You would have to be a brave man to write a book of historical fiction centred around Paul the Apostle. Brave, because Paul is owned by so many who would protest at any historical or theological anomaly. The letters of Paul are central to Christian theology. Indeed, my lecturer in systematic theology rarely quoted anyone else. Paul's letter to the Romans was instrumental in the Protestant Reformation and the Barthian revolution in the 20th C. He is the subject of a vast scholarly industry; his letters are read in churches named after him on many Sunday mornings. He is regarded as the first Christian writer and theologian, the one closest in time to Jesus.
Tsiolkas spend fourteen months on research before he began writing and Damascus took him five years to finish. Presumably, royalties from The Slap and Barracuda supported him in this work. He was raised Greek Orthodox but is un-practising. In the Author's note, he gives some background to his own religious and sexual history. In short, he abandoned Christianity because of Paul's letters that included strictures against homosexuality. But in his late twenties, he went back to the letters and found solace and compassion. He became fascinated with Paul, and this fascination resulted in the novel Damascus. The passion we see in the text is personal. In Paul, he found a fellow "sufferer" of same-sex desire. He identified with Paul's difficulties with orthodox Judaism and was set free by his insistence that the flesh does not signify, only the Spirit. His final sentences in the Author's note are: "Of course history can't be forgotten, and its ghosts have also made their way into this novel. But I am not wrestling with Paul any longer. I am walking beside him. With gratitude." (P420) Damascus is an expression of found grace.
Tsiolkas has come to the conclusion that Paul's homosexuality drove him to break with Judaism. There is a sense in Paul's letters that his break was not a matter of hearing a better argument but of something overwhelming and personal. This may explain his sense of moral failure in Romans 7 in which he describes how he could not control his actions. In the novel, it was his experience in the Christian community that taught him that the barriers erected between circumcised and uncircumcised, clean and unclean, slave and free (gay and straight?) were abolished by Jesus who, himself became rejected. The light on the Damascus road was the light of the realisation that God had not rejected him. There was no way back to Judaism. I expect that the novel will spark outrage among Christians who use Paul as the ground for rejecting the same-sex attracted.
Readers should be warned that this is a harrowing read. The author does not flinch in his representation of Jewish and Roman society in the years following the death of Jesus. The cruelty is overwhelming, as is the language. Such descriptions heighten the contrast between the followers of Jesus (they were not yet known as Christians) and the practices of Judaism and the occupying Roman army. The opening sentence is: "The world is in darkness." Throughout the book, we are reminded why Christianity spread like wildfire through the ancient world because it held all life as sacred. This stands in contrast to the Roman families who exposed their economically useless daughters on the mountain. The gods of the Romans are exposed as dumb idols. The light of Christ has entered a dark world, even in the face of the cruellest retribution.
Historical fiction is a tricky business because an attempt must be made not to contradict the known facts of history. For example, Tsiolkas uses the name Silas as being a companion of Paul's on the road to Damascus and charges him with being complicit in his robbery and beating. This is strange because while the name Silas does exist in Acts 15 and he is a travelling companion of Paul, but not on the road to Damascus. Silas is a respected member of the community and deemed to be a prophet. It seems an unnecessary misstep to accuse him of leaving Paul on the Damascus road for dead.
Tsiolkas makes some daring assumptions in his story by identifying Thomas (also known as Didymus or twin) as Jesus' twin brother, the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23,21:7,21:20) and as the doubter in the gospel of John (John 20:26ff). He also proposes that Timothy wrote the extracanonical Gospel of Thomas. Some might wince at this as drawing a very long bow. The gospel tradition has it that Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 3:32) and that their names were James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (Mat.13:55) There is also textual evidence that his brother James was head of the Jerusalem church. To say that Thomas was Jesus' twin is without warrant. However, Tsiolkas uses the proposed relationship to emphasise an early Christian controversy about the resurrection and the expected end of the world. There is no reference to the resurrection in the gospel of Thomas. It consists of a collection of the teachings of Jesus. Similarly, Thomas, in the novel, believes that his brother Jesus is a prophet and denies the resurrection and the coming end of the world. He believes that the kingdom to which Jesus pointed was already in the process of being fulfilled as a result of his teaching. In the book, Paul violently disagrees as he looks to the coming again of Jesus and the end of the world. The common greeting among the followers is "Truly he is returning".
Paul is torn between what he sees in the followers communities; the overturning of an old and cruel world, and his belief that Jesus will return in the flesh to bring history to a close. There is a tension here that runs through the novel and the history of the Church. Paul cannot believe that the kingdom is already achieved whilst the world is still in darkness. In the novel, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70CE, Timothy in Ephesus attempts to feed the refugees of that catastrophe, the question of the return of Jesus is still more urgent after three generations. Tsiolkas assumes that this hiatus prompted Timothy to side with Thomas in believing that the kingdom has already been established and that to await the return of the Saviour is futile.
There are two ways we can understand apocalyptic. The first is that it stands for the end of the physical world, the melting of mountains and the boiling of seas. This may be coupled with the return of the Lord and the judgment of all living and dead. The second understanding is softer because the physical world remains intact and it is the world of men and women that is radically changed. This is represented in the novel as a time when "the last will be first and the first will be last." A crucified man becomes the king of a new order that is the inversion of all of the old orders based on power and violence. It may be said that while this is not the end of the world as such, it is the end of a world in which young women can be stoned to death or fed to beasts and the touch of a slave woman could make a person unclean. Paul in the novel has this sense:
He has travelled far, into Arabia and to the foothills of Persia, and he has witnessed the monstrosities of ï»¿four-winged demons and lascivious sphinxes, towering phalluses and many-breasted pregnant witches. All would soon be ground to dust.(p 238)
Historical fiction is bound to raise all kinds of questions, but that does not rob the work of validity. Tsiolkas strives to produce a picture of Paul as a man of flesh and blood, a living presence. In this, he succeeds. The novel changes how we read Paul's letters. We see him suffer as he struggles to leave his life as an observant Jew, who persecutes the followers to become one himself. We see his pain at having to put all his family behind him because they could not understand how the crucified Jesus could be the Messiah of Israel. We see him agonised as one who cannot resist his sexual urges. He introduces us to the tensions in the early community between those of the circumcision party who insist that all new followers must be circumcised. He suffers the scandal of the cross.
Paul gives only bare information in his letters about himself and only does so in his quest to convey the gospel. The details to be found in Acts, written by the same author who wrote the gospel of Luke, may be classified themselves as historical fiction, i.e. they are embellished history with an eye to preaching rather than an attempt to tell us what actually happened. For example, Luke makes much of the miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, while Paul himself does not mention it in his letters. Even though Paul believes in the resurrection, he demonstrates no knowledge of the tradition of the empty tomb or Jesus' miracles. Tsiolkas does not take the Lukan line on the Damascus road experience, that is based on the form of an Old Testament epiphany, but portrays Paul as being robbed and beaten on the road and then cared for by followers of Jesus. However, he does use the name of Ananias used by Luke as the follower of Jesus, who nurses him back to health. Luke's miraculous account of the conversion on the Damascus road, while metaphorically helpful, misses Paul's personal dynamics.
During his recuperation, Paul finds that he has sat eating with gentiles, prostitutes and slaves and is enraged and leaves the house. But he returns, and his breakthrough comes when he sits with Ananias, and they share their brokenness, they confess their sins to each other. A veil falls from Paul's eyes and he sees that intimate relationships may be achieved with those whom Israel abhorred as sources of uncleanliness and that despite his sins he is accepted. This is what "love" means in the New Testament. The barriers erected by Judaism and ancient Rome are abolished, and we see others as we see ourselves. Surely this is the death of the ancient world and the birth of a new humanism.
The earliest followers were persecuted for being irreligious, for insulting the gods. Tsiolkas highlights the scandal of early Christian belief that all of the gods of Rome in all their glory are to be replaced by a criminal who died on a cross. This was unthinkable for the ancient mind. The followers of Jesus were called "death worshippers". The Jews were scandalised:
They'd laughed at his story of a crucified Saviour. They'd howled in derision and cursed in fury: 'We want a new David, a hero who will slay Rome. We don't want a virgin boy nailed to a fucking cross.' (p242)
This was the milieu in which Paul worked, from which he had to break. His struggle was not a matter of simply changing religions, as we might do today, but of a wrenching of blood and flesh symbolised by the refusal of circumcision and of "being of Israel". By abandoning Judaism he set himself outside of the people of God as one accursed. He counted all as loss. But he used his loss in order to go to the gentiles:
ï»¿He knew the commandments and the words of the prophets were inscribed across his heart. At first reluctantly, and then with gathering awe, he realised that this would be his gift to the coming kingdom. He knew Israel. He was schooled and trained in Israel, he was of Israel. The coming of the crucified Saviour was not an aberration. His suffering and death and arising, and the redemption to follow, had been willed at the dawn of Creation. The Saviour had been nailed to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thus had the circle been completed. (p241)
The church of our day has been on the back foot since at least the sixties with falling status and failing congregations. Its response has been to think of itself as a missionary church, to hold events for youth, to indulge in the fabrication of mission statements and strategic plans. None of this has halted the decline of the church for obvious reasons; these actions are generated out of fear and the desire for control; neither are gospel imperatives. Rarely has the modern church understood art as its main device for explaining itself to the world. Damascus is a work of art that expresses the core of the gospel. It is easy to see from the novel that the Church's acceptance of those who find themselves same-sex attracted is not simply the liberals courting favour with the modern world but is central to the gospel. The acceptance of gays may be the last barrier to be broken down.
Damascusis an important book because it traces the origins of our humanism. It is common in our time to attribute this origin to the Enlightenment and the discovery of reason. Not so. Tsiolkas leads us back to its true origin: Jesus and Paul.