“Operation Messiah: St. Paul, Roman intelligence and the birth of Christianity.” By Thijs Voskuilen and Rose Mary Sheldon. Vallentine Mitchell, London and Chicago 2008. 288 pages. $32.95 paperback
A review by Jay Brodell
With the Christmas season approaching, taking shots at the traditional narrative is a popular sport. Was Christ really born on Dec. 25? Was there really a worldwide census mandated by the Roman emperor? Did an angel really visit Mary?
Theologians and biblical experts continue to argue these and other points. These disputes pale in the face of a theory advanced by “Operation Messiah,” a 2008 book that has not really received the exposure it deserves.
That work, based on a master’s thesis by Thijs Voskuilen and coauthored by Rose Mary Sheldon, a retired professor, makes the astounding claim that the Apostle Paul, basically the founder of today’s Christianity, could have been a secret agent working for the benefit of Rome against the rowdy and rebellious Jews.
“A true portrait of the man we call Saint Paul is impossible,” the authors quickly agree because there are great gaps in the accounts of his life. In fact, nearly all known of Paul comes from his letters that were heavily edited into at least nine books of the New Testament and from the Acts of the Apostles. What is reported is that Paul, then known as Saul, was a persecutor of the emerging Jesus movement in Jerusalem who had a life-changing experience when he was traveling from that city to Damascus.
The authors suggest that Saul’s conversion and reported exchange with the risen Christ was convenient because it allowed him entry to the Jews who saw Jesus as a redeemer who would return from the dead to liberate Judea from the Roman clutches. Professor Sheldon’s speciality is ancient spying and spy craft, and the authors note that Paul’s actions were typical of an agent attempting to infiltrate a hostile movement. Throughout the years of his preaching, they also note, Paul repeatedly was attacked by Jews who were close to Jesus during his ministry and rescued repeatedly by Roman officials and soldiers. Paul in his letters and Acts of the Apostle recount these events.
The authors note that spies seldom leave clear evidence of their activities and only a few researchers have suggested that Paul had some kind of strategic relationship to Romans. Still, they note, Paul’s message of acceptance of Rome’s authority and that of a heavenly place after death differed sharply from the Jesus movement that embraced revolution against the Romans. The preachings of Paul eventually became the philosophy of mainstream Christianity today and emerged victorious from a sea of competing religious ideas that were hotly debated in the First through Fourth century Roman Empire. Not only did these competing ideas involve various interpretations of who was Jesus Christ and what were his teachings but also included numbers of other cults and religions that flourished during that period. Such debates continue today, although the teachings of Paul dominate the mainstream.
Professor Sheldon taught military history at Virginia Military Institute after earning a doctorate from the University of Michigan with a dissertation on ancient espionage. Voskuilen wrote his thesis for his degree at the University of Groninger, The Netherlands, and is a writer, translator and editor, according to his biography. Professor Sheldon said that he contacted her while he was doing his thesis and they joined forces for “Operation Messiah.”
During the First century Rome was very sensitive to popular movements in Rome itself and its provinces. If the Romans hired Paul to promote a peaceful religion, the plan did not work very well in Judea. The first of three Jewish revolts started under the reign of Emperor Nero in 66 A.D. However, as Paul specifically included Gentiles elsewhere in his message, the effect was very beneficial to Roman authority in the long run. Eventually the Roman Empire adopted the Pauline brand of Christianity.
As expected, “Operation Messiah” generates more questions than answers. How much of what Paul says about himself in his letters is true? Who wrote the Acts of the Apostles, and how good were that author’s sources. The “Messiah” authors are not shy about admitting that evidences to their theory is lacking. They base their book most on what Paul said happened, eliminating the mystical. For example, Paul said an angel once freed him from prison. The authors ask what really happened if the existence of angels is discounted. They ask where did Paul get the money to travel extensively during his ministry, and why did Romans repeatedly show up in the nick of time to extricate Paul from angry Jews. In all, their argument, although not definite, is a great fit to the known facts.
The attention to detail is impressive. Each chapter contains several pages of footnotes in true academic style. There also is an extensive bibliography.
This is not the only book suggesting that Rome had a major role in the development of Christianity. Some authors even have suggested that the New Testament gospels themselves were products of Roman disinformation. Some doubt that Jesus ever lived.
There is little known about any Roman spy agency until the reign of Hadrian in the first half of the Second century. Nevertheless, as the second oldest profession, spying must have played a role since the beginning of human warfare. As the authors note, such operations only become public when a spy is caught or confesses.