St Paul: Ayatollah or ironist?

A discussion I’ve been having about St Paul this evening reminds me that I really need to get back to N.T. Wright’s Paul: Fresh Perspectives.

Wright’s agenda in this book is set out in the introduction:

I hope that these further explorations will stimulate fresh thought, study and above all delight in one of the most powerful and seminal minds of the first or any century.

The latter claim is not exaggerated. Despite the long-standing English tendency to sneer at Paul and to press him for answers to questions he didn’t ask, I persist in regarding him as the intellectual equal of Plato, Aristotle or Seneca, even though the demands of his overall vocation, coupled with his dense style, mean that what we possess of his thought is compressed into a fraction of their written compass.

What we might call “Paul’s image problem” is expressed very nicely by James Alison in his lecture “But the Bible says…”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1, where he contrasts “Ayatollah Paul” with “Rabbi Paul”.

This is mostly a matter of the tone in which we read Paul’s writings. There is a tendency – among both Christians and non-Christians – to read these:

…in the portentous tones of Ayatollah Paul, who has just stepped down, Charlton Heston-like, from Mount Sinai, with a burning zeal to dictate the univocal word of the Lord concerning iniquity.

Instead, Alison argues that we should instead be alert to:

…the bathetic tones of Rabbi Paul, heir to a rich tradition of ironic and quizzical readings. […] Witty, rabbinic, persuasive Paul rather than Paul the univocal, authoritarian, irony-free zone.

Or in movie terms, perhaps we could say: more Woody Allen than Oliver Stone.

James Alison then goes on to argue that “Rabbi Paul” makes for a far more convincing and coherent reading of Romans 1 than the usual “Ayatollah Paul” treatment – and in particular that an ironic/rhetorical reading then makes the transition to Romans 2 (the division between chapters being entirely artificial and misleading) far more comprehensible. Whatever you think of Alison’s overall conclusions, he makes a pretty good case for that. The lecture is well worth reading.

In short: Paul is never going to become a figure who is acceptable to, let alone beloved by, western secular liberals. But people could at least reject the real Paul – Paul the towering intellect, Paul the rabbinical ironist – rather than the “Ayatollah Paul” stereotype…


2 thoughts on “St Paul: Ayatollah or ironist?”

  1. As much as I’ve benefited from the writings of N.T. Wright, I’ve come to find his frequent use of the word “fresh” to describe his own perspective a little annoying. Luther = stale, N.T. Wright = fresh. Nevertheless, Wright is pretty awesome. His work has been greatly helpful in demolishing some of the shabby eschatology I’ve grown up with.

    1. Yes, it is one of a number of slightly annoying rhetorical strategies from the good bishop. However, I think it is aimed more at the New Perspective guys than the Old Perspective ones. 😉

      I’m still only a couple of chapters in, but one thing I like very much so far is his suggestion that he is trying to reconcile the “individual salvation” model and the NPP’s “inclusion of the Gentiles” model. I’ve long thought that the supposed incompatibility of the two is greatly exaggerated. See, for example, this post from 2007. So I’m looking forward to seeing how Dr Wright develops that later in the book.

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