I looked up at the “departures” board one more time. The flight from Cluj (Romania) back to the UK had been delayed by a further hour. A double frustration: First, would I make my connection at the other end? Second, I could have stayed in bed a bit longer! The lounge was crowded, hot, and noisy. I’d already had enough coffee for the morning… and so on.
Of course, a typical “first-world problem.” We approach each day hoping that everything will “work out smoothly,” for our own ease and comfort. Meanwhile—a more sobering thought—had the plane been going in the other direction, in the time it took me to get home I could have been in Syria. Or Iraq. Or Libya. And, had my journey been two thousand years ago, I might have been waiting at a strange and perhaps dangerous sea-port for weeks, for the right ship, the right tide, the right price….
I might, in other words, have been Paul, making his way across the Aegean, with (as he says) fears inside and struggles outside. The historian needs sympathetic and disciplined imagination to get inside the situation and mindset of the people we are studying. The minor irritations of a modern traveller are as nothing to the multiple dangers and stresses to which Paul was subject, but we do the best we can with loose analogies and comparisons. New Testament scholars tend to be a cautious bunch, trying to stick close to the text and to imagine that we can work up from its fine-grained detail to larger reconstructions, but actually that’s a modern myth. We all have larger narratives somewhere in our hearts and heads. These will condition how and why we highlight what we do. (In addition, to be a New Testament scholar you have to be good at ancient Greek, and the way it’s usually taught attracts a certain type of mindset… which isn’t always the mindset you need for real historical work.)
So there is something to be said, now and then, for throwing caution to the winds and doing what real historians and biographers have always done: thinking with disciplined creativity into what it was really like, what the pressure points really were, what those often unnamed hopes and fears were that were jostling together in Paul’s mind as he waited in places far less hospitable than a Romanian departure lounge, and with no cell phone to call friends and tell them what was happening. I wanted to know, and to describe as best I could, how his mind would be working: one clue is that he returns in his letters almost obsessively to Isaiah 49, one of the “servant” poems with which he specially identified, not least when things were going wrong. I wanted to know, and to describe as best I could, how he prayed, not just two or three “official” times a day but, as he says, “without stopping”: One clue is the ancient Jewish prayer-tradition, focused on the “Shema” prayer (“Hear, O Israel…”) which Paul adapts spectacularly in the light of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 8:6. Here the historian finds solid ground underfoot and can cautiously explore motivation, imagination, anxiety, delight, disgust, all the things that are constantly bumping into one another in the dark backrooms of the mind.
In particular, I wanted in Paul: A Biography to help a new generation to approach Paul’s letters not simply as “scripture,” which for many feels as though it’s coming at us from miles up in the sky somewhere, landing on us with a thud whether we “get it” or not, but as the real, urgent, rapid-fire communication from a man we have been getting to know. I wanted readers to find themselves thinking inside Paul’s skin, so that when they turn the page and find him writing this letter to Corinth, or that letter to Galatia, they instinctively think: Yes! Of course! That’s exactly what he wants to say right now! I wanted readers to sense the anxiety in Paul’s friends as he charges towards danger instead of shrinking back; and the deep sorrow in Paul himself (“I despaired of life itself,” he says in 2 Corinthians 1) when unnamed horrors overwhelm him.
My goal as a biblical scholar for the last forty-five years, in fact has been this: not to say, in effect, “How much easier it would have been if Paul had said x or y, rather than what he actually said,” which usually means that the critic hasn’t actually seen where Paul was coming from, but to say instead “Stand here; look at things from this angle; and you’ll see that he has said exactly what he needed to say, even if it’s a bit tight-packed and fast-paced.” I have tried, in other words, to do in this biography, at a fuller and perhaps more daring level, what I think we ought to do all the time: to enter with full historical imagination into the world of the early Christians, who were not (as we often imagine) quite like us except without electronic toys. Then and only then can we read their writings with deeper understanding, and return to our own day with fresh stimulus to think and act in accordance with the gospel. Paul, after all, spent his energy teaching people not only what to think but how to think. The closer we get to understanding what made him tick, the better we will be able to learn from him the lessons we badly need in our own generation.