Book Review: What Paul Meant

What Paul MeantWhat Paul Meant by Garry Wills

A short home run

Garry Wills continues to amaze. With laser-like clarity, he burns away millennia of misunderstanding and ecclesial obfuscation to get to the heart of the message of Saul of Tarsus. Wills focuses all his attention on the letters that can be attributed to Paul with certainty. This decision allows the true Paul -- the brilliant, passionate, harried emissary of Christ -- to shine through. Wills's Paul is committed to his revelation of the Resurrected Jesus. In fact, Wills goes to lengths to show that Paul's experience of the risen body of the Lord informs much of his writing about what awaits the faithful after death. Wills shows Paul as completely comfortable in the presence and leadership of women and as utterly uncompromising, even with the leaders of the Jerusalem community. Wills effectively and utterly destroys the historical judgment that Paul was the "bad news man" who smothered Jesus's message of love under a blanket of dark theology.

If anyone comes out the badly in this book, it's Luke the Evangelist. Writing perhaps 30 years after Paul, Luke was more likely to smooth out early church conflicts and show Paul as less of a maverick and more of a "company man." Luke has Paul ever circling back to Jerusalem to get permission from the authorities for this or that adventure. The problem is that a) Paul spent little time with the immediate companions of Christ, b) the only authority he respected was the revelation of the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus and c) Paul's own letters contradict Luke. In Acts, the so-called Council of Jerusalem is the 1st century equivalent of a carefully organized corporate "off-site" -- with prepared speeches by the leaders and elaborate protocol. Paul describes the same "council" as a backroom meeting with James and Peter that was sealed with a handshake.

"What Paul Meant" shows Wills at his best -- stripping away layers of self-serving encrustations and legends to get back to the original material beneath. His attempt at removing the churchy language that encumbers Paul is quite worthy. In Wills's translation, Paul's references to "Christ Jesus" are rendered "Messiah Jesus." "Faith" becomes "trust" and "church" (ekklesia) becomes "gathering." In this way, Wills makes Paul sound more like a charismatic apostle on the run and less like a Victorian gentleman, fusty cleric or controlling bishop. That Wills can scrape off the old paint without destroying the vital and vibrant man beneath is amazing. That Wills does this while retaining Paul's identity as a recipient of an appearance of the Resurrected Christ is extraordinary.

Wills's Paul is a challenge to today's Church, which keeps women in subordinate roles and stifles the spirit in innumerable ways. That Paul has survived at all is a testament to his integrity and to the vitality of his message, which Wills's argues persuasively was Jesus's message, written at least 20 years before the gospels. Wills's section describing the outlook of Jesus, as refracted by the Church of the 40s and 50s, made it crystal clear that the gospels, written from 70-100 CE, used material that was already part of the church's early experience and teaching.

The only problem with the book is that it is too short. I could listen to Wills tell me all day of the wonders of the early Church and of his love for Messiah Jesus.