- Paul: A Critical Life by Jerome Murphy O’Connor
Oxford, 416 pp, £35.00, June 1996, ISBN 0 19 826749 5
- Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson
Sinclair-Stevenson, 274 pp, £17.99, March 1997, ISBN 1 85619 542 2
There were many St Pauls in Antiquity. Even more are still being invented. About each, there are stories, doubts, ambiguities. One problem is that Paul is an icon of early Christianity, and of Western culture. His central significance for later Christian theology means that any interpretation of his thought is necessarily grounded in personal belief, or prejudice. Objectivity is neither achievable, nor perhaps desirable. And this problem is compounded for those who wish to write about his life and character, because we know extraordinarily little about either.
Each rival group within Christianity, and there have always been several or many, has to take a position on Paul. For example, there is an ancient tale, no one knows quite how old, but in its original form probably dating back to the second century, or earlier. It describes a contest in magic which took place between St Peter and St Paul, at Rome. The miracles which Paul performed were so impressive that some Christians even wondered whether he was Christ, come again. Paul told them that he would come flying through the sky and arrive at the seventh hour at the city gate. At the seventh hour, a great crowd collected and lo, in the distance, a cloud of dust, like smoke with fiery rays, was seen in the sky. When it came close, it vanished, and St Paul suddenly appeared. All those who saw this miracle worshipped Paul, and called him ‘God in Italy, saviour of the Romans’. A few Christians said openly that he was a sorcerer, who had cheated them; but a greater number of the faithful lost their faith. Eventually, only two women, four invalids (who could not get outside to see the charismatic Paul), and a solitary priest remained true to the Catholic cause.
God, however, was looking after his own, and in a vision instructed St Peter to leave Jerusalem and hurry to Rome. On the first Sunday after he arrived, a great crowd gathered to hear what Peter would do about Paul, that ‘deceiver of good men’. Peter preached a mighty sermon, so that all who heard him repented and entreated Peter to overthrow Paul, who falsely claimed to be ‘the power of God’. Peter, too, performed impressive miracles. He cast out demons, made a dog talk and, wonder of wonders, resurrected some smoked fish, which showed their liveliness by swimming around in a pond and swallowing titbits.
To cut a rather long story short, the dénouement comes with a public confrontation in the Forum, in the presence of the City Prefect. He is determined to be fair. He chooses one of his slaves and says to Paul, ‘Kill this man,’ then says to Peter: ‘And you, restore him to life.’ Paul whispers in the slave’s ear, and he dies. The crowd is thunderstruck, but a Christian widow shouts out in distress that her husband has just died; please bring him back to life, too. Peter prays, and both are restored to life. The crowd roars: ‘There is only one God, the one God of Peter.’ A senator’s mother makes her way through the crowd, and throws herself at Peter’s feet (as all senators should do), and begs him to restore her dead son. The corpse is brought on stage and, to keep things fair, Paul is challenged to resurrect him. He performs his magic gestures. The senator raises his head, opens his eyes and bows to Paul.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.