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What Paul Meant

Garry Wills

The apostle Paul has often been accused by revisionist thinkers—Nietzsche, Jefferson, even George Bernard Shaw—of mutating Jesus’ simple Judaic message into a gentile religion. Garry Wills challenges that charge, saying instead that Paul is the most accurate reporter available on early Christianity.


In this follow-up to his 2006 book What Jesus Meant, the historian argues that Paul’s letters—written long before the Gospels and only two decades after Jesus—present the clearest view of the primeval church.


“The best way to find out what Jesus meant to his early followers is to see what Paul meant to his fellow believers, many of whom had seen Jesus,” Wills states. “His letters stand closer to Jesus than do any other words in the New Testament.”


It’s a bold appraisal, in view of the current fad of questioning everything the New Testament says. But along the way, Wills jettisons some of the scripture he expounds. He also can’t resist promoting some pet notions.


What Paul Meant paints the apostle as an intellectual in a storm, a man in constant overdrive, traveling the Mediterranean world, firing off letters, troubleshooting conflicts.


“He is a mystic and a deep theologian, but also a voluble street fighter, a man busy on many fronts, often harried, sometimes exasperated,” Wills writes, with his signature gift for words. “To take on Paul is to plunge into a melee.”


Wills counters the common canard that Paul was anti-Semitic, saying instead that Paul taught entirely in terms of a Jewish God from Hebrew texts. “There is no one here outside a Jewish context, no group to be opposed to the Jews as a whole,” the author says of Paul’s writings.


He quotes scripture often, but he is no inerrantist. He says, for one thing, that only seven of the 13 New Testament books attributed to Paul are genuine. Wills says modern scholars agree on this, but his otherwise plentiful footnotes don’t cite any.


What Paul Meant is especially hard on the Book of Acts, a narrative of Paul’s travels. Wills flatly contradicts the purported author, Luke, on several counts. He also notes that Luke doesn’t cite any of Paul’s letters, and says that some of Luke’s anecdotes contradict each other.


Wills defends Paul’s attitude toward women, a rancorous topic in church circles. He says Paul actually honored women as equals, both during worship and on the field. Paul praised female leaders like Phoebe, Chloe and Junia, and alluded to female prophets in Corinth. He also commissioned couples, like Prisca and Aquila.


And those passages that tell women to keep quiet and learn in submission? They’re faked, of course. One is in I Timothy, which Wills has already called a forgery; the other, in I Corinthians, he calls an interpolation. “The pseudo-Paul has intruded upon real Paul,” he rules blithely.


After dismissing some texts, Wills blows others out of proportion. He says Paul led an evangelistic campaign into Spain, relying on hints in Romans and a letter by Clement of Rome. He takes the famed argument with Peter at Antioch and makes it into ongoing tensions with the leaders in Jerusalem.


Wills has Paul muster a huge fund drive for the poor in Jerusalem, as a way of making up; however, he admits that history is silent on its disbursal. He also says some believers betrayed others in Rome to Nero’s agents, expanding on a mere two phrases from Clement and Tacitus.


In a long examination of the book of Romans—which he calls Paul’s most comprehensive statement of belief—Wills attacks the “dark views” of election, justification and predestination that Protestants draw from that letter. Wills argues that it actually proclaims salvation en masse, rescuing nations instead of individuals.


It’s all interesting, but it downplays a rather obvious fact: Paul urged people to accept Jesus as Lord, right in Romans. He did talk of healing nations, but the instrument of rescue was preaching and teaching, and the product was faithfulness. People would be transformed first via commitment to Jesus; then they would form loving, accepting communities.


Wills’ book makes a genuine contribution, but he sometimes has trouble staying on task. He’d have done better had he stuck to what Paul, not himself, meant.

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