Written by Howard Benton.
Directed by Wesley Enoch.
I was not sure what to expect as I waited for Paul to begin. On the one hand a sign had warned me that the play contained blasphemy and might lead to offence. On the other, as I read the program notes my interest was raised. They displayed a level of sophistication that isn’t often present in contemporary examinations of Christian subjects. So, one of the articles on faith eschewed the usual ‘blind leap in the dark’ line and discussed how faith ‘engages the whole person – their emotions (trust, hope, peace), their intellect (belief), and their will (faithfulness, fidelity)’. Even more encouraging was the comment that ‘[g]enuine faith […] requires not only intellectual integrity, but psychological integrity’. The director himself commented that this play was not ‘about disproving the validity of the Bible and its stories’ but rather ‘an investigation and reiteration of the power of faith’.
The play starts with Paul and Peter in prison in Rome the night before their executions (tradition has them both dying in Rome). Sharing a cell together they have the opportunity to reflect on the last 30 or so years via a series of flashbacks – starting with Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Some of the play’s portrayals are both accurate and moving. So, when the converted Paul first shares the Lord’s Supper with Barnabas, the scene is presented very sensitively and it was easy to imagine it happening this way. Later we see Paul boldly and engagingly witnessing to his gaoler – again something we could easily imagine. Paul’s interaction with the squabbling Corinthians is amusing and the play manages to do what countless preachers have failed, namely to situate 1 Corinthians 13 in its proper context!
However (you knew there would be a ‘however’!), it is the portrayal of events surrounding Paul’s behaviour that the play really shows its hand. As much as the liner notes might argue that the play is not concerned to question the validity of the Bible, a central claim of the play is that Jesus did not rise from the dead. The play recognises that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, an explanation needs to be given for the amazing spread of Christianity. This is disclosed at the end of the play as Peter tearfully reveals that he, James and Jesus – who had survived the crucifixion – had staged the Damascus Road encounter to stop Saul from persecuting the Church. James, Peter and Jesus later continue the deception by commissioning Paul to preach to the Gentiles – with the proviso that he send money back the Jerusalem church. What they didn't count on was both the extent to which Paul would embrace this new understanding of Jesus' resurrection and Paul's ability as a persuader. Even Peter himself, is, amazingly, convinced by Paul's message. This all comes out as Peter faces his execution. 'I lived with two Yeshuas', he sobs, 'the one I knew and the one you preached'. Paul refuses to believe Peter and the play ends with him again persuading a now seemingly demented Peter to chant 'Christ is risen' over and over and over gain.
And so ultimately the play is disappointing. Not only do we have this unbelievable Damascus Road fake, and the tired old 'Jesus-was-married-to-Mary-Magdalene
-but-the-truth-never-came-out-because-she-was-a-prostitute' line, but more fundamentally there is a failure to understand the importance of the resurrection to Christianity. At one point as Peter is confessing his deception, Paul effectively quotes 1 Corinthians 15:19 'If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied' and so we might as well 'eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'. The play thus does recognise that the resurrection is the key to Paul's understanding of Jesus but rejects it. Peter immediately rails against Paul, 'You're always so harsh!' Here is the key to the play: Paul was wrong – the resurrection does not matter. In fact at the end of his introductory article in the program notes, Brenton makes it clear that his view:
is that Jesus will never return and there is no God. But if Paul had not believed and had not written to the Corinthians and the Romans we would all be immeasurably impoverished. He was profoundly wrong but also mysteriously right.
In other words, as with Jesus, it is Paul's ethical teaching that matters. And yet there is a stronger conviction running through the play. There is no ambiguity with respect to the resurrection – no ‘it might be true or not but that’s not the point’ - no, the resurrection is rejected out of hand. Even though Paul’s ignorance might not affect his message, we are under no illusion that Paul was wrong – plain and simple.
Ultimately, then, the play raises this question of historical fact that it is not equipped to answer. It recognises that the phenomenal spread of Christianity needs and explanation but can only imagine an implausible fake combined with the force and persuasiveness of Paul's preaching. Interestingly, the description we have of Paul by the Corinthians is that ‘in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amount[ed] to nothing’ (2 Cor 10:10). Hopefully, this play will force people to look more closely at the Paul of the New Testament. It does capture some of the features that make him so intriguing but, in comparison to the presentation in the New Testament, misses the depth, power and historically-rooted nature of his theology. Really everything stands or falls with the historical resurrection of Christ. A claim that the play raises but dismisses and so, sadly, finally misses the point of Paul altogether.