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Paul: A biography by Tom Wright

27 April 2018

Anthony Cane uncovers an interest that started in a theologian’s teenage years

IN THE margins of Tom Wright’s outstanding new book, we learn that his 1960s teenage rebellion involved studying the Pauline letters with his friends. With his fondness for maps and learning about Paul’s missionary journeys, here are the foundations of the publishing and academic phenomenon that is Professor N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham, and now at the University of St Andrews.

In 2013, he published the monu­mental and magisterial Paul and the Faithfulness of God, all 1800 pages of it. Paul: A biography draws on this academic work, but is aimed at a more general readership, hence “Tom”, not “N. T.”, on the title page.

This is not one of those bio­graphies that is based on vivid, novelistic description. Wright is so keen to place Paul’s Damascus-road encounter within the dominant narratives of the time that the event itself is assumed rather than retold.

There are one or two speculative flourishes, such as the suggestion that Paul had been betrothed as a young man, and the engagement broken off when he returned to Tarsus full of new ideas about Jesus Christ. Wright also favours the possibility that, after the two years in Rome with which Acts con­cludes, Paul visited Spain. For the most part, however, the emphasis is on the meaning and significance of Paul’s life and ministry, and some themes are repeatedly mentioned, such as Wright’s concerns to rebut suggestions that his subject created a new “religion”, and that Paul remained a deeply Jewish thinker.

The book is in three parts. In “Beginnings”, Wright explores the zeal of the young Saul and the narratives that shaped him, the encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road, Paul’s “hidden years” in Tarsus and Arabia, and the begin­nings of his ministry in Antioch.

The second part, “Herald of the King”, by far the longest, covers the missionary journeys that gave Wright the schoolboy that enthusiasm that is undimmed and now informed by the considered reflection of a long aca­demic and ecclesiastical career.

AlamyParmigianino: The Conversion of St Paul in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Part Three, “The Sea, the Sea”, begins with a nicely done retelling of Paul’s voyage to Rome. The final chapter is an excellent and thought-provoking summary of Wright’s mature thought on Paul’s motivation and theology. Here he describes Paul as the most significant and successful “public intellectual” of all time. Wright is clear that the roots of the flourishing of the Early Church lie in his ministry, and in the variety, exuberance, and intellectual quality of just 70 or 80 pages of letters.

Part of the reason for the length of Wright’s biography is the reiteration of key themes. To give a flavour: Paul was not primarily concerned to preach salvation so that people could go to heaven when they died, but rather with proclaiming God’s Kingdom as coming “on earth as it is in heaven”, and the restoration of the whole of creation.

Paul’s focus on Jesus as Messiah was not about starting a new “religion” but proclaiming “a new state of affairs, a new community owing allegiance to a new Master”. Salvation was about being an active agent in God’s world, in which human beings could be “the conduit through which God’s life would come to earth and earth’s praises would rise to God”.

This is compelling stuff; so much so that it is easy to forget that some Pauline scholars find in Wright’s work too much emphasis on a few themes, and a consequent neglect of the full range of imagery, metaphor, and motif on which Paul draws. Any reader seeking detailed engagement with some of the more controversial aspects of Paul’s writings, on women or sexuality, for example, will not find it here. None the less. this remains a magnificent biography worthy of a wide readership.

The Revd Dr Anthony Cane is Chancellor and Canon Librarian of Chichester Cathedral.

SPCK £19.99
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