The mostly Baptist congregations in which I grew up included only a handful of academically trained biblical scholars, but there were many passionate amateurs. Very few of them knew Hebrew; some had learned New Testament Greek (as my great-grandmother did while in her sixties); most had no biblical languages. But they pored over their Bibles (the King James Version) with great intensity. Oddly, a disproportionate number of them were in engineering or an allied profession that required exacting precision along with pragmatic know-how.
Many had specialties. Some, for instance, found the vexed history of the Twelve Tribes of Israel inexhaustibly fascinating. (The Book of Numbers boring? Not at all!) Others (quite a few, in fact) were drawn to the end-time visions in Revelation. But the most popular subject, hands down, was the life of the Apostle Paul. It was necessary, of course, to establish an exact chronology of Paul’s mission trips (with each proposal subjected to withering criticism by proponents of other views). In general, the more tenuous the evidence, the fiercer the debate—hence the endlessly contentious speculations on the exact nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9).
This experience had prepared me well for the time when, fully grown, I began (very much an amateur myself) to read biblical scholarship, a field characterized by virtuoso learning and (beneath the surface of professional cordiality) take-no-prisoners dismissal of opposing views. Many of these arguments, these differing interpretations of the same texts, turn out to depend on the scholar’s deep convictions about the nature of the Bible (a wholly human product, a divinely inspired communication from God, or something else?). And yet, whatever prior convictions a reader brings to this or that account, it is possible to learn, to see a familiar subject in a new light.
Readers with no particular interest in things Christian yet aware of Paul’s significance in the history of the church might still be surprised by the sheer volume of books on him that appear every year. Two particularly noteworthy ones, by two leading scholars in the field, have recently appeared: N.T. Wright’s Paul: A Biography and Paula Fredriksen’s Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle. Wright is the preeminent Pauline scholar of his generation; in addition to his own books, which range from massive scholarly volumes to meaty books for the general reader to shorter popular texts, there are shelves of books by other scholars devoted to his work (agreeing, disagreeing, expounding, dissecting). Fredriksen is a distinguished New Testament scholar who has sought to clarify the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, a theme that has likewise been central to Wright’s work. Indeed, though the two scholars disagree sharply in many ways, this emphasis—“Paul remained to his dying day fiercely loyal to Israel’s God,” Wright puts it—makes it particularly valuable to read their books side-by-side. If two first-rate scholars who differ on so much strongly agree in one crucial respect, we ought to pay attention.
As you might have guessed, Wright’s account is not really a “biography” of Paul, for the very good reason that no such book could be written. It is rather a bracing account of Paul’s “context,” loaded with speculation (frankly acknowledged as such) and with intelligent but conjectural readings (“I strongly suspect …”) of events related in the New Testament from which we might infer more about the arc of Paul’s life and ministry. As usual, Wright is clear and forceful. I must admit that, long before page 432, I wearied of the bluff, hearty tone he adopts all too often. Speaking of a decade of “silence” in Paul’s life, beginning several years after the Crucifixion, Wright says: “Faced with a silent decade at a formative period of someone’s life, a novelist might have a field day; we must be more restrained.” But this chummy aside to the reader is ill-conceived. A novelist is never faced with such a problem, because a novelist never has to deal with a “silent decade”; she makes her characters’ entire lives up from scratch.
Such irritants aside, even—or perhaps especially—readers who have been hearing about Paul from the age of five will benefit from Wright’s account. “So when Christian tradition speaks of the ‘conversion’ of Paul,” he observes, “we need to pause.” Yes: “Not for one second did Saul cease to believe in the One God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was just that … well, what happened was … how could he put it? Twenty years or so later he would write of glimpsing ‘the glory of God in the face of the Messiah.’”
The point about “conversion” is made by Fredriksen as well. (Her next book, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, is coming in October from Yale University Press.) Still, as I’ve said, her Paul differs markedly from Wright’s. Her Paul’s Jesus is “unambiguously human” even though he is a “cosmic agent” from heaven. “I want to urge,” Fredriksen says, “that we try to interpret both Paul and his Christology in innocence of the imperial church’s later creedal formulas.”
The other most conspicuous difference between Wright’s Paul and Fredriksen’s is made clear in the very first sentence of Fredriksen’s book: “The Kingdom of God, Paul proclaimed, was at hand. His firm belief that he lived and worked in history’s final hour is absolutely foundational, shaping everything else that Paul says and does.” On this point, I believe, Fredriksen is right. But that Paul and the first generation of Christians more generally believed, mistakenly, that they lived in “history’s final hour” does not at all alter the truth at the very core of Paul’s message, as Wright summarizes it: “Jesus had established the new world order,” promised long ago, “and he would return to complete the work,” God’s definitive mending of his creation. Paul’s assumptions about the chronology were wrong, but he was right about the fulfillment of the promise, the improbable reality of which fully justified his sense of urgency.
“Yet I belong to those who believe in apokatastasis. / That word promises reverse movement, / Not the one that was set in katastasis, / And appears in the Acts, 3, 21.” So wrote Czesław Miłosz in “Bells in Winter,” the concluding section of his long poem “From the Rising of the Sun.” The restoration of all things: a hope no more or less improbable today than it was almost two thousand years ago, when Saul of Tarsus—he who would become the Apostle Paul—set out on a journey to Damascus.
John Wilson was the editor of Books & Culture from its first issue (in 1995) to its last (in 2016).