The Apostle by Sholem Asch
This book, a sequel to the Nazarine, follows very carefully the framework of the book of Acts, with the apostle Paul as the central figure. Thus we see him first as he sits at the feet of Gamaliel, endeavoring to attain legal blamelessness, the ideal of Pharisaic virtue. This zeal is shared by his beloved friend bar Naba, who is none other than Barnabas, Paul’s companion on his first missionary journey. Barnabas soon accepts Jesus as the Messiah while Paul becomes a self-styled Phencas, defending “the honor of God”.
Considerable space is devoted to Paul’s tremendous spiritual struggle, his inner conflicts which makes one realize more fully that it was indeed hard for him to “kick against the pricks”.
His conversion on the road to Damascus, is somewhat obscured. It could be nothing more than a hallucination, especially, as the impression is left that the apostle was subject to epileptic seizures.
It is interesting, as you follow the book of Acts and the various epistles of Paul, to see what tiny dues Mr. Asch has expanded into major episodes, and what huge gaps in Paul’s story he has filled with his own imagination. Throughout the book we meet many of the figures that appear in the meagre accounts of Acts and the epistles, only as dimly sketched shadows. Peter, James, Barnabas, Silas, Luke, Titus, Timothy, Lydia, Acquilla and Priscilla, and many others, become living, personalities. There are also purely imaginative characters woven into the story.
Paul’s missionary journeys are set against the colorful background of the Mediterranean world, with its beauties and vices, its luxuries and squalor. It is a dark master painting of a writhing wicked world. The author does not mince words, but portrays the condition of Paul’s times with stark realism, and at times the detailed descriptions of pagan excesses, their festivals and religious rites are repulsive and almost offensive. He spares nothing in an effort to depict what the apostle to the gentiles went through. He pictures the pitiful slave-workers in the bronze foundries in Corinth, and the misery of the galley slaves— Paul bringing light and hope to these most wretched of all creatures.
The apostle Paul moves from city to city comforting, converting, edifying. His sojourn in Rome, of which actually so little is known, is made into a continued and dramatic story.
Very interesting, but at the same time very disappointing are Paul’s letters to the different churches. Some of them are described as actual letters, while others are given as discourses which Paul’s companions hear and later transcribe from memory. To a great extent the book is a work of exposition, and an attempt to show the growth of the early Christian doctrine. The author recounts Paul’s various epistles in his own words, often changing the original so completely that one scarcely recognizes the doctrines Paul so beautifully expounds. When writing to the Romans, he quite forgets those portions which deal with election and reprobation. The epistles to the Philippians and Corinthians are characterized as being filled; with bitterness and bursts of anger which are ascribed to Paul’s personal peeves. His letters to the Colossians and Ephesians signify that Paul finally found his way back to God, whom he had for a time lost because of his love for the Messiah, his zeal in his mission and his bitterness against his enemies.
For the sake of dramatic effect the author greatly exaggerates the tension between the Jerusalem Christians, the actual disciples and Paul’s followers. Sometimes the sheer weight of Paul’s own inner conflicts in regard to these differences are rather depressing. Until almost the very end, Paul is at variance with Peter and the other disciples. Peter and James deny Paul’s authority, causing much disturbance in the newly established churches. In short, they accuse Paul of selling the election of the Jews to the Gentiles, and dissuading the Jews from the loyalty to the Torah of Moses. Because his teachings are considered erroneous, he is forbidden to preach among the Christians in Jerusalem. Peter is made to appear as an ignorant fisherman incapable of comprehending Paul’s views on the Messiah. James, too, was astonished by Paul’s words. Paul is made the author of the most fundamental of all doctrines, “Christ’s Sonship”, When Paul visits Jerusalem for the first time after his conversion, Peter is made to ask: “What did he mean by the strange words: “Son of God in heaven, on earth, and in all the worlds?” A direct contradiction to Peter’s glorious confession in Matt. 16:16 “Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God.”
Often I found myself wondering just where Mr. Asch himself stands and if he himself believes that Christ is the fulfillment of the Mosaic law.
The story ends with the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. The Christian Jews had become the scapegoat for the burning of Rome—Rome which burned upon Nero’s orders and for his pleasure. Nero prepares for the Roman masses, stepped aside as they were in immoralities, a spectacle such as they had never beheld – a gigantic blood bath. We see God’s people hiding and living in the catacombs, witness the horrible tortures for “the crime of Christianity”. All in all it was thoroughly in the spirit of the time—“and Rome was not astonished for Rome was worthy of Nero, and Nero of Rome”.
Peter and Paul are both victims of the Neronian persecution. The two apostles meet once again as they are both led out to die, the one on the cross, the other by the sword, all differences forgotten in the service to a common Lord.
This book of 800 closely written pages, is to be recommended only if read critically, as I believe it has serious discrepancies. Any author who sets out to add to the Bible narratives may expect much criticism, as the simple but beautiful records laid out for us in the gospels, remain completely satisfying. Anyone who endeavors to solve all the mysteries which the Bible does not reveal and sets out to expound all its teachings may expect violent reaction.
The reader must constantly be mindful that much of the narrative springs from the author’s imagination, and one should really keep the New Testament close at hand to verify where Scripture leaves off and Mr. Asch begins.
The book’s value should be measured by its historical background. Without a doubt the author is a master on this subject. One obtains a vivid picture of the spirit of the world in which the savior and His apostles lived, and that is indeed interesting and very educational.
And—just as a suggestion—this novel might be just the thing for the book lover on your Christmas list.