By N.T. Wright
(San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018), 480 pp., $29.99 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Joshua McNall
While the famous movie line proclaims, “I am Spartacus!” some readers of the apostle Paul have been more likely to lament that they are Eutychus—the poor youth from Troas who fell to sleep and then to death from an upstairs window while trying to follow the dense and endless words that flowed from the apostle. Thankfully, Paul revived Eutychus and then taught on until daybreak (Acts 20:7–11).
A different revival is now available from N.T. Wright, the rehumanizing and “re-storying” of the apostle to the Gentiles, through Paul: A Biography.
“It begins,” says Wright, “with an ancient tale of sex and violence.” This evocative and unexpected line launches readers into Wright’s first chapter. It pertains to the ancient Jew that Saul of Tarsus likely upheld as a hero: Phineas, whose “zeal” for Yahweh’s Law led him to religious violence. Such violent zeal was also a driving force for Saul of Tarsus—at least until that fateful Damascus road experience that “shattered [his] wildest dreams and, at the same split second, fulfilled them.”
As such quotations demonstrate, Wright has a rare ability to encapsulate dense learning into memorable sentences that are both accessible and arresting. And while Wright has written stacks of books on Paul, his latest stands out as a true biography rather than a distillation of Paul’s letters or theology.
While academics will profit from it, it is designed for a much broader audience, the “Eutychuses” of the world who have failed to hang with Paul as his words come at us in rap-id-fire succession. For this reason, Wright’s biography forgoes all footnotes, and each chapter begins with a simple, helpful map to plot Paul’s progress around the Mediterranean.
As in any Paul biography, there are challenges. How will one integrate the narrative of Acts? For his own part, Wright does not shy away from Acts as history, even while recognizing Luke’s unique aims and interests. How will one fill in the “blank spaces” of Paul’s life? Had he once been married? Did he ever make it to Spain? What about his death? While Wright is careful to separate the evidence from mere speculation, he also offers guarded guesswork on all such questions. For instance, he is more open than he once was to the notion that Paul may have been released from Roman imprisonment (where Acts leaves off) to make it all the way to Spain.
While I found the lack of footnotes refreshing, I wish the publisher had placed Scripture references in parentheses within the text, rather than burying them in the book’s endnotes. And as with Paul himself, one sometimes wishes Wright had a slightly more demanding editor to shorten run-on sections and repetitious themes. Even so, such “Eutychus moments” are somewhat rarer in this book than in Wright’s other massive volumes. One may even read it safely near an open window, late at night—as I did with enjoyment.
The most moving aspect of the book is Wright’s treatment of Paul as a wounded, prayerful, sometimes broken pastor—rather than the mere thinker, writer, or “detached brain box” for whom he is occasionally confused. Paul’s humanity comes out in Wright’s treatment of the so-called Corinthian crisis, which he takes as bumping up against a bout of spiritual assault, imprisonment, and depression that supposedly occurred in Ephesus.
Like many pastors, Paul wondered if his work was all “in vain.” And he felt the sting of having poured his heart into a congregation only to watch it turn away and, shockingly (in his case), demand letters of recommendation should he ever wish to return. In Wright’s view, the light at the end of Paul’s dark tunnel came, ironically, in prison. Wright depicts him in an Ephesian jail cell praying and pondering the reality of resurrection as the ultimate answer to whether one’s work will be for nothing. Because of the Messiah, neither death nor violence nor unjust imprisonment gets the final word. The hope-filled poems of Philippians and Colossians testify to this. For as Wright argues: “Christology and therapy go well together, even if like Jacob, an apostle may limp, in style and perhaps also in body, after the dark night spent wrestling with the angel.”
If Eutychus limped as he returned to listen yet again to Paul, he found an apostle to match his halting step. For Paul knew what it was like to fall “as though dead” before the Lord, and then to rise anew. Similarly, the hope of Wright’s book is that modern readers might, like Eutychus, give Paul a second chance. The work is highly recommended for pastors, laypeople, and skeptics who have come to see Paul as boring, inscrutable, or even offensive.
Joshua M. McNall is Assistant Professor of Theology at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. His books include Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements (Wilmore, KY: Seedbed, 2018) and The Mosaic of Atonement (forthcoming, 2019). He blogs regularly, at www.joshuamcnall.com.
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