Book Review: Paul

Written by Walter Wangerin, Jr. and Reviewed by Lloyd Southwick


Walter Wangerin in his novel, Paul, gives us in first person narratives, by many of those important in the life of the apostle to the Gentiles, vivid accounts of his life as they knew it. Priscilla, Timothy, Barnabas, James are here. Luke is present with parts of his Acts. Jude of Damascus, sent by the synagogues there to guide the Pharisee from Jerusalem who is to rectify the problem caused by those following the Way, is also a narrator. And even Seneca, the Spanish philosopher, teacher and later secretary of Nero, also is present to tell us of his failure to bring any humanity into the character of the emperor who figured so importantly in the last days of the apostle.


What we have in Wangerin’s novel is a story of a man always driven, ever intense in what he is about. As elderly Jude says, trying to keep up with Paul on their fast walk to Damascus, “Saul made folks breathe faster, rush harder, laugh gladder. Die sooner.”


As Jude, Saul, Mattithias, and Pedaiah are setting off on their walk from the foot of Mount Hermon to Damascus, Jude tells us:


Suddenly Saul threw back his head and cried a line of Scripture: “So Joshua took all

that land, as far as Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon.” Birds flew

up from the bushes. People moved away from us.


Saul kneeled down and placed the palms of his two hands on the ground. “Here it

is,” he whispered: “Baal-gad, the northern corner of the Promised Land, sacred from

ages to the nations, but given to us by the Lord our God twelve hundred years ago.

And from under the caverns of this cave,” he said, “arise the springs of the Jordan

River, where even a pagan king can wash his body clean again.”


Jude is concerned for his friend Ananias, who is one of the Way in Jude’s synagogue in Damascus. At Jude’s question, Paul says that these blasphemous Jews will be treated with words first, then rods and punishment, and even death if necessary. He reminds them of the story of Phinehas and Zimri as justification for harsh treatment of the disruptive Jews.


But close to Damascus, Paul and the others are knocked to the ground by an impossibly bright light followed by a roaring sound. When finally Paul can speak again, he tells Mattithias and Pedaiah to go back home to Jerusalem. He has been commanded to wait for orders in Damascus, that he no longer has a home, and for him all has changed.


And so, Paul, the Pharisee of Pharisees, becomes the apostle to the Gentiles. But as the Lord’s apostle, Paul is just as driven, just as demanding as he was as a Pharisee.


Wangerin makes this point masterfully in his treatment of the controversy between Paul and Peter and James with respect to food issues at Antioch. Titus has made exquisite plans—“What a kick!”—for a celebration to be held at his house in the city. There is no regard for Jewish food laws, for freedom in Christ makes those unnecessary, a determined teaching of Paul. Alas, only Paul and Barnabas show up for the party, to Titus’ excruciating disappointment. Paul storms—with the other two following—down to the house where Peter, Miriam, John Mark, Judas Barsabbas, Simeon Niger, and others are present, all who had been invited to Titus’ celebration, demanding, “Who will apologize to the lad here?” … “Is anyone ashamed in this place?” and reiterating the freedom all have in Christ: “I am persuaded that in Jesus nothing is of itself unclean.” And then he astounds all there by claiming that all who follow Torah are cursed. Barnabas watches Paul leave with Titus, ever with the thought, “Saul, why must you drive us to such extremes?”


Paul’s unquenchable determination to be Jesus’ apostle to the Gentiles is supported by his unstoppable preaching of the Word. Regardless of circumstances, never mindful of hardship, Paul is always speaking about his Lord. In the first scene in the book, Priscilla in Corinth hears the Voice, someone speaking about Jesus, words she and Aquila have not heard since being forced to flee Rome by an edict of Claudius. In the market of Corinth she hears Paul’s voice, “high in nose and biggety-sounding.” But more than the sound of his voice do his words draw her, for he is talking about “those sleeping the sleep of death,” so comforting to Priscilla who has just lost her mother, who was a believer. But Paul and his hearers are before a shop whose keeper considers them to be interfering with his business. He comes rushing out yelling, “stinking, filthy beggar,” and the sound of wood on bone Priscilla hears before she comes up to them, while the shopkeeper runs off to get the manager of the market.


Oh my! Oh my heart! Here was no one of any bodily advantage. Here was a small

man sitting cross-legged on the stone floor of the colonnade, leatherwork spread

around him, his tools and materials close to hand, his head a monument for

hugeness now bowed over his fingers as if too heavy for his stalk of a neck, and

patches of blood marking two parts on the crown of it. His fingers were flying. He

was saying, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord,” and his amazing

fingers were sewing a felling stitch between two pieces of leather, making a tight

seam, a waterproof seam.


Timothy is beside Paul taking notes, “Did you get that?” And Priscilla is greatly relieved, for she will not need to remember Paul’s words.


We last see Paul in Rome under house arrest, and ever faithful Priscilla, who visited Paul in prison in Ephesus, has come to see him again.


He was living in the busy district between the forum and the Campus Martius.

There was always a guard in his room, always a chain between himself and the

guard, and always a fresh guard when I came to visit. He would wink. “They fear my

skill at making friends,” he’d say. “Priscilla, don’t you think I’m a champion at making

friends?”


He never ceased speaking. Paul talked that whole day through. As long as I lingered,

still sitting before him, Paul talked. And during the night, even when I was not with

him, he talked.


And the days and years thereafter, when he was not with us, he talked.


Paul ends as does Acts, with Paul in hardship and incessantly, earnestly teaching Christ crucified. And in Paul Priscilla knows that Paul’s words will never be silent, that they will be with her and with all disciples until the end of the age.


Check out Paul, and many other books, from the Covenant Library!

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