Five Questions about Paul with Tom Wright

SPCK asks Tom Wright about his new study of the life of the Apostle Paul

Ahead of the release of Paul: The Biography, we sat down with Tom Wright and asked him some questions about his latest book – engaging with what he’s really trying to do in this new study of the life of the Apostle Paul.

1. Was Paul a Pharisee?

I think it is clear that Saul and his family were indeed Pharisees. They lived with a fierce, joyful strictness in obedience to the ancestral traditions. They did their best to urge other Jews to do the same.

2. What was Paul’s hometown like?

Tarsus could trace its history back two thousand years. World- class generals like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar had recognized its strategic importance; the emperor Augustus had given it extra privileges. It was a city of culture and politics, of philosophy and industry. Among those industries was a thriving textile business, producing material made from goats’ hair, used not least to make shelters. This may well have been the basis of the family business, tentmaking, in which Saul had been apprenticed and which he continued to practice. The cosmopolitan world of the eastern Mediterranean, sharing the culture left by Alexander’s empire, flowed this way and that through the city. Tarsus rivaled Athens as a center of philosophy, not least because half the philosophers of Athens had gone there a hundred years earlier when Athens backed the wrong horse in a Mediterranean power play and suffered the wrath of Rome.

3. How did Paul’s upbringing and culture clash?

It seems improbable that a Jewish tentmaker in a city like Tarsus would be selling only to other Jews. We can safely assume, then, that Saul grew up in a cheerfully strict observant Jewish home, on the one hand, and in a polyglot, multicultural, multiethnic working environment on the other. Strict adherence to ancestral tradition did not mean living a sheltered life, unaware of how the rest of the world worked, spoke, behaved and reasoned.

4. How important was the temple in Paul’s world?

The Temple was like a cultural and theological magnet, drawing together not only heaven and earth, but the great scriptural stories and promises. The Temple was therefore also the focal point of Israel’s hope.

5. What did religion look like in Paul’s time?

For Paul, “religion” was woven in with all of life; for the modern Western world, it is separated from it… All this is many a mile from what we today mean by “religion.” That is why I often put that word in quotation marks, to signal the danger of imagining that Saul of Tarsus, either as a young man or as a mature apostle, was “teaching a religion” in some modern sense. Today, “religion” for most Westerners designates a detached area of life, a kind of private hobby for those who like that sort of thing, separated by definition (and in some countries by law) from politics and public life, from science and technology. In Paul’s day, “religion” meant almost exactly the opposite. The Latin word religio has to do with “binding” things together. Worship, prayer, sacrifice, and other public rituals were designed to hold the unseen inhabitants of a city (the gods and perhaps the ancestors) together with the visible ones, the living humans, thus providing a vital framework for ordinary life, for business, marriage, travel, and home life. (A distinction was made between religio, official and authorized observance, and superstitio, unauthorized and perhaps subversive practice.)

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