In the current edition of the Times Literary Supplement the great British biographer A. N. Wilson reviews Tom Wright’s new book, ‘Simply Jesus, Who he was, what he did, why it matters‘. Wright, now retired as Bishop of Durham, is currently professor of New Testament studies at St Andrews University. He has written over fifty books, nearly all of them concerned with Jesus and most with the question of reconstructing the first-century Palestinian Judaism from which Christianity sprang.
Wilson too is a committed Christian who nevertheless asks the right questions about the New Testament. It is his comments in the review that I want to share with readers.
‘A core issue must be: how do you get from the Galilean prophet (or whatever you think he was) to the Christ proclaimed in St Paul’s epistles, which were written some twenty years after Jesus’s lifetime? The problem for New Testament scholarship, which necessarily follows the matter chronologically, is framed slightly differently. Paul’s letters are the first Christian documents, and they reveal two things. First, that there is a lively cult of the Messiah among the fledgling gentile congregations of Asia Minor; second, in the Letter to the Galatians, we discover that there is an all but irreconcilable rift between Paul and his gentile followers on the one hand, and, on the other, the Jerusalem “church”, which insisted that the followers of Jesus continue to observe Judaism with regard to the dietary laws, circumcision and so forth. Time passes, and what scholarship slowly realizes is that the Pauline, gentile “church” – destined to separate itself entirely from Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in ad 70 – is also destined to rewrite history. The Jews protesting at Paul’s activities in Galatia in AD 51 are Trotsky sitting beneath the strutting figure of Lenin. They are about to be airbrushed out of the story. Only as the Ebionite sect does later history know, or guess, very much about those who took an entirely different view of Jesus from the one that developed as orthodoxy – with the definitions of the Councils of the Church, Christ’s status as Second Person of the Trinity, Christ as an incarnation of the godhead, and so forth.’
Spot on! Wilson highlights the early deep schism between Paul and his gentile followers on the one hand and James (the head of the Jerusalem Church) on the other. Paul’s law free gospel which he claims to have received in a vision, eventually supplanted the original Torah observant gospel of Jesus, and a new religion was born which we today call ‘Christianity’, but which is in fact largely a Messiah cult established with brilliance and fanaticism by Paul of Tarsus, a man who never even met Jesus! The 2nd century inheritors of the original Jerusalem disciples were vilified as heretics by a church which became ever more anti-semitic. The child turned on its parent in an unholy act of matricide. Only with the advent of Islam in the seventh century was the monotheistic faith of the original disciples recognised and restored.
As the prestigious New Jerome Biblical Commentary observes,
‘Jewish Christianity as a movement was eventually defeated by Paulinism and died out, perhaps to be reborn in a different form as Islam’ (page 641).