Leaps of faith and the gospel truth

Kathy Ehrensperger considers the thorny questions about what Jesus and his disciples really believed

July 17, 2008

This volume adds to the publications that claim to uncover some hidden secret about Jesus and the origins of Christianity. The author explicitly claims that at the roots of Christianity was "a cover-up ... more powerful than the thesis The Da Vinci Code presents". The initial questions that drive Barrie Wilson's depiction of complex and divergent events, practices and literature are laudable. Trying to contribute to the understanding of how Christianity and Judaism became two separate religions and to investigate possible roots of anti-Judaism within Christianity for a general public is a valuable project. Wilson thus sets out to demonstrate how the original religion of Jesus, and the Jesus movement that treasured "what the Jesus of history stood for and proclaimed", was obscured by the religion of Paul. The evidence on which the theory of a "Jesus cover-up" depends is based on New Testament writings.

In the first three chapters Wilson presents a well-informed overview of the historical, cultural and political context of the period relevant to the development of Judaism and early Christianity (150BC-AD150). These set the scene for the depiction of the life, activities and message of Jesus. The author acknowledges that his image of the earthly Jesus is based on the Gospel of Matthew written about 50 years after the events. However, in the course of his description he also draws on other Gospels when it suits the argument (for example, possible links between John the Baptiser and Jesus are presented via reference to the Gospel of John). Wilson thus presents an image of Jesus combining passages from the four Gospels, a method used widely in popular presentations of Jesus.

But Albert Schweitzer, in his analysis of 19th-century reconstructions of the historical Jesus (1906), conclusively demonstrated that the problem inherent in such depictions is that they mirror the authors' image rather than historical factuality. Subsequent "historical Jesus research" has drawn attention to problems in using the Gospel narratives as "history" in the modern sense. The author shows no awareness of such issues. Nevertheless, the main argument advocated - that Jesus and his early followers were Jewish, that is, that they were practising the law and cherishing Jewish tradition - is an insight widely shared among contemporary New Testament scholars and in historical Jesus research in particular. There is nothing hidden that requires uncovering in this recognition, even in the belief that Jesus was the Messiah.

Paul is set in outright antithesis to Jesus and the early Jesus movement as the founder of a new religion that had nothing to do with Jesus. Paul is interpreted on the basis of a reading of one letter, Galatians, with Wilson claiming that this provides the evidence that Paul had abandoned Judaism and replaced it by a new Hellenistic Christ religion that had close similarities with mystery cults of dying and rising saviours.

Thus, in an overview of subsequent historical developments, anything anti-Jewish within emerging Christianity is attributed to Paul. A scenario is set out in which two separate religions, the Jesus movement and the Christ movement, were competing against each other, with the Book of Acts later fictionalising a harmonious development that had nothing to do with historical reality. Due to Paul's distortion of Jesus' message into a Christ cult, and the appeal this had for the Hellenised Gentile world, anti-Semitism permeated both "religions" and led eventually to the disappearance of the original Jesus movement. Thus, Christianity is entrenched with anti-Semitism and the way forward is to rediscover the Jewish Jesus and overcome the Christ religion founded by Paul.

Wilson's project to make research into the origins of early Judaism and Christianity accessible to a general readership is to be welcomed, and so is his concern for the overcoming of anti-Semitism in contemporary Western society. But this publication falls short of its aims at several levels:

1. The author works with methodologically flawed generalisations, often giving the impression of historical accuracy where he is working with informed hypotheses at best.

2. To present the Gospels as evidence, suggesting that this is "historical", is not sound scholarship.

3. The use of the word "religion" is inappropriate given that the concept of "religion" in the modern sense is an 18th-century Western construct. On the one hand, Jesus and the earliest disciples are reclaimed as Jewish, and thus Judaism is seen as their religion. The Jesus movement is called a "religion" as well - is this a "religion" different from Judaism? Jesus is said to have started a "religion", which differed from Paul's. If Jesus remained entirely Jewish, what was the "religion" he started?

4. Depicting complex historical developments as a cover-up story and attributing these to one man and his "mystical" experience alone is a naive if not dangerous simplification of such processes.

5. The scenario of two competing "religions" - that is, of the "original" Jesus movement and the Hellenistic Paul - is not new. It emerged with F.C.Baur's theories of the historical development of early Christianity in 1831, where it was depicted as a positive development, and it persisted in variations over the last century. Ironically, parallel to these theories there were approaches that also saw a deep split between the original Jesus and Paul, but this time in an opposite direction. Jesus was the one who was not Jewish, and Paul was seen as the one who had reintroduced Jewish dimensions to the movement.

The presentation of stereotyped dichotomies as the solution to serious issues in the relations between contemporary religions and people is deeply problematic. To do so with the claim to present scholarly insights and historical facts in the way it is done in this volume comes close to a distortion of serious scholarship and does not contribute to informed conversations over religious diversity generally and anti-Semitism in particular.

How Jesus Became Christian: The Early Christians and the Transformation of a Jewish teacher into the Son of God

By Barrie Wilson

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 336pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780297852001

Published 13 March 2008

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