Damascus is the story of Saul of Tarsus, Saint Paul, the man who took the message of Yeshua the saviour to the Strangers. It is also the story of a cult struggling to become a religion, outliving its founders, pulled in different directions by followers who have built their hope of salvation on their own suffering , struggling to hold onto their belief in the kingdom to come, that surely should be here by now. “He is risen. .. Truly, he is risen. … He is returning. Truly, he is returning.”
I had to push myself through this ancient world, so vividly painted by Tsiolkas in bodily fluids. Stoning, animal sacrifice, childbirth, forced marriage, prostitution, sacred and profane, and the abject vulnerability of the slaves, things to be used and discarded at will.
As a paid hunter of the earliest Christians Saul see them as an “unhinged cult [that] feeds on flesh and drinks blood and worships a corpse nailed to a gallows”. Even after his overwhelming mystical experience on the road to Damascus he holds a visceral repugnance of a saviour crucified, the degrading punishment of the lowest of criminals. The Saul we first meet is a failure and disappointment, wifeless and childless, shamed by his body’s desires and sins. Paul, the evangelist, carries the message of the kingdom to come and its world-shattering message of love and equality, transforming lives, but still carries his shame.
Tsiolkas also tells the stories of those whose lives are transformed by Paul and hope in the kingdom to come. Lydia, the first Stranger to hear Paul’s message. Vrasas, an injured former Roman soldier desperate to father a son, and jailer of Paul. Timothy, Paul’s companion who carries on his legacy as the Roman conquest of Judea spreads desperate refugees hungry for hope out through the region. And Thomas, twin to Yeshua, who does not believe in his brother’s divinity or resurrection, but believes in his message that “it’s how you treat your neighbour, the stranger, the exile – only that matters”.
This is a book written by someone like me, raised in Christianity who rejected it when confronted by its contradictions and insitutionalised biases – misogyny for me, homophobia for Tsiolkas. Someone who can’t help but think about what might have been if Christianity hadn’t turned towards power and control and become an agent of empire rather than resistance. Someone who agrees with Thomas about which part of the message really matters.