By Michael Fried
It is one thing to have faith in Jesus, say in his resurrection, or that he is divine. It is quite another to understand Jesus. Paul understood Jesus. Considering the circumstances, it is puzzling just exactly how he did that. More puzzling still, how did Paul get so much of the rest of the world to try to do the same.
Even if Jesus, on the road to Damascus enrolled Paul as a super apostle that won’t explain how Paul continually had the intellect, courage, and motivation to set stray apostles, acolytes and tentative congregations back on track.
In "Great Lion of God," an historical reconstruction, Taylor Caldwell leads us through her solution how, by traditional standards so insignificant a man on the frontier of the Roman empire, could have so profoundly an affected our world. Yes, that sentence applies to Jesus. Yet, without Paul, what would we have made of Jesus?
Even today Paul's relation to the New Testament is awesome
Once at a church gathering, a minister I had just met layered a stack of religious symbols beside himself on a platform. These included an old testament, a new testament, some significant ministerial cloth. He asked our small group to consider how we could think through these layers to connect to Jesus.
Why, he asked, do we even believe Jesus existed? There isn't even a scrap of writing from him. Nor is there a verifiable modern test of his genomic or physical presence to anyone in the world.
Many would exalt if we left His existence to faith. Why couldn’t we regard everything about him as requiring faith? Alas, that would leave so much up to those who use him for their own purposes, purposes often subversive to our good. Then, too, there is truth, vainly hoped for though it is.
Yet, the New Testament consists of writings by people of whom we confidently assert did exist. Those who believed passionately that they had been profoundly close to Jesus' presence. We are most confident that not only did St. Paul exist, but that he made concrete that belief.
This isn't a tough test for our faith, for the Acts – apparently written by the author of Luke's Gospel – include the story of the Stephen’s martyrdom and Paul’s conversion. With the Epistles of Paul they take up all of 117 small print pages in "The Living Bible." There, too, the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John consume but 120 pages. Further, Luke (as we know him) took up 35 pages in Acts, much of it to tell us about Paul.
On a whim I googled these precise words: "The Friendship of St. Luke and St. Paul." The top google return was a quote on bible.hub, with that exact title and an essay by W. G. Abbott MA justifying St. Luke's devotion to Paul, referring to 2 Timothy 4:9-11. The specificity of Paul to Timothy in naming people they commonly knew, to conjure sympathetic feelings toward Jesus and what he thought gives us the meaning in actual lives of Jesus' mission.
What he [Paul] hoped from Timothy is one piece of our belief in the living Paul. Consequence on transitivity, we have from him our belief in the having lived, and maybe even, the still living Jesus.
Further, in the Epistles, we have authentic Paul. These show precisely how boldly he spoke for Jesus' message. They refer to the lands he visited. They lament the troubles dealt upon him from those who recalled him as a troublemaker. They lay out his rebuttals to his disagreements with the other apostles, especially Peter.
Yet, not only is St. Paul without peer our greatest anchor to Jesus. He puts heft to our acceptance, each and every one of us, in Christianity. An acceptance pronounced by many – though not all – Christian churches each Sunday.
Because of Paul, in the Christian church today there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female. As Sunday sermons in many churches say, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Escaping the Jewish Laws
Paul, the author of Galatians, as Pam Eisenbaum, a professor of biblical studies, emphasizes, was through-and-through a Jew. Dr. Eisenbaum regards Paul as misunderstood. She suggests many see him as if he negated his people's Jewish past. By reading (the long epistle) Galatians anyone can easily see this is not so.
Paul: "The Jewish laws were our teacher and guide until Christ came [and gave us] right standing through our faith. But now that Christ has come we no longer need those laws to guard us and guide us to him."
From Paul, this excruciatingly devout Jew, came the revelation that we – us humans – all are one. That said 2000 years ago, was in a message clear and sympathetic to what we know of Jesus. Yet, this was from one who didn't know Jesus during his life directly at all.
Nor were the issues transcendental: The necessity or not of male circumcision, among adult Christians, was the issue with Peter that Paul tried to dissuade him from. The dietary customs. Events requiring consecration in the temple?
How do we know Paul dealt with these? The Epistles, available to any home with a bible, lays it, and Paul's thinking, out in plain incisive language.
Taylor Caldwell's approach to Paul
So, we have to be pleased – don't we? – that someone has given full blown structure to how such a human as Paul could have – with only a mystical bidding from a phantom Jesus – put his intellect and physical life behind the significance to mankind of Jesus. I shall now say what is Taylor Caldwell's method. Will you wonder with me what of it gives you succor? Will you consider what of it is a somewhat masterfully production on a wing and a prayer?
Here are some ingredients I call your attention to:
First: She paints a picture of Paul's early life, including having him father a child – his only sexual experience – and puts details to his thoughts of his mother, father, sister, ... Do we say, it could have been that way and it shows what kind he was? Or, do we consider that you could imagine this man, as TC does, as an avatar of a magnificent holy man?
Second: Caldwell throughout gives her usual florid descriptions, of Paul, and those he meets. She designs these to suit her rubric for seeing into their souls. She does this even of Jesus and Mary, Pilate and others, as scenarios, with Paul's presence, contrary to the lack writings on Paul with evidence of such meetings.
I have lived 3+ years in Israel. I have given talks (on mathematics) all over Israel. I can tell you there is great contrast between the author's engagement with personal descriptions and her somewhat pedestrian imagining of Jerusalem and its surroundings. Think what Jerusalem, the City of David, meant to Jesus.
Third: Until the final (3rd) part of the novel, which gives footnote references to the Acts and Timothy, she barely connects to historical knowledge of Paul. Here, too, she has less of Paul mouthing views of humanity that sound suspiciously modern, akin to her own version of conservatism. She includes more of his motivations for his visitations in the Epistles.
This isn't difficult. Those are in the Epistles. Yet, she casts them coherently as compatible with the development of his personality from childhood. Especially she gives his misgivings of those around him.
Conjectural though they are, they have a plausibility that is one of Taylor Caldwell's gifts: Weaving the threads of a far flung story and many disparate characters into a whole cloth narrative. We shouldn't, I suppose, expect the documentation (50 pages of bibliographical references), say, used by Allison Weir on "Eleanor of Aquitaine" (see below).
Yet, there is this mystery. How did such a person as Paul arise? How was he able to transcend the great differences between those of different cultures involving the most intimate of mental proclivities? TC gives a tour of proto-typical pagans and higher intellects, including Luke, from the culture influencing Paul. She imagines deeply into those who might have honed his intellect. She mixes a dose of fact with a fable of her own making.
Taylor Caldwell in context
TC, a preternatural conservative, of stereotypical masculine certainty, demands that we accept her authority. Who else, without such audacity, would dare an end-to-end life of a man whose believable record in his own voice in the last part of his adulthood is available to all. Especially, when it focuses overwhelmingly on that man's relation to God made manifest.
Nor does she build our confidence in her claimed choice of inspirations. For example, the inside back cover avers:
"In writing "Great Lion of God," Miss Caldwell spoke with Jewish scholars in Israel and Catholic Scholars in the Vatican and found that these experts held peculiarly similar views of St. Paul. Yet, both were strangely different from the traditional picture of the saint [and more words to justify that she had found the 'real' Paul.] In a 627 page book she had no room to name these scholars or to quote from their specifics?
In my mother, Peggy's, autobiography we have someone who traveled for many months on the good ship Rotterdam with TC during many of those years. Peggy would have us believe that TC is an infantile character: deserving little empathy, leading a life much less tragic, than comic. Yet, Peggy gives total loyalty to TC's endless, personal saga. Further, TC amazed Peggy with her work ethic, one that produced such volumes including this. That was a work ethic Peggy saw every day aboard those ships.
There we also hear of TC's inability to interact in a two-way conversion with others. Peggy tells of TC's total "nervous" deafness; an affliction making intelligible discourse impossible. Yet, Peggy records long, natural conversations with TC, having little intellectual content at all. It is a puzzle.
From whence would TC have come upon those scholars. Though the Rotterdam landed at Haifa, neither Peggy nor TC much ventured off the ship. If they had, and had TC participated in such meetings, would she have actually had long discourses with them?
The final words of the novel's back leaf are a fit summary of Taylor Caldwell's most persistent conservative theocratic focus: Her insistence that "progress" is a dirty word.*
Taylor Caldwell: "It may cheer many – and depress others – to realize that man never really changes and the exact problems of Paul's world are the same that confront us today. But man's nature can never be changed by any particular except by the power of God and religion, and if I can influence in this book only ten people, I will feel I have succeeded."
Hmm! Ten people whom she would never know about are her test for success. On an even less testable attribute: Convincing someone else – who is dead set against it – that another has not changed in a significant way. Her goal is to change people to convince them that significant change is impossible, without an ineffable interaction.
Alison Weir, in "Eleanor of Aquitaine" with its 50 pages of documented sources, enters her narrative to say whether statements made of the Queen are believable. It is hard to find a figure of female allure a more likely candidate for reconstructive history than a famous beauty who was the wife of two kings and the mother of two others.
Mary Renault (1958) in "The King must Die" (the tale of Theseus, a man – not God – of extraordinary pagan legend) gives us the first king of Athens without footnotes. Yet, she weaves the old tales together, including the Minotaur and Ariadne, as if creating a man in the image of God.
Taylor Caldwell, in the "Earth is the Lords" (1940; Genghis Khan) and then for St. Luke in "Dear and Glorious Physician" (1959) went after lives that started far more obscurely than Eleanor's. Yet, they had immense impact in the world we know.
Even among these, the mystery of Paul and his monumental fashioning of Jesus' ministry should leave us breathless. Who but a Taylor Caldwell, could have had the nerve to attempt this. She recognized what a problem it was to explain how Paul could have come about, and went after that problem.
* TC often used acid to attack progressive values as in a personal letter to Richard Hofstadter published, in his 1954 article, "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt," later republished in the 1965 collection, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. In 2019 we have seen less articulate writers, in tweets, articulate otherwise similar vitriol.