Book Review: N. T. Wright’s Biography of the Apostle Paul

I’ve been saving up some book reviews for you. Here is the first. Enjoy.

N. T. Wright: Paul: A Biography.
San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018. xiii plus 464 pages.

N. T. Wright has produced many monographs on the Apostle Paul. His believing perspective makes his work friendly to Latter-day Saints as does Joseph Smith’s claim that he often felt like his life had some sympathetic mirroring of Paul’s life. That said, the life of Paul is largely mysterious. The sources are nowhere dense.[1] What do we have? The Pauline Corpus (letters of Paul in the New Testament (NT)–with complications noted below). And the Acts of the Apostles following the Gospel of Luke in the NT. Wright is expert at dealing with this material and the context of Paul’s life in terms of Roman and Greek thought and history, and Second Temple Judaism. In some sense his work on Paul’s theology and thought led naturally to the present volume.

How does Wright see his NT material in regard to Paul? This is important for readers of any stripe. Wright treats Acts as an accurate source of information. He sees Acts as an early composition (before Paul’s death?), written by the author of the Gospel of Luke and he sees Luke as an occasional actor in the drama. [These are not universally held conclusions. Especially considering that the Gospel is usually dated well after Paul’s death.] Wright is nonetheless able to construct a plausible account of Paul’s life, at least after his conversion to Christianity.

Wright shows us a Paul who is well aware of his own likely fate as a preacher of The Way, caught as he is between a Roman world whose leaders were intent on preserving the Augustan peace together with its Pantheon-infused social ordering, and the world of Judaism, its ethnic exclusivity and temple hierarchy.

Wright sees Paul as surviving his first incarceration at Rome and that (as the epistle to the Romans suggests as a goal) travelled to Spain and back to the east before a second trial and then execution. Wright is unafraid, as any good biographer must be, to extrapolate, speculate, about the blank spots. Again, in terms of sources, Wright does acknowledge the difficulty of including the Pastorals as genuinely Pauline (394) though his acceptance of Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thess. is a minority view among scholars. However one disagrees with Wright here, he does offer arguments that make for good reading. Wright explains in the Preface that he’s not going to engage the scholarship on such sources. He does this elsewhere (see his Paul and His Recent Interpreters (2015) for example).

This biography is inspiring. It will explicate the niches in your own life if you let it. And it’s a great read for Latter-day Saints. Find on Amazon or your local book sellers that remain open out there.

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[1] Apologies for using the mathematical version. I just mean that the sources, such as they are, leave a lot of blanks, holes, and rooms.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    As I read your post every time I saw N.T. my brain defaulted to “New Testament,” which seems appropriate enough…

  2. Yes indeed.

  3. This is a great book. I found it gave me a greater appreciation of Paul’s life and teachings.

  4. keepapitchinin says:

    I like Wright — and I like your reviewing non-LDS books that are relevant to an LDS audience.

  5. Thanks, Dub, Ardis. I’ve got a few more in the bag.

  6. Thanks. I read and enjoyed the biography last year. Of course, it’s extremely frustrating to try to piece together a “life” from the limited sources. That’s why biographies of Paul are nearly impossible, especially without granting significant credibility to Acts. But that doesn’t get in the way of Wright’s really useful analysis, of what it meant for early followers of Jesus to affirm that he is Lord, of the radical inclusivity of many early communities, of the thorough-going Jewishness of Paul’s life and writings, and more. As an aside, as a aspiringly decent Protestant, I used to love Paul. Now, oftentimes I read Paul’s letters, and I think — this is a hard individual to like. Wright’s book helped me at least like Paul again.

    Another aside: regardless of the questions of authenticity and credibility you mention, it never ceases to blow my mind that in Galatians, we have a description of events that transpired in the late 30s written around the year 50. Paul describes encounters with Peter and James the brother of Jesus that took place less than a decade after the end of Jesus’s earthly life. Even if one dates Galatians a touch later, it’s still a remarkable source.

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