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Issue Date:  May 26, 2006

Paul by N.T. Wright PAUL
By N.T. Wright
Fortress Press, 194 pages, $25
By Bruce Chilton
Doubleday, 335 pages, $25
In Search of Paul by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed IN SEARCH OF PAUL
By John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed
HarperSanFrancisco, 436 pages, $30
Paul of Tarsus by Edward Stourton PAUL OF TARSUS: A VISIONARY LIFE
By Edward Stourton
HiddenSpring (Paulist Press), 213 pages, $24
The Gospel according to Paul

Authors show Paul as a man who challenged imperial claims


Watershed moments in history occur in the invisible realm of possibility later revealed as inevitability. There are no witnesses except those prescient prophets who intuit early the converging factors that will erupt in major social change.

Paul of Tarsus was such a prophet, and his own rebirth on the road to Damascus and subsequent role as midwife in the violent but natural birth of Christianity from Mother Israel marks indisputably one of the most significant shifts in recorded history. Paul’s surprise encounter with the crucified-risen Jesus was, as he would articulate it over the next 30 years, both a vision of the future and a personal call to embody and broker that future into being. The end of the movie had been revealed; Paul was there to see it and sent to share it, first with his Jewish brothers and sisters and then with the whole world.

The four Christian Gospels record the story of Jesus but from a distance of 40 years and only through the fiery lens of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., an event called by some scholars today the “9/11” of the first century for its mind-altering impact.

Paul’s letters, written in the late 40s to early 60s of the first century, are the only canonical record we have of the “hidden years” between the life of Jesus and the emergence of the post-Jerusalem church. The Gospels and especially Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, composed after 70, seem to position the church as distinct from Judaism and cozy with Rome, outcomes Paul, who probably died in 64, could neither have imagined nor welcomed.

This review examines the contention in some recent books on Paul that a careful reading of his letters reveals how thoroughly Jewish he was and just how opposed he was to the Roman imperial cult that so pervaded the Mediterranean world he traversed with his gospel of freedom, grace and peace.

Paul the Jew

For the ordinary reader, a good baseline biography of Paul is N.T. Wright’s Paul . Dr. Wright’s academic depth and pastoral experience as bishop of Durham, England, shape this summary of Paul’s thought. For Dr. Wright, Paul was well suited to be the apostle to the Gentiles because of his deep Jewish faith, his familiarity with Hellenistic culture and his skills in negotiating his way within the Roman Empire. Paul brought these three worlds within the defining reality of his “life in Christ.” On the road to Damascus, Paul met a glorified Jesus, revealed as God’s messiah, the new Adam, prototype of the new creation, the fulfillment of the covenant made with Israel and savior of the world.

Paul’s vision of Christ as the end of history is thoroughly biblical and cannot be understood apart from the key concepts of creation and covenant in Jewish salvation history. For Dr. Wright, Paul advances this absolute worldview against Roman claims that the divine Augustus had fulfilled history, dispensing peace and prosperity to the world.

Paul instead proclaimed cosmic fulfillment in a transformed creation, with the baptized in Christ and potentially all of humanity revealed as the body of Christ. In Dr. Wright’s words, “For Paul, to be ‘in the messiah,’ to belong to the messiah’s body, meant embracing an identity rooted in Judaism, lived out in the Hellenistic world, and placing a counterclaim against Caesar’s aspiration to world domination.”

Dr. Wright sees Paul’s insistence on bodily resurrection, ridiculed by the sophisticated dualists of Athens, as key to the demand for justice in the world and for the world. History’s countless victims of torture and murder will rise to confront their oppressors. God’s covenant with us encompasses the world rather than escapes it. For Dr. Wright, Paul saw “salvation as not an ahistorical rescue from the world but as the transhistorical redemption of the world ... not the abandonment of creation, but its renewal.”

Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography, like his excellent earlier work Rabbi Jesus and his more recent book on Mary Magdalene, is both very readable and a plausible reconciliation of Paul’s letters with Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Dr. Chilton tracks in detail Paul’s radical role in the emergence of a Jewish-Gentile church from the original Jerusalem church and the suffering he faced as an apostle. Dr. Chilton’s careful scholarship does not hide his own personal regard for Paul as a spiritual genius, and this backlighting makes his book inspiring as well as informative.

Paul and Rome

Historian John Dominic Crossan, a controversial figure often excluded from other scholars’ bibliographies because of his membership in the deconstructionist Jesus Seminar, provides a provocative reminder that theology ought to connect with contemporary concerns.

The competing worlds advanced by Rome and Paul are neatly paralleled in his latest work, In Search of Paul, co-authored with archeologist/theologian Jonathan L. Reed.

“From Rome there emanated a far-reaching political, cultural and religious transformation utterly apparent in the art, architecture and literature of the Mediterranean world. Against all of that, Paul advocated an alternative transformation oriented more toward Jerusalem than to Rome, more toward the Jewish God than to the Roman gods and the Roman Augustus. The two visions of cosmic peace, then, two programs for global faiths, and two faiths in two different gods clashed profoundly in that first century -- and still do as we start the twenty-first.”

Drs. Crossan and Reed distill the two positions with poster-size clarity: “This entire book is about the clash between those alternative visions of world peace. One is Augustus’ vision, following civilization’s normalcy, of peace through victory. The other is Paul’s vision, following Jesus’ radicality, of peace through justice.”

In detailed exegesis of Paul’s letters, the two authors show how Paul deliberately mirrored the language of Roman propaganda to challenge imperial claims that the divine Augustus, “Son of God,” was the savior of history and bringer of “good news.”

Rome used unmatched force to conquer and control, then bestowed the benefits of Roman colonization in the form of roads, aqueducts, markets, spas. It still enslaved the work force, extracted resources to increase its own wealth, insinuated Roman hierarchy and social inequality into local politics and culture. Jesus, in contrast, offered peace through justice, an unprecedented equality among the baptized, erasing all other distinctions (“In Christ, there is neither male nor female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free” -- Galatians 3:28). This equality was the mark of the Christian Eucharist for Paul, and why he fought so hard against dividing the church into Jewish and Gentile Christians and resisted hierarchies of men over women and clergy over laity. That Paul lost these battles does not dismiss their radical claim, especially for the church today.

Is Paul relevant?

If first-century Pax Romana bears some resemblance to American (or Western) hegemony, Dr. Crossan and Dr. Reed do not shrink from the question of whether American-style democracy and market capitalism are being promoted as salvation for the rest of the globe, even imposed by force. For Drs. Crossan and Reed, “This is the crucial point for this book. Who they were then and there, we are here and now.”

Some readers will resist the comparison yet still benefit from the view that Paul’s message was more than theology and that his execution in Rome, like Jesus’ in Jerusalem, was both martyrdom and the silencing of a dangerous subversive.

BBC reporter Edward Stourton’s Paul of Tarsus: A Visionary Life is an accessible biography that draws on the latest scholarship, combined with a kind of travelogue across Greece and modern-day Turkey. Mr. Stourton offers some fascinating links to the influence Paul continues to have today.

Mr. Stourton recaps how, in 1986, George Bush, now president, gave up drinking with the help of a friend who got him into a Bible study group reading Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of Apostles. Mr. Stourton writes: “The influence of Luke’s story was not just important in the crude sense that it helped the future president free himself from the bottle; it also gave George Bush an intellectual framework for articulating and understanding his presidential mission.”

Mr. Stourton was reporting for the BBC when President Bush gave his speech to the joint houses of Congress in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Almost everyone I spoke to that night was carried away by a sense that something profound had changed in their president. Gone were the bumbling verbal infelicities that had given us all such innocent pleasure in the past, and in their place we heard the measured tones of a man who seemed to know what history demanded of him; 9/11 gave George Bush precisely what Luke’s account gives to Paul -- an immediate sense of destiny, and a conviction that he understood the purpose God had called him to serve.”

That Paul can be found at the core of both an indictment of American ambitions in the Middle East and as the model for George’s Bush’s sense of personal destiny in advancing those ambitions is some indication just how important Paul could be for engaging our own next watershed moment. In a world where rapid change and widespread institutional breakdown appear to be fueling a fundamentalist war among Muslims, Jews and Christians, is there any prophetic genius who might midwive our fractious global community to rebirth?

Insisting that the original Paul was thoroughly Jewish will not immediately resolve the longstanding difficulties in Jewish-Christian dialogue or ameliorate the enormous theological and cultural quarrels between Christianity and Islam. But the more Rabbi Paul can be brought to the table free of later biases, the more chance there is that common ground among the three major Abrahamic religions might be recovered. The alternative is stillbirth and a recycling of history back through another dark age, this time made unimaginable by the catastrophic weapons of mass destruction zealots on all sides can deploy in the name of God.

Paul’s gift was to bridge differences, to absorb hostility and to talk everyone to blessed exhaustion. We ignore his genius and his generous spirit at our own peril.

Patrick Marrin is editor of Celebration, a worship resource published by National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006

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