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PAUL: The Mind of the Apostle
By A.N. Wilson
Norton. 274 pp. $25

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On the Road to Damascus

By Jack Miles
Sunday, March 30, 1997; Page X01

A.N. Wilson is a prolific popular novelist and a biographer with a penchant for such religio-literary figures as John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, and C.S. Lewis. In 1992, he published a much-noticed life of Jesus. This year, he turns to Paul of Tarsus, the Pharisee who founded Christianity.

Compensating for the scantiness of the record about Paul, Wilson as historian spends much of his time evoking places and events in first-century Roman history for which documentation does exist. Jerusalem properly tops this list, for the broad cultural context in which Paul lived and worked was that of Roman Empire Jewry with Jerusalem as its capital and holy city. Wilson insists -- this is very nearly the leitmotif of his book -- that though "the Apostle of the Gentiles," as he called himself, would in fact create a new religion, he never surrendered his identity as a Jew and can only anachronistically be said to have converted to a Christianity that did not yet quite exist.

All this is true, but none of it is new. The Jewishness of Paul has been assumed by scholars for decades. Where Wilson's presentation of this consensus disappoints is in its relative silence about the interaction between nascent Christianity and the variously Hellenized forms of Judaism that evolved alongside it.

Wilson tends to present Christianity as dynamic, Judaism as static. He tends equally toward a polarized demography of early Christianity itself: Jewish Christians in Palestine, Gentile Christians outside Palestine. The most recent scholarship, however, suggests that as late as the third century Jews outnumbered Gentiles in the church as a whole -- that is, not just in Palestine but everywhere in the Roman Empire. Thus, in "The Mission to the Jews: Why It Probably Succeeded," a chapter in The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (1996), Rodney Stark postulates that 80 percent of the Empire's Jews did not convert to Christianity but then goes on to argue statistically that the remaining 20 percent could have accounted for the whole of Christianity's stunning 40 percent Empire-wide annual growth rate as late as the year 250.

Though on points like this one Wilson's scholarship cannot be described as the cutting edge, the fact that the broad scholarly consensus about Paul has changed so little means that most scholars will find themselves in agreement with him most of the time. But is that enough? How does his popular treatment of Paul measure up against, say, E.P. Sanders's Paul, a handy 1991 volume in the Oxford University Press "Past Masters" series of briefer biographies? Sanders's several landmark volumes on Paul and first-century Judaism, published through the 1970s and into the 1980s, have given him a towering reputation among his peers. Does Wilson do anything that Sanders does not do?

He does indeed. Though Wilson has not written a historical novel, he uses to excellent effect his novelist's way of imagining how characters -- as distinct from entire religious movements -- affect each other. He dares to imagine, for example, how the judicial murder of Jesus may at the time have affected Paul as a fervent, conservative, diaspora Jew in the employ of the Jerusalem temple.

All students of the subject know that Paul and Jesus were almost exact contemporaries. Virtually all assume that the two never met. But to my knowledge only Wilson has thought to speculate that Paul may have seen Jesus die:

"There is no need to be fanciful about this. We do not need to reconstruct a melodramatic scene in which Saul of Tarsus is taking part in the scourging or the mockery of Jesus. But it does not seem so very unreasonable to suppose that if Paul was employed by the high priests in their 'guard' or police in the year 33, then he might have been so employed two or three years earlier at the date of Jesus's crucifixion."

I like the fact that Wilson, who could easily do so, does not invent dialogue or otherwise novelize his account, but I like equally the fact that he does not abstain altogether from exercising his ability to imagine how one man -- in a specific and personal way rather than in some generic, impersonal, or merely cultural way -- can affect another. Professional historians are all too well trained not to do this, and Paul has been all too much in their anxious custody.

Wilson is quite right. Chronologically, Paul could indeed have been there when they crucified his Lord. The fact that no record, Christian or Roman, places him there proves little. A few sentences later, Wilson adds:

"One does not need to impress the point nor to insist upon it. If readers of the New Testament choose to believe that Paul never set eyes on Jesus and that he had no psychological interest or compulsion to inspire him throughout the thirty years in which he preached Jesus Christ Crucified other than the testimony of the friends of Jesus, whom he had barely met, then that reader is entitled to his or her point of view."

Well said, but in the first instance well imagined. At several other points in Paul's life, the novelist in A.N. Wilson steps forward in a similar way with an argued, qualified but stimulating exercise of the imagination that more than makes up for his reliance on somewhat dated scholarship.

With learning and diligence, anyone may understand the world that produced Paul, but only by the exercise of an exceptional imagination can one engage the mind of one of history's most indestructible originals. A.N. Wilson wins only a passing grade on the compulsory exercises of biography (there are footnotes, there is a bibliography, there are words in transliterated Greek), but he pulls ahead in the freestyle finale, infusing the conventional form with the controlled and focused imagination of an artist.

Jack Miles, professor of humanities at the Claremont Graduate School, is the author of "God: A Biography."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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