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More Questions Than Answers About the Influence of Paul

Paul: The Mind of the Apostle

By A.N. Wilson

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W.W. Norton

274 pp., $25

No thoughtful reader of the New Testament can read of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ or of the journeys of Paul without asking questions.

Who were these two men? Were they rabid revolutionaries, or accommodationists who favored alliance with the Romans at any price? Did their fellow Jews respect them or detest them? How did they feel about reaching out to those who were not of their faith - to pagans and other Gentiles?

Consider, too, that the two men came from very different worlds.

Jesus was a humble Galilean carpenter, the product of a small town, not highly educated in the formal sense. Paul, by contrast, was a sophisticated, Hellenized Jew, probably wealthy and undoubtedly a well-traveled urbanite.

"Paul: The Mind of the Apostle," by A.N. Wilson, the prolific and eloquent English author, is certainly intended to give the reader a deeper sense of who Paul was, what he did, and why he did it.

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Whether Wilson actually does this is rather doubtful; but he certainly succeeds in telling a thoroughly engrossing story.

One of the author's greatest strengths is his wonderful ability to see both sides of a question, and any study of early Christianity brings up many questions. It's probably impossible to avoid subjectivity in dealing with the many controversies surrounding Paul. Wilson is so evenhanded in his approach to these controversies that it often appears he has no opinion at all. The reader is forced to draw his or her own conclusions. This is by no means easy, but it forces one to think - and to ask questions.

There's no question, though, that the life - and resurrection - of a Galilean carpenter galvanized Paul to preach the Gospel with a fiery passion that illuminates the New Testament even today. And although Wilson generally dismisses as fiction such incidents as the healings by Jesus and the apostles, it's clear he is nevertheless deeply stirred by the rugged faith and boundless compassion of Paul.

A recurring point in "Paul: The Mind of the Apostle," is the Judaism of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and many of the other major figures in the New Testament. Most saw themselves not as members of a new religion, but as followers of a Jewish sect called "the Way."

Paul saw all mankind joining this new sect, but others saw differently. Jewish-Roman political frictions played no small role in creating this tense situation, and Wilson gives illuminating details of the conflicts between Palestine and Rome in the centuries before and after Jesus and Paul.

Vignettes of life in the Roman empire also help close the gap between Paul and our own experience. These vignettes are fresh, exciting, and occasionally racy. The style is fluid and thoroughly readable, and the history is not superficial.

Wilson concludes his book not so much with a probing question as with a rather unsatisfying answer: "The Jesus of the Gospels, if not the creation of Paul, is in some senses the result of Paul." The reader could ask if the truth might not be the other way around. When Paul saw a vision on the road to Damascus, his life was irrevocably changed, and the life that followed that vision of Jesus changed the world.

* Judy Huenneke, an archivist, lives in Cambridge, Mass.

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