Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Paul, the Novel

Back! Gulf Harbour is a hole by the way. Little boxies on the hillside, 'little boxes made of ticky-tackey... and they all look just the same.' Still, it was cheap and we had fun.

Anywho, I read 'Paul, A Novel' by Walter Wangerin Jr. It is one of those books I am not sure what to do with. On the one hand he is to be congratulated for writing it. Well done, writing books is not easy. Such books can bring the text alive, help unbelievers get a grip on things. He did a good job in some ways. He moved back and forth across characters, brought out Paul's high view of women, linked into the social background especially Seneca, Nero's advisor. But on the whole I struggled with it. Why?

For a start he does not begin with Paul's early years in Tarsus. Scholars downplay this dimension of his upbringing. It was there that he would have learnt Torah, learnt the Greco-Roman culture etc. He could have done some going back perhaps? He also failed to really account for those years in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, that could have been fun.

He drove a wedge between Paul and James overplaying, as many older scholars have done, the supposed Jerusalem-Paul tension. I suppose it is because of James 2 in this case. He made out that James was not positive to Paul really until the end. This is over-reading hints of possible tension. Surprisingly he did not do the same with Paul and Peter, not that I think there was much in this.

His chronology was all over the place and very liberal based on his probable low view of the historicity of Luke's account. For example, he places Galatians in the mid 50's which, although a position many hold, simply does not in my view work. He aligned Gal 2 with the Jerusalem Council which again, while a credible view, is no where near as convincing as alighing Gal 2 with Acts 11. He sees 2 Corinthians as three letters. He is a North Galatian theorist building in a supposed visit to northern towns when there is no record of him going there. I am not sure what he was doing with Philippians although he quotes it at the end of Paul's life suggesting he sees it as Paul's last letters. He then makes out that Priscilla wrote letters in Paul's name at the end. Now that is really pushing it, a distant vague possibility at best from many angles. He takes liberal historical lines. This would all get very confusing for an unbeliever who wanted to read Paul after this. Still, I suppose he has good scholarly support for all of this.

His characterisation is what annoyed me the most. I quite liked his Timothy and Barnabas. But on the whole I struggled. He made out that Judas Barsabbas mentioned only in Acts 15 in the NT was a vicious opponent of Paul, a Judaiser. Was he? He was one who delivered the verdict of the council, hardly likely to me? He developed this character Mattathias who is supposedly the father of Paul's sister as another Jewish opponent. Really! Paul's sister gets one mention in Acts 23:16 only in reference to her son who alerted the authorities to a plot on Paul's life. His dealings with Corinthians was interesting. He made out that Erastus was the caricature of a fat, self-indulged Roman leader-patron. He might have been anything like this! His portrayal of Sosthenes was interesting and not so bad. At one point the evangeliser of Colossians Epaphras has a scrap and beats up some who are attacking he and his mates! His dealing with women while in some ways positive, was overlypositive. Lydia, Phoebe and Priscilla are glorious women. Yet there is no mention of Euodia and Syntyche who are scrapping. He is clearly seeking to bring out the egalitarian Paul and conveniently does not bring in the Corinthian problems with women at all. I am all for an egalitarian reading of Paul but we have to be careful not to push too far or our argument becomes self-defeating.

His view of Paul too is kind of difficult although possibly fair bringing out his blend of love and harshness. He makes out he is almost a cripple by the end, has Priscilla getting him out of Ephesian prison by pretending to be him! Not sure he has it right on these!

I find it risky business to develop characters in this way. Perhaps not for a historian, but for one working from faith we have to be careful not to demean people. This all alerts us to the danger of over-psychologisation and characterisation of biblical characters. It is risky stuff. Preachers do a lot of this unthinkingly. These people may have been anything like these points of view.

He almost does nothing with Rome and the end of Paul's life. This was a huge climax. No mention of Spain, any other journey, even if he felt Paul never made it. He does not imagine Paul before Nero, his death. What a climax these would have been. As such, it is a weak ending novel; and an ending makes a novel! He downplays Athens before the Areopagus, that could have been fun too. He does cleverly deal with Paul's Roman citizenship I feel, arguing that he did not have his documents with him, even it if is total supposition. Another thing that interested me was the way he dealt with tongues. Titus dances saying baa-baa-baa! What is that? Very strange stuff. At times it all gets a bit naff actually, with people dancing around etc. But perhaps Christians are naff so that is OK.

So, I am not sure about this book. I would not recommend it to an unbeliever or a new convert but to a student of the NT and Paul with a good intial understanding, yes. Yes it is well worth a read, in that it is a point of reference for discussion. It makes us imagine. It makes us go back to the text and think. It would be an interesting book to use as a starting point for a home group or discussion for Christians.

So, good on you Walter. Not my cup of tea. But, I respect you and your book. However, I think there is room for another one perhaps...


Sean said...

Perhaps you should read The Lost Letters of Pergamum by Bruce Longenecker. I've heard it's a much better read...

Dr Mark K said...

Hey Sean. I have read it. Excellent piece of work. One of the most helpful works for understanding the NT in its Greco-Roman social background.

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