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Apostle as heroic failure

by
22 January 2016

Lionel Wickham reads books about St Paul and Pauline studies

Apostle Paul: A polite bribe
Robert Orlando
James Clarke & Co. £15
(978-0-227-17510-1)

 

Paul and His Recent Interpreters
N. T. Wright
SPCK £25
(978-0-281-06758-9)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

 

ROBERT ORLANDO is a film director with some short documentaries to his credit and now a downloadable biopic with the same title as this book. St Paul and early Christianity is a “subject he has been investigating for decades”, and here he presents themes dramatised in his film.

It is a good book, well written and respectably researched, and he has gone to the trouble to interview the experts, including (Bishop) N. T. (Tom) Wright, author of the next book. Every life story, he observes, necessarily conforms to a pattern with the subject cast in a certain fixed mould. True or not, his St Paul is a tragic hero and not the epic figure, survivor of exciting adventures and worker of wonders, of his first biographer.

St Luke’s Acts is followed in the plain historical outline, but the main source for the plot is the Apostle’s own words as preserved in the seven letters generally accepted as his. Paul’s apostolic credentials and mission to the Gentiles were never validated by the leaders, so the script goes, or, at any rate, not by St James heading the Church in Jerusalem; Paul’s attempts to persuade those first-generation bearers of Christ’s legacy foundered. That was Paul’s tragedy.

In AD 49, he met the leaders. Conditions for the acceptance of converts from heathendom including a “polite bribe” were offered by St Peter and James: Paul ministering predominantly to Gentile Christians should “remember the poor” of Jerusalem. Nine years passed while Paul worked with his Churches. In 58, he returned to Jerusalem to deliver a substantial gift of money carefully garnered and eloquently solicited. He was rebuffed. The bribe failed. James took the money, used some of it to pay for the vicarious Nazirite vows Paul had been advised to undertake to assuage the hostility and suspicion of Jews and Jewish Christians, and then left Paul in the lurch.

Paul’s presence caused a riot in the Temple. Rejection by the Lord’s brother, whose watchful interference in Paul’s Churches had ever been “a thorn in his flesh”, was a bitter disappointment. Paul, a prisoner, went to Rome a “broken man”.

The author finds some space for Paul’s theology, more for life in his Churches. The theme of the book is the personal tragedy of its subject and its unfolding narrative. It is well told. Robert Orlando says nothing new. Most specialist scholars would tell the story in much the same way.

But pause! “Polite bribe” is not really what Robert Orlando describes: “polite threat” would fit better. Has he caught the subtle combination of hinted promise and disinterested suggestion in the conversation reported in Galatians 2,1ff.: not a bribe being asked nor a blackmail threatened, but something spoken with its meaning resonating unspokenly? “Broken man”? Melodramatic cliché?

Disappointed but resigned to the failure of his mission is how Luke plausibly leaves him. And weren’t the dramatis personae in real life probably more Christian than the plot has allowed? Church historians spice our narrative with quarrels and intrigues. But I like the way it is told, if I don’t believe it quite all.

Neither Paul’s life nor biopics figure in N. T. Wright’s account of Pauline interpretation in the past 200 years, not that he would disdain their mention: he writes with a verve and awareness of ordinary life coming out in snappy lines I have not space to quote. The book assumes some prior knowledge of the subject, but is welcoming to those who have it.

It is in three parts; the first two (“Paul among Jews and Gentiles” and “Re-enter ‘Apocalyptic’”) critically appreciate Pauline interpretation from Baur to Sanders, whose “new perspective” changed the course of modern study, to be followed by a renewed concern with Pauline eschatology.

Part Three, “Paul in his world — and ours?”, discusses the sociological approach of recent study and its interpretative value — rather less than you might hope. His critique mentions often his important study, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and reinforces his own unitary understanding of the Apostle’s “gospel” succinctly conveyed in Paul’s two phrases νΧριστῷ, “in Christ”, and δικαιοσύνηδὲ θεοῦ διὰ πίστεωςησοῦ Χριστοῦ, “righteousness of God through Jesus Christ’s faithfulness”. A profound insight from a faithful interpreter of “the divine Apostle”.

 

The Revd Dr Wickham is a retired priest in the diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales.

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