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

Paul– A New Biography by Tom Wright (Review Part Two) February 3, 2018


One of the real pluses of this biography is that it doesn’t start, as some lives of Paul do, with a truncated corpus of material. By this I mean, if you’ve read the recent large tome by E.P. Sanders a goodly number of Paul’s letters are eliminated from consideration as Pauline from the outset, and then one arranges the rest of the letters in one’s own way, and then one paints a portrait of Paul. Tom deals with the whole Pauline corpus, though treading lightly when it comes to dealing with the mysterious Pastorals, and how exactly Paul’s life came to an end. When Tom deals with the notion of development in Paul’s thought, he does not see this as a drastic change from what was previously believed. He sees Paul as a more systematic thinker, not merely one responding to circumstances and cooking up things on the spot. Development, says Tom amounts to Paul realizing later in life that it was more likely he would die before Christ returns, whereas earlier he conjured with the possibility that Christ’s return was imminent.

There are a few false steps along the way, besides the one I mentioned above about the Ephesian imprisonment theory: 1) Tom thinks in 2 Corinthians that ‘we’ means ‘I’ in various places, in support of his theory that Paul is reflecting back on an Ephesian imprisonment of the apostle alone. Lightfoot would strongly disagree, as you can now see in the recently published 2 Corinthians commentary of his– pp. 38-40. Paul does not use the royal ‘we’. When multiple persons are mentioned at the outset of the letter and Paul says ‘we’ he means ‘we’, even if the strongest voice is his own. One might be able to salvage the Ephesian theory if one suggests that Paul was in jail with Andronicus and Junia in Ephesus (see Rom. 16.7). But as I’ve pointed out earlier this month on this blog— the phrases that assume Paul was in jail mean no more than he was in chains, and the phrase ‘fellow prisoners’ actually comes from the word spear and capture/captive coupled with the prefix ‘with’ or ‘co-‘, which means no more than the person is not a liberty, is not a free person. It doesn’t need to mean they are in jail (cf. Col. 4.10 and Rom. 16.7). Clement of Rome, who ought to have known, and does know various of Paul’s letters simply says Paul was in chains seven times ( 1 Clem. 5). So far as I can tell, the only times Paul was actually in jail, rather than being chained to someone while under house arrest are: 1) in Philippi of course, and 2) at the very end of his life, as 2 Timothy suggests. Jail or imprisonment was not a punishment during the Roman period— it was a holding pattern until the matter or case was resolved.

Another questionable historical conclusion is the idea that Paul marched off to Mt. Sinai not long after his conversion on Damascus Road. Yes, he says he went to Arabia. Arabia however is the word for the Nabatean Kingdom of King Aretas, the capital of which was Petra, and one has to account for why in the world Aretas would have his ethnarch stalking and trying to capture Paul in Damascus (see 2 Cor. 11.30-33). This surely suggests it is more likely that Paul went to Petra and tried out his new message on the non-Jews there, and stirred up trouble, hence the legal pursuit of him all the way to Damascus, which may or may not have been part of the Nabatean realm at that point. Why would anyone come after Paul that hard if he simply made a spiritual pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai. It’s not like it was a major center of population of any kind so far as we know.

I hope this biography has a long life, and serves as a catalyst to think and rethink the life and letters of ‘Christianity’s first great theologian’ as some have put it. But as Tom reminds us, you can’t really fully appreciate his theology unless you know a fair bit about Paul the man, Paul the pastor, Paul the Christian person who suffered mightily for his beliefs and practice, and who at the end of the day realized that he was something of a cameo or picture of the suffering servant or even of Christ himself, with his many wounds and much suffering. And at least one thing that kept him going was the God-whispered words he heard once at a low point— ‘my power is made perfect in your weakness, my grace is sufficient for you.’

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