The Gospel Truth about Saint Paul? Night & Day

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), March 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Gospel Truth about Saint Paul? Night & Day


Byline: MURRAY SAYLE

Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by AN Wilson Sinclair-Stevenson [pounds sterling]17.99 HHHH James the Brother of Jesus by Robert Eisenman Faber [pounds sterling]25 HHH What Saint Paul Really Said by Tom Wright Lion [pounds sterling]4.99 H Long the mother of all bestsellers, the Bible is again a hot literary ticket. Novelist, journalist and amateur theologian AN Wilson, whose 1992 biography of Jesus found a wide audience, rings the bell again with his account of the Apostle Paul, the architect, as Wilson points out, of the religion known to us as Christianity. His new book Paul: The Mind of the Apostle is, in a way, a deeper, more stimulating read.

Jesus will always be an indistinct figure, trailing glory, perhaps, but so swathed in symbol and prophecy as to defy the insight we have into our friends and neighbours. Wilson's Paul is a real man, who jumps out of the New Testament (of its 27 books and letters, 18 are from, or about, him) and whom we would recognise at church next Sunday: inspired, bald, bow-legged and so sawn-off that he could leave Damascus in a basket and was thus known in his new faith as Paulus, engagingly translated as `Shorty'.

Which of them was the `founder' of the Christianity we know today? The question has generated much heat, especially among publishers' publicity persons. After God, Jesus is obviously its central figure but, as Wilson writes and a weekend of Bible reading (this one would be appropriate) will confirm, `the essence of the Gospels the notion of a spiritual saviour, at odds with his own kind and his own people, but whose death on the cross was a sacrifice for sin, is a wholly Pauline creation'.

Paul, the Bible says, was born a Jew named Saul, spoke Greek as his everyday language, and worked as a tent-maker, a supplier of military housing to the only customer, the Roman army, with a sideline informing on troublemakers within the Jewish community. Paul himself tells us how he was seized by a vision of the risen Redeemer on the road to Damascus. From this point in Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles we can follow the busy saint on his have-awl-will-travel business trips, as he sets out to organise what became our Christian church.

Wilson lucidly explains how Saul/Paul/Shorty came by the insights that made Christianity viable for the multi-racial Roman Empire: the God of the Hebrews is the God of all humanity and, believing the End of Days was at hand, Paul taught that there was no time, or need, for male non-Jews to undergo circumcision, to keep the Jewish dietary code, or even to marry and have children.

With time so short, all humanity stood in dire need of the moral truths of Judaism (the same truths Jesus preached): `there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus,' as Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28.

Paul's vision unlocked the spiritual treasures of Judaism for us all, which historically has meant mostly for Europeans. But he also left us the passions and prejudices of the first Christian century (or, as Wilson suspects, they were written in by well-meaning compilers or copyists). …

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