Review of Paul: a biography

by frankbeswick

This book is a profound and insightful biography of one of the most remarkable figures of the ancient world

Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, was an apostle, writer of important letters, visionary and ultimately martyr. At a critical time in the history of the Christian church his clear thinking and scholarly mind formulated the Christian position on the inclusion of non-Jews into the church, which ultimately led to the expansion of Christianity into the world religion that it is today. He is credited with the honour of being a founder of Christian Theology.

Paul in his Context

It was as though I was led to this book. Before Christmas I was saying to my future daughter-in-law,  a Religious Education teacher, that I wanted to refresh my ideas on St Paul. Then on 27th December, having just collected my new reading  glasses from the optician's, I went into the bookshop next door and headed straight for the religion shelves. There facing me was Paul: a biography, by Tom Wright. I bought it there and then and have been thoroughly satisfied with my purchase.

So who is Tom Wright? He  was the Anglican [Episcopalian] bishop of Durham, a position traditionally reserved for a significant theological scholar. After moving to Oxford University he later took on a senior position at Wycliffe Hall, an Anglican training college for prospective ministers. Tom is the author of important works of Christian Theology, and he specialises in Pauline studies. Who better to write a work on Paul? 

The book consists of a blend of historical and theological study, as befits a biographical account of the development of a person's thought. While some imaginative reconstruction of events plays a part in the work, Wright studiously avoids contamination of religiously significant happenings with reconstruction. The largest tract of speculative material is the account of the shipwreck on Malta, which, while interesting, has no doctrinal significance. Wright also reflects on Paul's sojourn in Tarsus after his conversion and draws out its significance as a period of theological reflection and development. Tied into this account is Wright's reflection on whether Paul was married. Wright reaches the only verdict possible, we don't know. Wisely he avoids speculation about the "thorn in the flesh" the probably medical condition which Paul suffered later in life.

Important for all students of Paul is Wright's reflection on Paul's conversion, which the author correctly regards as a misnamed event. Paul never converted from Judaism and was fiercely loyal to Israel's God, but he regarded Jesus as the fulfilment of Judaism. Commendable indeed is Wright's Christian commitment, for at no time does he have any truck with what he regards as dubious psychological reductionism, which attempts to explain away the religious experience that Paul underwent.

But what is of serious interest is Wright's reflection on what Paul was doing when the experience happened. Wright suggests that as he was walking or riding [on a donkey] he was performing  a Jewish meditation in which he was reflecting on the prophet Ezekiel's commissioning experience in which he had a vision of God in his chariot. Reflection on this experience was common among pious Jews, and Wright suggests that Paul had the fulfilment of this kind of meditation and saw the face of God, which he saw to be the face of Jesus. Interesting, plausible, but not proven. 

The book rightly sticks to the patter of Paul's life through his various journeys. One little known point is Wright's suggestion that Paul's visit to Arabia was in fact a visit to Sinai, where God gave the commandments. which was then part of the kingdom of the Nabatean Arabs. The suggestion makes good sense, as Paul may well have been drawn to go to the roots of his faith community.



Of the cities that Paul visited four stand out for their religious significance: Ephesus, Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. The events that happened in these places are rightly explored in detail.

Jerusalem is first in importance. Wright gives an account of all the events that occurred  on Paul's visits there, and he sticks close to the Bible story, while pointing out areas where the biblical book of Acts, which contains the story, is quiet or less than informative, such   as how well Paul's collection for the impoverished Christians of Jerusalem, not all of whom were sympathetic to Paul, was received. He also  draws readers' attention to the questions of Paul's relationship to his relatives, at least some of whom dwelt in Jerusalem.

Ephesus comes next. This city is important as it was the seat of a major pagan cult, the worship of Artemis of the Ephesians. It is also the scene of Paul's encounter with pagan magical practices. Here Wright correctly deals with a lacuna in the Acts of the Apostles, for he thinks that Paul there  underwent an undocumented period of imprisonment and that during that period he became aware that the powers of evil against whom he was contending were capable of fighting back and that they played dirty. It is good that Wright does not shrink from religious explanations to curry favour with secularist academics. Also valuable is Wright's analysis of Paul's emotional state during that period, an analysis that reminds us that Paul was  a creature of flesh and blood rather than a plaster saint. That Paul wrote the prison letters during this traumatic period adds to our appreciation of his greatness.

Next comes the author's historically significant re-appraisal of Paul's preaching at Athens. This event is often portrayed as a time when open-minded philosophers took Paul to the Areopagus [religious court] to discuss his views; at which Paul made a failed attempt to preach in terms of philosophy. Wright has an alternative view: Paul was on trial for his life! The Areopagus was the court which four  hundred years previously had executed Socrates on religious charges, and there was no appealing its judgment. Paul stood accused of introducing foreign gods into the city, a crime that carried the death penalty.  Wright shows how Paul's supposedly failed speech successfully got him acquitted, but he also explains why Paul soon afterwards quit Athens for Corinth. His survival had been a close run thing, so he was not taking any more chances.

Rome was Paul's final destination, and Wright does a detailed analysis of Paul's letter to the Romans, and he expertly weaves his account into an  analysis of what he suggests was the fragmented character of the Roman church of the time, which may have consisted of scattered Jesus communities each with a variation of the gospel message. Wright correctly sees that theological unity is a prerequisite of community unity. The account finishes with Paul's welcoming to Rome by representatives of the Roman church and subsequently  an imaginative reconstruction of his martyrdom, which Wright wisely refrains from dating, as we do not know whether it was carried out after his Roman trial before Nero or in 65 AD at the commencement of Nero's persecution of Christians.

Paul: the character

Wright explores the character and motivations of Paul, from his first appearance in Jerusalem to his missions. He follows the standard line of locating Paul in the traditions of Pharisaic Judaism and as having a strong streak of Zealotry. This zealotry was rooted in the belief that Israel would have to be perfected in the practice of the law for the Messiah to come. Paul originally regarded Jesus and his followers as corruptions of Judaism, and therefore an impediment to the onset of the messianic age, but after his vision he applied his zealous character to the service of Christ.

Of great importance was his devotion to community. Wright correctly insists that Paul was completely devoted to the Jewish people, but he was also focused on the church. While being strongly Jewish and deeply learned in Jewish thought, he was not intellectually chained by Jewish traditions and so could think outside the box, rethinking those traditions in the light of new revelation. But Paul's commitment was applied to the Christian community. Having joined it, he worked to build it up, spreading it geographically and enriching it spiritually. He used his powerful mind to take the simple, yet inchoate faith of the apostolic church and to systematize it into a theologically coherent account.

Yet Paul was an intense man, capable of friendship and argument. Wright ponders on his friendship with Barnabas and its breakdown in an intense argument about Barnabas' desire to give another chance to the unreliable John Mark to go with them on another missionary journey. Yet years later John Mark is listed as being with Paul in Rome, so Paul must have been forgiving. Paul's friendships with women, such as Priscilla and Lydia, and his willingness to trust Phoebe disprove the claims that he was a misogynist.  He worked at his trade alongside spreading the gospel, showing himself capable of much hard work.

Paul is revealed as one who spoke truth to power and status. His courage in this respect is revealed in his standing up to the Apostle Peter in a dispute about Jewish Christians eating with Gentile converts. He proclaimed the gospel before at his trial before Herod Agrippa. On one occasion his friends had to prevent him from going to the stadium at Ephesus to preach to a raging anti-Christian mob. Raw courage yes, but prudence was sometimes lacking. But he reckoned that the gospel of Christ mattered more than his life.

Wright presents readers with a man  who was fully Jewish and completely Christian.  Paul stands in the great traditions of Judaism, with its devotion to rabbinic scholarship  and love for the faith of Israel; but he also is a Christian scholar. Some scholars have set Paul against Judaism, but this is a false path. Wright correctly sees him as a link between Judaism and Christianity. This book is well-worth reading. I commend it to you.


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Updated: 01/17/2022, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/21/2022

Derdriu, on his journeys Paul preached in synagogues, but his reception was mixed. Some Jews accepted his message, but others strongly rejected it. Paul was one of the minority of Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/20/2022

frankbeswick, Thank you for practical information, pretty pictures and product lines.
In particular, I find interesting where you say that "While being strongly Jewish and deeply learned in Jewish thought, he was not intellectually chained by Jewish traditions and so could think outside the box, rethinking those traditions in the light of new revelation."

It's a difficult path to tread to love and respect the Jewish beliefs, practices and traditions with which he grew up and to metamorphosize or modify them in a way that may not be the majority opinion at the moment or, with some, perhaps ever.

Was Paul able to maintain interactions with Jewish communities, or would one have to say that he was one of few Jewish practitioners and thinkers who embraced Jesus as Messiah?

frankbeswick on 01/17/2022

The differences between Paul and Peter were few and temporary. They both worked in Rome without apparent rancour. What you were taught in elementary school is simply wrong, but teachers sometimes get their facts wrong.

blackspanielgallery on 01/17/2022

Interesting, and revealing. In addition to the one point mentioned I had heard Paul and Peter had differences, but could and did work together. Were there any differences that persisted over time? Also, I was taught in elementary school that Paul before the event that led him to Christianity was a Roman soldier persecuting Christians, apparently misinformation that my former teacher had picked up and repeated.

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