The task of writing an account of Paul carries with it a number of challenges. The primary biblical sources, Paul’s own letters and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, do not always agree on important details. Even with Paul’s own letters, scholars debate which are authentic and which were written by subsequent generations. Likewise, there is the question of what information to include from second and third century “apocryphal” works. Then there is always the question of what liberties to take with the gaps in Paul’s life and which details to add from what modern historians, archaeologists, and social scientists have learned about the first century Greco-Roman world.
Walter Wangerin, Jr., addresses some of these issues by writing a fictional account of Paul’s life with multiple storytellers. The main perspectives come from Timothy and Prisca, who give their impressions in thirty-two of the book’s ninety-nine chapters. Others, such as James and Barnabas with nine chapters each and Titus with four chapters, play a less prominent role because they are limited to certain periods in Paul’s life. Rhoda gives voice to only one short chapter as a character borrowed from Peter’s story to depict Paul’s impact on Jerusalem’s younger generation. The character Jude appears in only six early chapters to fill out the scanty details about Paul’s Damascus road experience. Among these imaginary reflections by biblical characters, Wangerin intersperses twelve chapters by Luke, simply recounting, word for word, the story of Acts. Similarly, five chapters convey the very words of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, Galatians, and Corinthians (with the latter divided into shorter fragments according current scholarly views).
Taking a cue from second century apocryphal letters, Wangerin includes eight carefully positioned chapters that describe key movements in the life of the contemporary Stoic philosopher and playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger). While never mentioned in the biblical text, Seneca provides an appropriate comparison and contrast to the character and career of Paul; both were martyred under Roman emperor Nero in the mid-60’s.
Generally, the novel follows the outline of the Book of Acts, with chapters organized in five geographical sections: Damascus (chapters 2-16), Antioch (chapters 17-33), Corinth (chapters 34-58), Ephesus (chapters 59-78), and Jerusalem (chapters 79-95). With the prologue (chapter 1) set in Corinth, it is clear that Wangerin’s focus is on the missionary Paul. In the epilogue, four chapters sum up Paul’s later years in Rome.
As in Acts, the story begins in Jerusalem with Paul’s involvement in the trial and death of Stephen. “I did like Stephen.” With those words James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, is introduced as Paul’s eventual antagonist, leading the confrontation of a law-oriented Christianity with the freedom-thinking Hellenists. Paul journeys to Damascus, where God changes his life forever. It is through the eyes of the aged Jude, however, that this event is viewed. Jude provides a physical description of Paul similar to the apocryphal Acts of Paul: bald with one continuous eyebrow, small in stature, energetic, a fast walker with bowed legs, and an equally fast talker. The question is, What did God’s intervention mean? For Paul’s companions, and also for Jude, it is God’s judgment. For Paul, however, it is God’s call to become apostle to the Gentiles.
The story skips quickly to Antioch, where Paul works in a church, presented at its idyllic best. The lovable Barnabas cannot get enough of delicious pork; Titus, moved by the spirit, sings and dances; and the Christians gather weekly to hear Simeon of Cyrene recount the story of the cross. A prophetic message by Simeon’s wife sends Barnabas and Paul out as missionaries. Paul’s effectiveness is evidenced by his preaching and healing at Lystra. So is the danger, as he is stoned and left by the roadside...
(The entire section is 1,100 words.)