In The Footsteps of Saint Paul, by Edward Stourton

Voyage round a father of the church
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Saint Paul is the most paradoxical of figures: a Jewish zealot who enjoyed citizenship of the Roman empire that oppressed the Jews, a passionate Christian who could argue like a Greek philosopher, and both the Church's first recorded persecutor and its founding father. This accumulation of contradictions has meant he has attracted more than his fair share of biographers. By contrast, the bibliography for Saint Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built his church, would hardly fill the back of raffle ticket.

Saint Paul is the most paradoxical of figures: a Jewish zealot who enjoyed citizenship of the Roman empire that oppressed the Jews, a passionate Christian who could argue like a Greek philosopher, and both the Church's first recorded persecutor and its founding father. This accumulation of contradictions has meant he has attracted more than his fair share of biographers. By contrast, the bibliography for Saint Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built his church, would hardly fill the back of raffle ticket.

Edward Stourton, now one of the anchors on Radio 4's Today programme, has also become the custodian of that station's God-slots, presenting documentaries on matters religious that include a fresh look at Saint Paul. This is the book of the series. Rather than picking away at Paul's writings in search of enlightenment, Stourton's narrative trips jauntily along round the sites associated with the apostle, from his birth-place, Tarsus (a first-century BC Oxford or Cambridge) through Damascus, scene of his evidently undramatic conversion, to Antioch: "the Roman Empire's Beverly Hills". Into the travelogue Stourton weaves Paul's Letters and Epistles.

This is the sort of walking-and-talking history pioneered on the small screen by David Starkey and Simon Schama, but without the intrusion of their egos. Stourton is the most charming of guides, but where he surprises is in his Biblical scholarship. If you have ever been curious about Paul - by repute an intolerant misogynist who poisoned Christianity with his sexual pessimism - but have never got beyond the first chapter of the dry books churned out about him by grey pedants in theological colleges, then Stourton is your man.

He manages to bring Paul's character alive without resorting to invention or sleight-of-hand. The biography is firmly rooted in New Testament texts, most notably the Acts of the Apostles - written, it is believed, by Paul's admirer, the evangelist Luke.

The Good Book is an extremely hard document to get right. At the extremes are those who say it is either all made up, or all literally true. Both overstate their case. The Bible offers a beguiling combination of handed-down eye-witness accounts, history, additions to suit the needs of the time of writing, polemics and - in the case of the New Testament - stories concocted to fulfill the prophecies of the Old.

In drawing out what his biblical writings can tell us about Paul, Stourton strikes the right balance. He sifts the texts, refers to scholarly findings and compares them with what history can reveal. To it all, he adds a healthy dose of commonsense and hindsight. Out of this pleasing melée emerges a Saint Paul for the 21st century. Rather than a hook on which to hang Christian myths, teachings and prejudices, he is flesh and blood, anchored in history and complete with a context in which to read his writings and interpret them for ourselves. Stourton's book is an admirable achievement.

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