I read this fictional book sometimes with difficulty over the past 3 months. It is exceedingly long at 742 pages in small print. The Cardinal Giant paperback edition shown at left, was published in 1957. It was coming apart at the seams and I had to shore it up with scotch tape multiple times. I discovered this book in the Oblate Reading Room in Martha’s Cottage basement at the Galilee Centre in Arnprior. I am the sometimes volunteer librarian of this hoard of books which came from the personal collections of several Oblate priests. I was not disappointed.
You see I grew up going to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church on Woodroffe Ave in Ottawa. I never knew much about St. Paul other than he was the apostle of the gentiles and wrote many letters in the New Testament. I am now much more knowledgeable and partial to St. Paul as a result of reading this book.
First a word about the author. Sholem Asch (1880-1957) was a prolific Polish born Jewish author, play write and essayist. He wrote in Yiddish, a high German derived language with elements of Hebrew and Aramaic that is still spoken today by 2 million Hasidic and Haredi Jews. He remained a Jew in faith all his life but was smitten by a desire to bridge the gap between Jews and Christians. For writing this and similar books he was attacked by his supporters for promoting Christianity. (1941 Photo courtesy Wikipedia.)
The story of Paul is simply amazing. Born a Jew in Tarsus on the south coast of Turkey, he was originally known as Saul of Tarsus, Greek speaking, he was sent to Jerusalem to study Jewish law. He became a prominent Pharisee charged with persecuting so called Christians who believed that the Jewish Messiah had already come, been crucified by the Romans and had come back to life. In exceeding detail Asch describes how early Christians were pulled from their homes and tortured to death in an effort to exterminate them.
On the way to Damascus to persecute the Christians living there, Saul has his famous encounter with Jesus and is blinded for days. He then spends the next 40 years in the desert (e,g, in Petra) contemplating what he is to do with the rest of his life. We all know the story – Saul becomes Paul and takes it on himself to spread the Christian faith to gentiles i.e. non Jews. But nobody believes him. They remember him as a Christian persecutor. What is going on?
The novel describes in vivid detail how Paul continued to run into roadblocks wherever he went. The Jerusalem apostles accuse Paul of breaking with the Law of Moses and reject him as a authoritative member of their community. The pagan communities in Greece, Turkey and eventually Rome run him out of town. He is ruining business for the idol makers. Actually he is scourged 5 times, stoned twice, shipwrecked 3 times and locked up in prison for years. And still he lives and persists!
I like the book because it conveys the details of paganism that existed in those times. Imagine believing in an invisible God!! Pagans were having none of it as they had Isis, Diana and a host of other “visible” Gods including Roman Emperors Claudius and Nero whom they could see and make sacrifices to for protection. The sweep of history covered is incredible and Asch is a great researcher in carrying us along. If it wasn’t for St. Paul it is most likely that the Christian faith would have been snuffed out as just another one of many Jewish sects.
Some of the language makes it difficult to read e.g, Peter is called Simon bar Joseph throughout. In a touching ending, Peter and Paul embrace in Rome. Peter goes one way to be crucified up side down. Paul goes the other way to be beheaded, since he is a Roman citizen. Magnificent.
9.5 out of 10 stars. I definitely want to read more Sholem Asch!