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Who is Paul? The conversion of St Paul to Christianity on the road to Damascus. Photo/Getty Images

Damascus: Christos Tsiolkas takes on the violent birth of Christianity

Australian author Christos Tsiolkas' ambitious novel examines the beginnings of Christianity in the first century AD.

By opening Damascus with the stoning of a Christian girl in 35AD, Australian author Christos Tsiolkas immediately signals that his sixth novel is not like his others. Instead of dissecting the mores of his country’s contemporary society, as he did in bestsellers The Slap and Barracuda, Tsiolkas has written an enormously ambitious novel about the beginnings of Christianity in the first century AD. It’s set largely in Damascus, and also in nearby Jerusalem and Greek cities Antioch and Ephesus – all ruled by the powerful Roman Empire.

Damascus is narrated by four people living one or two generations after the death of Jesus. Most of it is told from the perspective of Saul, a Jew who, in 35AD, is hunting down followers of “Yeshua of Nazarene” – considered a sacrilegious cult – and betraying them to “death workers”. Then Saul, slowly and somewhat reluctantly, becomes a believer himself and develops into St Paul (Paul the Apostle), who would later write about half of the New Testament and travel widely to teach the gospel.

Of the other narrators, the most compelling is Greek woman Lydia, who, in 57AD, becomes Paul’s first non-Jewish convert to Christianity after she refuses to abandon her disfigured baby. The others are debauched Roman soldier Vrasas, who becomes Paul’s gaoler in 63AD, and Timothy, first a disciple of Paul’s (then of Jesus’ fictional twin, Thomas), who starts doubting his religion 20 years after Paul’s death.

Readers know Christianity spread around the world. But Damascus reminds us that, 2000 years ago, Jesus’ followers were considered a blasphemous cult centred, as Vrasas puts it, on an “odious and malicious corpse god” and were punished in extremely violent ways. And you didn’t have to be Christian to be killed. In one passage, young virgins – mostly runaway slaves – are gang-raped before being sacrificed to lions in the arena as entertainment.

Tsiolkas is making a point. By showing us how life was in this brutal world, he’s also showing how people of that time needed something to believe in, something to keep them going. The promise of eternal life and a loving, forgiving Lord was tempting, despite the risk of execution.

Some readers may find the extreme violence too much, too often. But Tsiolkas’ message is ultimately one of hope and humanity. Brought up in the Greek Orthodox Church, Tsiolkas abandoned his faith as an adolescent, unable to reconcile his sexuality with Paul’s anti-homosexual doctrines. But during a difficult time in his twenties, he went into a church, picked up a Bible and it fell open on Paul’s first letters to the Corinthians. Since then, and during his year of research for Damascus, he kept asking himself: “Who is Paul?”

Although Tsiolkas isn’t a Christian, he has written Damascus as a homage to Paul’s humanist decrees, including to love one’s neighbour no matter what, and to not throw the first stone. This is a brave, unflinching book and, if you can stomach the violence, well worth reading.

DAMASCUS, by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

This article was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.