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Don’t call him a ‘religious thinker’ or ‘philosopher’. The apostle Paul doesn’t fit into our modern categories, says one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, Tom Wright
Imagine you work on the front desk at a television station. The phone rings: it’s somebody wanting to present a programme on the apostle Paul. The caller doesn’t sound like a nutcase; you’d like to help. But which extension will you call to put him through to a producer? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? ‘Saint Paul’ – that’ll be the ‘Religion’ desk. No question.
Wrong answer. Probably, in our culture, the most wrong of the possible answers.
There are two problems. First, ‘religion’ in our world means something different from ‘religion’ in Paul’s world. For us, ‘religion’ is a private activity for people who want to develop their spirituality, sort out problems in their lives and hope to go to heaven when they die. It doesn’t affect public life, politics or the price of beef. But ‘religion’ in Paul’s world was woven into everything else. Gods and goddesses were everywhere, including the new ‘god’ on the block, Caesar himself. Everybody turned out for their festivals. So our word ‘religion’ doesn’t match the firstcentury reality that uses the same name.
The second problem is that Paul doesn’t fit either into the ‘religion’ category of his own day or into ours. He would have struggled to recognise, in our often low-key and part-time church life, the kind of thing he knew.
Most people in his world didn’t see him as teaching a ‘religion’; they thought he was anti-religion, since he told them that ‘the gods’ didn’t exist and they shouldn’t touch them with a bargepole. The early Christians didn’t offer animal sacrifice, or visit oracles like the one at Delphi. And, unlike the religions of his own day, Paul taught and modelled a whole new way of life. In his day, it was the philosophers who did that kind of thing, not the religions.
Paul modelled a whole new way of life
So was Paul a ‘philosopher’, then? That’s closer, but still not right. Again, the word means something different now, but we won’t go round that loop again. Paul was a public intellectual, with a message about a different God and an agenda for a different way of life. We British are suspicious of ‘intellectuals’, let alone ‘public’ ones. We don’t like clergy who talk politics and we certainly don’t like politicians who preach. And our philosophers normally stay in their universities writing incomprehensible books. Only our newspapers really address the public at large. And they are rarely intellectual. Paul doesn’t easily fit our world, just like he didn’t fit his own.
Other countries have had public intellectuals who have changed the course of history. Think of JeanJacques Rousseau in 18th Century France, or Jean-Paul Sartre in the 20th. Or Karl Marx in 19th Century Europe. They were thinkers, whose thoughts, speeches and writings transformed people and communities and who actually changed the course of history! Paul was that sort of man.
He belongs on the worldwide public stage. Not in the private back room we call ‘religion’.
Of course, if by ‘religious’ you mean ‘he believed in God’, well certainly. But the issue was, “Which God? And what was this God up to?” In one of his letters Paul reminds a group of recently converted Jesusfollowers that when they heard his message they “turned…from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Paul believed in the God of Israel, who was ‘alive’. A God who did things, planned things, initiated projects, transformed lives. You could get to know him! By contrast, all the other gods and lords were a sham. Worse: they were bad for your health. Worship the true God and you become more fully human. Worship idols, though, and you mess up your humanness, which is a wonderful thing and deserves better.
And ‘better’ is what this God had in mind all along. Paul, as a devout Jew, knew the ancient prophecies which said that one day God, having chosen Israel for a special purpose, would complete that purpose and thereby put the whole world right at last. The other gods didn’t do that kind of thing.
Caesar claimed to bring ‘justice’ to the world, but as often as not that meant crucifying people who got in the way. Paul believed that God had done something which radically sorted out the mess the world is in; and that he would complete the job before too long. And he was recruiting collaborators to help with the work.
The Jews’ founding story was about God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, coming to live in their midst and leading them to their promised inheritance. Their prophets had said that one day God would do it again, only on a grander scale and lasting for ever. Paul believed that God had done just that – in and through Jesus of Nazareth. He was the one who brought God’s promises to Israel to their shocking climax. He was Israel’s Messiah.
The real slavery, though, wasn’t like the slavery in Egypt. It was deeper, and darker. Paul believed that when people worshipped non-gods – the idols that you met at every corner – then dark forces were unleashed which enslaved people. Does that sound odd? Think of the 20th Century: evil is still a four-letter word. We should know. But evil retains its enslaving power, Paul believed, because when we worship idols, we behave in less-than-human ways, missing the mark of true living. Paul called that ‘sin’. Sin itself becomes a power, not just forming destructive habits in our lives but distorting and ultimately destroying people and communities. Justice quickly becomes tyranny. Power corrupts. Families get torn apart.
Paul believed that in Jesus, as the fulfilment of God’s strange Israel-shaped purpose, sin itself was condemned to death. God heaped it all onto one place and passed sentence of death on it. As a result, the dark ‘powers’ that had ruled the world had been defeated; their power base had been taken away. The proof that this really happened was that God raised Jesus from the dead; and the further proof is that when Jesus was announced as Lord, a strange new power was unleashed (Paul calls it the ‘Holy Spirit’), which transforms people’s lives.
A new world had opened up, a world every bit as ‘physical’ as the world we know but more so, because it was now infused with a different, undying presence and power. A world at last under the rescuing sovereignty of the creator: ‘the kingdom of God’, in other words. It had begun. Jesus’ resurrection unveiled it; the spirit puts it to work. The new ‘Exodus’ had happened. The rescuing God had come to dwell among his people. He was leading them to their real ‘inheritance’, the entire renewed cosmos.
Paul’s message still transforms the world
Paul knew his hearers would think he’d gone crazy to talk of resurrection. Everybody knew dead people don’t come back. But Paul wasn’t saying that Jesus had ‘come back’. He had ‘gone on’ – gone on ahead into the new creation that God had always planned, the new world in which heaven and earth were joined completely and forever.
The temple in Jerusalem stood for the joining of heaven and earth; the weekly Jewish Sabbaths pointed to God’s new time arriving in the midst of ordinary time. In Jesus, both were fulfilled. God had done what he promised – in and through Jesus.
In fact, he had done it as Jesus. The God who wouldn’t share his glory with anyone else had shared it with Jesus. In Jesus, as in the Jerusalem temple, “all God’s fullness had come to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). God had said he would come back in person to rescue his people and establish his new creation for the whole world. He had done it in Jesus. And now he was doing it through his spirit.
Paul saw the events concerning Jesus, and the ongoing work of the spirit through the gospel in lives and communities renewed, as the fulfilment of those age-old prophecies. The old book had said that God would reveal his glory before all the nations. That’s what Paul believed was going on through Jesus, and now through his (Paul’s) own work.
Paul was a public intellectual persuading surprised and sometimes angry hearers of “the truth of the gospel” (yes, he would say, it does make sense, and I’ll show you how it pulls together the best insights from your own traditions). So, too, Paul the pastor and preacher, discovering again and again that announcing Jesus as Lord (in a world where Caesar was lord) had a dramatic effect, causing some to curse but making others come alive with a faith, hope and love they hadn’t believed possible. And Paul the community leader and organiser, gathering Jesus-followers for worship, organising their teaching (in a world where many converts would be illiterate). Paul the devout Jew telling non-Jews about the One God, and telling Jews that their own scriptures had come true, their Messiah had fulfilled the ancient promises, their One God had renewed the covenant with them and thrown it open to the world. Paul was all of that and more.
Paul was therefore founding little cells of Jesus-followers, seeing them as a new ‘family’ in a world where ‘family’ meant close ties and obligations, personal and financial. Ethnic origin, social status, gender – none of that counted any more. They were the younger sisters and brothers of the Messiah, and had to live like that: united and holy, modelling the new way of being human. A community of love: practical, welcoming and forgiving.
That way of life was costly, both for them and for Paul himself. He embodied in himself the pain and the passion of the message. He writes at one point about being so utterly crushed that he despaired of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8). He found himself in tight spots, beaten up, imprisoned without charge, vilified, dragged before tribunals. But he discovered in the midst of it all what he called “the company of Jesus’ sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Jesus had overcome the world by dying. Paul, who famously said that Jesus “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20), found that as he worked and travelled and suffered he knew the supportive presence of Jesus, as close as breath.
Master of Rhetoric
And Paul turned it all into words, words with wings, words that set people on fire and do so still. Paul didn’t set out to be ‘a writer’. His letters were urgent messages to particular places and situations, combining sharp warnings, loving consolation, steady advice, careful handling of pastoral problems and some of the richest theological exposition ever penned.
The greatest theology in the world started life as poetry
Sometimes it comes out in poetry, particularly when Paul takes the ancient prayer-forms from his biblical tradition and reworks them with Jesus in the middle of it all. Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 have a poetic density; you can go deep down into them, deep into the beating heart of God’s revelation. I think they come from deep within Paul’s own prayer and reflection. They are what we might call ‘primary theology’: as in music, you can say several things at once in a poem, whereas with prose you have to say one thing at a time. The greatest theology in the world seems to have started life as poetry.
Poet and public intellectual; community activist and suffering pastor; movement leader and occasional jailbird. That’s who the apostle Paul was.
Someone asked me which of his letters was my favourite. I cheated and talked about the rooms in my house. The kitchen is always bordering on chaos; everything goes on there all the time but it’s where the meals get made. That’s Galatians. Across the passage is a more elegant room with a dining table, chairs, ornaments, a grandfather clock. That’s Romans. There’s a large living room where the family can sit around and discuss problems and challenges. That’s 1 and 2 Corinthians. There’s a back porch from which you can see the sun rise out of the sea while the moon is setting over the mountains. That’s Ephesians. And so on.
Paul was a master of rhetoric. He knew how to speak, and he knew how to write. But above all – and you can tell from the way he writes that it’s true – he knew how to love and be loved. He was, to be sure, a highmaintenance friend, but also very high value. He was always celebrating; even the tragic and difficult 2 Corinthians ends with a twinkle in the eye. He was always thinking and arguing – wrestling with the big issues, bringing together Israel’s scriptures and the challenges of Greek philosophy and Roman politics, all with the crucified and risen Jesus in the middle. He never stopped praying. And he never stopped being a public intellectual.
Take all that and roll it into a ball. What have you got? Not ‘religion’ as we know it. Not ‘philosophy’, either. ‘Politics’? Well, perhaps – Paul was, after all, setting up subversive groups, loyal to a different Lord. But it’s a different sort of politics, because it was a different sort of power. Resurrection power. The power of new creation. The power of love.
So who should make this television programme? ‘History’? Well, there’s a thought. Paul represents the historical origins of a worldwide movement, larger and more diverse with every passing decade. As historians, we can see Paul belonging alongside Cicero or Seneca, a rounded historical character, making history, shaping it, interpreting it as he goes along. But also history now: Paul’s message still transforms the world. Our own history needs to be reshaped, given a new sense of direction. Learning from Paul might be one of the best ways to do that. So, whatever we call it, let’s get that programme made. Get Paul out of the ‘religion’ box and back on the street where he belongs.
Tom Wright, also known as NT Wright, is research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, Scotland and a retired Anglican bishop. He is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars and is the author of more than 100 books, most recently Paul: A Biography (SPCK)
Hear Tom Wright in conversation with the BBC's Martin Bashir at Central Hall Westminster on 29th June. Click here for free tickets.