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The mind of Paul
on 18 November 2014
‘Something understood.’ With this seemingly modest phrase quoted from George Herbert’s poem ‘Prayer’, Tom Wright ends his immense, scholarly exploration of Pauline theology. It is not one book, but rather four in one, a symphony in four movements. This is not the book for those who want a succinct overview of the subject (he ably provided that some years ago with his excellent ‘What St Paul really said’). Rather, it aims to give us a highly detailed account of Paul, who is primarily to be understood in the context of the first century Eastern Mediterranean world from which he, a formerly zealous Pharisee emerged as the principal representative to the gentile world of the early Christian movement.
What is so impressive is the ‘scientific’ way in which Wright has examined (through precise exegetical analysis, with a panoramic awareness of critics and counter arguments) all the available Pauline phenomena and presented them in an economic, elegant and convincing way, which avoids dogmatism and the anachronistic narrowness of later (especially Reformation) readings. He doesn’t allow Paul to be shoe-horned into any ill-fitting theological schemes, but shows the breadth and beauty of Paul’s understanding of Jesus as Messiah and how that fits with the grand narrative of creation and covenant in the Jewish scriptures. Concepts deemed to be central (e.g. the righteousness of God) are reinterpreted and others (e.g. new creation) emerge with a greater force. We see Paul developing as the greatest Christian theologian, not only as we understand better the results (the letters), but also by being inducted into the process (the thinking and theologizing behind them) of his creative endeavour.
Another striking feature of Wright’s book is that something this monumental is never dry or tedious. His recipe includes judicious use of humour and poetry and framing mechanisms which keep the mixture lively and engaging, and exemplifies his aesthetic, as well as his theological appreciation of Paul’s achievement. Unsurprisingly, there is something eminently Pauline (symphonic) in the weaving and exposition of so many thematic elements, and in the cumulative sense of richness, depth and clarity of the resulting work.
Newsweek magazine once dubbed Tom Wright the world’s greatest living New Testament scholar and here is the proof. As Paul claims with staggering boldness in 1 Corinthians 2.16 ‘we have the mind of Christ’, so we now have in this book probably the best claim yet to have the mind of Paul.