This is a thorough, vivid and enlightening book about Paul the Apostle, otherwise known as St Paul. Tom Wright opens up for us the amazing personality of Paul: formidable, intellectual, resilient, passionate, determined, lyrical, energetic and utterly committed – a former Pharisee and a zealous Jew.
At the age of 23, Paul had his revelation on the road to Damascus. And what we often fail to realise is that after his period of blindness, he went off to Arabia for a couple of years to reflect. Then he spent about 2 weeks with Jesus’ disciple Peter. And after that he returned to his hometown Tarsus for ten years during which we know nothing of him.
It was only then that he began his extraordinary mission of travelling throughout the Mediterranean world, teaching and arguing and persuading first Jews, then Gentiles, that Israel’s God had fulfilled the Jews’ greatest hope, and come to the world as a crucified Messiah – a message many Jews found utterly abhorrent.
Reading this book made me reflect once again how much Christendom owes to Paul. I remember from my schooldays how my imagination was caught by the story of Paul and the riot of the silversmiths – when Paul showed up in town and started to draw people away from their belief in the cult of Diana, goddess of the Ephesians – thus causing uproar among the silversmiths whose livelihood depended on the cult.
As we read this biography we see before us a man powerful in intellect and vision, often vulnerable, who suffers from depression and comes very close to being broken in spirit, yet remains inspired in his actions and in his writing. In those letters, he encompasses his over-arching vision of Christ’s supremacy whilst fully acknowledging the reality of our individual lives and experience in this world.
Many of the passages Tom Wright quotes from Paul are his very greatest; and the strength and power of Paul’s words captivate you – words which have given comfort and strength and courage and renewal of faith to millions over the centuries since they were first dictated to the long-suffering scribe in that prison. The psychological astuteness of Paul’s great paradoxes shine out: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness and When I am weak, then I am strong. And Wright makes the point that throughout Paul’s journeys and his incredibly demanding series of lectures and talks, his imprisonments and his floggings, the one thing that cannot be eclipsed is his deep inner coherence.
Throughout his narrative, Tom Wright insists on the fact that the story of the Christian faith is not and never can be a story cut loose from the story of Israel. Towards the end of the book, when we reach Paul’s arrival in Rome, Wright refers to “the end of the world” which, to the Jews of the time, meant the destruction of the Temple (which was carried out by Rome in AD70).
Paul knew, better perhaps than any of his contemporaries, what reactions such a terrible event would produce. Gentile Jesus-followers would say that God had finally cut off those Jews, leaving ‘the church’ as a non-Jewish body. Christianity would become ‘a religion’ to be contrasted to something called ‘Judaism’. Jewish Jesus-followers would accuse their Gentile colleagues of having precipitated this disaster by imagining that one could worship the true God without getting circumcised and following the whole Torah. And Jews who had rejected the message of Jesus would be in no doubt at all. All this had happened because of the false prophet Jesus and his wicked followers, especially Paul who had led Israel astray.
I feel this is a very cogent summary of what, sadly, did indeed happen. But then Tom Wright goes on to examine the reasons for Paul’s ultimate success – firstly from a theological point of view, then humanly speaking, and then from the impact of his letters. Humanly speaking, Paul’s success may be partially accounted for by his phenomenal energy, his blunt, upfront way of telling it as he sees it, no matter who is confronting him. Also, there is his vulnerability: he loved people and they loved him.
Finally – there are his letters: small, bright, challenging documents. Within them, he draws upon all the philosophies and worldviews around him, sharply aware of and encompassing not simply religion or theology but also politics, ancient history, economics and/or philosophy. And his letters cover so many moods and situations. They take our arm and whisper a word of encouragement when we face a new task, they warn us of snakes in the grass, they unveil again and again the faithful, powerful love of the creator God. And all this with 70 or 80 pages of text to his name in the Bible. He succeeded, says Wright, far beyond the other great letter-writers of antiquity such as Cicero and Seneca.
Wright points out that many of the acknowledged great moments in church history – Augustine, Luther, Barth – have come about through fresh engagement with Paul’s work. His legacy has continually generated fresh dividends.
The Stoics, the Epicureans and the Middle Platonists had serious, articulate and in many ways attractive spokespeople… but Paul’s Jesus-focused vision of the one God, creator of all, was able to take on all these philosophies and beat them at their own game.
Finally, as we reach the end of this book, with Paul under house-arrest in Rome, ready to confront Caesar, knowing that he will before too long face death at the hands of the tyrant, Wright makes a chilling observation:
we have seen the electronic revolution produce a global situation just as dramatically new, in its way, as the one the first-century world had experienced with the rise of Rome.
I think we would do well to reflect upon this, and also consider how long the power and might of the Roman Empire lasted – until it fell.
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path