A brilliant but unsatisfying defense of St. Paul

What Paul Meant

Garry Wills


Viking / 193 pages / $24.95

Everybody should be as lucky as St. Paul. Not only did he have a transformative spiritual experience and become a founder of one of the world's great religions, but 2,000 years later he has Garry Wills to explain, interpret and defend him. He needs defending because Paul is widely thought to have taken the liberating message of Jesus, turned it inside out and made it into a kind of moral and theological straitjacket.


One could hardly wish for a more capable advocate than Wills. He is one of this country's most prominent public intellectuals, a Northwestern University professor emeritus, a classically trained scholar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, author of more than half a dozen books about early church father St. Augustine and other religious subjects. In fact, What Paul Meant is intended as a companion to Wills' earlier work, What Jesus Meant.

Paul, he contends, is the key to Jesus: "He takes us closer in time to Jesus than does any other person or group or body of writings. The best way to find out what Jesus meant to his early followers is to see what Paul meant to his fellow believers."

Simply on an informational level, Wills' book fascinates. One suspects that few occasional readers of the Bible know, for example, that Paul's letters, or epistles, were produced more closely to the time of Jesus' life and death than any of the other writings in what became known as the New Testament. Or that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written 25 to 50 years after Paul's epistles. Or that "the mass of scholars" now considers only seven of the 13 letters attributed to Paul in the Bible authentically his. Or that Paul, despite his stature as an apostle, never met Jesus during his life and, in fact, was never even in the same country. Or that the dramatic story of Paul's conversion while on the road to Damascus may have been a contrivance of Luke, the writer of the gospel and of The Acts of the Apostles.

Wills' purpose, however, is not to be a source of trivia, but to make an argument. The brief against Paul has been manifold: that he was a misogynist, tolerant of slavery, anti-Semitic. But over and above all of these is the charge that while Jesus preached a gospel of love and liberation from the categories and petty strictures of the Jewish religious authorities of Roman-occupied Judea, Paul came along and imposed the same sort of categories and strictures in a new religion, a new church - all in Jesus' name.

Wills attacks this argument piece by piece, marshaling a substantial body of Pauline scholarship and his own formidable polemical skills for the task.

He faces a problem at the very beginning in the fact that Paul, critical as he was to the growth of the early Christian or, as Wills prefers, "Brotherhood" movement, had not been a follower of Jesus' during his "earthly career" and, indeed, "was never in the same country with him."

So how did Paul learn about Jesus and his teachings? First, Wills says, through a personal "encounter with the risen Jesus." This encounter, he says, was "the most important event of Paul's life, that which determined everything else." And it did not occur, as Luke relates, with a blinding flash of light that unhorsed Paul on the road to Damascus.

Paul describes it much more prosaically in his first letter to the Corinthians. He relates how Jesus died and then "arose on the third day, in accord with the sacred writings," appearing to Kephas (Peter), "then to the Twelve," then "to more than 500 of the Brothers," then "to all the emissaries. Finally, as by a delayed birth, he appeared to me, though I am the least of the emissaries, one not even worthy to be called an emissary, since I persecuted God's gathering."


Having thus been converted to belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah of Jewish scripture, Wills writes, Paul joined the Brotherhood and "had many of his new fellows to tell him about Jesus' life." These early followers of Jesus' were highly mobile and, thus, likely to have been encountered in Damascus or Cilicia where Paul, a Jew of the Diaspora, lived and worked. They also were steeped in an oral culture.

Paul, Wills writes, "had frequent occasion to talk with people who had known Jesus in his lifetime, some whose names we know, many whose names we do not - and he had even more opportunities to talk with followers of those first associates who had committed oral traditions to their minds and hearts. ... He had to learn before he could teach, and close study of his work shows that he did just that."

Satisfied that he has established Paul's bona fides as a preacher of Jesus' message, Wills goes on to describe his mode of operation, his advocacy for the gentiles and his relationships with Peter, James and others of the Jerusalem Brotherhood.

At Chapter 5, Wills gets to the issue of Paul and women. "Paul believed in women's basic equality with men," he asserts: "The early gatherings of the Brothers were the most egalitarian groups of their day. Paul worked with, paid tribute to, and received protection from his Sisters in Messiah. There would be a concerted effort, over entire centuries, to hide or diminish this fact."

The example he cites is the case of Junia, Paul's "fellow by background, his prison mate, his fellow emissary, and one who joined the Brotherhood before he did."

Paul greets Junia and her husband, Andronicus, at the end of his letter to the Romans, and she is elsewhere identified as a major figure in the Brotherhood of Paul's day. Wills describes what happened to her: "[S]ometime in the Middle Ages, apparently before the ninth century, it was decided that a woman apostle was unthinkable. This offended the male monopoly of church offices and honors that had grown up by that time, so Junia had to be erased from history. It took only a little smudging to do this. Paul uses her Greek name, Iounia, in the accusative case, Iounian. A mere change in accent markings (a circumflex over the last vowel) would make it the accusative form of a hypothetical male name, Iounias. ... Only the most Soviet-style rewriting of history could declare Junia a nonperson and invent a new team, Andronicus and the philologically implausible Junias."


Paul, he assures, would never have been party to such sexist outrage.

Infuriating as this story is, it helps call attention to what ultimately makes Wills' argument unsatisfying and his defense of Paul less than completely successful. Not that it is difficult to imagine church authorities engaging in the sort of sexist subterfuge Wills alleges. Sadly, that is all too easy to believe.

But again and again throughout this book, Wills demonstrates an inability to judge Paul as harshly as, and by the same moral yardstick he applies to, others.

Consider, for example, his discussion of Paul's assertions in his letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians that he "persecuted God's gathering" and worked to "extirpate" them.

"[H]ow, precisely, did he try to 'extirpate' them (Gal. 1.13)? Not ... by arresting them and putting them to death." Such "instruments," Wills says, were not "available to him as a Jew in the Roman province of Syria."

What instruments were available?: "[T]he weapons we shall see him employ against opponents in the letters that have come down to us - fierce argument, fine distinctions of scriptural interpretation, sardonic humor, and denunciation. He would refute the intruders, ridicule them, drive them out, deprive them of a base in Damascus. That would indeed be an 'extirpation.'"


Wills would have no patience with such an explanation if it were offered for Luke or for the unknown author of any of the six inauthentic letters attributed to Paul. But Paul routinely gets the benefit of any doubt, however large.

Don Wycliff, a former public editor of the Chicago Tribune, where a longer version of this article first appeared, is associate vice president for news and information at the University of Notre Dame, where he teaches media criticism.