Summary: Known primarily for his theological and biblical writing, NT Wright’s biographical work on Paul may be more helpful to understanding Wright’s perspective on Paul than anything else I have read.
I have read a lot of NT Wright; none of the really big Paul books, but much of his books that are targeted outside of the academy. Because of how Wright thinks and writes, the same themes come up over and over again in slight variations. I find most of Wright’s books really helpful, but I was surprised how much I found this biography, in part because it was a biography and not straight theology, really helpful to understanding Wright’s project with Paul.
Our ability to know ancient figures is limited. But we probably know about as much about Paul as we do about almost any other ancient figure. First we have relatively large amount of his own writing. But we also have the book of Acts, which was written either toward the end of Paul’s life or soon after he died.
There is a clear limit to what we can and cannot know about who Paul was. Wright has to speculate about a number of things in ways that would not have to be done in a biography of a modern figure. But Wright is clear in the text when he is speculating and with what data he is speculating. And he is clear about what is fairly firm historical ground.
Much of the early discussion is about how Paul was at the center of the construction of Christian theology. Wright suggests that until the rough time when Paul started to come to leadership the church was mostly Jewish culturally, theologically and ethnically. But as the church expanded, lines started being crossed.
The church, as envisioned by Paul, was a group that would meet in a single city across class lines (which was like the Jewish synagogues). It was also across ethnic lines, which was similar to how Roman legions were able to work across ethnic lines. But it was also transnational; the church in Antioch supported the Christians in Jerusalem because they saw themselves as part of the same body. And the crossing of all three lines at the same time was something unique to the Christian church in that culture.
Much of Paul’s writing and life seems devoted to focusing on how to become such a body. It is in the practical working out of the issues that Wright suggests that Christian theology was developed, as a way to theologically understand what it means to be a Christian outside of the solely Jewish theological roots and culture of the early church.
The most helpful part of the book after the discussion of the make up of the church as a transnational, trans-ethnic and trans-class, was the historical relationship of Paul’s epistles to his life. That does require an attempt at dating them and placing them in context of Acts’ history. That work of history and then the theological work of processing the content of those books in light of the assumed history was very helpful in giving an overview to who Paul was.
Wright’s biggest irritating tic as an author is his hyperbole about what new thing he is bringing to the table. That was largely under control in this book. Maybe because Wright is outside of his standard writing style and field, or maybe he is trying to cut back. But regardless of the reason, it helps.
This biography makes me want to read something by John Barclay, probably Paul: A Brief History. Those that I know that are more knowledgable about the academic research into the New Testament have frequently cited his work as someone else that is worth reading on Paul.
As normal for me, I listened to this as an audiobook and then I will reading it in print later for a second take. I have found that I can get bogged down on Wright if I start with print. I need to get the overview of the argument to see how the pieces work together and then I can read the pieces again to catch any details I may have missed in the first take.