Paul: A Biography - Review

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Paul: A Biography by Tom Wright - Review

A review of Tom Wright's Paul: A Biography from Alan Mordue Member of the Society of Bible Literature

In his latest book on Paul Tom Wright has produced something which I didn’t think was possible, a genuine biography of the Apostle Paul in the same way as other historians have done so with characters such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. This book will be extremely useful to Christians of all persuasions from the most evangelical to the most liberal as well as people of no faith, which perhaps is its greatest strength. Most Christian books live their lives in a kind of Christian bubble and are read by like-minded people, whereas this book will be enjoyed by people who simply buy biographies of great figures in history and it will challenge some of our contemporary world’s misgivings with Paul, especially in regard to the many half-truths that are generally held about him.  As usual he challenges the post-enlightenment dualism that is at the heart of modern western society and takes issue with the way we all split off religion from the rest of our daily lives. Once again he is to be commended for a book that will engage the general reader with Christian and Jewish themes and will be the first time many people engage with the letters of Paul which are liberally quoted in the text in a style totally devoid of the kind of pious religiosity which we usually find in books on Paul.

Paul Biography Tom Wright

From the very start Tom Wright reminds us that Paul was brought up in the Pharisee tradition, a school of Judaism which strictly adhered to traditions. It is especially useful to have a work which places religion back into its first century setting, a world that had no distinction between the religious and the secular. The key question he asks is how did this legalistic Pharisee come to see Jesus of Nazareth as lord and master, literally the messiah of old testament scripture, the chosen one and the man of history. He takes us through Paul’s famous travels in the eastern Mediterranean and shows how he interacts with the classical culture prevalent everywhere and looks at how Paul is not only heir to the scriptural tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures but also to the Greek rationalist tradition of Plato and Aristotle. After all in following Jesus Paul rejects much of the legalism of parts Jewish tradition and also the cynicism/scepticism of parts of the Greek tradition. However he also shows the way Paul uses classical techniques in the letters and explains the cultural veneer in someone brought up in a Hellenistic Jewish culture and how that influenced his thinking, either directly or indirectly, he is saying Paul was a Roman citizen in the Greek speaking Eastern Roman Empire and that is very important and pertinent to understanding him. One other thing the book does very well is to show that Paul very much saw himself as going from faith to faith from Pharisaic Judaism to belief in Jesus as Christ, after all Paul believed this is very much the same faith.  That the covenant between God and the Jewish people reaches its climax in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Paul is the apostle to the gentiles proclaiming a renewed covenant for all humanity as Jesus is the climax of the covenant. The current trend of seeing a kind of Jewish Christianity being led by Peter after the death of Jesus and a gentile Christianity emanating from Paul is discussed briefly. This book underlines Paul as seeing Jesus as the climax of the covenant, this links in to the way Jesus is seen as the replacement to the temple in Jerusalem his followers. Tom Wright shows us how this unique cultural heritage laid the way to the Christian world that developed, after all the New Testament is written in Greek and is imbued with the Greek spirit. The great sweep and general understanding of the first century world and Hellenistic Judaism in particular is this book is truly staggering.

He brings into the narrative his critique of the way many Christians think belief is all about “going to heaven” and demonstrates how unhelpful this thinking is. He spends time trying to demonstrate how this and other far away views of God and salvation are not in Paul’s writings or the New Testament generally.  In this way the book also has a lot to say about the modern philosophy of life which says it’s all well to have religion but let’s keep it out of the way, its private and doesn’t really impact on our lives. Again Tom Wright is arguing that the modern western world is a form of Epicureanism and a kind sophistry which is the antithesis of Jesus message as disseminated through Pauls writings. He is advocating actually following the New Testament writings and not the writings of the 16th century reformers or the enlightenment philosophers. There is a great deal on the subject of morality in this book, especially Paul’s change from legalism to gospel of Jesus. One of the main backgrounds to the book is of course the key place in Paul’s thought of the death and physical resurrection of Jesus.

Tom Wright looks at the great works and faith debate in the book which has obsessed the Christian world since the reformation and seems to be particularly in vogue today and he advocates a non-binary understanding of that in Paul’s world. However there is surprisingly little on two of the great issues that obsess the church today, same sex relationships and the role of women in the church. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that there is a lack of in depth analysis in what is a biography of a first century Jew and the obsession the Church has today says more about the modern western world than the world of the first century. There is an overall sense of the sheer energy of Paul as he goes on his travels and meets people from all backgrounds. He combines the coverage of Paul’s travels with a very helpful and brief analysis of the letters that Paul wrote for each community that he visited which adds a lot of context to both the letters and the travels.  This approach also includes a close look at the key messages of the letters in a non-technical way that will be helpful to people who know little about the letters and their context, as well as a superb overview for people more familiar with the letters.

This is a great book; it has Tom Wright’s customary grace and wit as well as his constant artistic asides on literature, visual art and classical music, which will speak volumes to his admirers. It is very detailed yet very accessible and doesn’t smooth over the various theological issues at the heart of studying Paul. The book is of course very sympathetic to Paul and presents him very well indeed; it defends Paul well from a lot of those misconceptions that have built up in recent years and places his stature at the top of the great figures of history. There are few figures that have impacted on the world more than Paul, and to Christian believers Tom Wright brings fresh reasons and perspectives to hail Paul as the beloved apostle.

Due for release on the 27th February 2018, order your copy of Paul A Biography today.

7th February

February 7th, 2018 - Posted & Written by The Editor

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