What Garry means
Pulitzer winner Wills examines letters of Paul

First published: Sunday, November 12, 2006

As Garry Wills speaks about his latest book, "What Paul Meant," his professorial voice touches upon the early Jesus movement, the importance of Paul's letters, the difficulties of translation, religious fundamentalism and ... Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report"?

"I watch it all the time," says Wills over the phone from his home in Evanston, Ill. And though Wills' publicist wanted him to appear on the Comedy Central show, he declined. "That's not a game that Paul submits easily to." "What Paul Meant" (Viking; 193 pages; $24.95) is a scholarly re-evaluation of the letters of Paul. Wills is a questioning Roman Catholic, and his arguments will surprise and challenge traditional views of Paul, his letters and his "on the road to Damascus" conversion, as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

The new book is a follow up to Wills' "What Jesus Meant," published earlier this year. "Jesus" was a scathing critique of contemporary Christianity by showing how Jesus' radical, areligious message of tolerance and love has been corrupted by hierarchical religions. "Paul" continues that critique by showing how Paul's letters have been misunderstood.

Wills will speak about his book at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15, at the University at Albany's Page Hall, as part of the New York State Writers Institute Visiting Writers Series.

The Pulitzer Prize winner for "Lincoln at Gettysburg" (1992) is also known for his acerbic commentary on the Roman Catholic Church in "Papal Sin" (2000) and the best-seller "Why I Am a Catholic" (2002).

Wills argues that, because Paul wrote in the 40s and 50s A.D., decades before the Gospels were even written, "the closest we can get to what Jesus meant is through Paul's letters."

Wills describes Paul as a Jew who never met Jesus during his lifetime, but had seen the risen Jesus and who believes that the appearance of the Messiah fulfills Jewish scripture and signals that the end of time is near. He is a harried messenger of the "first-generation of Christian thought," trying to spread Jesus' message and resolve disputes at different gatherings around the ancient world. Arguments included controversies over divorce and kosher laws.

Wills writes in "What Paul Meant": "It is not surprising that people should have trouble reading the letters of Paul. They are occasional writings, fired off to deal with local crises. He dictated them in the midst of various struggles, often to answer problems or refute opponents not clearly specified in his responses. We hear his raised voice without knowing what the other side was shouting."

In contrast to Paul's letters are the Gospels that were written decades later and crafted to tell a more cohesive story and reflect a "much more sophisticated theology," Wills says.

With Paul, Wills says, "you get a much greater sense of the explosive energies of the Jesus movement." Or, put another way, Wills says, "my friend Studs Terkel says Paul is like Jesus' press agent."

Paul's hectic writing isn't the only obstacle to our 21st-century understanding of him, Wills suggests.

For example, Wills says, of the 13 letters attributed to Paul in the Bible, several of them are composites and six are no longer recognized by most scholars as having been written by Paul.

"Timothy," Wills says of a pseudo-Pauline letter, "tells women to shut up and be submissive." But Paul was much more egalitarian. "Women were ministers and deacons in his day." In his seven authentic letters, Paul names at least a dozen women who acted as evangelists, Wills adds.

"Timothy was written at the end of the century," Wills says, "when Christians were taking on a rigid structure like the patriarchy around them." This is a key point for Wills. Later, he adds, "a lot of things in the Bible you can't take as revelations of faith; rather, they are a reflection of the social situation in which the Bible arose."

Not only is the notion of authenticity a problem in coming to understand Paul, but so are translations of his writings.

"In general, my translations are an attempt to avoid 'churchiness,' " Wills says, speaking figuratively and literally. He says that the word church appears only once in the Gospels, and when Paul's use of the Greek word ekklesia is translated as "church" instead of "gathering" it is deeply misleading.

The gatherings that Paul was part of and to which he is writing, Wills says, lacked a hierarchy or the patriarchy of the later church. There were no bishops or priests; instead, people -- both men and women, including married couples -- performed functions such as ambassador or emissary or prophet.

Another obstacle, Wills says, are the distortions in the Acts of the Apostles, written by a man named "Luke" a few decades after Paul's letters, especially in the "road to Damascus" story.

In "What Paul Meant," Wills lists eight reasons why "the most famous conversion story in Christian history" is really a fiction. For example, Wills writes that it was impossible for Jews under Roman occupation to carry out executions, but Luke has Paul absurdly saying, "I not only put many of the Holy in prison, under orders from the chief priests, but I voted for their death sentences" (Acts 26:10).

Luke's writings, Wills says, were an attempt to hold the Jesus movement together after the fall of the Temple in 70 A.D. Luke assumes a "generally hostile attitude toward the Jews," Wills writes, that is later attributed to Paul, which exacerbates a distorted view of him.

"His roots are all entirely Jewish," Wills says of Paul. "And that is one of the greatest turnarounds in all of the Pauline scholarship."

In the book, Wills writes that it "has often been alleged that Paul is the father of Christian anti-Semitism."

In his many arguments against that centuries-old belief, Wills says that Paul wasn't writing from the point of view of a new Christian religion (keeping in mind Jesus' areligious message); rather, he was writing in a continuum of the Jewish faith in which Jesus fulfilled the covenant. This, no doubt, will be a controversial aspect of "What Paul Meant," but Wills is humble about his book.

"There's nothing new in my book," Wills says. "I'm drawing on other scholars. I'm just putting it in compendious form."

What he's also doing, however, is showing that, despite the rise of religious fundamentalism around the world, reason and faith can coexist.

"Reason and religion are not enemies," Wills says. "You should be rational even in your religion. We should be able to question our faith and reject things that reason goes against."

That very subject is at the heart of a new book Wills is working on, the history of the Enlightenment and religion. And, perhaps with that book, Wills will be willing to appear on "The Colbert Report."

-- To read the Times Union review of Garry Wills' "What Jesus Meant" go to http://timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=531559

Michael Janairo can be reached at 454-5629 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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