Paul: A Biography by Tom Wright

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Paul: A Biography by Tom Wright

*Reviewed by Alan Mordue

This most recent book on Paul by Tom Wright is a genuine biography of the Apostle Paul in the same way as other historians have written about characters such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. This book will be useful to Christians and non- Christians alike, and to those who are steeped in Pauline theology as well as those who aren’t. This book will challenge some of our contemporary world’s misgivings about Paul, especially in regard to the many half-truths and misconceptions that exist about him. As usual he challenges the postenlightenment dualism that is at the heart of modern western society and takes issue with the way we all split off religion from the rest of our daily lives.

From the very start Tom Wright reminds us that Paul was brought up in Pharisaic Judaism, which strictly adhered to traditions. The key question he asks is how did this legalistic Pharisee come to see Jesus of Nazareth as lord and master, as literally the messiah of Old Testament scripture, the chosen one and the man of history. He takes us through Paul’s famous travels in the eastern Mediterranean and shows how he interacts with the classical culture prevalent everywhere, and looks at how Paul is not only heir to the scriptural tradition of the Hebrew scriptures but also to the Greek rationalist tradition of Plato and Aristotle. He also makes it clear that Paul very much saw himself as going from faith to faith from Pharisaic Judaism to belief in Jesus as Christ within Judaism. After all, Paul believed this was very much the same faith - that the covenant between God and the Jewish people reaches its climax in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Paul is the apostle to the gentiles, proclaiming a renewed covenant for all humanity as Jesus is the climax of the covenant. He describes how the unique cultural heritage of classical Greek philosophy and Old Testament wisdom laid the way for the Christian world that developed; after all the New Testament is written in Greek and is imbued with the Greek spirit. The author’s great sweep and understanding of the fi rst century classical world and Hellenistic Judaism in particular in this book is truly staggering.

He brings into the narrative his critique of the way many Christians think belief is all about “going to heaven” and demonstrates how unhelpful this thinking is. He spends time trying to demonstrate how this and other far away views of God and salvation are not in Paul’s writings or the New Testament generally. In this way the book also has a lot to say about the modern philosophy of life which says it’s all well to have religion but let’s keep it out of the way, its private and doesn’t really impact our lives. Tom Wright is arguing that the modern western world is a form of Epicureanism and a kind of sophistry which is the antithesis of Jesus’ message as disseminated through Paul’s writings. 

There is little on two of the great issues that obsess the Church today, same sex relationships and the role of women in the Church. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that there is a lack of in depth analysis in what is a biography of a first century Jew. The obsession the Church has today says more about the modern western world than the world of the first century. There is however an overall sense of the sheer energy of Paul as he goes on his travels and meets people from all backgrounds. Wright combines the coverage of Paul’s travels with a very helpful and brief analysis of the letters that Paul wrote for each community that he visited which adds a lot of context to both the letters and the travels. This approach also includes a close look at the key messages of the letters in a non-technical way that will be helpful to people who know little about the letters and their context, as well as a superb overview for people more familiar with the letters.

In my opinion this is a very great book; in fact I would argue it is a work of genius. It has Tom Wright’s customary grace and wit as well as his constant artistic asides on literature, visual art and classical music. This adds a sparkling veneer to what could be a difficult subject in other hands. This book is also remarkable in way that it offers encouragement to us in a concrete way on the central issue. By the end of the book you feel renewed in the validity of the central claims and practice of the Christian faith.

*Alan Mordue, Sales Director of SPCK.  Also a member of the Society of Bible Literature. Previously Alan worked as theological buyer and Deputy Manager of Durham University Bookshop, and managed Durham Cathedral Bookshop. Prior to joining SPCK he was Sales and Marketing Director at DLT.


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