have been written within two decades of Jesus’ earthly life. This fact makes the attempt to skip over Paul to get to Jesus problematic. Although Paul can be frustrating and even infuriating at times, he can also inspire us to spiritual heights and he contributed greatly to what became the Christian faith that encompassed both Jew and Gentile. So, perhaps we would be wise to get to know Paul better.

To get to know Paul, we’ll need a good guide. Among those who have written about Paul is N. T. Wright. Wright is well known in many circles, having written widely on matters biblical, theological, and spiritual. He has been both church leader and scholar. He currently serves as Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and prior to that served as the Bishop of Durham. As a leading Pauline scholar, he has been actively involved in recent attempts to rethink the history of the early church and Paul's role in it. He is the author of the massive Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Eerdmans), a two-volume work on Paul written for biblical scholars, which I will confess I have not read. I will assume, however that this earlier scholarly work serves as the foundation for what is found here. In other words, this is designed to be more accessible to the general reader using the format of a biography.

Wright lays out the story of Paul's life along the lines presented in the Book of Acts, with the letters serving to expand and fill out the reconstruction of Paul’s life and ministry. While these biblical texts are foundational, he sets Paul’s life in the context of being a Jew of the diaspora living in the Roman Empire of the first century. He wants us to gain an understanding of how his religious views were influenced by growing up in the Roman colony of Tarsus, and then as a student in Jerusalem. He makes note of Paul's early zealotry for his faith, which leads to his decision to join in the persecution of the early church during the earliest years of its existence, a zeal that initially will be used in support of the very same message soon after his Damascus Road experience. Though that zeal will be tempered over time, that initial zeal for the Jewish nation and traditions helped drive his later Christian ministry.

In order to put his scholarship in biographical form, Wright must make some creative moves, as he envisions conversations that are not recorded, but which make sense of the overarching vision of Paul's life. This requires trying to get into Paul's head, something not easily accomplished with the dearth of primary sources. In addition, there is the challenge of language and terminology. We talk often speak of the Damascus Road experience, as Paul’s moment of conversion, but in what way was it a conversion? After all, while Paul chose to be a follower of Jesus, it doesn't appear that he left Judaism for a new religion. 

One of the challenges posed by a work like this concerns the issue of history and historical context. Wright seeks to approach the subject as a historian, and yet he also affirms that Acts and Paul's letters are Holy Scripture. Therefore, he makes some interpretive judgments about their contemporary use that we might not make of other historical documents. For this book to work, however, we must see Paul in his historical context. He is a Jew born into a world ruled by the Roman Empire. He is the product of his Jewish faith and practice, but he is also the product of the Greco-Roman world. As a Jew, it appears that he was a Pharisee, and thus a strict observant of the faith. He was also a businessman— likely taking up the family business as a worker with leather. As one raised in the diaspora, he would have been multi-lingual and could navigate both the Jewish and the Greco-Roman worlds. The latter was aided by his status as a Roman citizen.

Wright divides the book into three parts. Part One moves us from his early life in Judaism, and his zeal for his faith. This leads to the Damascus Road experience, followed by his sojourn in Arabia and then Tarsus. Wright envisions Paul spending a decade in Tarsus, where he likely engaged in his trade while studying scripture. It was only then that Barnabas retrieved him from this time of exile, bringing him to Antioch, where he shared in the ministry of the church and preparing for his journeys that would come. While much of this section is speculative, Wright is setting the stage for understanding the progress of Paul’s later missionary efforts.

Part Two forms the bulk of the book. In these nine chapters, we follow Paul has he moves out across the empire on his several missionary journeys, the first of which was undertaken with Barnabas, and then after a dispute with Barnabas, with Silas. We follow the script laid out by Acts to Cyprus and Galatia, with a return to Antioch and Jerusalem. This first journey leads to the planting of churches in Galatia, and the first letter, the Galatian letter, which Wright suggests was written around 48 CE (some scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians was written prior to Galatians, but what is important is that the first piece of canonical New Testament likely was penned around 48 CE). After the return to Antioch, we travel to Jerusalem for a Council that sought to integrate Paul’s ministry with that of the predominantly Jewish Jerusalem church. After the break with Barnabas, we follow Paul and Silas and other companions on missionary journeys that take Paul to Macedonia and Greece. Having a sense of the dating of the various letters, he intersperses them with the account in Acts to move us to Philippi, Thessaloniki, Berea, Athens, and finally to Corinth. Chapters nine through twelve focus on his ministries in Corinth and Ephesus. It should be noted that Wright believes Paul wrote the Ephesian letter, along with Colossians, and did so prior to writing 2 Corinthians. With these missions completed, Paul and his companions return to Jerusalem, where he engages with the apostles, including James. It is there that he is arrested and put on trial on charges of bringing a Gentile into the Temple. All of this is told in great detail, helping us integrate Paul’s letters with the overall course of Paul’s ministry. Wright wants us to enter Paul’s mind, as we watch him plant churches and then write letters to the same churches, hoping to guide their development in their new-found faith.

Part three takes us from Caesarea, where Paul had been taken, in part to protect him from enemies in Jerusalem, and so he could appear before the Roman Governor. Over the course of what appears to be several years, and a change in governors, Paul makes his appeal to the Emperor, though we’re led to believe that there is no reason why Paul can’t be released. One of the questions that I don't feel Wright answers concerns why, if the governor and the Agrippa don't believe Paul to be guilty of anything worth prosecuting, his appeal to Rome needs to be affirmed. Why send him to Rome, if they could easily let him go. In any case, with the appeal to Rome, Paul begins what appears to be his final journey, this time as a political prisoner.  If the appeal had not been made, of course, the story would be wrecked, since Paul must get to Rome, where we can envision him appearing before Nero, trying to make a case for Jesus before the emperor. Whether Paul got that audience is unknown. Acts doesn't record it, neither do any Roman histories. In other words, we must fill in the gaps with tradition, and historical accounts of others who made an appeal to Caesar. 

I found the book to be interesting and even intriguing. It seems to be an effective way of sharing good scholarship, whether one agrees at every point, with a broader audience. This book will require some sophistication in one’s reading of the Christian story. In other words, it is not for beginners. At the same time, I’m not sure Wright reveals anything strikingly new. Therefore, it’s not the underlying information but the format that is most important. I can imagine sharing this with someone who wants to get to know Paul at a deeper level. While it’s not an overly difficult read, it is lengthy (over 400 pages). So, it won’t be for everyone.

Since the underlying scholarship is not on full display, one cannot know why every move was made, but I can say a few things about Wright’s starting point. He takes a conservative tact on the story, giving greater authority to Acts and some of Paul’s so-called “disputed letters,” than more liberal scholars might. On the other hand, he wants this to be true to the broader historical consensus about Paul and his context. With this in mind, we can note that he assumes the letter to the Ephesians is an authentic Pauline text, and the same is true of Colossians. He goes somewhat further in raising the possibility that the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) are authentic. This is especially true of 2 Timothy. This position is much more controversial, but he has his reasons (especially regarding 2 Timothy).

Labels are often problematic and misleading. This is especially true of a person like Wright, who has gained respect among liberal scholars, and yet seems most comfortable in the company of evangelical scholars. Thus, when questions of authenticity emerge, he is willing to give traditional views the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately, he wants to be perceived as a historian who seeks to set out the story of one of history's most important and elusive figures.

It’s not a perfect book, but it is fulfills its purpose, which is to tell Paul’s story in as faithful a way as possible. I believe that Wright has accomplished this, and so I can say that I recommend the book. He might not resolve all the difficult questions that Paul has raised over time, and many will still prefer a Christianity without Paul, but that isn't the Christianity that emerged in the first century. What Wright does is give us a sense of who this man was, who left his stamp on the faith.  

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