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Are Theologians Real People?

Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright (Harper Collins: New York, 2018)
Are Theologians Real People?

Biography writing is a fascinating study in itself. Sometimes biographies are simply histories of the times in which a person lived. So little is known about the person or the writer is just not interested in the person’s own psychology that the book resorts to telling the way the subject fits into their particular history. Sometimes biographies are pure speculation about the way the person “felt” or “thought” about things the writer (and anyone else for that matter) could not possibly know about. Sometimes the book is hagiographic, relating only what is perceived as good about the subject, or demeaning, telling the reader far more than anyone really cares to know about the person being analyzed. For these reasons and many others, the subjects of many biographies become stick figures, or remain simply subjects, rather than flesh and blood human beings.

N.T. Wright has avoided all these traps in this thorough, delightfully readable story about one of the most well-known, and at the same time least-known, characters of human history: the apostle Paul. Wright is the prolific New Testament scholar who has perhaps focused most on Paul in his scholarship and also not a little in his more popular writings. Here the reader encounters both the depth of scholarship and the straightforward prose of a writer so at home with his subject that he seems to tell the story effortlessly. So enamored of the story he is telling, he also makes an old, very familiar account, exciting right up to its last pages where he speculates about Paul’s last breaths being breaths of prayer, similar to the stories told of Rabbi Akiba dying with the Shema on his lips.

Not surprisingly, Wright tells Paul’s story chronologically, but he does so around themes that describe the part of Paul’s life with which he is dealing. For instance, in the one chapter whose title tips Wright’s hand—the first, entitled “Zeal”—we are introduced to Paul as a boy hearing the story of Phinehas spearing the Israelite and his Midianite lover through and receiving a “covenant of peace” as a result (Num 25.6ff.). Thus is Paul the zealot born, persecutor of Christians and obsessed keeper of the law, as he grows into a Pharisee of great renown. Wright might not have drawn such attention to the story of Phinehas, were it not said of him later in the Psalms that his act “was counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever” (Psa 106.30-31), but the point for now is this: Paul’s zeal, when diverted from his persecution of Christians to his service of the risen Christ, never departs from his earlier Judaism. In fact, quite the opposite: Paul’s zeal deepens as he finds his Judaism profoundly fulfilled in the Messiah, Jesus.

Wright does not spend any time speculating about Paul’s life as a teenager, or his period of discipleship under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel, except to surmise that Paul eventually departs from his teacher over exactly this question of zealotry. Gamaliel was one, according to the New Testament (Acts 5.34-39), who was willing to let the new cult of Jesus play itself out; Paul on the other hand sees this young movement as both an affront and a threat to God, His temple, and His law. By chapter two, Wright is already telling of Paul’s trip to Damascus, a trip that was to change Paul’s life forever.

The biography follows the familiar road map found in the book of Acts, but that does not mean that the book is only narrative. In the preface, Wright admits that he wrote Paul: A Biography in order to summarize, without simplifying too much, the dense theology of his two-volume scholarly work Paul and the Faithfulness of God. The famous phrase, described above as applied by the Psalmist to Phinehas—“and it was counted to him as righteousness”— becomes one of the lynchpins of Wright’s understanding of Paul’s theology, especially as it refers to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people and also of the new people of God. Paul uses the quotation from Genesis 15.6 in regard to Abraham in Romans 4 and Galatians 3, and Wright, developing the importance of faith and its reckoning as righteousness, traces throughout the life of Paul what he believes to be the center of Paul’s theology, the covenant faithfulness of God to His people. The theological arguments are woven into the narrative seamlessly, never boring the reader with abstruse logic, but always demonstrating the development of Paul’s thought in its historical context.

Along the way Wright also summarizes each of Paul’s letters in the historical contexts both of the lives of the recipients and of the place where he was writing, so the book not only gives us the story of Paul’s life and thought, as well as a solid summary of Wright’s understanding of Pauline theology; it also serves as a wonderful introduction to the Pauline letters as well. For instance Wright’s development of his ideas about the recipients of Romans, a scattering of house churches throughout Rome made up of some Gentile, some Jewish, some mixed communities, explains perfectly the context of his magisterial letter when it describes the importance of God’s covenant faithfulness extending to all of His creation, not a select few, and what it means to be a Jew inwardly, not simply externally.

Moving as well as profoundly informative, one would be hard-pressed to find a better overall treatment of Paul, the apostle than N.T. Wright’s Paul: A Biography. Here the reader gets Paul presented as theologian, historical figure, and a man displayed in all his humanity as servant of the living God. A great read.

Drew Trotter

June 24, 2020

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