A poet, novelist, and biographer tells the story of a pivotal figure from the early days of Christianity.
He was “a small, stumbling, stooped man with a squint,” a Jew and a Roman citizen whose early life was marked by privilege, with tutors and slaves. After a good education, he entered the family tent-making business, but he also took to “ferreting out Jewish heretics” who followed prophets such as the “rustic Nazarene called Jesus.” Then something happened on the road to Damascus, and Saul of Tarsus became Paul, a leading figure of early Christianity. Parini (The Way of Jesus, 2018, etc.), who has written fictional biographies of Tolstoy and Melville, tells the story in sections narrated by Paul or by Luke, author of a Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles and companion on Paul’s years of travel throughout Asia, Macedonia, and Greece. Luke is a Greek physician and a willing scribe to Paul as he formulates doctrines, sermons, and letters that will become a dominant voice of the New Testament. They complement each other: Where Paul is passionate and visionary, Luke is measured and skeptical. Parini enlivens a narrative familiar to many with fine scenes and writerly touches, such as “houses white as dice tumbling downhill to the pebble-strewn beach.” He captures the larger politico-religious picture, with Paul as the constant stone in the sandal of Jewish, Christian, and Roman leaders alike, with his drive to shape and spread the message of Jesus sparking doctrinal clashes and threatening a fragile coexistence. The evangelist is beaten and whipped and jailed and remains indomitable. Parini also offers a suggestion of Paul’s homosexuality that is plausible but of questionable relevance. The bigger question is whether all this adds up to a novel—perhaps a holy picaresque.
An exceptional character study that still may test some readers' tolerance for unrelievedly religious matter.