If you received a frantic message from a friend in fear for his life, would you:

A. Drop everything and race to his aid?

B. Go on proctoring final exams for a few days before buying a plane ticket?

Indiana Jones would have grabbed his fedora and hit the door. But Dr. Augustine Aquinas “Augie” Knox opts for Option B in “I, Saul,” the first book in a new series by Jerry B. Jenkins.

Jenkins, who has more than 180 books to his credit, co-wrote the best-selling “Left Behind” series with Tim LaHaye and has sold some 70 million copies. James S. MacDonald serves as co-author on this new project, a fictionalized account of the life of Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee-turned-Apostle Paul, who went from persecuting early Christians to promoting the new religion.

Paul is indeed an intriguing character, but “I, Saul” doesn’t break new ground in terms of better understanding the historical figure. And it doesn’t help that the 2,000-year-old characters talk (and pray) exactly like the present-day ones. Evangelical Christians who like their biblical retellings spliced with a few modern thrills are the most likely to enjoy this novel.

The narration toggles between Augie, a well-meaning Texas theologian with serious daddy issues, and Luke the Evangelist, an aging doctor who has arrived in Rome to find the city a burned-out wreck. Jenkins goes with the theory that Emperor Nero hired gangs to set fire to the city and then pinned the blame on the new Christian sect. Ingratiating himself with a guard in order to bring food and medical care, Luke proves a loyal and intrepid friend to Paul, who is being held in a lightless cell before his beheading. In this telling, Paul is just the teensiest bit monomaniacal, but he is also starving and in pain, so the total lack of regard for others is perhaps not surprising.

In present-day Italy, Roger Michaels, a kind­hearted atheist and tour guide extraordinaire, has come across an original manuscript of Paul’s memoir — the sort of priceless archaeological discovery that sets museum directors and private collectors salivating. In fact, unscrupulous artifact-hunters want to relieve Roger of the manuscript and his life.

The result is like “The Da Vinci Code” — only without the cryptography, albino monk, self-flagellation or wildly speculative alternative history — you know, the fun stuff.

It takes Augie 148 pages to get to Italy, but once there, the action accelerates. Unfortunately, though, after 200 more pages of characters building up secrets to be revealed in Paul’s memoir as the biggest thing since the Sermon on the Mount, the payoff is sadly lacking.

Instead, we get a brief history of Saul’s coming-of-age in a Jerusalem that doesn’t make nearly enough of that city as a seething hotbed of nationalistic fervor under Roman oppression. Young Saul is a self-important twerp who prides himself on being a tattletale. (This does carry the ring of authenticity.) Later, his courtship cribs heavily from the failed romance of Ebenezer Scrooge. (It’s highly unlikely a rabbi’s daughter would have been allowed to spend time alone with a male who was not a blood relative, but we’ll gloss over that part.)

Nor is the modern romance a selling point. Sofia, Augie’s virginal-yet-smoking-hot Greek heiress fiancee, is about as realistic a construct as Anastasia in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Her and Augie’s courtship, however, stays in G-rated territory.

“I, Saul” follows Saul through his persecuting Christians days until that fateful trip to Damascus, when he quite literally sees the light. Paul and Luke don’t perform any miracles for most of Jenkins’s book, but we do see the healing of Paul’s blindness by Ananias, who gets a cameo.

Is Jenkins planning a sequel?

Is it hard for Saul to kick against the pricks?

“I, Paul” is set to be released next year.

Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.


By Jerry B. Jenkins,
with James S. MacDonald

Worthy. 391 pp. $24.99