# 396: BOOK OF THE WEEK — „Paul: A Biography“

Wright, N. T. (2018). Paul: A Biography.

Story behind the Book Choice

This book was a Christmas or a birthday present — I cannot remember exactly. I know, of course, who gave it to me and I appreciated it very much. It is one of these thick and heavy books which I first learned to love in the U.S. Even though this author is from Britain, the writing is “U.S.-like.” It is among the finest public science writing one can imagine about one of the biggest and most influential stories of all time. Paul was, I think that is not an overstatement, the most successful marketing expert in human history, at least as far as human history has been researched and described. And this is also where some of the trouble starts with this book.

When I started reading, I was fairly excited. I did get into the story smoothly. The writing is compelling and a good balance of the author’s voice, his authentic questions, and “objective” research is created. Well, as we all know, research in the humanities — actually, any research — is highly subjective. But Wright highlights this when he shares what he finds most interesting about a certain life event and adds why he believes a certain assumption about the course of Paul’s life is more likely than another. That is nice. But the point is — at a certain point in the book — I simply lost interest.

In my case, it is probably because I simply do not have that much interest in the Bible after all. I guess, now the cat is out of the bag. No matter how often I try to engage with the holy scriptures of Christianity, there is a border that I cannot cross. And that border is not even that insurmountable. Knowing some of the most striking events described in the Bible is one thing. Knowing about each and every place Paul visited to spread the word about Jesus and the new religion called Christianity is quite another. And this is not Wright’s problem, of course, neither can it be blamed on Paul. The latter was amazing. I still cannot believe how it was possible for a man in the first century A.C. to travel the Mediterranean several times without getting killed or lost. But he managed.

I did not manage to read this book till the end in a really careful manner.

I merely skimmed the last chapters.

There was simply no point in it for me anymore.

But that does not mean that there are no interesting and quite thought-provoking passages in the book. The thing is just that these passages do not have much to do with theology or Christianity in particular, at least not the ones that appealed to me. I just think that Paul must have been quite an interesting character. And I can relate to his conversion experience, no doubt. There is just one thing that bothers me so much about such a thick book, even though the author must have invested years and years of careful research into it: The texts in the Bible are man-made speculations and now researchers speculate about speculations and fabricate exciting stories about all this. This is just a bit much for me. Yes, if you have the same “zeal” for Christianity that Paul incorporated, there is no doubt that you will love the book with all its stories. I simply cannot do so, no matter how much I respect Paul’s deeds and the seriousness people put into their religiosity.

1. History

Wright 7

This sentence above according to which history means “to think into the minds of people who think differently from ourselves” is so beautiful. It is beautiful because it is simple and true. These are the two characteristics which mark true wisdom. The only question which comes up for me: Is it really true? I mean, we know that truth does not really exist. But let us just think for a moment. I really relate to this idea that thinking in the minds of others — including people in different times — is what history is all about. Yes, you can also say that studying historical dates by heart means studying history. Fine. Then you would also somehow oppose the statement. What I mean, however, is that people in the past might not have been thinking differently after all!

If we just look at the essentials of human life for a moment, there is not much change throughout human history. Yes, you might argue, people in Paul’s time did not think about fast internet and smartphones. Ok, fine. But they did think about communication and sending letters — since letters are EVERYTHING for Paul and those who read and study the Bible. So, basically, they cared about communication and marketing new ideas. That is exactly what people care about today. And on the individual level of daily life, people still care about love, faith, and, above all, feeding their hungry stomachs and not dying from war. All these things have not changed, even though wars have become less frequent, at least in some parts of the world.

Unfortunately not in all parts of it.

So, if we assume that in this respect, people did not think much differently from the way we do, even though they lived in a less secular world, it might be even more interesting to study Paul’s success recipe. And that is something which I stopped doing at a certain point because I got bored. I know, this sounds very harsh and I want to emphasize that this is not the author’s fault. I simply cannot force myself to know everything about every destination of Paul and how this is described in the Bible. That is the bloody truth and even worse than this is the fact that I simply doubt much of what the Bible describes and what scholars write about the Bible nowadays. I know historical truth is not the primary concern in theology and if you want to believe in all these things, historical facts do not make much of a difference. I simply passed out at some point.

Actually, my merely intellectual curiosity stopped working a long time ago.

That does not mean I do not learn about intellectual content anymore.

It is just not enough for getting to the root of things.

2. Not married?

Wright 80

Among the many not-so-exciting passages was one that triggered my inspiration: Paul as a guy. I mean, that might sound really unprofessional given the fact that I was trained as a “serious” scholar. And maybe this is exactly why I never wondered about Paul’s private life and relationships. The simple truth is: according to Wright, there is no evidence of Paul’s marital status; neither of a possible marriage nor of his bachelor life. Nobody knows. But if he remained unmarried, as the passage suggests, this would have been quite revolutionary. And that indeed turned him into a hero for me. If he really gave a sh… about the social pressure exerted on him, even beyond his religious teachings, he really stood up for social reform in a very earthly manner as well. He consequently went through all the religious ordeals without any life partner. This gives testimony to his “zeal.” This is something I admire. And I share it, no doubt. Not in a Christian manner but with a different flavor.

3. Rationality and Protestantism

Wright 180

Since I frequently write about dialectical thinking in the West and how harmful that is for the human psyche, to summarize it, I do not want to spend too many words on this. Still, I had to pick the passage because it is exactly what aggravates my distance from Christianity so much. I simply cannot relate to this overly rational sense of “belief.” The moment I enter a Christian church, I feel cold inside. The songs and the way that faith is lived in our part of the world simply do not touch me. But it is not that I am touched that much more if I enter a church in the South or East of this world. I am simply not touched by the teachings. There is so much focus on some formal way of understanding and studying the scriptures that I do not know how people can ever develop some real faith based on this.

I know, now people really know what I am not… a “true” Christian.

The funny thing is that Wright does mention the possessive pronoun “our” philosophies here. That is funny because the philosophies indeed split a world that is already split by different world views. And the point simply is that science and faith are said to represent opposing ends. The point is that such an idea is “Western” already. But whatever one believes in, I just cannot bear the pseudo-rationalism which seems to characterize theology as a scholarly subject. To highlight this, I am not against theology or science. I am just saying that it is insane to believe that something that consists of mere belief can be studied only by “hard” tools. I do think that Protestants are even more militant about this which is why I feel even more estranged from them. This is quite the opposite of what Paul says about the “inner life” of faith and Christianity.

But these are all my thoughts.

The book itself is probably one of the best about Paul.

And he was a remarkable man.

One who made sure that a message spreads across the world and stays there up to today.

I just wish people can still enjoy the power of spirituality without all these rational historical brain exercises.

Reflection Questions

1) What is the most memorable thing you remember about Paul?

2) Do you think marriage is still a social convention in the “West”?

3) Is rational learning, based on logical arguments, something that needs to be part of faith and/or religion?