Places: The Apostle

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1943

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: First century c.e.

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Roman Empire

*Roman Apostle, TheEmpire. Caesar’s dominion, stretching from the River Thames in Britain to the Tiber in Italy to the Tigris in the Middle East, is the essential setting for Sholem Asch’s story of the expansion of Christ’s kingdom. A sense of place is as essential to the novel as it is to the New Testament, nine of whose books take their names from Roman cities.


*Jerusalem. With roots going back a millennium earlier than the novel’s period, Palestine’s City of David has just been acclaimed the “City of Christ” by Jesus’ followers. A three-way clash among the city’s Jews, Christians, and Romans ensues. Their three ways of life sharing one city are illustrated in Jewish synagogues, Christian congregations, and the Roman temple, as well as the homes of the disciples, schools, gardens, prisons, the stoning pit. The novel accurately reflects all these places, which are central to the Acts. Asch not only shows “three cities”–Jewish, Roman, and Christian–but he also ably indicates the unity of all persons of goodwill that transcends creed.

*Road to Damascus

*Road to Damascus. On the road to Damascus in Syria, Paul, the hero of The Apostle, is dramatically converted. The road is doubly symbolic: Christianity is the “religion of the way” and Paul’s life will be that of a pilgrim for Christ. The way takes him from his boyhood home of Tarsus, the third city of learning in the Roman Empire after Athens and Alexandria, then to Antioch, on the River Orontes. From Tarsus Paul takes Roman citizenship, Greek culture, and Jewish scholarship, adding, in Damascus, Christian faith.


*Antioch. Cosmopolitan city on the road to Damascus where Paul finds his identity as an apostle to the Gentiles. Antioch becomes his base. From there he goes to the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, and then to Anatolia (now eastern Turkey). On both the island and the peninsula he founds Christian congregations–some Jewish, some Gentile, many mixed in background. These are transitional zones, in the novel and in Acts, from the Jewish Christianity of Jerusalem to the predominantly Gentile Christianity of Rome.


*Greece. Biblical scholars have described the apostle Paul’s life as “a gazetteer of cities.” From Asia he goes to Greece, founding predominantly Gentile churches in such places as Philippi, Corinth, and Athens, where Christ’s philosophy was presented on Mars Hill to the cultured Greeks.


*Rome. A city with at least a million inhabitants in Paul’s time, Rome is the political hub of Paul’s world, just as Athens is its cultural center and Jerusalem its religious heart. Three important structures sharply contrast these three worlds: the Temple in Jerusalem, a place of sacrifice and study; the Acropolis in Athens, a center of lecture and debate; and Nero’s palace in Rome, the seat of an empire that dominates the Mediterranean world. Paul works in all three places. For him, Rome has a double function: It is a destination that serves as the apex of his life and faith, and it is a termination, the site of his martyrdom, at what will become St. Paul’s-Outside-the Walls.

BibliographyMadison, Charles A. Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1968. Explains why Asch wrote his trilogy, in particular, the story of Paul, who has been regarded by many Jews as the founder of Christian anti-Semitism. A good discussion of a difficult subject.Morgentaler, Goldie. “The Foreskin of the Heart: Ecumenism in Sholem Asch’s Christian Trilogy.” Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History 8, no. 2 (May, 1988): 219-244. Explores the attitudes that underlie Asch’s works, including The Apostle. Asserts that The Apostle is flawed by Asch’s manipulation of history and Pauline theology to reflect his own beliefs.Siegel, Ben. The Controversial Sholem Asch: An Introduction to His Fiction. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976. The first critical biography of Sholem Asch written in English. Siegel finds The Apostle to be vivid, but less effective than the other two works in the trilogy, and also dated. Includes a chronology, extensive notes, and useful bibliography.“Talmud for the Acts.” Commonweal 38, no. 24 (October 1, 1943): 588-589. A favorable review of The Apostle, reflecting contemporaneous Christian opinion. Admits that the book is fictional and sometimes not consistent with Catholic doctrine, but recommends it highly.
Categories: Places