The National Catholic Review

Now that the recent flood of books about the quest of the historical Jesus has subsided somewhat, it seems inevitable that New Testament scholars should turn to the quest of the historical Paul. Two new books about Paul represent serious attempts to write a scholarly biography of Paul and place his writings in the context of his life and times. They illustrate both the values and the limits of the biographical undertaking.

Both authors are accomplished senior scholars and well suited for their task. Murphy-O’Connor, an Irish Dominican, has spent most of his academic career at the école Biblique in Jerusalem. He is not only a distinguished Pauline specialist but also the foremost guide to the sites and history of the Holy Land. Besides writing many books and articles, he appears frequently in television documentaries about early Christianity and the Holy Land. He is a colorful figure and makes for “great television.” He is also the author of Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford, 1996). Chilton is professor of religion at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson and an Episcopal priest. He is a specialist on the relationship between rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament, and the author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (Doubleday, 2000).

It might seem relatively easy to write a biography of Paul. The New Testament itself contains 13 letters purportedly written by Paul and a detailed account of Paul’s adult life in the Acts of the Apostles. Moreover, we know a great deal about the Greco-Roman world in the first century from literary and archaeological sources. The abundance of information, however, presents its own set of problems. Paul wrote his letters mainly to resolve pastoral problems in the Christian communities that he addressed, and gave autobiographical information rarely and only in passing. Some of the letters, moreover, seem to have been written in Paul’s name by co-workers after his death. Luke’s account in Acts, while wonderfully detailed and dramatic, too often reflects his own “spin” to be taken as “history,” simply at face value. Finally, the literary and archaeological evidence from the Greco-Roman world at best tells us what was “typical.” But we can seldom be sure that it fits the unique case of Paul.

Both authors recognize that they have to sift carefully through their sources to produce a truly “critical” biography of Paul. In doing so, the biographer necessarily acts as a detective, pausing at peculiarities and inconsistencies, guessing at motivations and formulating hypotheses to explain as much of the data as possible. While the authors generally resist putting words in the mouths of Paul and the other characters, they do sometimes claim to know when Paul was depressed or angry or happy. Both adopt the narrative style, telling us about Paul’s life from beginning to end. Both give the impression of certitude and seldom use such scholarly “weasel words” as “perhaps,” “probably,” “most likely” and so forth. Murphy-O’Connor has already laid the scholarly foundations in his earlier book on Paul, and Chilton supplies endnotes and essays on sources for each chapter.

In a word, Paul and Rabbi Paul are good books. I found the former more engaging and stimulating, though occasionally infuriating in its ingenuity. Murphy-O’Connor’s descriptions of the world in which Paul lived and worked, and his fascination with the distances that Paul traveled are especially interesting. The author’s theological focus is on the antithesis Paul makes between Christ and the Jewish law, and his ongoing struggle against legalism. He interprets Paul’s thinking at his conversion on the road to Damascus in these stark terms: “If Jesus was the Messiah, then the time of the Law was over. What the Law laid down as the prerequisites for salvation no longer had any validity.”

At every point in Paul’s career, Murphy-O’Connor presents fresh and provocative explanations to motivate the apostle’s actions. In doing so, he makes Paul’s letters come alive and stimulates a fresh reading of familiar texts. His use of 2 Timothy to reconstruct Paul’s final days after his release from captivity in Rome and before his martyrdom is an impressive tour-de-force. Sometimes, however, he seems to let his scholarly imagination run away, as when he claims that Jesus himself had baptized at the Jerusalem temple those Ephesians who had received only John’s water baptism according to Acts 19:1-7 (see p. 126).

Whereas I found Chilton’s earlier book Rabbi Jesus very conjectural, to the point that it occupies a place somewhere between historical scholarship and a novel, such is not the case with his Rabbi Paul, despite the anachronistic use of the title Rabbi. Here Chilton sticks close to Luke’s narrative in Acts and locates Paul’s letters in that framework. His historical and theological focus is on the relationship between Paul and Judaism. He views Paul’s conversion in terms of the choice between Christ and the Jerusalem temple, though he does attend to developments in Paul’s opinions about the proper place of the Jewish Law. He links Paul to the mystical strands within Judaism and highlights Paul’s achievements in “shifting the emphasis of Jesus’ movement away from realizing the kingdom of God along with Jesus and toward realizing Jesus himself as the Christ within one’s being.”

I had the opportunity to read these two biographies together. After studying what each had to say about a particular phase in Paul’s life, I wrote down side-by-side each author’s positions. It was a fascinating exercise, and I recommend it highly.

While the authors use the same sources and agree on a number of matters, their many disagreements are even more striking. For example, Murphy-O’Connor contends that Paul was born in Galilee, was a widower who lost his wife and children in some terrible accident, succeeded at the Jerusalem council mainly because of James’s political sensitivities, referred to the opposition from his fellow Christians as his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-10) and exercised a brief but unsuccessful ministry in Spain. But Chilton claims that Paul was born in Tarsus, never married, kept a low profile at the Jerusalem council, suffered from a chronic eye condition known as “herpes zoster” and never got to Spain. Also, at most points the authors follow slightly different chronologies, reflecting longstanding debates in Pauline scholarship.

The point that emerges from the comparisons is that history in general and biography in particular are always somewhat uncertain crafts, as our own recent controversies over the biographies of John F. Kennedy and Ronald W. Reagan attest. Reading both of these learned biographies of Paul together reveals the irresistible challenge of writing the biography of an important person, as well as the limits of the biography genre.

From these biographies Paul appears as a heroic but somewhat tragic figure. Both books portray him as volatile and impatient, and often misunderstood (sometimes through his own fault). While admiring the content of Galatians and 1 Corinthians, Murphy-O’Connor and Chilton also note the negative reactions these letters very likely elicited within the very communities for whom and to whom they were originally written. Murphy-O’Connor observes that Paul was never a favorite of those who believed that Christianity should remain profoundly Jewish, and that the Pauline version of Christianity has never been seriously tried. Chilton concludes that during Paul’s life he found no major community of Christians anywhere that unequivocally backed his position against those of James and Peter, and that Paul’s ideas remain controversial and disputed today.

The miracle is that the Pauline letters soon became the core of the canon of Christian Scripture. It seems that the Holy Spirit has always been a few steps ahead of the church.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., and editor of New Testament Abstracts.