BOOK REVIEW / Believe it or not: Jan Morris on a demystifying life of Christ: Jesus - A N Wilson: Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 15

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The Independent Culture
THE AMERICAN commentator Stephen Mitchell differentiates between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith simply by putting the name of the latter between quotation marks, and some such device might have served A N Wilson well: for though he sets out in this fascinating work clearly to separate 'Jesus' from Jesus, his readers may by the end find themselves more confused than ever by the inextricable layers of credulity, falsehood, aspiration, misinterpretation, mysticism, allegory, literary embellishment and political expedience with which the short life of Christ has been entramelled down the ages.

The Jesus of hard fact can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs, so sparse are the historical records. The Jesus of probability, though Thomas Jefferson claimed he never had a moment's difficulty in recognising what was authentic in the Gospels, has engaged the theorising of scholars for centuries. The Jesus of faith, the 'Jesus' - well, dear God, John the Evangelist was almost right when he said that the world could hardly contain all the books that might be written on this inexhaustible subject.

Mr Wilson's contribution is absolutely of his time and culture. A lapsed Christian himself, he is here chiefly addressing a sympathetic audience - that vast constituency of the later 20th century which, while respectful of Christ's teachings, enraptured by his legend and grateful for the transcendental art that has evolved from his cult, dismisses the supernatural elements of the Gospel story, and strongly suspects that Jesus was no more the Son of God than any other human being. I am exactly such a customer, and I read this book agreeing with most of it and enjoying it all, except for its use of BCE and CE (Before the Current Era and Current Era), which seem an uncharacteristic genuflexion towards Religious Correctness - if one cannot accept the Christ and the Lord of BC and AD, why not use BJ and AJ?

Devotees of 'Jesus' may be less pleased. Denying the divinity of Christ, disbelieving the Resurrection and doubting the virginity of Mary can still upset what might be called the Old Believers of all denominations. Actually Wilson goes no further in debunking the Gospels than some of the most eminent scholastic theologians, and hardly further than some Anglican divines, but such drastic revisionism may come more disturbingly from the pen of a distinguished and fashionable litterateur.

Lesser Wilsonian propositions, too, some more tentatively advanced than others, may raise a few pious hackles. He puts it to us, for example, that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, was never a carpenter, went to Jerusalem to take part in an anti-Roman plot, believed in astrology and considered Jews inherently superior to Gentiles. The Holy Family never slept in a stable. Judas did not hang himself. Mary Magdalene was never a prostitute. It was the Romans, not the Jews, who were Christ's persecutors. The 12 Apostles included at least a couple of political terrorists, and Malchus, whose ear was cut off at Gethsemane, was really the future St Paul.

Indeed Paul, also mischievously identified as the manservant who taunts Peter at the time of his denial, is of course the eminence grise of Mr Wilson's testament. Paul it was who transformed a purely Jewish reform campaign into a world-wide proselytising movement, and thus invented 'Jesus'. When Christ cried 'My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?', Wilson suggests, he was expressing no more than the truth. His God had forsaken him, and seen from the cross his life had been a failure: he had failed to establish a new Kingdom of simpler and gentler morals among the Jews, he had failed to get rid of the Romans, he was patently not the Messiah that he had perhaps thought he was.

But there was evidently something marvellous about his personality, and obviously something inspiring about his teaching, and so he was to become one of the most important men who ever lived (though Wilson rashly names 12 others, Plato to Freud, whose influence he believes to have been greater). Paul and the evangelists saw to that, and the way they did it provides the most interesting and baffling part of this book. On the one hand they developed myths of celestial beauty and strangeness - the miraculous birth, the Transfiguration, the Eucharist, the Resurrection; on the other, they went to astonishingly tortuous lengths to deify Christ by collating supposed events of his life with cryptic prophecies of the Old Testament.

Mr Wilson's narrative often stumbles as he explores these arcane paths, but who can blame him? It is easier for that camel to crawl through its needle than for a biographer to get to the bottom of Christianity. The book tries to be chronological, but so innumerable are its allusions past and future, so frequently must it consult modern scholarship or refer to prehistoric seers, that it is really almost as jumbled as its subject. And if in the end you hope for some conciliatory judgement upon the meaning of it all, you will be disappointed: Mr Wilson is not an apostate for nothing, and his conclusion is stern.

Would the world be any the more unhappy, he makes us ask, if Jesus had never lived? Christianity certainly has no monopoly on kindness - 'love thy neighbour as thyself', after all, is pure Jehovah - and but for St Paul all the good works it has inspired might well have been inspired by somebody else (John the Baptist, for example, so Wilson fantasises). Its messages of simplicity, pacificism, humility and equality have been blatantly ignored by most of its adherents. Frightful cruelties have been perpetrated in its name. It has failed utterly in its hazy purpose of saving the world from sin and misery.

Yet what beauty it has given us, what consolation, what endless interest, what tragic nobility, what splendour, what irrational hope and sweet mythology] In the last paragraph of his learned and enthralling book Mr Wilson surmises that if Jesus himself could have foreseen the whole of Christian history, he might have been as miserable as Job at his most despairing. It seems at first sight an obvious enough conclusion for our generation, and for Wilson's literary constituents, but pagan that I am myself, I am not quite so sure. Perhaps it is too soon to judge: Jesus is dead and gone, but anything may yet come of 'Jesus'.