Book review: “Paul: A Biography” by N. T. Wright

I teach youth Sunday School in my congregation– the 16-18 year-olds– and it was with some trepidation that we approached the letters of Paul. After leaving the comfortable narrative form of the gospels with which even most youth are familiar to some extent, I have had less experience with Paul. I have done my share of pulling quotes and verses out of context from his letters– Most Latter-Day Saints know a few of his lines thanks to scriptures masteries: “bodies celestial and bodies telestial”, “but will with the temptation also make a way to escape that ye may be able to bear it”, and “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” But really, who was Paul? It was this that motivated me to pick up N. T. Wright’s biography of Paul, that is currently still sitting on Amazon’s top sellers in Christianity right now.

I was introduced to N. T. Wright, I believe through some reading at By Common Consent, or another Latter-Day Saint-aligned blog that I read. I can’t keep track, I just keep adding them to Goodreads. I have been reading his translation of the New Testament, rather than the traditional King James version (ooooh, how countercultural haha), and even that has helped me understand some of the more esoteric passages. But the framing that the biography gives is fantastic. It helps you piece together the narrative of Paul’s missions from Acts with his later letters. The confusing this about the letters is, not only are they not arranged chronologically in the Bible, but you as the reader also have to be aware of both the audience he is addressing and Paul’s current situation (e.g. 1 Corinthians was written after Paul had left and was preaching in Ephesus).

I got a lot out of the book. It gave me new-found appreciation for Paul. I’ve always been confused about him, and haven’t been able to piece together a coherent picture. When I first read Romans as a teenager, his emphasis on being justified by faith rather than works sounded apostate to my young Mormon ears (really, we could teach some aspects of the gospel a bit better. Young Mormons really do grow up with a very legalistic worldview, all things considered). But then other passages definitely sounded fire-and-brimstone-y (“for men shall be lovers of their own selves, proud blasphemers, ungrateful, unholy, without natural affection, etc.”), while others made him sound like a bigot– I still don’t like reading 1 Corinthians 11 where he says women shouldn’t talk in church and should always keep their head covered.

Wright helps put all Paul’s letters in context. You get an idea of the unique challenges he had in preaching the gospel outside of a predominantly Jewish population. I had read his analogy of the body of Christ, but this shows you the very specific problem Paul had: Jewish Christians would refuse to eat or take the sacrament with Gentile converts. And it was creating tension. Even Peter– the head apostle who received the revelation “what God has made clean thou shalt not call unclean”– slipped back into his old ways. Paul has to hit this one home again and again, and his vision of a unified Church across cultural boundaries is still something very relevant to our congregations today. WE can learn a lot from Paul.

Wright also has a few clarifications of his own to make from culture of the 19th and 20th century. Throughout the book at multiple touchpoints, he talks about how Protestants tried to paint the Jewishness right out of Paul. He was the apostle to the Gentiles, the law of Moses wasn’t to be practiced, and he moved Christianity out of its original Jewish context. Wright clarifies that this is not the case. Even to the end, Paul was Jewish through and through. And Christianity itself shouldn’t be shorn of its Jewish roots. I’m sure Latter-Day Saints would appreciate this discussion, having our own unique take on the heritage of Israel.

Wright is quite the masterful theologian of the New Testament. He takes the liberty of using his own translation of the NT throughout the book. It takes some getting used to, as someone who has read the KJV my whole life, but it also sparks new life. Phrases like “Messiah people”, “Jesus followers”, and “the One God” make you pay attention more and re-contextualize familiar verses.

I was also secretly hoping to figure out what happened to Paul in the end? Like, Acts totally leaves you hanging. He goes to Rome, hoping to testify before Caesar, and it just ends. I was disappointed that modern scholarship doesn’t magically fill in all the gaps! Wright does some speculation– he may have made a trip to Spain, he may have died in the early persecutions in Rome, but really, all the best material scholars have to work with are the records in the Bible, with a little context from contemporary primary sources like Josephus.

Highly recommend this book! Check out my highlights here

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