Paul got under my skin early on. I read Philemon—short and simple—at the age of four. When, ten years later, I had to choose a special study topic in a school class, I opted for “The Journeys of Paul,” though I don’t now recall what had happened in between to make that seem attractive. I loved ancient history; I loved maps; and by then I knew that what made Paul tick (“The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me”) was making me tick as well. I recall, from around that time, reading Romans 8 straight through and having the same experience I had the first time I heard Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. It was like falling in love. In fact, when I really did fall in love, properly, one of the things you could say about that experience was that it was like reading Romans 8, which is after all a love song (“Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in King Jesus our Lord”). Anyway . . .
By the time I was studying ancient history at university I was (in my mind) studying Paul’s world. Though Paul’s ideas were already important to me—I got embroiled in the usual debates, like the classic puzzle of whether Romans 7 is “the normal Christian life” or something we have to leave behind—I always tried to see them in their historical setting. Easier said than done, of course, since when words like “justification’” resonated around the walls of the churches and fellowships to which I belonged the echoes they awoke belonged firmly in the sixteenth century rather than the first (and I was then, as I am still, committed to giving scripture priority over all human traditions, including my own). It wasn’t until I read Josephus, a younger contemporary of Paul, that I really allowed my historical sense to affect my reading of the text. Basically, people were not sitting around in the Jerusalem of Paul’s day discussing whether they had to do good works in order to go to heaven when they died. They were extremely concerned with when and how Israel’s covenant God was going to be faithful to his promises, judge the wicked idolaters and rescue Israel once and for all—and with the question of how you could tell in the present time who would be vindicated when the One God finally did this. Oh, and what role a Messiah, if any, might have in that fulfillment. Suddenly all sorts of bits of the Pauline jigsaws slotted into place.
There have, of course, been plenty of other things that people get wrong about Paul. I am weary with people asking me “But wasn’t Paul anti-women?” and I explain yet one more time how half the church leaders he greets in Rome, including an apostle, are women, and that when he wrote what he must have known was an astonishing piece of theology (yes, Romans again) he entrusted it to Phoebe, an independent business woman from the eastern port of Corinth, knowing that she would be the one to read it out and, almost certainly, to explain it. And so on.
But I suspect that Paul has influenced me not simply by what he thought but by how he thought—which was, I’m convinced, one of the things he was specifically trying to do. Teach someone an idea, and you help them through one particular puzzle; teach someone how to think and you set them up for life. No doubt Paul would say I have a long way still to go. But, having cut my intellectual teeth on Plato and Aristotle, on Descartes, Locke, Hume, and the rest, I have to say that though Paul wrote far less than them he ranks far higher. He straddles the three great worlds of his day—the Jewish, Greek and Roman worlds—and comes to all the great questions of life as the Messiah’s man: Israel fulfilled, Greek though outflanked by Wisdom incarnate, Caesar challenged by the world’s true Lord. The more I have tried to integrate my own thinking on spirituality and salvation, on philosophy and culture, on power and empire, the more I have found Paul saying “Yes, yes, I’m glad you’re catching up, but don’t you realize there’s a lot more?” I hope I will still be exploring that “more” for many years to come.