Saint Paul is unique among those who have changed the course of history — responsible not just for one but two critical historical developments 15 centuries apart. First, he persuaded the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth that gentiles as well as Jews could belong to their nascent church. This enabled its spread throughout the Roman empire, until Christianity become the state religion under the Emperor Constantine, and remained the official creed of all European nations until the French revolution. Second, there was his teaching on justification by faith alone —a ticking time bomb detonated by Martin Luther in the 16th century. ‘If we were to do justice to Paul today,’ writes the author of this new biography, ‘we ought to teach him in departments of politics, ancient history, economics and/or philosophy, just as much as divinity schools and departments of religion.’
Such justice has not been done, and it has been largely left to theologians and Biblical scholars such as N.T. (Tom) Wright — once Bishop of Durham, now research professor in New Testament and Early Christianity at the university of St Andrews — to enquire into the nature and motivation of this remarkable man. Writing his life is a tricky task because, while more is known about Paul than most of the other Apostles, through his letters and The Acts of the Apostles, there are gaps and mysteries that can only be filled by conjecture. For example, nothing is known about his final years.
He was born as Saul, in Tarsus in Cilicia, about ten years after Jesus. He learned the skills of tent-making — no doubt the family business — but was intellectually precocious and, though a Roman citizen, a zealous Jew. Indeed zeal, Wright believes, is the key to his character. He studied under Gamaliel in Jerusalem and, as a young man, directed his zeal towards the suppression of the followers of the recently crucified Jesus. When one of their number, Stephen, was deemed a blasphemer, Paul guarded the coats of those who stoned him to death.
The Temple authorities then sent Paul to bring followers of Jesus back for trial in Jerusalem, but on the way he was struck down by a vision — coming face-to-face with Jesus, who rebuked him for persecuting him. Wright thinks it would be vain to attempt to explain away Paul’s vision in psychological terms. What is clear is that ‘he saw in that instant… the utter denial’ of his understanding of the Torah. It was not, Wright emphasises, that Paul suddenly ceased to be a Jew and became a Christian. Quite the contrary: there was, as yet, no Christian religion. What Paul had come to understand was that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah, and therefore the fulfilment of the Jewish religion.
Paul returned to Tarsus, and there followed ‘a silent decade… labouring, studying and praying, putting together in his mind a larger picture of the One God and his truth that would take on the world and outflank it’. After a journey to Arabia — perhaps, as Wright suggests, to make a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai where God had appeared to Moses — Paul emerged from his seclusion and the narrative of The Acts of the Apostles begins.
Wright, who has long been immersed in his studies of Paul, finds him an ‘extraordinary, energetic, bold and yet vulnerable man’ with a ‘brilliant mind yet passionate heart’. His few letters, ‘taking up only 70 or 80 pages in the average Bible’, have had an influence ‘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’.
Paul met with intense enmity, and consequent suffering, on his missionary journeys, but left communities of believers whom he sustained and directed through his letters. Wright says little about Paul’s views on domestic matters, but dismisses the idea that he was a misogynist. His inferences and speculations are interesting and convincing — particularly his deduction from the difference between Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians that he was imprisoned and had a nervous breakdown in Ephesus.
The style is occasionally marred by a jaunty idiom (‘something Jesus believers could do without’; ‘they struck a deal’; ‘left its adherents in a bad place’), intended perhaps to make the book more accessible to young or American readers.
Wright insists that for Paul ‘salvation’ meant no more than the divinisation of the community of believers in the resurrected Jesus; he dismisses the traditional belief in Heaven and Hell as ‘medieval questions’, which is puzzling. The Gospels, including that of Luke, Paul’s friend, travelling companion and the author of the Acts, contain many grim warnings to unrepentant sinners of the torment that awaits them in a world to come.