Interview: Who was the real Paul?
The New Testament Scholar NT Wright talks to Stephen Tomkins
NT Wright, known as Tom, is an influential and prolific writer on the New Testament, particularly on Paul. Estimates on the number of books he has written vary, but there are certainly more than 70. His books range from the 1,808-page scholarship of Paul and the Faithfulness of God to easy-reading guides to the Bible such as the ‘For Everyone’ series. Professor Wright manages to combine being at the coalface of scholarship and hacking at interpretations with other high-powered academics, with a mission to ensure that everyone can understand what the New Testament has to say.
Since the late 70s, Professor Wright has been part of what is known as ‘the new perspective on Paul’, a term he coined himself but has reservations about. The new perspective aims to understand Paul better by exploring the Jewish world in which he lived. It has challenged long-held Protestant interpretations, particularly what Paul meant by ‘justification by faith’.
Professor Wright’s latest book Paul: A biography (SPCK, 2018) weaves 40 years’ worth of growing understanding of Paul’s world and thinking into an engaging life story.
Many Christians feel ambivalent towards Paul, or take issue with him, in a way that doesn’t happen with any other New Testament figure. What do you think is going on there?
The same thing happened when he was around. If you read the correspondence and Acts, it’s clear that Paul had some sharp edges to him – which he would have said were generated by the Gospel itself. So when Peter says: ‘We’d better have two separate tables, one for Jewish believers, one for Gentile believers,’ Paul says: ‘Absolutely not, the truth of the Gospel is at stake!’ You can feel the room thinking: ‘Oh my goodness, here he goes again.’ But everything that has happened subsequently shows that he was right. Not everybody likes that.
You’ve written a biography of Paul, even though his letters are basically teaching rather than personal writings, and there’s not much of them…
But when we think historically about the book of Acts and about the letters, there’s a rich symbiosis. Of course, it’s not all certain, but then nothing in his history is certain. Acts gives us a rich travelogue but with some big holes in it, because you can only put so much on a scroll. And there are some things in Paul’s letters, particularly the depression he suffered in Ephesus, which Luke doesn’t mention at all. Paul talks in 2 Corinthians about having received the 40 lashes save one, five times. We never hear about that in Acts.
So we have quite a lot of information from the letters, which when we piece it together with Acts gives us enough of a framework. And we know more and more about the Jewish world of the day, from which Paul came. Like every other work it’s an interim report. You can’t go on saying nothing until you have all the information, because you’ll never have that.
Have you gained a real sense of what Paul was like as a person?
Oh yes. For me it started off with the intellectual exploration of his letters, but it’s got wider and wider as I, having done classics as my first degree, brought all that into the picture. And it is fascinating to watch Paul navigate – for example, he’s been thrown into prison in Philippi, without charge; he knows what the magistrates don’t: he’s a Roman citizen. You can get into severe trouble for doing that to a Roman citizen. So the next morning, when they say: ‘Just get out of town,’ he says: ‘Ahem… Roman citizens, beaten without charge, imprisoned without trial, sounds like a public apology.’ And he gets it. He’s kind of cheeky and he knows the law…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the October 2018 edition of Reform