Wright, N.T. Paul: A Biography. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018.
One of the most well-known Pauline scholars, N. T. Wright, has written a biography on the apostle Paul. While Wright intends to do history, he also takes some license to fill in the historical holes that frustratingly leave us with unanswered questions some 2,000 years after the famous apostle’s life.
Be prepared then to read a historical biography of Paul that occasionally dips into what might have happened. Yet with only a handful of letters and the Acts of the Apostles to furnish our direct knowledge of Paul, this is to be expected.
Here is one example. Wright cites the well-known fact that Paul went into Arabia for three years (Gal 1:17). What Paul did there is not stated. Yet Wright thinks he might know. During the time of Paul, Arabia included the area that contains Mount Sinai where God gave the law to Israel. It was there that God passed by both Moses (Exodus 33:22) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:11). Wright posits that Paul went down to Arabia for three years to, in the footsteps of Elijah, present himself to God.
Perhaps. And it fits the biblical pattern. It might explain why Paul felt the need to go to Arabia after seeing his vision of Jesus. He wanted to go to present himself to God—to reinvigorate and to get direction in his prophetic call. Interestingly, after seeing God, the Lord tells Elijah to go to Damascus (1 Kings 19:15). Paul follows this same pattern: “I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus” (Gal 1:17).
Paul is not unfamiliar with the prophetic narrative of the Scriptures. And he seems to follow the pattern of the prophets. In any case, Paul does not say that he went to Sinai to return to the place God ratified the covenant (64). He does say that he went to Arabia and back to Damascus. That is what we clearly know.
So Wright might be correct. But he might not be. And this illustrates how he sometimes needs to fill in the historical gaps within the apostle’s life.
In his discussion of Paul’s life as directly attested in Scripture, he happily uses all available sources including the pastoral epistles and the Acts of the Apostles. He does follow the modern scholarly trend to discount these sources, although he reads them critically.
Wright also exclusively cites the Bible throughout the biography and no other source. Refreshingly, he interprets the source material directly. Such a focus will also please those who value the Scriptures.
And he engages with the Scriptures with a clear and well-written style. I found myself glued to the book, reading it like a novel. It helped me to feel like I was living beside Paul during his life—although we have to admit that it might be Wright’s Paul rather than the Paul of history. Still, Wright attempts to give his readers the Paul of history. And overall, he does a good job.
If you want to read an engaging biography of Paul, then pick up Wright’s new biography. I will be referring to it for some time to help me situate Paul’s chronology, historical setting, and theological motivations. Of course, it comes with Wrights particular take on justification which focuses on one’s adoption into the family of God (the ungodly of Romans 4 are gentiles who come into God’s family) rather than on the imputation of God’s righteousness to sinners.
If readers are aware of this theological position and can discern the theological differences between Wright and evangelical teaching, then they can enjoy a lively biography that will help them situate Paul’s life and history. So read this well-written biography because it provides an enjoyable novel-like biography on the apostle Paul that will draw readers to consider more carefully the apostle’s life.
Disclaimer: the publisher provided me with a review copy.