[Review] Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
During my complicated history with Christianity, I’ve had issues with Paul. Actually, to be honest, I did not like Paul of Tarsus at all, although it was only after years of studying and thinking about the subject that I realized why. To me, Paul was the usurper that co-opted the Jewish life and message of Jesus, and turned it into the Hellenized theology of Christianity. But the truth is that this was a knee-jerk reaction, as I knew little of the life of Paul beyond the major events of his life, let alone of the circumstances of his world that would lead him from aspiring Pharisee to Apostle to the Gentiles. That’s why I picked up this book, and I’m glad I did.
Chilton’s book is a great read, told in an approachable style that nevertheless conveys the scholarship behind the narrative. As I started, I was afraid that Chilton, being Christian, would be a biased narrator, but I was happy to find that he presents a complete view of Paul and his world, calling out the bad and ugly when it needs to be called out, presenting personal viewpoints alongside other available ones for the reader’s consideration. I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but applaud his work and presentation.

Chilton’s presentation starts with bringing the reader into the world that is Tarsus at the start of the Common Era, a mishmash of east and west, of Greek heritage and Roman life, of commerce and religion, into which a young man by the name of Paul is born and raised. I love that Chilton included this information, as it is essential to understanding why Paul made certain choices, and how some ideas that eventually make it into his theology come to be. The narration then follows his travels to Jerusalem to become a Pharisee, as an outspoken opponent of the Jesus Movement, and his famous travel to Damascus, where he experiences a vision that would change world history, all the way to his rise as the Apostle to the Gentiles, the development of his theology for the Jesus Movement, the writing of this famous letters, and his death. It is a fascinating story from beginning to end, regardless of how one feels about Paul, and Chilton does a great job as biographer, pulling from a variety of sources, both religious and historical, to construct his tale.

After reading this biography, however, I still don’t necessarily like Paul. It is due to his work and influence that the Jesus Movement completely moved away from its Jewish roots as it transforms from a sect within the Judaism of the time into what will, within his lifetime, come to be known as Christianity. Through his letters to the congregations he founded across Asia Minor, Paul lays down a new theology that evolves the message left by Jesus of Nazareth into practices and ideas influenced by Stoicism, furiously reacts against pagan practices of the time, and is fueled by divine visions of the Christ that send him from proselytizing to his fellow Jews to bringing in the Gentiles.

The image that emerges is of a man with a vision of his mission in this world that would bear no obstacle, and the truly legendary chutzpah to bring it to fruition. The same temperament that allowed him to forge ahead in pursuit of what he saw as a divine calling also got him in more than his fair share of problems with just about everyone he encountered, making him a polarizing figure from day one. Paul goes from persecutor of the Jesus Movement, to fervent convert bent on bringing the good news he had found to everyone he came in contact with; from ardent follower of the Torah, to creator of a brand new theology that fused Judaism and Hellenism, while being neither. By any account, and regardless of personal opinion, Paul is a man worthy of admiration, and Chilton does a great job of presenting his biography in a way that is accessible to anyone.