(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?
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.
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.