- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

WHAT PAUL MEANT

By Gary Wills

Viking, $24.95, 208 pages

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM MURCHISON

St. Paul again — forever, it seems, St. Paul. Stirring up consciences, arousing resentments, strewing doubts and certainties and questions and conundrums wherever his journeys take him. Therefore animating assessments, reassessments, assessments of reassessments and so on. What a man!

Was he the slit-eyed old brooder credited in modern times with spoiling all the fun at every Christian picnic? Was he the true founder of what we call “Christianity,” or did he merely give inspired coherence to the words and actions of his Master, the Lord Jesus Christ? What can we believe about Paul, and what shouldn’t we? What can we know with certainty? That Garry Wills was sure some day to pick up his spoor?

Not to have aroused Mr. Wills’ scholarly curiosity — as have Lincoln, Nixon, St. Augustine, John Wayne, Jack Ruby, Henry Adams, James Madison and Shakespeare — becomes a larger and larger feat with every new publishers’ list. Only a few months back, Paul’s master came in for Willsian scrutiny (“What Jesus Meant”). It was onward from there to the apostle (or “emissary,” as Mr. Wills translates the Greek apostolos). To Paul, and to the scholarly controversies at whose center this mystery-making figure stands.

What Garry Wills, balky Roman Catholic, makes of Paul is hardly more dispositive than what A. N. Wilson, Christian dropout, made of him a decade ago. As Malcolm Muggeridge observed of Paul some three decades ago: “[H]e is a man about whom no final judgment ever has, or, it is safe to predict, ever will be, reached. One of those unique men who defy all categorization and all tabloid assessments.”

The value of Mr. Wills’ brief, clearly phrased treatment is the judgment a well-regarded, if highly eclectic, scholar brings to the matter — for comparative purposes if none other come to mind. A serious if occasionally quirky Christian, Mr. Wills pokes at the theological bedclothes, shakes out a few odd artifacts — such as the speculation that Paul’s death was grislier than legend has it — and in the end doesn’t disturb much the general contours.

Mr. Wills is on the side of those who (unlike Wilson fellow skeptics) affirm the continuity of Paul’s and Jesus’ message. “The story of Paul,” writes Mr. Wills, “is never that of an individual, some religious genius hatching his own religion out of his own head.” The apostle “was not a counterforce to Jesus but one of the early believers who together bore witness to him.” Within the context of Judaism itself, as N. T. Wright and E. P Sanders have recently, and strongly, affirmed.

Indeed, the book’s most interesting chapter, “Paul and the Jews,” notes that Paul’s message “was always of and for his — and Jesus’ — blood kin.” Never did Paul intend to cast the Jews into outer darkness. He attacked only those “who are preventing the spread of the revelation to Gentiles.” In the Epistle to the Romans, he meant “to reconcile all groups of Jews, telling them not to judge one another (Rom. 2.1), since God, who plays no favorites (2.11), is on the side of them all.”

As for the role of women in the church, and Paul’s supposed part in their repression, Mr. Wills attributes the apostle’s “reputation for misogyny” chiefly to “his impersonators and interpolators. The supposedly Pauline letters, written late in the first century, reflect a church that is cutting back on the radical egalitarianism of its early days. Male church officers are emerging … and patriarchy is being reimposed.”

Er — might not that same assertion, coming 2,000 years after the fact, sound the least little bit like an interpolation from the age of anti-patriarchy?

Mr. Wills’ confidence in his own interpretative powers can get pretty exuberant, as when, in conclusion, he blames “religion” for taking over Paul’s legacy — just as (supposedly) it took over the legacy of Jesus himself. The master and the disciple had been, on Mr. Wills’ reading, radical inclusionists.

Those whom they addressed weren’t to worry about “external observances” or the paraphernalia of temples and priesthoods — just as Mr. Wills worries less about such things than about the Vatican’s propensity for devising law that clogs up the arteries of love. (Could there be some personal projection here — St. Paul as validater of alienated Catholic Garry Wills?) “Paul,” writes Mr. Wills, “meant what Jesus meant, that love is the only law.”

Away with dark Puritan-Protestant imaginings as to guilt and constraint and sin and damnation and such like! Whether, to the great apostle, it was as simple as all is that is a matter that surely merits examination rather than rhetorical kiss-off. Knowing Mr. Wills’ energies, one is entitled to guess he might get around to such an undertaking, and pretty soon.

William Murchison is Radford Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor University and a syndicated columnist.

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