Paul: A Biography, by Tom Wright

Second paragraph of third chapter:

As we shall see later, Paul is writing this [Galatians 1:15-17] in his own defense. He has apparently been accused of getting his "gospel" secondhand from the Jerusalem apostles. His opponents are therefore going over his head and appealing to Peter, James, and the rest, like someone objecting to the way a band was playing a cover from an old Beatles song and phoning up Paul McCartney himself to check on how it should really be played. Paul is therefore insisting that his message was his own; he had gotten it from Jesus himself, not from other members of the movement. It had come, he says, "through an unveiling of Jesus the Messiah."2 "The message" in question was not, after all, a theory, a new bit of teaching, or even details of how someone might be "saved." "The message" was the news about Jesus himself: he was raised from the dead, he was therefore Israel's Messiah, he was the Lord of the world. All of that was "given" to Paul on the road to Damascus. Knowing Israel's scriptures as he did, he didn't need anybody else to explain what it all meant. Start with the scriptural story, place the crucified and risen Jesus at the climax of the story, and the meaning, though unexpected and shocking, is not in doubt. That is the point he is making.
2 Gal. 1:12

This book by the former Bishop of Durham is meant to be a popular biography of the Apostle Paul, tracing his voyages, both intellectual and across the Eastern Mediterranean, in the middle part of the first century AD. St Paul is probably the most important historical figure in Christianity apart from Jesus Christ, and it's therefore of interest to get a better understanding of what he was actually trying to do. We are impeded by the fact that there is no contemporary record of his existence outside the New Testament, where he is a key character in the Acts of the Apostles and traditionally regarded as the author of a dozen or so of the Epistles, with most modern scholars agreeing that he really did write more than half of them. We are also impeded by the fact that while a lot of his surviving writing seems to be arguing against other lines of thought inside and outside the early Christian community, we barely know what the other side really said because only Paul's side of the argument survives.

Faced with all of this, it's a difficult task to make sense of the story for the non-specialist reader, and for this non-specialist reader, it didn't quite come together. I got that Paul's particular innovations were to cast Jesus as a fulfiller of Jewish tradition, and to embrace non-Jews in Christianity. I didn't really get the basics of what Paul thought the faith basis of Christianity is – I felt that Wright was striving to avoid being trapped in the traditional Protestant v Catholic debate here and ended up not saying all that much. I think there is probably more to be said about Paul's views on women, especially women in ministry, which I suspect were more modern than most people like to believe. I did like the nitty-gritty (if largely imagined) detail of Paul continuing to ply his trade as a maker and repairer of tents while also evangelising the Levant. I was frustrated that Wright presents very little of other scholars' views, and gives no recommendations for further reading.

The single most interesting thing about St Paul is that he had a sudden conversion experience one day while travelling to Damascus, probably in the mid-30s, only a few years after the Crucifixion. Until then, he had been colluding in the persecution of Christians (not yet called that of course) by Jewish and Roman authorities. But in that moment on the road, he experienced the direct presence of Jesus, was struck blind for several days, and then felt compelled to preach Christianity for the rest of his life (probably about thirty years). It's pretty difficult to explain, let alone explain away, and Wright doesn't really try. Of course it comes near the very start of the story, and we don't know a lot about the end (though apparently his remains have recently been identified).

Anyway, I found this not totally satisfying, but you can get it here.

This was my top unread non-fiction book, and my top unread book acquired in 2020. Next on those piles respectively are The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene, and Summer, by Ali Smith.

One thought on “Paul: A Biography, by Tom Wright

  1. Thanks for working this out!

    I went to all 4 days of the business meeting in order to vote for EPH and EPH+ and 3SV. It was very interesting and rather exciting in its own way but I’d have been happy to spend that time doing other things at the con, so I’m very glad about how the business meeting votes came out.

    I really hope they do a lot to moderate DEVILMAN’s effects on the ballot, because I’m very tired of Puppy stuff.

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