Saul and Paul in history and fiction

From his double-take title, "Saint Saul," through more than 300 zestful pages, Donald Akenson, who is a professor of history at Queen's University, Toronto, startles us with one fresh insight after another.

His book is about Jesus and Paul - or, as he would say, about Yeshua and Saul - and this emphasis on the Jewishness of both is linked to another pivotal theme: Christians, to fill the void left by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, converted Yeshua of Nazareth into a divinity, Jesus the Christ.

Into this socket he plugs his central thesis - that the epistles of Paul, who started writing before the Temple catastrophe and who was acquainted with many of Jesus' original followers, are the best hope we have for discovering the historical Yeshua of Nazareth.

Akenson's subtitle also catches the eye. We learn from it and from his book that he has read not only "A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake," by Joseph Campbell, but also the masterwork by James Joyce. This is reassuring. It means he understands that all literature, including Holy Writ, is picture-thinking, concepts made visible in percepts. He demonstrates his hermeneutical skill on every page, digging down through the images to the ideas they embody, mining the minerals in both biblical texts and extra-biblical, like the Book of Jubilees.

Akenson smelts his ore with a witty flourish as delightful as it is rare in academic prose, and he reminds us with a Joycean smile that the Jesus quest is, on occasion, a pompous parlor game.

The quest originates in the notion that the Messiah of the Gospels is not the historical Yeshua of Nazareth but an artifact, a fiction invented by early Christians to satisfy their religious longings.

Those who believe the Gospels were crafted under the pressure of divine inspiration will regard the skeptical arguments of the questors as so much vapor.

As Akenson admits, we find in Paul's letters almost nothing about Jesus' sermons and a mere fistful of facts about his life before the crucifixion. Paul celebrates the empty tomb triumphantly, but the absence in his epistles of any appreciation of the meaning of the Nazarene's healing ministry prior to his resurrection is a puzzle.

"Saint Saul" is an engaging book for anyone willing to take on the current challenges in the quest for Jesus.

Novelists fashion fiction out of the facts that historians treasure, but to write about a towering figure like the Apostle to the Gentiles takes nerve, and Walter Wangerin, who teaches at Valparaiso University, has plenty of it, enough to be one of Paul's foot soldiers himself.

His novel is theatrical, a story in five acts, and most of the scenes are narrated in the first person by Paul's contemporaries, such as Priscilla, Barnabas, and James. In Act III, the tiger-hearted warrior strides across the proscenium to speak for himself through his letter to the Galatians. Another character who delivers lines in epistolary form is the Roman playwright, Seneca, whose Stoic speculations enable Wangerin to paint a philosophical backdrop for the agonies and victories of his God-centered protagonist.

Except for Paul and Seneca, all the narrators talk in the past tense. Through the zoom lens of their memories, we experience those episodes in the book of Acts that have echoed in the minds and hearts of Bible readers down through the ages: Paul's blinding vision, Mars Hill, the Maltese viper, and many others.

Although Paul was a Hellenized Jew, his belief in the primacy of will over intellect never flagged. On this issue, he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews. But he orchestrated the principle of obedience to the will of God in a way that Jewish proselytes in the primitive Christian church found harrowing. In passages that centuries later ignited the Protestant Reformation, he argued that salvation could never be won by ritualistic worship or by legalistic conformity to the holiness code.

Wangerin was right to entangle the tentmaker from Tarsus in a two-tiered plot. At the level of ideas, we see him grappling with Hebrew conservatives in the newly born church - those who insisted on both circumcision and baptism - while at the level of action, he collides with Roman authority. Both plots climax in his martyrdom. The hero of faith becomes the slain hero of Christian tragedy, whose sacrifice quickens the values by which he lived and for which he died. By the time Paul left the Mediterranean stage, everyone in the audience was looking at the sky.

Colin C. Campbell taught English at Principia College for 44 years.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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