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N.T. Wright on the Apostle Paul’s sudden popularity

Author N.T. Wright, left, and his book “Paul: A Biography.” Images courtesy of HarperCollins

(RNS) — “Paul: A Biography” isn’t the first book Bible scholar N.T. Wright has written about Paul, the apostle responsible for so many of the letters in the New Testament.

There’s also “Paul,” “Paul and the Faithfulness of God,” “Paul and his Recent Interpreters,” “The Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle,” “What St. Paul Really Said” and a number of Bible study guides for Paul’s letters, just to name a few.

With Paul’s biography, Wright wanted to put people in the world that the apostle’s letters came from, in the same way Robert Harris’ series of novels about Cicero brought the ancient Roman statesman to life for him. Wright talked to Religion News Service about the result — and about Paul’s sudden popularity as the subject of a new film and a number of new books.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does reconstructing Paul’s life and background help us better understand his letters in the Bible and early Christianity as a whole?

“Paul: A Biography” by N.T. Wright. Image courtesy of HarperCollins

The more we understand early Christianity as a whole in its historical context, the more we see what it was really all about. The trouble is the historical context is difficult because the first-century Jewish world is very complex, and Paul lives in that world — the world of the Jewish diaspora, but also in Jerusalem. Then you have the world of Greek culture and philosophy, which bounces around ideas and words like “spirit” and so on, which Paul uses, but in a new sense. As well as the Jewish and Greek worlds, you have the world of the Roman Empire. Paul is a Roman citizen, and the worship of Caesar as the new religion is sweeping Paul’s world.

When you get down into it, it’s not only fascinating in itself historically — which, of course, it is — but it makes you realize, “Oh, that’s why he was going on about this. That’s why that point meant what it did.” It does then translate into the contemporary world, but frequently not in the ways that we’ve usually imagined.

You write, “The problem is that Paul is central to any understanding of earliest Christianity, yet Paul was a Jew; for many generations Christians of all kinds have struggled to put this together.” How does that inform our understanding of him?

Paul definitely thinks like a Jew, writes like a Jew, argues like a Jew. He knows Israel’s scriptures extremely well.

We have all sorts of problems here because what we mean by the word Judaism is a religion, and the Greek word from which we get “Judaism” didn’t mean that at all. It was an active noun, meaning the action of propagating the Jewish way of life and trying to force it on people and defend it and maintain it violently if need be. And so when Paul talks about being active in Judaism, he doesn’t just mean he was one of those religious Jews, he means he was out there on the street trying to compel other people to take the practice of their faith more seriously.

That’s just the beginning of it, because the first century in the Jewish world is a very turbulent time. It ends with the war between the Romans and the Jews in 66 to 70, and you can see that building up. We see the texts they are using: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel. We can see how their great sense of a huge, millennia-long story was working, with them on the crest of that wave.

Paul as a Jew is longing for God to do what he has promised to do, perhaps including sending the Messiah, and then everything he comes to believe about Jesus, having been confronted by him on the road to Damascus, has to be understood within that Jewish sense of this is actually what it looked like when God finally did what he promised. It wasn’t what people expected, but it was the overthrow of the principalities and powers themselves, including death. So that’s what you get from putting Paul back in his Jewish world where he belongs.

What is it about Paul that resonates with so many people in this present moment?

I can sort of hazard a guess. Partly, he is one of the great intellectual, cultural, spiritual figures of the whole world — you could argue the Western world, but actually, there are plenty of Christians in the Eastern world, as well, in Korea and China and so on. He ranks up there with Plato or Aristotle, Seneca or Cicero.

Author N.T. Wright. Photo by Ken Sharp via HarperCollins

He also launched his project of founding these little cells of people loyal to Jesus right under Caesar’s nose. It’s an amazing adventure, and it’s backed by this personality — undoubtedly, he was an energetic man. He said what he thought, and he got on with it, and he didn’t mind if he got up people’s noses. He’s the sort of man who would say “boo” to every goose and then say “boo” to all the swans as well, just in case. He told it like it was, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and I think from that point of view, he’s a very human character.

There are some philosophers in the great philosophical tradition who are really very dry. You probably wouldn’t want to make a movie about the life of Immanuel Kant. He went for a walk at the same time every day and then went back and sat down at his desk and wrote the next few pages of very difficult to understand stuff. Paul isn’t like that. He’s out there on the street, and he’s getting into trouble and he’s in and out of jail, and he loves people, and they love him, and then he sometimes annoys them, and then he has to make it up.

It’s a very, very human story, but then, at the same time, I think we in our culture still have a sense that what happened in the beginning of Christianity really matters for who we are in the Western world.

Some people have criticized Paul as to blame for what they see as the church’s misogyny and homophobia because his letters are used to justify some churches’ stances toward the role of women and LGBT people in ministry. Is that fair?

Part of our difficulty here is we expect people like Jesus and Paul and other early Christians to be, as it were, teachers of something that to us counts as morality, and then if they don’t say what we want them to say, then we get cross with them. Of course, that’s not how they saw it.

They saw it as something extraordinary had happened when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and raised from the dead. The world turned its great corner, and we now have to figure out what the new world looks like and how we have to live in it. For Paul, the great thing there is we are people of new creation. The creation has been renewed. The original purpose of Genesis 1 and 2 is now re-established. Jesus says exactly the same thing in Mark 10 and elsewhere — in fact, all through: This is what the kingdom of God is all about — getting the creation project back on track. When you start to think morally from that point of view, all sorts of things look different.

When it comes to the role of women, what has happened is certain movements within Western culture and within the church within Western culture have seized on one or two lines in Paul, and they have ignored other bits in the New Testament where it’s quite clear women were fellow workers in the gospel. A woman could be an apostle, a woman could be an evangelist, a woman could be all sorts of things.

My crowning example is that in the letter to the Romans, Paul’s greatest work, he gives this letter to a lady called Phoebe, who is a deacon, so that Phoebe, who seems to be an independent businesswoman, can take this letter to Rome, and that probably means she’s the first one to read it out and probably means she’s the first one to interpret it as well. Paul isn’t bothered about that. She’s a trusted co-worker. She can do it. Now if we’d started with Romans 16, all sorts of things would have looked very different.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope what they’ll take away is a sense of the extraordinary excitement of living at the beginning of a new world. That’s how it felt for Paul. He was in on the start of a project which was already doing extraordinary things. He saw these little communities spring up which were transcultural, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, living together as family, and that was unheard of in the ancient world.

Of course, it was deeply subversive. It subverts the normal social, cultural rules, and part of the problem we have is we have allowed church to become really rather socially conservative. Even when churches may have more radical politics, the institution itself is an innately conservative institution rather than seeking the genuine radicality of being new-creation people. Paul would say, “Come on, guys, let’s work at this.”

People have often said to me, “If Paul came back today, what would he be most shocked at in today’s church?” And I say, unhesitatingly, our disunity — not just the fact that we’re not united, but the fact that we don’t care. For him, every letter he wrote was about church unity in one way or another. I hope very soon we’ll get back to the Pauline agenda because until the church is united, the powers that be won’t take a blind bit of notice of who we are or what we say. I think that would be one of Paul’s messages to us today.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

73 Comments

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  • Women were not apostles.
    When it comes to the roles of women in the church, they were to remain quiet.
    Woman was made for man, not man for woman

  • The point of the kingdom of god was to get the world back on track?

    If so, it has been a spectacular failure. Maybe, in another 2000 years…

    “I hope what people will take away…”

    My book.

  • “This is what the kingdom of God is all about — getting the creation project back on track.”

    This. Absolutely.

  • BORING.

    Glad Paul wasn’t a spiritual bore like this guy is.

    Wanna know my apostle Paul? Just read Acts & his epistles. GOOD STUFF ALL AROUND: GUARANTEED.

  • No. The Creator God is going to destroy Creation.

    He’s way into New Creation now.

    And that, too, only through the Messiah of Israel.

  • He is going to destroy the fallen creation.

    The citizens of the Kingdom have already been restored to the full fellowship with the Creator which was lost.

    Eventually there WILL be a new heaven and a new earth which will never be touched by sin.

  • Naturally (Naturally), there will be differences among Christians, and between Christians and the World about the Apostle Paul. The above was a reasonable synopsis and conversation. However, given an admitted bias, I would argue that Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, while brilliant themselves, pale in comparison to Paul in their understanding of both the material and spiritual spheres of life.

  • While I gently disagree with your 1st point, taking the long view (But then maybe you did take the long view by re-setting the odometer); I could not help but smile at your 2nd point, with its wry, dry wit. Cheers.

  • Paul did not have an agenda of unity for the sake of unity. He had an agenda of unity for the truth.

  • Jesus prayed…..thy kingdom come, thy will be done…

    Paul helps describe that Kingdom —
    The Kingdom of God is not in word but power……1 Cor 4:20……it’s not food and drink but righteousness and living with peace and joy in the Holy Spirit………..Rom 14:17
    If you serve God with this attitude, you will please Him, and others will approve of you, too…….Rom 14:18

  • Why shouldn’t Paul be popular?

    With John and George dead, who else would you look to? Ringo? Hardly!

  • Absolutely Edward……Paul was chosen and taught by Christ to start His Gentile church….the others are just nobodies.

  • God is responsible for everything, unless WE say he isn’t. sorry. You don’t get to the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent and still say “the dog ate my homework.”

  • No…but you can still say “I ate my homework” — if you’ve got the humility to own up to it.

  • My husband and I are not responsible for the messes our children will make as adults, even though we brought them into the world fully expecting that they would make many, some of which might break our hearts in a million pieces and damage their lives permanently. Put them in a box and remove their power to choose and we might be able to keep them safe, but then we would no longer be parents but jailers.

    Neither does the heavenly Father want captive sons and daughters.

  • There is a difference between human parents and a god who claims to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, and who loves you so much that he invented hell to punish you for eternity just Incase you don’t love him back.

  • Hell does not really need to be “invented”. It is simply the absence of the God you want nothing to do with. Eons spent outside the presence and provision of God, and either alone or in the company of others in comparable rebellion — no doubt exactly what you want — is all the “hell” the universe requires.

    You already know my views about the ultimate end of death and hell, but it’s what you already expect anyway so you ought to be good with that, too.

  • So an honest mistake on your part there, then; nobody’s perfect, as the stupid saying goes. What your original post you now want to edit into, is:

    “‘This is what the kingdom of God is all about — getting the [FALLEN] creation project back on track.’ This. Absolutely.”

    To either version of which I still say, Nah-uh-uh.

  • I’m back to the U.S.
    I’m back to the U.S.S.R.

    Or this:

    Give Ireland back to the Irish

    Bunch of commies, them Beat-less Beetles.

    Whack-a-mole!

    Translation: You & Ben I.O. crack me up! Stop it. Where’s the love I mean discussion, Ex-Seminarian?

    Happy Easter Wester, whatever.

  • What’s a, how do you say, “niv”?

    As in David NIV-en?

    Or NIV-ea Creme, maybe?

    Wait, are you lost? Am I?

  • Like I said, the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven are no longer fallen but restored to full fellowship with the Creator.

    The unrepentant world remains in the fallen state and under the curse of sin, until Christ returns to finish the “restoration of all things.” (Acts 3:21).

  • This is neither cryptic nor English. Can’t you just plainly talk to regular folks around here on their Easter break from Christendom? I’m a born-again Christian but I’d like to think I’m still a regular person. Somebody once said, We’re all same people; just with different ideas, beliefs. So let’s just talk, hmm?

  • Give me a U.
    U.
    Give me an N.
    N.
    Give me an I.
    I.
    Give me a T.
    T.
    Give me a Y.
    Y.
    What does it spell?

    Dunno. Doesn’t spell truth, that’s for sure.

    “Paul’s agenda”, my foot.

  • “Brilliant [but] pale in comparison”, my foot.

    My apostle Paul wasn’t a showoff and most certainly would frown upon Bible Christians trying to show him off to “Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca”.

    WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

  • “The citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven”, however, are nowhere to be found on Earth. You’re not them, nor I. Nobody is anymore.

    Unless, of course, you can point me to current states of affairs in the news lately that would identify their names or namesakes. Go ahead. You have 24 hours to dig them up. GO.

    Here’s one: BILL HYBELS who preached your ideas here?

  • “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ”. Philippians 3:20

  • Romans 16:1-7

    “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.

    “Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.

    “Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ. Give my greetings to Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did.”

    For the female names in those verses, there’s a deacon (Phoebe), an apostle (Junia), and two co-workers (Priscilla and Mary). There’s a few more female names in the next eight verses. It looks to me like they were definitely doing more than sitting down and shutting up.

  • When it comes to women Paul has gotten something of a bad rap, thanks to some poor translations due to cultural prejudices.

  • According to apostle Paul, however, if truly “‘our citizenship is in heaven and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ’ Philippians 3:20”, then with Paul, each one of us can testify:

    (1) “We count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” – which isn’t the case with us at all, however.

    (2) “For Christ Jesus we have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that we may gain Christ, and may be found in Him” – which isn’t true about us at all, however.

    (3) “And so that we may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” – which can’t be said about us at all, however.

    Source: Philippians 3:8-11, 19-20.

  • Depends on where you are. Much of the world is still as dangerous a place for our brethren as Paul’s world was.

  • This, then, is your quote for the day on Good Friday – APPLICABILITY PENDING:

    SHAWNIE5: “‘But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ’. Philippians 3:20 … Depend[ing] on where you are. … [On how] dangerous a place”.

    ARE YOU IN ANY DANGER WHERE YOU ARE? AM I?

    Oh and uh you still owe me this infomercial detail, pointing me to current states of affairs in the news lately that would identify these “citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven” of yours found on Earth. Your 24 hours are almost up. GO ALREADY.

  • What do your The Book of Mormon, your Doctrine and Covenants, and your The Pearl of Great Price say otherwise, then?

  • I didn’t say “citizenship” depends on where you are, for citizenship is accomplished by the Spirit. I said that the degree of “suffering of loss” that Paul was talking about depends on where you are. Every christian suffers some kind of loss for the sake of Christ (usually the loss of what the flesh wants but the Spirit will not permit), but many suffer far more.

    The “news” will never effectively identify the citizens of the Kingdom of God because the world knows nothing of the Spirit. “For through him we both [believing Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph.2:18).

  • I’m still waiting for the names of those “citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven” friends of yours found on Earth. Why are you keeping me in suspense?

    But FINE. You’ve proofread it, so here it is. Essentially the point is still as the same as in my original statement.

    According to our mutual apostle Paul, if truly “‘our citizenship is in heaven and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ’ Philippians 3:20”, then with Paul, each one of us can testify:

    (1) “We count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” – which (although, as per your latest spin & twist of scriptures, “the degree of ‘suffering of loss’ … depends on where you are”) isn’t the case with us at all, however.

    (2) “For Christ Jesus we have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that we may gain Christ, and may be found in Him” – which (although, as per your latest spin & twist of scriptures, “the degree of ‘suffering of loss’ … depends on where you are”) isn’t true about us at all, however.

    (3) “And so that we may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that we may attain to the resurrection from the dead” – which can’t be said about us at all, however.

    Source: Philippians 3:8-11, 19-20

  • That’s nice. She was not an apostle and has not been identified as one.
    Matthew 10:2 – 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first Simon, called Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;…

  • Go ahead, Sandi, finish the scripture thou was quoting. “Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.” So we are to revere the betrayer of Christ over all these other faithful servants of the church who happen to be women? I don’t think so. Thine is a false religion. It is certainly not Christian!

  • He is listed as an apostle. No one asked you to revere him. Tell Christ that His word is not Christian. He knew what Judas was going to do before His incarnation.

  • He was an apostle at that time, yes. BUT there have been other apostles at other times. Following thy logic, Paul was not an apostle, nor were Andronicus and Junia, who Paul says were apostles.

  • Moving on now to Ephesians 2:19, are we? – so as to neutralize our controversy surrounding Philippians 3:20? FINE.

    According to apostle Paul, however, if truly “‘you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God’ (Eph.2:19)”, then with Paul, you can readily testify that:

    It’s for the “good works, which God prepared beforehand so that you’re now walking in them”, that indeed “you’ve been His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” – which isn’t true about you at all, though – or is it?

    Source: Ephesians 2:10, 19.

  • Paul identifies her as an apostle, the same way he identifies himself as one. It’s probably true that she was never one of the Twelve, selected through the process described in Acts 1 to replace one of those martyred, but we don’t have any evidence that Paul was, either.

  • That’s what we are saying. Twelve apostles were named earlier, then others became apostles later, including Paul, and if Paul is to be believed, also Andronicus and Junia. That is what thee was denying in thy answer to DougH.
    Be blessed, child. Jesus has not given up on thee; he’s still working.

  • Phoebe isn’t the one Paul describes as an apostle, it’s Junia: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did.”

  • again, where does Christ call Junia to be an apostle? Where is the scripture calling him. They were respected by the apostles, but it states they were followers.

  • Well, Paul said it. And John said not everything was recorded, because the earth could not contain enough books.

  • When did Christ call Andronicus as an apostle? Yet Paul says that they are highly respected AMONG (not BY) the apostles, and I’d say he knew them better than we do. As I said we have no evidence they were ever numbered among the Twelve, but neither do we have such evidence for Paul.

  • still does not show their calling. I highly respect you among the Christians on this site, but that does not make you an apostle.
    Paul was called by Christ.

  • Perhaps you can say I am “highly respected among the Christians” on this site, though that would probably be a BIG stretch. You can’t say I am “highly respected among the apostles” on this site, because even if there are any on this site I am not one of them. And how do we know that Andronicus and Junia weren’t called by Christ? Remember what John says about Jesus: “Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.” Why should the history of the early Church after his Resurrection be any different?

  • Actually, some of your comments I wish I had written – truthfully.
    The twelve apostles were called by Christ. They spent 3 years with Him
    Paul was called by Christ. He spent 3 years being taught by Him through revelation (Galatians 1:11-18)
    They may have been called by Christ, but, they are not apostles. The Bible does not number them with the apostles.

    2 Corinthians 1-13 New International Version (NIV)
    1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, ”
    there is nothing identifying anyone else as such.”

    By your example, one could say that Jesus promoted chevy over ford.

  • cite your scripture. Where did he say that “Andronicus and Junia were called by Christ to be apostles?” in Romans 16?

  • Well, thank you for that. To be clear, I personally believe that Paul was one of the Twelve, a replacement for one of those martyred. I believe that James, the brother of Christ, was another. The confusion comes from the fact that there are twenty-four people in the New Testament described as apostles, only thirteen of them are the ones in the Gospels and the first chapter of Acts, and there is no reason to think that ALL of the additional mentions were replacements of some of the original Twelve. Apparently, for the early Church there were apostles and then there were the Apostles — Andronicus and Junia were the former, not the latter.

    But all this is getting lost in the minutia and missing the bigger point, which is that the women Paul mentions in my original scriptural reference from Romans were all actively involved in the ministry, both as missionaries and local church leaders. One woman risked her life for Paul, another spent time in jail with him. These were not women of the “seen and not heard” variety. Paul’s statement about women staying silent in church needs to be understood in the light of his praise for these women.

  • Notwithstanding these “others” were enemies of the cross of Jesus, they were NEVER NEVER NEVER “just nobodies”. They were flesh & blood like you, and I and this here obviously a Somebody Eddie! They were people. They were human beings. Like your mom & dad.

  • HpO….I’ve noticed in the last few days that you don’t seem to be yourself. Is there something I can pray for you about?

  • Romans:16. The whole chapter. Either it is false or this assertion of thine is: “When it comes to the roles of women in the church, they were to remain quiet.” Who am I to contradict Paul?

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