Book Review: Did St Paul Get Jesus Right by David Wenham

This is actually the second time I’ve tried to write this, as I accidentally deleted the first one. Normally I don’t write reviews more than a couple of weeks after I finish a book, but this is an exception to that.

This was the first book I finished that I received for my birthday last month. The reason I was interested in this was to explore the idea of Pauline theology as it relates to christian theology as a whole. In many online discussions I have, there is often reference made to Paul in particular shaping the form of the early christian church. Though it may be difficult to do, because of prior knowledge of Paul, I think it would be nonetheless interesting to see what kind of belief might emerge if someone were given the Bible, but with all of Paul’s writings erased. Would the theology that emerged be radically different from the many ‘flavours’ of christianity that we already have?

It has to be noted that the book is very short, at just over 150 pages, and I got through it in a week, even though I was reading another book at the same time. The basic question is that of the title of the book. The author begins by making more of a populist case than a scholarly one, by citing Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as representing the viewpoint which Wenham sets out to oppose. Since these are both works of fiction, it seems a similar approach to opposing christianity by taking The Shack and Left Behind as your starting point. He does mention a couple of more serious writers in passing, though they are not mentioned again beyond the opening chapter.

Wenham starts his answer by looking at whether or not the documents we have are the most reliable sources for our information. In this, he stays close to the orthodox views of F.F. Bruce’s Are The New Testament Documents Reliable. This orthodox theme runs through the book; so although Wenham claims he’s trying to taking an impartial view, I couldn’t escape the idea that his conclusions had already been reached and that the substance of the chapters was his filling out the pages.

He goes on to look at various issues, which are all pertinent. These include Paul’s view on Jesus himself, ideas of apostleship, sex and the afterlife. One of the more interesting points is how little Paul directly refers to the teachings of Jesus. Though Wenham correctly points out that there may well have been a difference between Paul’s letters and his preaching, I don’t think the explanation that recalling Jesus’ teaching was restricted to Paul’s preaching which we don’t have preserved, though reasonable, is not entirely convincing.

What I felt was lacking was a rigorous engagement with the views that Wenham sets out to oppose. I wouldn’t quite say he was setting up a straw man; it was more a case of occasionally talking about a straw man that you couldn’t examine in detail. What Wenham does present is very good and deserves serious consideration; if a writer were to put forward a case proposing that Paul was primarily responsible for the foundation of christianity, they would have to engage with Wenham’s arguments and do a lot of work to cast doubt upon or refute them. Well worth a read, but it’s left me wanting to read some other follow-ups.