Garry Wills. What Paul Meant

Garry Wills. What Paul Meant. Viking, 2006

Garry Wills is an American treasure–a great historian, especially of American presidents, a political and religious progressive, a powerful critic of many of the failings of hierarchical Catholicism, a perceptive commentator on current events, and a prolific writer of always useful books.  As a kind of sidelight late in life, he has written a series of books on the New Testament–one on Jesus, one on Paul, and one of the gospels.

The second of the series, What Paul Meant, provides a clear, concise, and informative look at the great Apostle. One strength of the book is its accessibility combined with its reliability. Wills is not a New Testament scholar, but he is attentive to some of the best of Pauline scholarship and does a fine job summarizing some of its key insights. Another strength of the book is Wills’ clear and forceful placing of Paul firmly in first century Jewish debates. He rightly, and importantly, asserts that Paul was not a “Christian” because such a thing did not exist until after Paul’s death. Paul was a Jew arguing with other Jews about the best understanding of their tradition–from within that tradition.

Somewhat of a weakness, in my opinion, is that Wills does write as a historian–even if one seeking (successfully) to speak to a general audience.  That is, he is more descriptive than prescriptive, focusing more on what Paul “meant” then, than on what Paul means for us now.  One somewhat distracting element of this historical focus is the energy Wills spends on debunking Luke’s Acts of the Apostles as a useful source of information about the historical Paul. In such a short book (again, its brevity is a strength for Wills’ intentions with this book), it seems too bad that he would focus on this negative tangent. I don’t necessarily disagree with his judgment of Acts as history (though I think he presents the evidence as more clear and certain than it probably is) so much as think that if one wants to focus on Paul’s own writings as the basis for reconstructing the central elements of his life and thought one should simply do so and not spend much time justifying the exclusion of Acts from consideration (it would be different should this book be aimed at a more scholarly audience).

Nonetheless, while I was disappointed that Wills did not reflect more on Paul’s meaning for today (which would have seemed natural for one who pays such perceptive attention to the American political scene), I would recommend this book as a great introduction to the historical Paul.  And, in the end, Wills gets it exactly right, in my opinion, when he links Paul with Jesus, summarizing the message of both: “Both were at odds with those who impose the burdens of ‘religion’ and punish those who try to escape them. They were radical egalitarians, though in ways that delved below and soared above conventional politics. They were on the side of the poor, and saw through the rich. They saw only two basic moral duties, love of God and love of neighbor. Both were liberators, not imprisoners–so they were imprisoned. So they were killed. Paul meant what Jesus meant, that love is the only law” (175).

 

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