Books about Paul continue to pour from the printing presses. This one, originally researched for a Radio 4 series, and elegantly written up by the Today Programme and Sunday Programme presenter, has, like all its predecessors, a personal agenda to address. Stourton writes from a Roman Catholic background which he deems to have somewhat suppressed Paul's witness in favour of the Petrine tradition with its less radical bent and its apparently more direct access to the historical Jesus. So Paul, the passionate controversialist, the restless thinker, the originator of a more independent brand of Christianity, fascinates Stourton, as well he might.
Stourton brings all of his skills as a journalist to the task. He writes with verve and with an eye for contemporary parallels which make his account come alive. He travels to the places where it all happened, sniffs out telling details and gripping stories. His eclectic (not say idiosyncratic) list of informers includes, among others, churchmen, top class scholars, popular writers and classical authors, but discrimination is sometimes lacking. Though this account includes much admirable scholarship and impressive awareness both of the relevant Scripture and controversies, the better informed reader will feel irritated by points where other evidence is unknown or not given sufficient weight.
Stourton's main position is that of "critical orthodoxy" (only seven reliably authentic letters, questionable value of Acts as history etc). Of Paul's conversion he writes on page 69, "...If we sum up what we do and do not know about Paul's Damascene moment we cannot, with the best will in the world, accept the simplicity of the account in the Acts of the Apostles, however dramatically satisfying it may be. It probably did not happen on the road to Damascus, it did not immediately turn Paul into a Christian, neither did it transform him from a very bad man into a very good one."
The positive side is that Stourton's Paul is dynamic and radical, warm and attractive. Stourton is very aware of how controversial a figure Paul is to Jews and Muslims. He is at pains to absolve Paul of the charge of incipient anti-Semitism, but concludes that the seeds of such are to be found in Paul's controversial work and particularly in his attitudes. Paul is seen not so much as a careful and well thought out theologian, but as a man with a mission whose written advice to churches is occasioned particularly by the heat of the moment.
For Stourton this means that Paul's thought must be accessed with great care today. Theology, however, is not the strongest suit in this book. What Edward Stourton does provide us with is a fast moving, appreciative and affectionate portrait of one who in some quarters today is despised and feared, or else paid the courtesy of faint praise and neglect. Stourton addresses his agenda very well indeed. For those of us with a different agenda the book reads as something of a curiosity but is no less interesting for that.
Robert Willoughby, August 2004
Robert Willoughby teaches New Testament and Children's Ministry at London School of Theology. He is the author of The Children's Guide to the Bible, Angels and So, who is God?, all from Scripture Union, and is a regular contributor to Scripture Union's daily Bible reading notes, Encounter with God.Order from www.christianbookshops.org
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