Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 80 (February 1998): 58-60.
What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? By N. T. Wright. Eerdmans. 192 pp. $14 paper.
Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. By A. N. Wilson. Norton. 288 pp. $25.
Luke Timothy Johnson
At the end of his new book on St. Paul, N. T. Wright invites a comparison between his treatment of the apostle and that published shortly before by A. N. Wilson. His title, "what Paul really said," plays off Wilson's "mind of the apostle," and in his final chapter Wright offers his own mostly negative review of Wilson's effort. The packaging may be a bit deceptive, for Wright's last chapter is really an add-on after his own study was "more or less complete," and the largest part of his book develops Wright's own distinctive argument concerning Paul's place in earliest Christianity.
In contrast to Wilson's thesis that Paul was the inventor of Christianity (a tired thesis indeed), Wright argues that Paul carried on Jesus' agenda of restoring Israel. Insofar as he argues continuity between Jesus and Paul rather than discontinuity, Wright is surely more correct than is Wilson. But that is not necessarily saying a great deal, for Wilson's book is not only wrong, it is also wrongheaded and muddled.
Wilson has written one of those old-fashioned British biographies in the Chesterbelloc tradition, which means in most part that the sweeping character of his claims is matched almost perfectly by his cavalier neglect of facts. He fails to deal critically with the sources, replaces careful analysis of historical context with gossip from ancient historians, and relies on casual psychological characterizations rather than a serious engagement with Paul's notoriously resistant Greek prose.
Wilson follows the popular biographer's path of least resistance, using the story line of Acts when it suits him, and amplifying it here and there with biographical snippets from the letters and random encyclopedia notes on the Roman world. Where the sources do not speak, Wilson has a ready store of speculation: he thinks Paul was among the temple guard that arrested Jesus, wonders about the apostle's sexual proclivities, and pictures him in happy and oblivious retirement on the Iberian coast. All this is dished out with a cheerful disregard for evidence.
In Wilson's account, Paul's mind is equally haphazard and untidy. Here, Paul picks up an influence from Judaism; there, he falls under the sway of Greek thought. Paul's mystical perception of Jesus is so regularly compared to the cult of Mithras that only the dullest reader would miss the intended inference: under the influence of the ancient mysteries, Paul has transformed the simple preaching of Jesus into the Christ Cult. But what is most remarkable about a book subtitled "the mind of the apostle" is how little it actually deals with anything of Paul's process of thought as actually expressed in his letters.
Wilson despairs of making sense of Galatians: "No commentator can explain it because it does not on any rational level make sense," which leaves the way open to search for some "psychological truth [that] might lie behind Paul's incomprehensible words." Wilson refers repeatedly to the "restless and almost Nietzschean mind of Paul," to his "richly imaginative, but confused, religious genius," and calls him "the greatest poet of personal religion." Such effusions serve mainly, it seems, to excuse his failure to interpret Paul's actual words. He spends five pages, for example, extolling the importance of the letter to the Romans without offering even a summary of its argument.
It would be pleasant to report that N. T. Wright is not only better than Wilson but the very model of a popular treatment of Paul. Despite its clear superiority to Wilson at every point, however, Wright's own contribution is also, in its own way, severely limited. No less than Wilson does Wright adopt a patronizing tone: readers are reminded frequently that their present state of knowledge is deficient in every way imaginable—perhaps this sort of thing works better in the lecture format in which this book began, but good popularization ought not to condescend quite as much as both these authors do.
Wright also tends to overwork one side of Paul's background to the neglect of other aspects of his complex symbolic world. He seems to know more about the hopes and dreams of Shammaite Pharisees—the sort he insists Paul was—than any of the sources available to us actually states. He also knows which verses of Scripture Paul had read before his conversion and what he had made of them, information all the more impressive since Paul himself never tells us these things.
Wright is obviously a lively lecturer whose strong suit is the construction of a clear story line. This is both the strength and weakness of his popularization. He can make the past vivid by rendering it in such dramatic fashion, but he can also oversimplify it to the point of distortion. Wright properly emphasizes Paul's Jewishness. But by reducing Judaism to only one stream, he also reduces, indeed effectively eliminates, those aspects of Judaism in Paul that resemble Philo more than Hillel or Gamaliel; that is, he suppresses the diaspora Jew in favor of the palestinian Jew.
Wright's preference for story affects his analysis in another way. He places Paul in continuity with Jesus by making them characters in the same basic narrative: they share the same fundamental vision for the restoration of Israel, with each playing a distinctive role. In effect, what Jesus sought for his fellow Jews, Paul saw as inaugurated in Jesus' death and resurrection, namely the effective rule of God in the world—beginning and culminating in Israel: "When Paul announced the ‘Gospel' to the Gentile world, therefore, he was deliberately and consciously implementing the achievement of Jesus" (emphasis in original). Paul's mission to the Gentiles, therefore, was not a new initiative that betrayed Jesus' own, but was rather in service to the same vision, for the inclusion of the Gentiles was to be the eschatological realization of "all Israel being saved" (Romans 11:26).
This is a powerful rendering of a genuine element in Paul, and Wright manages to bring a good bit within this framework. He does a particularly good job leading the reader through several difficult Pauline passages critical to this reading (such as 1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 3-4, Philippians 2-3, and big patches of Romans). Wright is a learned scholar and a deft reader. When he sets to work on the text this way, the ineptitude and pretentiousness of Wilson is by comparison made all too clear .
The biggest criticism of Wright's treatment attaches not to what he does in this book but what he appears to claim by his title, "What Saint Paul Really Said," as though this one aspect of Paul adequately covered one of the most complex and difficult writers imaginable. Wright fails adequately to inform his reader that there are dimensions of Paul—as moral teacher, for example, and as shaper of a community of character—that do not fit as neatly within his proposed narrative.
Most of all, his approach masks the peculiar specificity and resistance of each of Paul's letters. Wright makes it seem as if Paul was working out the logic of a single unitary vision rather than responding to multiple and particular problems in communities scattered across the Mediterranean world. Perhaps a better title would be "Some of What Paul Really Said," so that the reader would not draw the (surely false) inference that Wright is claiming to have captured the essence of Paul and made it available, in chapters dealing with a handful of passages in a handful of letters.
There also is a sense in which Wright's political reading of both Jesus and Paul has some troubling implications—at least for readers who think that Christianity's return to a diaspora existence has by and large been a good thing both for it and the world. He is surely correct when he states that Paul's vision of "salvation" is this-worldly, consisting in a people that "calls on the name of the Lord." And there is at least one sense in which one can agree with him when he states, "Paul believes that the renewed humanity is set (strangely and paradoxically) in authority over the world," for Paul himself says of the end time, "Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?" (1 Corinthians 6:2). But it is a much larger step to declare, as Wright does: "The mission of the church is the reality of which the pagan empire is the parody," and "There was only One God; this God had exalted his Son Jesus, as the true Lord of the world; his empire was the reality, Caesar's the parody." The portrayal of a palestinian and political Paul rather than a diasporic and community-building Paul is a simplification of evidence that is more complex than Wright acknowledges; the portrayal of Jesus' lordship in terms of a Christian empire is also a simplification, all the more unfortunate if consciously intended.
Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Chandler School of Theology, Emory University.