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Revolution road

Tom Wright tells Philip Halcrow about writing a biography of a man whose life underwent a dramatic change – and who went on to change the course of history 

It's crucial for us to understand that, for Paul, he is not talking about a new God

IAN PAISLEY and Martin McGuinness may or may not have had them when they agreed to share power in Northern Ireland. Dave Myers was said to have had one when, begging fellow Hairy Biker Si King for a blood pressure pill, he realised he needed to lose weight. Big Sam Allardyce was described as having had one when, for a successful run of games at West Ham United, he adopted an attacking style of play.

When someone seems to undergo a dramatic change of heart, observers often talk about a ‘road to Damascus experience’ or a ‘Damascene conversion’.

Tom Wright has spent years thinking about the original figure whose experience on the road to Damascus was so world-shaking that it became a byword for a change of direction: Saul of Tarsus, aka Paul.

Although he has already written numerous theological books and academic articles about the apostle, Tom has returned to the subject. He found that in tackling Paul through the genre of biography, he saw him in a new light.

‘When you’re writing theology or a biblical commentary, you can point out a problem but then simply make an exegesis of the text and pass on to the next question,’ says Tom. ‘But when you’re writing a biography about someone as a whole person from cradle to grave, all sorts of questions come up about why they thought the way they did, why they always seemed to be worried about such-and-such a point. I’ve tried to imagine Paul as a child growing up in an orthodox Jewish family and to think about what stories made sense to him – which stories from his background he would echo later in life.’

Tom combed the sources available to him – not only the Acts of the Apostles and the letters written to churches and individuals by Paul that now make up a large part of the New Testament, but also other biblical and non-biblical writings that build up a picture of the ancient world in which the apostle lived.

Tom delved into the political make-up of the Roman world. He explored the philosophical and economic backgrounds of the places Paul knew – including Jerusalem, Athens, Ephesus and his home town Tarsus.

And he examined that original Damascus road experience – which changed not only Paul’s life but also world history.

In one of his letters, Paul described his pre- Damascus road self as ‘violently persecuting the church of God and … trying to destroy it’ (Galatians 1:13 New Revised Standard Version).

But, according to accounts in the Acts of the Apostles, while on his way to Damascus in order to seize followers of Jesus there, Paul fell to the ground at the sight of a bright light and heard a voice asking: ‘Why do you persecute me?’ When he asked who was speaking to him, the voice revealed: ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 22:7, 8).

What, in Paul’s understanding, happened on the Damascus road?

‘As far as Paul is concerned, this is a seeing of the risen Jesus,’ says Tom, who has tried to take a biographer’s look at the event.

‘It’s something he previously regarded as impossible.’

Tom has a suggestion about the way in which it happened. ‘It’s no more than a suggestion. We can’t prove it, but it does fit with what we know about how some devout Jews prayed at the time.

‘In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet has a vision of God riding on a throne-chariot. Gradually Ezekiel looks up from the wheels, and when he sees God, he falls on his face as if dead, after which God commissions him as a prophet. We know that many Jews used that passage as a tool for meditation. First they would meditate on the wheels of the chariot, then they would go up to the chariot itself and then they would pray that maybe they’d be allowed to see the one on the chariot. A possible explanation for what happened on the road to Damascus is that Paul was praying through this Ezekiel picture, but that when he got up to the figure on the throne, it turned out to be Jesus. And that meant two things.

‘First, Paul had been wrong to persecute the followers of Jesus, because Jesus really was the Messiah. Secondly, as Paul would say in one of his letters, we see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus”.

‘All early Christianity grows out of that declaration.’

What happened to Paul forced him to recalculate his understanding of everything. It would drive him to take the good news about Jesus to far-flung places – although, as Tom says, the description of the original ‘Damascene conversion’ as a ‘conversion’ has to be treated with caution.

‘Many Jews, including Paul, had been living on a narrative of God’s ancient promise – as revealed in the Psalms and the books of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel – to liberate them from their enemies and to show that he is the God of the whole world. Nobody, though, had expected that it would involve a crucified and risen Messiah.

‘But it’s crucial for us to understand that, for Paul, he is not talking about a new God. His experience was not a conversion from something called “Judaism” to something different called “Christianity”. This was a matter of Paul discovering that the one true God always had been, and still was, the God who longed to send his Son to rescue the world and the God who longed to send the Spirit to live in people’s hearts.

‘So those key concepts quickly lead to the beginnings of a Trinitarian theology, and they also end up with a Gentile mission. Up until then, Gentiles could not have joined God’s people because they were worshipping idols and behaving in dehumanised ways. But Paul sees that if the one God has triumphed over the dark powers of the world – including death itself – then Gentiles can be fellow heirs and share with Jews in the promises of God’s Kingdom.’

What was taking place, says Tom, was ‘the greatest theological explosion that’s happened in history’. And the language that described the way people found themselves confronted by God in the person of Jesus and as Spirit was ‘a new way of doing Jewish monotheism’.

Paul’s new understanding of the way in which God was at work in the world led him to take the message to places around the Mediterranean – often at great personal cost. He faced opposition and rejection. His message put him in danger. His talk of Jesus as ‘the real Lord rather than Caesar’, Tom explains, attracted suspicion from the Roman powers. It also risked resentment from Jewish communities who had won an opt-out from the duty to pray to Caesar by offering to pray for Caesar, but who were worried that the waters were being muddied by the new sect. On more than one occasion Paul was beaten and imprisoned.

‘There were moments when it had all gone horribly wrong, and Paul would become anxious about his vocation,’ says Tom. ‘He would ask himself whether he had been labouring in vain. But ultimately he would say that God was with him and that it was going to be OK. Paul had this sense that, because of what God had done for all people through the Messiah, a new creation was taking place – and for some reason, best known to God, he was the one who had been equipped to go round and tell everyone.’

Having tried to get under the skin of his subject, Tom is well placed to consider how well Paul’s beliefs, expectations and hopes of a new creation match up with the world as it is today.

‘People often say Paul thought that the world was going to end and that, because it didn’t, he was obviously wrong about it. That is a misconception, which comes from the late 19th century and has radically infected modern thought about the New Testament. Paul knew that the eventual new creation, including the return of Jesus, could happen at any time, but he does not say it must happen within a lifetime.

‘Paul saw his task as being to found little communities of worship-based, Jesus-focused, egalitarian, philanthropic, fictive kinship groups – the shorthand for all that is “church”, although

we don’t normally think of that when we hear “church”. He believes that it is by founding these groups that Jesus’ Kingdom will be implemented in the world.

‘John Ortberg, who’s a pastor in San Francisco, wrote a book about Jesus called Who is this Man? It’s actually a church history told by looking at what has happened to change the world in education, in medicine, in care for the poor, in the growth of social conscience and in other areas. Again and again, the change has come from the effect of the gospel being lived out in communities such as the ones Paul was founding.

‘The modern world tries to say that all these good things, such as education and medicine, came about because of the Enlightenment and through kicking Christianity out the window. But that is simply an arrogant takeover move on the part of modern secularism. In reality they came from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

‘Paul obviously had no idea there were going to be another 20 centuries, but I think if he could know what has happened since his lifetime, he would see all kinds of signs that the gospel he preached has borne fruit.’

Many people in the modern world – not unlike many in the ancient world – lay some charges at Paul’s door.

Tom rejects the accusation that Paul corrupted the simple teaching of Jesus.

‘Jesus wrote the symphony,’ Tom suggests, ‘but Paul was teaching the world to play it and sing it.’

He also dismisses the charge that Paul was misogynistic. ‘He entrusts the delivery of his Letter to the Romans to Phoebe, a businesswoman from Cenchreae, where Paul had been staying. We know from the ancient world that it’s highly likely that when a letter was given to somebody to deliver, they would be the person who would read it out and explain it. So the probability is that the first person to expound Paul’s Letter to the Romans was a woman.’

Paul’s biographer is also not convinced by the historical value of some of the explanations offered for that pivotal Damascus road moment.

‘Some have said Paul was sunstruck or had an epileptic fit or that it was all his past guilt coming back to haunt him. But that’s trivialising the event. Something was happening that we find difficult to accept in our modern, post-Enlightenment world, where we want to flatten everything out so that we can control it.’

Instead, Tom has his own explanation for the crucial event in the life of his subject.

‘I really do believe this was a genuine seeing of Jesus,’ he says. 

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