Paul: A Biography
by N.T. Wright
–Review by Teri Hyrkas
The title says, Paul: A Biography, which is simple and straightforward. But if you surmise from the title that N.T. Wright’s latest book is a dry and dusty retelling of Apostle Paul’s life, you would be completely mistaken. Written in 2018 and published by Harper One, Wright’s newest book might best be described as a probing exploration of the dangerous activities of a world-class, mission-minded Torah teacher. It is, indeed, the breathtaking story of the perilous calling of Paul of Tarsus, the brilliant Jewish thinker and preacher who faced beatings, stoning, imprisonment and death for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Messiah. Thorough, gripping, fast moving, eye-opening? Yes; Dry and dusty? Nope.
In Paul, Wright wants to upset our entrenched notions concerning the Apostle by asking numerous personal questions about him: What was Paul’s life like as he was growing up? Why was he so dead-set against the early Jesus followers? Did he understand what was happening to him on the Damascus Road? After the Damascus encounter, what did Paul think he was doing when he set off on his travels and why was he so successful at achieving his ends? These and many other questions about Paul are presented and investigated throughout the book, but first Wright sets the historical/cultural stage so that the reader can interpret the circumstances of the events knowledgeably. The author writes: “[When] we try to understand Paul, we must do the hard work of understanding his context — or rather, we should say, his contexts, plural. His Jewish world and the multifaceted Greco-Roman world of politics, ‘religion,’ philosophy, and all the rest that affected in a thousand ways the Jewish world that lived within it are much, much more than simply a ‘frame’ within which we can display a Pauline portrait.” (10 Kindle)
In the early chapters of Paul, Wright snags the reader with this biographical hook:
“Paul’s letters give us a few tantalizing glimpses of his life, and this is one of the strangest:
‘When God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, was pleased to unveil his son in me, so that I might announce the good news about him among the nations–immediately I did not confer with flesh and blood. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me. No, I went away to Arabia, and afterward returned to Damascus.’ ” (Gal. 1:15-17)KNT (61 Kindle)
Wright looks at this somewhat odd statement from Paul and instead of giving the standard “Arabia was Paul’s first missionary journey” explanation, he opens a conversation about Paul and the prophet Elijah. Wright compares Paul’s zeal for his ancestral traditions to Elijah’s zeal to defeat the worshippers of Baal. He reminds us that it is Mt. Sinai in Arabia where the covenant between Israel and God was sworn and it is also the place where Elijah fled when Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life after the defeat of the Baal worshippers. Mt Sinai in Arabia is the very location where the once zealous, now hobbled, prophet Elijah, receives his assignment from the Lord to go to Damascus, anoint new kings and appoint the prophet Elisha to take his place. Wright explains that in Galatians, “Paul says that ‘he went away to Arabia’ — just as Elijah did– and ‘afterward returned to Damascus’ — again just like Elijah….”
“The parallel with Elijah — the verbal echoes are so close, and the reflection on “zeal” so exact, that Paul must have intended them — indicates that he, like Elijah, made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai in order to go back to the place where the covenant was ratified. He wanted to go and present himself to the One God, to explain that he had been “exceedingly zealous,” but that his vision, his entire world view had been turned on its head. And he received his instructions, “Go back and announce the new king.” (64 Kindle)
Have you ever thought of the Apostle Paul as a prophet? I had never once considered that possibility until reading Paul: A Biography. Wright’s book is filled with these kinds of “wake up and smell the incense” moments in Paul’s life.
In Paul, Wright chisels away centuries of rock solid, predominantly European-Protestant notions about Apostle Paul and offers us a fresh, bold look at the first-century, religiously zealous, faithfully Jewish person underneath. This inside look at Paul’s life and culture, and particularly his religious upbringing and early influences, adds a wealth of understanding to Paul’s astonishing meeting with Christ on the Damascus Road. Wright titles his book Paul: A Biography in order to make it clear that he is not writing another historical/theological study about Paul and his letters — Wright has written four books on those subjects — but a volume that is “searching for the man behind the texts.” I believe Wright has achieved his goal.
By following a timeline, an ancient map and reading
Apostle Paul’s writings, most anyone can form an idea about Paul’s life and
travels. But Wright provides the background for Paul’s letters, poems and
prayers; fleshes out his friends and enemies; and offers a passionate account
of Paul’s successes and failures, fears and triumphs. The result is that Paul,
who, in his letters, consummately proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ as Messiah,
is himself masterfully and marvelously made known by N.T. Wright in Paul: A Biography.
 The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation by N. T. Wright. (Harper Collins, 2011) ffffffff
Teri – thank you for the excellent review. I recently downloaded a copy on Kindle and plan to read it soon. Your review has wet my thirst to read the book as quickly as possible. – Doug