The Gospels according to A N Wilson

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'Jesus' by A N Wilson is published by Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 15.

THE AUTUMN publishing season is here, and everywhere you look are big drifts of brightly coloured books attempting to explain away Christianity by proving that Jesus was actually an Arab, an Egyptian, a hallucinogenic mushroom, or that he never existed at all.

AN Wilson's 'biography', Jesus, deserves better than to be lumped in with these. The first third of it is a very profound and subtle examination of the religious imagination. He understands very well that the attempt to explain away Christianity by examining the historical figure of Jesus is doomed, and has been - probably - ever since St Paul started to see visions of Christ. Wilson remained a Christian believer long after he stopped training for the priesthood, and he does not pretend that his deconversion was the result of any blinding illumination. Rather, it was the result of long consideration of the difficulties of Christian belief that became apparent when he was studying for the priesthood.

The lesson to be drawn from his book is primarily that priests are much more familiar with the arguments against Christianity than are most unbelievers. There is an obvious sense in which this is true. Priests, like doctors, policemen and historians, deal professionally every day with the evidence against a loving God. The optimism of a priest cannot be facile. But there is also a more subtle way in which anyone educated for the priesthood over the past 50 or so years has been exposed to arguments against the claims of Christianity: they have read the Bible closely and carefully, using all the apparatus of modern scholarship.

The damage done to literal readings of the Bible by scientific discoveries in the 19th-century has been paralleled, this century, by the damage done by history and scholarship. The problem might disappear if there were no fit between the findings of modern archaeology and the stories in the Bible. There would be no problem if the fit were an exact one. The difficulty is that there is a very good fit with enough of the evidence to make it overwhelmingly likely that Jesus did say much of what the Gospels claim he did, and that he did die as they claim he did. It is the way they tell the story that makes parts incredible.

The central reinterpretation of the understanding of Jesus this century has been to emphasise that he was in fact a Jew. Of course, the Gospels do not deny this, but so far as possible Jesus is portrayed as different from, and persecuted by 'the Jews'. There were good political reasons for this. Thirty years after the Crucifixion the Jews rose against the Romans in a final revolt that was not completely put down until AD70. 'Jewish' to Roman ears, meant something like 'Shia' means to many Americans now: dirty, fanatical and very dangerous. After AD70 it was essential for Gentile Christians to make it clear that they were not a Jewish sect, and this is one of the consistent messages of the


Once it is accepted that the Gospels can be better understood if you ask such questions as 'Who wrote them?' 'For what audience?' 'Using what material?', and that the answers are more complicated and human than 'God wrote them, for you, with the benefit of omniscience', a kind of counter- gospel emerges from the texts themselves. It is this story that AN Wilson has expounded in the latter part of his book, and it is a story with which anyone who has had a theological education will be familiar.

The bare bones of it are simple enough: Jesus was a Galilean preacher and prophet, who healed, exorcised, and believed in the imminent apocalypse, which would among other things bring an end to the hated Roman empire. He was mistaken in this, as in other things.

He never claimed to be God: for a devout Jew it would have been madness to do so. Phrases such as 'Son of God' have simply been misunderstood in translation from Aramaic, which Jesus spoke, to New Testament Greek, which he probably did not. He did not mean by them that he had no human father, any more than one means by the pronoun 'one' that one is oneself the eternal ground of being.

His ethical preaching was largely identical to that of the Pharisees of the period. He was not framed by the Jewish religious authorities for blasphemy, but quite genuinely executed by the Roman authorities as a potential rebel. He never intended to found a religion: in that sense, the real founder of Christianity was St Paul, to whom we owe all the doctrines that distinguish Judaism from Christianity.

The point about this 'counter-gospel' is that it is not in the least bit sensational. It can quite easily be reconciled with orthodox Christianity, if you allow that the Holy Spirit was guiding subsequent Christian reinterpretations into a deeper understanding than was available to mere eyewitnesses. The people who will be shocked by it are not thoughtful believers, but those who suppose Christianity is compatible with common sense. Nothing interesting is.