The apostle Paul has a bit of an image problem – he’s often seen as the man who took Jesus ideas and distorted them creating the rigid, repressive elements of Christianity that we still know and love today. In this book, from 1997, he sets out to place Paul in the context of his time and culture and to re-evaluate his work.
For Wilson, Paul has to be seen within the Jewish culture of his time, rather than as an early Christian. He sees Paul’s work as that of a liberal reformer (opening the church to gentiles, removing restrictions) who expected Jesus to return soon (rather than setting up a structure for a long lasting church). His views on women and homosexuality are portrayed as usual for his time and his culture. It was in the time after Paul that the gospels were actually compiled and for Wilson, these writings have as much Paul in them as Jesus – without a source unaffected by him, it becomes hard to charge Paul with a distortion of the message.
At one point Wilson describes Paul as the “first Romantic poet”. He clearly likes Paul as a character and seems to often think the best of him, there is plenty of speculation (he speculates that Paul as a temple guard could have been present at the crucifixion). Despite that, Wilson is critical at other points – looking for independent sources. Through both speculation and scepticism, the author is open about his methods, which perhaps helps the book veer away from being too uneven.