A Review of
The Damascus Road:
A Novel of St. Paul
Reviewed by Scott J. Pearson
The interested reader should first note that Parini is a professional biographer and not a minister nor a theologian. Yes, he has written a biography of Jesus, but he has also written biographies of Gore Vidal, William Faulkner, and Robert Frost. He works as a professor of English literature at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Nonetheless, Parini writes respectfully as a follower and admirer of Saint Paul. He respects Paul’s ministry (though not uncritically), and he respects Paul’s original biographer Luke, the physician. Parini does not seek to overturn the historical narrative (as many more theologically oriented biographers often do). As he put it in his introduction to his biography of Jesus, he does not seek to demythologize but instead to “re-mythologize.”
With each chapter, this book alternates the point of view from Luke to Paul, which provides some interesting perspective. One not only gets a psychological take on Paul’s life from personal accounts; one also receives some critical commentary on Paul from an accompanying figure (Luke) that does not always agree with Paul. Parini’s Luke is more reserved and less passion-driven than the enigmatic Paul.
Parini fills in the Biblical record from history in some fairly standard ways. During Paul’s “wilderness period” after the Damascus Road experience, Paul spends some time in the desert with a few Essenes. Like many of Paul’s contemporary biographers, he sees Paul as highly motivated by Jesus’ return and “the end of history.”
Paul’s motivation in evangelism is bringing together the Hebraic tradition that God is one with the Hellenic tradition that God is in nature. Paul is only moderately successful at this task. He fails in Athens at Mars Hill (cf. Acts 17), but he succeeds to some degree in establishing Christian gatherings among the Jewish diaspora combined with Greeks.
One of the main draws of Christianity in this novel is its radical egalitarianism: “In Christ, there is not male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.” Parini repeatedly places this statement at the baptism of new Christians to emphasize its centrality to the Christian message. One might also see this message as a mild critique upon modern Christendom in which some churches, Christian leaders, and denominations define themselves as being “not like them” – that is, not like some other Christian group.
Parini also provides some interesting fiction to the story as well. He writes for Luke a prior life with a wife who bore a son, only to have both die in childbirth.
Parini’s treatment of Paul’s sexuality is especially novel and deserves some in-depth attention. Some readers might be offended by Parini’s writing of Paul having sex with a married woman. Nonetheless, Parini seems to hint that Paul, still unmarried, has a host of sexual hang-ups that lead to some anti-sexual statements in Paul’s letters.
Parini’s writing is very humanistic and brings forth an insightful color to the Biblical record. For instance, in one scene in Athena’s temple, Paul sees a couple having intercourse while he tries to convert another person there to Christianity. Such a scene is quite plausible given what we know of the city. The text brings forth a host of readings at this point and a host of reactions in the reader. How would Paul, perhaps then a virgin, react in such a setting? Does this explain Paul’s reticence to accept human sexuality in his writings? Despite our present-day sexually liberated culture, did Paul face a culture with more sexual freedom than ours?
Another topic of interest is homosexuality. Parini admits that throughout his own life, he has been put off by Paul’s negative attitudes towards homosexuals. Parini has been comforted that many of these takes were not in the early writings of Paul but only in those writings which probably came from Paul’s followers and not from Paul himself. Parini seems to leave us with the supposition that according to Parini’s understanding of the Gospel, in Christ, there is also no heterosexual or homosexual.
Conversation exists in this novel about the practice of man-boy sex among the Greeks. The reader also observes Paul having feelings of affection toward his young follower John Mark. This again leaves the reader questioning Paul’s repressed sexuality: Could he be in touch with a fluid sexual nature? Of course, one can only speculate about this historicity of such things, but of what use is a work of historical fiction if not for speculation?
Paul is jailed in Ephesus and pens many of his major letters, including an important letter to the Romans which (as centuries of Biblical commentators do agree) contains the distillation of Paul’s message to the small Christian communities that he has been founding. Eventually, Paul heads to Rome and is given a relative degree of freedom in this new setting. The community comes to hear his message and respect his contribution – as the oral tradition of history attests.
The rest of this writing contains a spoiler, but historical fiction can hardly contain much surprise as it simply tells a tale around history. Rome burns, and the capricious Emperor Nero blames the Christians. He sets Christians up as human torches – a story which histories often share. One can see the faces of Christians that readers have heard from before.
I was left feeling grateful that we as a civilization have moved beyond horrifically cruel and unusual forms of execution like Nero’s burning of Christians or Jesus’ crucifixion – even if we have not moved beyond the death penalty in general. Paul, a Roman citizen, is beheaded in a more “civilized” (read, quicker) fashion.
Overall, this book offers some insight into Paul’s life. It stays pretty close to the original historical record although its fictional elements provide some liberty with the tale. This liberty, though surely offensive to some, is taken only to expose us to more readings of the text of Paul’s life. I left the book feeling as though I got to know Paul (and Luke) much better as a person.
Of course, the Biblical message is centered on the advance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not on Paul and Luke. That’s why a respectful historical reconstruction of these two characters is so helpful. Again, Parini is by trade a biographer and not a theologian. Anyone seeking to understand Paul’s psyche amongst the fascinating setting of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds would benefit from a deep dive into this account. Indeed, even from a purely historical and non-theological perspective, the future of the West and of the Western mind is described in these pages. Parini does his best at bringing divinity, history, and narrative together, and in almost every respect, he succeeds greatly.
Scott J. Pearson develops software tools for researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He also writes book reviews at www.scottjpearson.com.