Many people have asked me how my theory of Saul of Tarsus having faked his conversion to "St. Paul" originated.
It started out as an idea in a novel, which I wrote from August to December 1999. What began as a writing exercise grew into an as-of-yet unpublished 500-page debut, titled "The Kingdom of Love".
The novel consisted of five parts. In the fourth part, I wrote about my high school friend, Paul. He was not a very reliable friend, so I dubbed him "the Liar". While writing, I accidentally typed "Saul". I thought that would be a good way of disguising his identity. So I called him "Saul the Liar."
Looking back, that is where it all started.
In the fifth and last part of the novel, initially an Epilogue, I wanted to explore the possibility that the death of Jesus had not been the will of God, but the will of the devil. I was a Christian at the time, but I had never been able to understand how the death of Jesus was a victory over evil.
The Bible tells us that Jesus was tempted by the devil, but that he withstood the temptations. The devil then disappeared, never to return.
But why would the devil give up?
What if he didn't?
What if the devil decided to kill his greatest enemy, Jesus, and made mankind believe it was the will of God? That would be some devilish prank.
In the movie "The Usual Suspects", it is said that "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making people believe he doesn't exist."
Or perhaps, I thought, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making people believe he was defeated."
After all, the death of Jesus meant the devil was defeated, according to what I had been told.
But what if it was the other way around? What if the devil used Jesus' death to make us believe he was defeated?
I ran with the idea, and thought of ways the devil could have pulled it off. In my story, first he would disguise himself, first as a Roman, then as an apostle. A double disguise, so to speak. Posing as an apostle, infiltrating in the group around Jesus, the devil would manipulate the course of events in such a way that Jesus, his biggest enemy, would end up on the cross. Hallelujah.
Have others eliminate your enemy instead of doing it yourself. It wouldn't be the first time, nor the last.
I finally decided that Jesus was too smart to be manipulated like that. But then I thought the devil could also bide his time and wait for Jesus to die - Jesus was always going to die at some point anyway - and then manipulate the memory of Jesus and the way he died on paper.
What if the devil had made up the story of his own defeat himself? After all, the devil read the Bible, too. He could easily concoct a theory based on some religious concepts and make people falsely believe they were superior over him.
The original meaning of the word ha-satan was "spy for God". For a spy it is good to be underestimated. A good spy likes it when his enemies think he has been defeated. It makes his job, which depends on secrecy, a lot easier.
I finally decided that, from a writer's perspective, it was not very good form to use the devil as a character, so I decided to take him out. What I had left was a Roman infiltrating the group of Jesus and manipulating the course of events, either in real time or afterwards, i.e. on paper.
The government manipulating the writing of history. It wouldn't be the first time, nor the last, and it always works on paper.
Why would the Romans do that?
Jesus' movement was a threat to them. He undermined their authority in Palestine. He used violence against the authorities in the Temple. He was a possible catalyst for further unrest in occupied territory.
Some research in the history of Christianity taught me that it was St. Paul who was responsible for the theory that the death of Jesus was the will of God.
St. Paul, a.k.a. police officer Saul of Tarsus, who had joined the Jesus movement and then became St. Paul.
The man who was responsible for the oldest writings of the New Testament, in which the theory was introduced that Jesus, as Messiah, had been crucified as the will of God.
A very radical and provocative theory at the time. One that is still heavily debated by many Jews.
St. Paul, the persecutor who had started preaching turning the other cheek to persecutors, submission to the authorities, and paying one's taxes to the Roman government as the will of God.
St. Paul, the agent who had started making people believe they were superior over the Roman government, as long as they behaved like perfect citizens.
An agent who started acting in a way his enemies still did not like, provoking them into revealing themselves and using violence against him.
A guy who was very much distrusted by the original followers of Jesus, both before and after his alleged "conversion".
In other words, Saul's name and methods changed, but his enemies remained the same. He merely laid down the sword and picked up the pen.
It wouldn't be the first time, nor the last.
There was my devil. There was my agent. An agent-provocateur par excellence.
Saul the Liar.
I approached several scholars with this idea. I had two questions: 1) is it possible?, and 2) has anyone thought of this before?
The answer was: yes, it is possible, and no, to our knowledge nobody has thought of this before.
No counterargument was given, which strengthened my conviction I was on to something.
I approached Professor Ankersmit, my former history professor at the University of Groningen, with the idea of doing my M.A. thesis on this idea of Saul having faked his conversion as provocateur "St. Paul".
An expert in the theory of history and the field of historical evidence, he liked the idea and became my professor during the writing of my thesis, together with Professor Jan Bremmer.
I approached a lawyer and asked him how I could make this theory my intellectual property. He advised me to write a movie on it and claim copyright at the Library of Congress in the US.
So I did.
A friend of mine, Wiep van Maanen, read the movie and suggested using it for my M.A. thesis. I was skeptical at first, but Professor Ankersmit thought that was a great idea and I ran with it.
I decided to write the entire paper as a screenplay for one night's TV. I wrote a David Letterman show as the introduction to the movie. Will Hunting, of the movie Good Will Hunting, defended my theory, and a fictional professor attacked it.
Why this format? For one thing, it is much easier to read and write than a conventional history paper. Still you can quote your sources properly, with the advantage that it shows the subjectivity of the sources more honestly than a pseudo-objective tone of your average history book.
Second, psychologically it is much more effective to use images instead of words when trying to replace old images of Jesus and Paul. The format of a screenplay has been used by some historians and theologians in the past, one of them being a theologian who attacked my thesis in the Netherlands.
During the writing of the thesis, I approached Col. Rose Mary Sheldon of the Virginia Military Institute. On the internet I read that she was an expert on espionage in ancient times.
I told her I was a student in Holland, who was writing a paper on a provocateur in ancient Rome. Not knowing any more than that, she sent me a few articles related to the subject. I used them for my paper and then sent her the final draft, asking for her opinion.
After several months, I had not heard back from her. I sent her an E-mail in which I repeated the question what she thought of the theory. She replied, "You have very liberal professors. I envy you."
I sent her another E-mail, asking her what she thought of the theory itself. She replied, "I think it is likely."
She asked to keep her updated.
I graduated on this theory and approached some Dutch media. A small hype was created. I was on Kopspijkers, one of Holland's largest radio shows, as well as Flogiston, a TV show hosted by Wim T. Schippers.
During our conversation, Mr. Schippers held up a book written by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. In it there is a chapter on Robert Eisenman, who had also said that Paul may have been a spy for the Romans. Mr. Schippers asked me if I was familiar with Eisenman's work. I recalled Mr. Eisenman had written that Paul, being sincere as a Christian, worked with the Romans as an informant. In return, they protected him and allowed him to spread his word.
My thesis was not based on Eisenman and very much different from his.
In it I argue that Saul of Tarsus never converted and never became a sincere apostle. In my opinion his thoughts on the crucified Messiah should be read as a provocateur's sadistic mockery of the Jewish Messiah, totally in line with the black sense of humor that the Roman military might have had.
"No better Jew than a dead Jew."
"No better Messiah than a dead Messiah."
This was a totally new interpretation of Paul's writings and the worship of the death of Jesus. No scholar had written more than a few passing lines on the possibility of St. Paul having had a professional relationship to the Roman authorities.
Until now scholars have stopped at the possibility that St. Paul, an otherwise sincere apostle, worked with the Romans to further his cause.
To my knowledge, no scholar has raised the possibility that Saul never quit being an agent. And as Operation Messiah shows, there are many strong clues to support this possibility, which is highly likely from both a psychological and strategic point of view.
The M.A. thesis was published as "Alias Paulus" by Ambo Publishers in Amsterdam. Professor Eisenman was so kind as to provide a blurb for the cover of the book, recommending it and saying my theory, if taken seriously, was going to shake the foundations of Christianity to the core.
Other radio shows I was on included Faros (Teleac), the NCRV, VPRO's Boeken with Wim Brands and a show by Sarah Verroen of IKON radio.
I approached Col. Sheldon again, asking her advice on how to take this theory overseas. She advised me to write an article on the subject, which I did.
The article was titled Operation Messiah. It was published in the June issue of Small Wars and Insurgencies.
Col. Sheldon then asked me to write a book together.
From 2005 to 2007 Col. Sheldon and I combined our everyday work with writing the book.
We each wrote several chapters. I was responsible for the majority of the chapters on the alleged conversion, the travels and Paul's stay in Rome, including the clues that I had found during the writing of my thesis and the article and adding some new ones.
Finally the book Operation Messiah was published in July, 2008.