Getting to Know the Apostle Paul

TheApostle - bookcoverThe Apostle: A Life of Paul by John C. Pollock

“This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners! But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” – The Apostle Paul

John Pollock’s biography tells the story of Paul from his participation in the stoning of Stephen as described in the seventh chapter of Acts to his final imprisonment and execution in Rome in 67 A.D. In his preface, Pollock explains his reason for writing a biography on Paul:

One of the most frequently mentioned figures in history, whose writings are read by millions every day, is little known to this generation as a person. The name of Saint Paul the Apostle is familiar to all Christians, to most Jews and Moslems; he is quoted, argued about, attacked and defended. Yet even those who read his words and adventures with unfailing regularity have scant idea of what he was like.

This book is a straight narrative, describing the sequence of events in Paul’s life in chronological order, adding historical context, cultural explanations and speculative details to fill in the gaps. Pollock is careful to explain when the details of his story move away from fact to tradition or speculation. He explains his approach:

As any writer on Paul must, I have dug into the enormous and ever-growing mass of scholarship about him and his background, but since I write for the general reader I have not burdened the narrative with arguments which led to my conclusions. As regards the gaps in Paul’s life I have sought to introduce nothing that cannot be deduced from the evidence, and have aimed at inference rather than conjecture.

With that in mind, Pollock provides some insightful commentary that, while not provable, provides likely details into the story as it unfolds. For example, Pollock draws this comparison between the pre-converted Paul and the pre-martyred deacon Stephen:

Paul was disturbed that a man of Stephen’s academic caliber should demean himself in social concerns; and irked that while his own affairs absorbed him, Stephen should go around bringing happiness. Men respected but feared Paul; they respected Stephen and loved him.

Regarding Paul’s later dealings with the pagan Gentiles, Pollock comments, “Disgust at idols strengthened his love for idolaters, and the man who once held Gentile neighbors at a distance now listened to their problems, fears, and temptations.”

In describing one particular incident in which Paul and Barnabas faced opposition from an individual named Elymas (Acts 13), Pollock writes,

Paul stood it a few minutes, indignant, praying inwardly, struggling to master himself. Then he became aware of peace filling his mind, and fire, and knew for a certainty that the Holy Spirit had taken control. Paul had a low flash point, a temper that could burst at times of extreme exasperation; but these next few moments he was calm, his words the more terrible for owing nothing to temper.

The author remarks with insight regarding the acceptance of the Gospel by Paul’s fellow Jews:

While writing to Rome, Paul in his mind ranged over an acute distress of the past twenty-five years: why should Jews as a nation reject Jesus, refuse to acknowledge him their Messiah or Christ? Paul had debated in himself and among friends whether God had rejected the Jews. He concluded forcefully that this was not so, in that he and many other Jews were Christians…Not only did he continue to love his own race; this love reached a pitch of extraordinary intensity which could only be compared with the weeping of Jesus as he looked across at the Temple from the Mount of Olives…”

Along with commenting about Paul’s personality, mental state, or possible motives, when relevant, Pollock takes time to describe aspects of the historical context, geographical setting or culture in which events are taking place, which helps the reader envision the scenes being narrated. For example, as he begins to describe Paul’s conversion on the Damascus rode, Pollock writes,

On the last day of their journey Mount Hermon was dropping behind…The sky was clear blue. Paul’s memory is emphatic that there was no thunderstorm or violent wind, as some suggest who seek a natural explanation for what happened. He was not near nervous breakdown or about to suffer an epileptic fit; not even especially in a hurry.

Pollock describes the beginnings of the Christian churches:

 In mountain villages and isolated farms, walking the trails through forests of fir and ash and up the ridges which led toward the high snows of Taurus, Paul founded little groups of disciples which were still active when he returned years later.

After the incident that took place in the city of Ephesus described in Acts 19, Pollock says,

The gospel’s swift advance provoked inevitable counterattack. How it came is uncertain. Paul’s story enters a brief though vital period when facts are obscure. Luke turns very discreet. If he wrote Acts during the reign of Nero (AD 54-68) and especially if partly to aid Paul’s defense in Rome, he needed to avoid angering Nero unnecessarily by any reference, however indirect, to a certain political event in Ephesus…What happened must be pieced together from clues scattered around the New Testament and in secular history.

Comments like these help the reader to better understand what was happening at the time and why the facts were recorded as they were.

Pollock’s book is easy to read and serves as an excellent accompaniment to reading through the book of Acts and Paul’s Letters. As the author incorporates dialogue and passages from the Scriptures the reader can always figure out where he is in the book of Acts, along with the side trips he takes to briefly discuss the letters Paul wrote. I took some time to create this parallel reading schedule with approximate dates:

Apostle Reading GuidePollock doesn’t directly discuss doctrine, so the book doesn’t lend itself to deep theological discussions or controversies. Instead, his book provides a great overview with insight into the person, purpose, and work of the greatest apostle and servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. I definitely recommend The Apostle to anyone who would like a good overview of Paul’s life and work.

John Pollock was Billy Graham’s official biographer and also authored biographies on George Whitefield, William Wilberforce, Hudson Taylor, and John Newton. Incidentally, the Beeson School of Divinity at Samford University in Homewood, Alabama has established a John C. Pollock Award which is presented annually for new Christian biographies.

I’ve added The Apostle to my list of biographies I feel every Christian should read.

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