Religion, Reviews.

Paul, simply

Book Book Review, Title What Paul Meant, Author Garry Wills, Rating 4.0, Paul, simply

In What Paul Meant, Garry Wills translates the authentic Pauline letters himself, and combines a careful translation of the koiné Greek with modern scholarship to suggest that Paul, who is the modern intellectual's favorite whipping boy as the man who distorted Jesus' message, is in fact a faithful interpreter of the Jesus of the Gospels.

Wills suggests that the modern scholastic consensus is that about half of the Pauline letters were not written by Paul, and in fact were written for the most part in the 2nd century. If these letters are ignored, the remaining are internally consistent and paint a much different picture of Paul.

The author argues that Paul has been greatly misunderstood, and points out that his letters pre-date all other New Testament books, and represent the closest to Jesus’ life and times. Wills also points out that many anachronisms have been incorporated into the interpretation of Paul’s letters: from the early Church to today many have applied current ideas to the past and very different world of Paul’s time. He suggests that anachronistic mis-translations of basic words like apostle, church, and the misuse of the word Christian have served to systematically twist the understanding of many Pauline passages.


Wills refutes the typical argument that Paul was anti-Semitic, looking at the passages that are often interpreted as such, and finds that Paul was carefully balancing his messages to distinct groups among the early Christians: The Jewish and the gentile believers, who were often in conflict during the times following Christ’s death, and who had very different relationships to the Jewish Law.

The author points out that the idea of original sin was not formulated until the fourth century, most forcefully by Augustine, and to read into Paul the individual sin nature is to miss his consistent emphasis on communities who strayed from the Law; Wills suggests that Luther and Augustine read something that was not there in the text.

Paul has often been interpreted as misogynistic, a mistaken view according to Wills, who points out the many women whom Paul worked with directly as leaders in the early Christian community, including Junia, whom he referred to as an apostle, and the passages in the genuine Pauline texts that describe women as on equal par with men, united in Messiah; Paul described a reborn Brother and Sister on equal footing as ‘a new order of being.’

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