Review Date: 26 May 1997

Paul, the Mind of the Apostle, by A. N. Wilson
W. W. Norton, 1997, $25
ISBN 0-393-04066-6)
(and how about the last three digits of that ISBN, eh?)

I've been reading the Bible a bit more, and more closely, lately, to some good effect, I think. Reading the epistles of Paul one is struck most forcefully by the expressive and very clearly portrayed character of the Apostle: like him or not (and on first reading I tended not to like him) he was a fascinating man. Also at least fitfully a great writer: there is no question that I Corinthians 13 ranks among the very greatest brief pieces of literature of all time, IMO.

A. N. Wilson, a British novelist and biographer of some note, previously author of a biography of Jesus (which I haven't read), as well as biographies of such famous and original Christians as Tolstoy and C. S. Lewis, has just published a biography of sorts of Paul.

I found this to be a fascinating and worthwhile book. I take Wilson to be a non-Christian, but very sympathetic to Christianity, Judaism, and the religious experience in general. Wilson is also quite sympathetic to his subject (something I tend to find almost necessary in a biographer): and he compellingly portrays Paul as in a very real sense the true inventor of Christianity, and at the same time an original religious thinker, a mystic, and one who would be appalled at the formalistic churches which have resulted from his work.

Wilson is careful never to let us forget that Paul was Jewish, and in his mind remained Jewish to the end of his life. The same was likely true of Jesus, and Peter, and almost all of the early apostles. (Possibly excepting John, though who knows?) However, Paul was truly an evangelist to the Gentiles, in a very sincere way, and this stance of his was at the root of his conflicts with the Jews and the more Judaic "Christians" of the time. Wilson shows that much of what might be called the anti-semitic strain in early Christian writings was more Luke's doing than Paul's; as Luke seems to have felt it necessary to blame the mainstream Jews (as well as the more "Jewish" Christians, such as Jesus' brother (or "cousin", for us Catholic traditionalists :-)) James, and (at least at first) Peter) for many of the disturbances Paul caused: in an attempt to deflect Roman disapproval from the Paulist Christians. Wilson also defends Paul's supposed misogyny, pointing out that women were very important to Paul's missionary efforts (in particular Lydia and Priscilla), and blaming a couple of more egregious passages in the epistles on later interpolations. (By the way, another of Wilson's points is that during Paul's lifetime the term "Christians" as I have used it above was non-existent.)

Wilson is very interesting and moving in his depiction of Paul's character as he sees it, his torments, his visionary nature, his belief in the imminent second coming, his desperate desire to spread the word across the entire known world. Wilson also presents a good picture of political and everyday life in the first century: much of these details were sadly unfamiliar to me, and they really helped me understand the mechanics of the early days of the Church much better. He doesn't really address the authorship issues of the New Testament, which are very interesting to me, though for the most part out of place in this book, of course. He seems to be up on contemporary scholarship as for the timing and authorship of the New Testament books, and he takes what I would call a conservative view, though only "conservative" in the context of non-Christian scholars. He tends to accept Luke as the author of Acts and the Third Gospel, he assigns a date in the late 60s to Mark, 70s to Matthew, 80s to Luke, and he accepts Romans, I and II Corinthians, I Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon as genuinely Pauline epistles.

He is also interested in Paul the literary figure, and I certainly endorse judgements like this about I Corinthians 13 : "... words which, if he had written nothing else, would have guaranteed that subsequent generations would have revered Paul, seeing him as one of the most stupendous religious poets and visionaries the world has ever known." An interesting possible double meaning there: with the implication that much of the other writing attributed to him obscures his position as at times a great religious poet.

A very good book: though I will caveat this statement by confessing that my ignorance of this historical period, and of detailed Biblical scholarship, is quite vast, and I can't be trusted on the accuracy of Wilson's speculations.

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