Paul: a biography by N T Wright

The first occasion I was prevailed upon to prepare the liturgies for a Quest Conference, following the first Evening Prayer of the conference, I was dumbfounded to find myself under fire from a delegate because I had included a reading from one of St Paul’s letters. My complainant believed that Paul’s writings should be banished from the Church’s liturgies on the grounds of his misogynistic and homophobic opinions.

Admittedly, a glance at the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans contains the clearest condemnation of same-sex relations you can imagine – both male and female. Recent scholarship, however, reads the same text and finds just the opposite – that homosexuality is innate and therefore normal, moral, and biblical. Paul is also maligned because of his intemperate outburst in 1 Corinthians — “women should be silent in the churches” (14:34–36). Whereas, women played a large part in Paul’s missionary endeavour: witness Chloe, an important member of the church in Corinth.

I have a solution to my plaintiff’s outburst: READ THIS BOOK!

Tom Wright ranks high in the ratings of New Testament scholars alive today. A former Bishop of Durham, he is now Research Professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews. The twenty-three pages of the Introduction had me immediately, hooked both by his approachable style and the content of his writing. He has the extraordinary skill of being able to piece together snippets of information from Paul’s letters and from Luke’s book of Acts, then link them to parallels to be found in the Old Testament, and combine them with what we know from historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, etc about life in the Near East in Paul’s lifetime. The result is to give the reader incredible understanding of Saul/Paul, his background, his zeal, his character. This is a sizeable book – 480 pages – but do not let that put you off.

When I reached the chapter on Paul’s time in Antioch, the following two passages leapt out of the page:

Many Jews would have assumed that Gentiles still carried a contagious pollution from their culture of idolatry and immorality. But that wasn’t how Barnabas saw it. As far as he was concerned, what mattered was the believing allegiance of these Gentiles; they were staying loyal to the Lord from the bottom of their hearts …”

“… in the ancient Near East the idea of a single community across the traditional boundaries of culture, gender, and ethnic and social groupings was unheard of. Unthinkable, in fact. But there it was. A new kind of ‘family’ had come into existence. Its focus of identity was Jesus; its manner of life was shaped by Jesus; its characteristic mark was believing allegiance to Jesus.”[i]

Let me explain why these words had such an impact on me. The first passage describes perfectly my feelings with regard to those who unleash “oceans of hate and threats” upon LGBT Catholics; we seem to them to be carrying a contagious pollution. It was Fr James Martin SJ who used the phrase “oceans of hate and threats” to describe the reaction of some Catholics to the news that he was to lead a workshop at the World Meeting of Families, held in Dublin last August. He says of them, “these protestors are not only on the wrong side of history, they’re on the wrong side of the Gospel”.  If you are in any doubt, read the unprecedented and extraordinary letter attacking Pope Francis and the alleged homosexual networks in the Church, authored by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and released while the Pope was in Ireland. The Atlantic says of the letter: “[it] is a power play by Viganò as much as a cri de coeur calling for a clean-up of the Church. And it may ultimately say less about the Church’s victims than it does about the man who wrote it.”[ii] After Paul’s conversion, he endured “oceans of hate and threats” because of his commitment to Christ and dedication to the Gospel.

This was not the sole example where parallels can be drawn between St Paul’s experiences and events in our own days. Paul’s travels in Cyprus and Galatia took him to Perga, Pisidian Antioch (to distinguish it from the Antioch in Syria), Iconium, Lystra, etc. The trend of employing indigenous, allied or mercenary troops reached a point where these came to represent a substantial proportion of Rome’s forces. Wright explains that the last thing Rome wanted was military veterans, seeking a reward for their service to the empire, ending up in Italy: “Rome’s population was already swollen, causing unemployment, and regular threat of food shortages.”[iii] The solution? Caesar Augustus founded colonies for ex-service personnel well away from Italy: Pisidian Antioch, known at that time as “New Rome”, was one such colony. Here I was reminded of today’s flat refusal of some hard-line European governments such as Italy, Hungary and Poland to be pushed into accepting more or any migrants at all.

This book is compelling reading, offering pauses for reflection on areas of concern that confront us in our own age, parallels to some of the obstacles and difficulties Paul faced. Above all, I was reminded that the focus of the early Christians was not on what happened to them after they died, but what belief in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah meant in the immediate term for them and others. Their focus was on the “kingdom of God”. It was not supposed to be a new religion or a new philosophy, it was not about replacing one form of political power with another. This “kingdom” means helping the needy, supporting the weak, comforting the desperate, welcoming others, promoting friendship, working for peace, being ready to forgive. The biblical scholar, A M Hunter, once posed the question: Was Paul the supreme interpreter of Jesus and his gospel, or was he its greatest corrupter? This book confirms what I have always thought, Paul still speaks to us in our human predicament if we will only open our ears to hear and our eyes to read. Pauline sceptics beware; this book may cause to change your mind about the apostle.

John Ashman

[i] Paul: A Biography, pp 90,91

[ii] The Atlantic, Rachel Donadio, 31 August 2018

[iii] Ibid. p 117