Paul– A New Biography by Tom Wright (Review Part Three)

Paul– A New Biography by Tom Wright (Review Part Three) February 4, 2018

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The real strength of this biography, not surprisingly, is one of Tom’s great strengths— the theological analysis of the content of Paul’s letters, coupled with a good grasp of the kind of person Paul was, and what motivated and drove him to do all the amazing things he did. There are stretches in this biography which are both eloquent and moving, as one feels likely finally one is actually getting close to the fire, close to understanding the riddle wrapped in an enigma that is Paul, and actually getting inside his mind. Kudos to Tom as well who, while reading Acts with a good critical eye, nonetheless, treats it as a good source of outside information, the earliest outside portrait of the apostle by a sometime traveling companion and friend, to help fill out his portrait of Paul. And further kudos on his insistence that Paul was a thoroughly Jewish thinker who could integrate some Greco-Roman ideas into his dominant Jewish thought world, not the other way around. Paul was not a person who invented a new religion, but saw Christ as the fulfillment and proper extension of an old one— the religion of Torah, a song now sung in a different key.

One of the issues I wish Tom had probed more is— what does it mean to say Paul was converted on Damascus Road. He was certainly changed in both his behavior (no more violence please) and his beliefs, particularly about Jesus and his death and resurrection. As my old mentor C.K. Barrett once said, ‘if what happened to Paul on Damascus Road was not a conversion of some sort, it is hard to say what it actually was, hard to say whether there were any conversions in earliest Christianity’. In short, I don’t think one can simply see what happened to Paul as a new calling. No it was a conversion, and whether we like it or not, Paul was envisioning a religion of Jew and Gentile united in the crucified and risen Jesus, that the vast majority of Jews then and now, would not recognize as a proper development of Torah based religion, never mind THE proper development of OT religion. When one says things like ‘to the Jew I became a Jew, and to those under the law I became as those under the law, even though I’m not bound to that law any more but rather in-lawed to Christ’ or when one says ‘if anyone is in Christ, they are a totally new creature, the old has passed away’ it seems clear that one is not just talking about a particular sectarian development within early Judaism, one is already paving a road that has a fork in it. Yes, this is a development of the substance of things in the OT, particularly in OT prophecy and particularly in Isaiah and also the Psalms. No, it is not simply yet another development of early Judaism, like say the sectarian one at Qumran, and this is especially because of the newish approach to Gentile incorporation into the Christ faith.

This biography is very well written and quite readable. It’s target audience is broad, and Tom eschews footnotes except for Scripture references and a few reference to classics texts here and there. That is, unlike various of his other recent publications, this is not a dialogue with other scholars or scholarly opinions, this is simply a positive presentation based on Tom’s assessment of the primary sources, Paul’s letters and Acts. There will be scholars who will not be happy about this, but I’m not one of them. I understand the audience Tom is writing for, indeed its the same audience I mainly write for, and he is doing them a good service.


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