The Apostle for bored-again Christians

Ancient Corinth
Ancient Corinth

The Apostle is a fictional retelling of the story of Saul of Tarsus, the Jewish Pharisee who became the Christian missionary to the Gentiles.

Sholem Asch goes over the same ground covered in the Book of Acts but adds in all the New Testament epistles, which makes the story much longer and far less interesting.

Asch is out to show how central the Jews are to Christianity and he can’t be bothered with trivia like plot and characterization. Events that might have been interesting if told by a storyteller get short shrift.

In place of dialogue, the characters quote scripture— from the King James version of the Bible, no less. Why would someone writing about the first century from the vantage point of the 1930s have the characters speak in Elizabethan English?

Asch tries to account for some of the New Testament references that perplex today’s readers. He makes Paul an epileptic, blind in one eye, to account for his thorn in the flesh and his visions. Unfortunately, Asch isn’t able to blend his suppositions into anything resembling a human being. Paul is about as credible as a paper doll.

The Apostle is neither a good novel, good theology, or good history.  It’s just a bore.

The Apostle
By Sholem Asch
Trans. Maurice Samuel
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943
804 pages
1943 bestseller # 7

Photo Credit: Corinth, Greece
by jfonono http://www.sxc.hu/photo/945742

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Moses Reveals Biblical Exodus Setting

In Moses, Sholem Asch presents the great Jewish leader as a human being without trivializing his spirituality.  However, the novel finest achievement is its depiction of the Jews that Moses led out of Egypt.

Asch shows the Jews as just one small segment of the huge slave population of Egypt. The Egyptians ran the slave operations through Jewish overseers, much as the Nazis were to do centuries later.  The “mixed multitude” that accompanied the Jews were from those slaves.

The story line follows the biblical narrative, adding details to explain some of the elements that often bewilder today’s readers. For example, since no slaves were allowed to worship any god, the request to go three day’s journey into the desert makes more sense. Moses leads the Jews out across the Reed Sea:  the Red Sea is miles away from the exodus route.

Asch makes readers understand how stressful the desert journey would have been to people raised in a land with abundant water and fertile soil and why they resented the Levites who seemed to get the choicest of everything.

All told, you’ll find Moses an accessible and entertaining overview of an important historical period.

Moses
By Sholem Asch
Trans. Maurice Samuel
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
1951 #3 bestseller
505 pages

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mary Is No Entertainer

Sholem Asch’s novel Mary has to follow the familiar Biblical narrative about the mother of Jesus, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for surprises. Before you open the cover, you know what’s going to happen.

The most intriguing part of the plot is in how the young Jesus grows into a knowledge of his destiny. The explanations Asch has Mary and Joseph give to Jesus’ questions about the scriptures are thoughtful and thought-provoking.

As in most religious novels, the interest is in the detail rather than the main story. Asch pads his tale with tidbits about geography, climate, history, and contemporary customs. While I’m glad to know Jews were required to feed their animals before they ate, I don’t find that fact particularly exciting.

None of Asch’s characters seems like a real person—not even the people who were real people.

Asch invents Nazarenes  in an attempt to bring in some local color. But instead of creating a sense of reality, the invented characters read like a list of dramatis persona.

Asch has characters speak long passages from the Torah and other religious materials, which only makes them sound more fake.

Mary is somewhat interesting, but never entertaining.

Mary
By Sholem Asch
Trans. by Leo Steinberg
G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1949
436 pages
1949 bestseller #3
My grade: C-
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni