Once again, I’m happy to say that my city is blessed with an excellent public library system. One Saturday afternoon while I was cruising the shelves in the “religion” section, I happened to stumble upon Barrie Wilson’s How Jesus Became Christian. Despite being completely unfamiliar with the book and its author, the provocative title immediately caught my eye. So I promptly grabbed the book on my way back to the automated check-out station. And I’m glad I did. While not perfect, it is very, very good.
Barrie Wilson is a professor of Religious Studies at Toronto’s York University and much like The Sparrow author Mary Doria Russell, is a convert to Judaism, (something I find pleasantly intriguing). Wilson’s book takes a critical look at the events and factors surrounding the birth of Christianity. According to Wilson, while tradition dictates that Christianity was founded by Jesus 2000 years ago, in reality it was St. Paul who is the real creator of what’s now the world’s largest religion. After carefully examining the biblical texts as well their historical context, Wilson argues that St. Paul took the religious teachings of Jesus and in an effort to make Jesus’ Judaism more attractive and accessible to the Gentile world around him, re-cast the faith as a religion about Christ. By doing so, Paul created a whole new religion, just as Muhammad did when he founded Islam and likewise Joseph Smith with Mormonism.
Even though he has a quirky little habit of repeating himself, I thought Wilson did a pretty good job making his points. He did an excellent job depicting the social and political milieu of the first century Holy Land, including the various Jewish factions and their differing responses to Hellenistic influences and Roman occupation. Most importantly, the Jewish world of Jesus and Paul was one in transition, complete with an emerging concept of an afterlife, much different from the pre-Hellenic accepted notion of once you’re dead, you’re dead. Other influences abound courtesy of the surrounding Hellenic culture such as the dualistic concepts of a “soul” as well as pagan images of a virgin-born, demigod who rises from the grave to give salvation to his followers via a ritualistic group meal. Sound familiar ?
Since I enjoyed Wilson’s book, perhaps my disagreements with him are relatively minor. While he spends a good deal of time quoting and interpreting passages from the Gospels, especially Matthew, he completely ignores any of the implied high Christology in John. Although not written by St. Paul, it’s a shame Wilson did not once mention the Epistle of Hebrews in his book. But, when weighed against the rest of Wilson’s book, especially the fine job he did contrasting the St. Paul of Acts versus the St. Paul of the Epistles, (in short, two very different men representing two very different religions), maybe those omissions can be forgiven.
As for me, I’m hoping How Jesus Became Christian will help serve as a suitable intro to a couple of books I’ve been very excited about reading. One is The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, (in a recent interview with Krista Tippet on NPR’s Speaking of Faith, Wright considers St. Paul to be the “Bill Gates” of his day thanks to his successful repackaging of Jesus’ religion for a greater Gentile audience). The other Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, (by the way, if you get a chance, listen to his April interview on NPR).