Epistles at dawn: case for St Paul is put to the pulpit test

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The Independent Online
As the evening wore on, the "wishy washy" religion espoused by AN Wilson became increasingly attractive. For while the "Epistles at Dawn" debate at St James's Church in Piccadilly, central London, last night was ostensibly an opportunity for two great minds to chew the Early Christian cud, it turned out to be more a contest of showmanship.

The Very Rev Tom Wright, Dean of Lichfield and acclaimed theologian, had challenged Mr Wilson, best-selling author and journalist, to a public debate about whether Jesus or St Paul was the true founder of Christianity. Mr Wilson had put the case for Paul in his new biography Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. Dr Wright was there to defend Jesus.

At the outset, the vicar chairing the debate implored the pair to keep an eye on the clock at the back of the church. It was, he said: "A very useful thing when it comes to sermons."

Mr Wilson kept well within his prescribed 20 minutes, detailing the reasons why the origin of the Eucharist was to be found with Paul, not Jesus.

But to Dr Wright, the sight of a congregation bursting at the seams was, apparently, too good an opportunity to miss.

Bandying about biblical texts, citing chapter and verse, his speech sounded more like a sermon. The 500-strong audience grew restless with his rhetoric.

Mr Wilson's face turned redder and redder as the unstoppable scholar rattled on, finally winding up with a surprisingly populist touch: "Paul was the true voice in a rich harmony of voices, but the writer of the song was Jesus."

Had it been an audition for after-dinner speaking, Mr Wilson would have won hands down.

When challenged about why he would not take Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as gospel, he replied that it was no use reading them as "literal interpretations of the truth".

"The literalists of this world do find it very difficult to be tolerant of us wishy washies."

Dr Wright leapt to his feet and rejoined: "And so, of course, the wishy washies find it difficult to be tolerant of the rest of us."

"If a biography says Edith Sitwell was particularly fond of golf and had 15 male lovers who lived in Belgium, the statement would be verifiable." Not so, the gospels.

Neither speaker had enough time to elaborate on the contents of their books.

Dr Wright, a former tutor in New Testament Studies at Oxford, Cambridge and McGill Universities, whose book, written partly in response to Mr Wilson's book, argues that while Paul made Christianity accessible to those beyond its original Jewish context, he did not "re-invent" Jesus in the process.

In the introduction, he accuses Mr Wilson's theories of "wandering in the foggy foothills of the discussion, while far above them, clear and striking, stand the peaks and glaciers, the cliffs and ledges which constitute the real high ground of Pauline thought".

But yesterday Mr Wilson made no apologies for the fact that he was not an academic theologian.

"No, I haven't spent my whole professional life as he [Wright] has studying St Paul, but I don't think you have to spend 25 years reading St Paul's epistles.

"You can read them in a day. They are not very long."