The Apostle Paul is a biblical giant who wrote almost one-third of the New Testament, yet most details of his life remain a mystery. How could a devout Pharisee become the most influential Christian theologian of all time? Into that void steps master storyteller Jerry B. Jenkins (@JerryBJenkins), weaving a gripping narrative that illumines Paul’s stunning transformation from bloodthirsty murderer of Christians to devoted bondservant of Christ.
Bible Gateway interviewed Mr. Jenkins about his novel, Empire’s End (Worthy Publishing, 2015).
What inspired you to write a novel about the apostle Paul?
Jerry Jenkins: After having written The Jesus Chronicles (Matthew’s Story, Mark’s Story, Luke’s Story, and John’s Story), novels based on the Gospels, it seemed Paul was the next logical step. My first novel for Worthy Publishing was I, Saul, so Empire’s End is really the follow-up to that.
Why is the book titled Empire’s End?
Jerry Jenkins: When Emperor Nero imprisoned Paul and sentenced him to death, he believed he had severed the head of the snake of the Christian sect that so threatened the Roman empire. But rather than snuffing it out, he merely fueled the fire that would eventually bring the empire itself to an end.
Describe your research of the Bible in preparing to write Empire’s End.
Jerry Jenkins: To me the idea of using a real life biblical person as the lead character in a novel does not offer unlimited literary license. I feel its important to use Scripture as the timeline and geographical and historical framework (I used Bible Gateway extensively while writing this novel and many before it). So while I have a definite fictional construct—inventing the idea that someone has discovered the personal diary of the Apostle Paul to flesh out and fill in what we know from New Testament—I don’t send him on wild, fanciful escapades that would violate the realities of the historical record. Rather, I suggest details of what biblical episodes might have looked like, had we been given the entire picture. So all the principals have names and their relationships are played out. And Paul’s thoughts—as I imagine them—are recorded in his journal.
Naturally, to accomplish this, I had to become immersed in the biblical record—which proved a rich devotional experience. I urge writing students to never allow the Bible to become merely a textbook, and it certainly never did to me. To write about a writer whose prose has stood the test of two millennia was a convicting experience, while the majesty of it nearly lifted me from my chair every day.
How did the Old Testament factor into the writing of this New Testament character?
Jerry Jenkins: The Old Testament as we know it was the Bible of Paul’s day, and as a Pharisee from birth and a rabbinical student he was memorizing vast passages from the time he learned to read until he studied at the feet of Gamaliel. A major plot point turns on counsel he receives from an old rabbi about a significant passage in Isaiah. Being neither theologian nor scholar, I found myself a layman painstakingly slogging through passages a word at a time, commentaries and online helps constantly at the ready.
From what point of view is the novel written and why did you choose it?
Jerry Jenkins: Writing first person from Paul’s viewpoint seemed the only logical choice, given the premise that we have found his personal journal. It lent an immediacy and gave us insight into his heart and soul and mind—hopefully bringing him down from the sainted artist renderings and revealing his human side. Here was the most passionate, devout, zealous missionary in history, not only saying but also proving daily that “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
What did you learn about Paul that surprised you the most?
Jerry Jenkins: I came to believe that he was anything but an evil malingerer when he persecuted and even killed believers before his conversion. He later referred to himself as the chiefest of sinners, dead in his trespasses and sins. Yet he clearly believed he was doing the will of God and sincerely saw the people of The Way as a threat to the one true God.
I also believe that God had prepared him from birth to be the great missionary he became. Being a Roman citizen with Hellenistic roots, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, a brilliant scholar, physically fit, indefatigable, a Pharisee, he substituted the personal walk with God his heroes of the faith evidenced in the ancient Scriptures with laws, rules, and regulations. I think he really longed for a personal relationship with God like David and other patriarchs enjoyed, and short of that he became the most devout biblical scholar he could.
Also, his conversion was unlike most that have followed it. People talk about having had a Damascus Road-like conversion, but then they describe having come to the end of themselves and repenting of a life of deep sin and turning to Christ. Paul had no such experience until Christ confronted him. He had no regrets, no second thoughts, not even any hesitation about what he was doing. He was on his way to do more of it! Jesus himself had to appear to him and tell him who he was. Only then did Paul suffer three days of deep repentance and then redirect his passionate devotion to preaching Christ and Him crucified—rather than what he had been espousing: that the Nazarenes were worshipping a dead martyr who had been cursed by having been hung on a tree.
What did you learn about the early church that surprised you the most?
Jerry Jenkins: That wherever you have people, you have factions and disagreements and personality conflicts. We sometimes idealize the early church and want our churches to go back to the simple, old ways. We need to carefully read the history. Harmony takes work.
Explain the challenges of novelizing all the available information by and about Paul in the Bible?
Jerry Jenkins: The challenge is the sheer volume and that so many stories are hinted at that could be fleshed out. What might be just two or three verses in Scripture can become two or three chapters to the novelist. Like where the Bible says Paul’s sister’s son overhears a plot to kill Paul, tells Paul, and the plot is thwarted. So many questions immediately arise:
- Where would Paul’s nephew have heard this?
- Might he have been part of it?
- Why would he care?
- Wouldn’t Paul have been estranged from his family after having gone over to the “other side”?
That prompted me to want to give Paul’s sister and her son names, to personalize them, give them histories with Paul and play out their relationships. I believe readers allow me this literary license because they know I’m only suggesting how these scenarios might have evolved.
Describe the story’s arc (without giving away major spoilers).
Jerry Jenkins: In I, Saul, I fictionalized an account of much of Paul’s childhood and rabbinical training, so in Empire’s End I concentrate on his conversion, the escape from Damascus, his three-year exile in the wilderness, his introduction to the disciples in Jerusalem, and his return to Tarsus.
I contend that the majestic writing and theology of Paul that has lasted two millennia was imbued in him during that wilderness exile in Arabia, yet most people forget that about his history. But while you might imagine three years in the desert as a boring time of inaction, this resulted in one of the richest sections of Empire’s End. Here the story is replete with action, tension, romance, betrayal, bloodshed, heartbreak, and remorse. What happens at an enclave of Jesus following refugees—some of whom are revealed to be Paul’s own former victims—sets the course for the rest of his life and becomes the catalyst for his thorn in the flesh.
Promotion material for the book says it’s “steeped in bravado and bloodshed, conflict and deep devotion, romance and political maneuvering.” Give some examples.
Jerry Jenkins: As Saul, my hero is the enemy of the church of Christ, the followers of The Way, the Nazarenes. As Paul he becomes the enemy of the Roman Empire itself. He becomes the equivalent of today’s Public Enemy No. 1. The Romans hold nothing back in their attempt to bring him to justice, which puts everyone he cares about at risk—and they pay the price.
I speculate that he unwittingly falls in love with the widow of one of his own former victims.
Paul takes the same obsessive devotion to God that made him the ultimate Pharisee and becomes the ultimate missionary for the kingdom of Christ, facing the threat of arrest, imprisonment, and death every day until he is finally martyred at the hands of Emperor Nero.
How did you come to your conclusion of what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was?
Jerry Jenkins: Scholars and theologians for centuries have debated whether it was a physical ailment or a temptation, but I find a lost love humanizes him most. Even the most devout missionary in history had to have missed that need to love and be loved—and to have come close to marrying the love of his life would have left him pining for what might have been, praying that God would allow him to forget her.
How did you weave into your story actual verses from the Bible?
When Paul is in the wilderness and the Lord speaks to Him, teaching him what he was say when he ministers to both Jew and Gentile, I believe He impressed on Paul the very words he would eventually write in his magnificent letters to the churches and to his own protégés. So as he converses with God in the desert, I paraphrase God speaking to him almost verbatim from the Bible.
How will a person reading this book of fiction be better equipped to read Paul’s real writings in the Bible?
Jerry Jenkins: Robert Frost said, “No tears the writer, no tears in the reader.” Well, believe me, there were a lot of tears in the writer during the writing. Also a lot of thrill. My prayer is that the story will show my reverence for the Scripture and bring the apostle to life in a new way, spurring the reader to long to get back to the biblical accounts of his life and to the letters he wrote.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Jerry Jenkins: I hope readers will get to know Paul in the way I feel I did while working with his words for so long.
Bio: Jerry B. Jenkins is the author of more than 186 books with sales of more than 70 million copies. The phenomenal bestselling Left Behind series has inspired theatrical movies. Twenty of his books have reached The New York Times bestseller list, and The Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, and Publishers Weekly lists, and Mr. Jenkins has been featured on the cover of Newsweek. He and his wife, Dianna, live in Colorado.