I picked up Garry Wills’s What Paul Meant at Costco while I was waiting for my glasses to be repaired, and I soon returned to buy the book.
Wills reminds us that Thomas Jefferson regarded Paul as the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus” (page 1). But Jefferson was wrong. Wills writes,
But scholarly enquiry has destroyed the idea that the Gospels have a simple biographical basis. They are sophisticated theological constructs, none written by their putative authors, all drawing on second- or third- or fourth-hand accounts — and all written from a quarter of a century to half a century after Paul’s letters. If we want to see what the original Jesus communities looked like, the first and best witness to this is Paul… (pages 9-10)
Wills also calls into question the account of Paul offered in Acts. That book claims that Paul participated in the murder of one Christian, threatened others, and dragged believers “back in chains to Jerusalem.” That is highly unlikely, writes Wills (pages 34-5). Paul could not have had the authority to do such things, Wills writes, nor would the local authorities have let him get away with it.
Wills account makes for interesting history. But there is something odd going on here. Wills writes sincerely of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus; clearly Wills’s intent is to show how Christianity properly rests on Pauline doctrine. Yet at the same time, to defend Paul, Wills refutes the historical accuracy of other sections of the Bible. So the riddle is how the Bible is for Christians both inspired by God and filled with human errors and misunderstandings. But that is a riddle that will take me some time to fully answer (from a critical perspective). In the meantime, I may quote a few more interesting passages from Wills’s book as I finish reading it.