Epistles at dawn for champions of Jesus and St Paul

A writer dismisses Christ as a minor `Galilean exorcist', and brings down the wrath of theologians
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They're calling it Epistles at Dawn and it is likely to be a bitterly fought and bloody duel. It hinges on the startling theory put forward by a former high-Anglican novelist that Jesus Christ was not the founder of the Church; it was in fact Saint Paul.

The author of this theory is AN Wilson who says that Jesus was simply a minor "Galilean exorcist'', and just one of many messiahs who were knocking around that region 2,000 years ago.

He argues that Christianity owes its existence to Paul, whose vision on the road to Damascus led him to claim a new covenant and to put forward a view of Christ as saviour and the cross as the gateway to salvation.

This theory flies in the face of conventional Christian belief and Wilson was instantly challenged to a public debate by the Dean of Lichfield, the Very Rev Tom Wright, a Pauline scholar who claims Wilson has got "everything completely upside down''.

He said: `'There has always been a lot of lively debate about Paul and his role in Christianity but really Mr Wilson has got it all wrong.

"The argument about Paul's role in the founding of Christianity has been going on for ages and serious scholars of all shapes and sizes gave them up long ago.

"There is no doubt that Mr Wilson is a talented and elegant writer but he has got it quite wrong and he should stick to writing fiction.''

Wilson was unfazed by this attack and stuck rigidly to his guns: "If it was not for Paul we would never even have heard of Jesus.

"Paul brought Judaism to the Gentile world and as far as he was concerned Jesus was the equivalent of the unknown soldier. We put a lot of our thoughts into that tomb at Westminster and we have no idea who is in it and it does not really matter. In the same way, Jesus is simply the focus for Christianity."

Dr Wright said he was worried about the harm that such radical theories could provoke and challenged Wilson to a public debate.

"He has always refused to debate the subject properly with me until now but I believe he has now agreed,'' he said triumphantly.

"I don't know where and I don't know when - but we will have that debate.''

Others seemed reluctant to join the fray. A spokesman for the Synod of the Church of England said its members could not possibly enter the debate on who started the Church. "There is no call for the Church of England to have a major view on Paul so we leave all that to the theologians,'' he said.

"The Church never takes an official position on reflections such as these - the Synod does not go in for debate,'' he added loftily.

So, then, to find a theologian with an opinion on the far-reaching question of who started the Church.

James Dunn, the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University, said that Wilson's book was just the latest in a long line of new theories.

"There's a new theory put forward about every 10 years and it gets discussed for a while and then forgotten about,'' he said.

Canon Professor Robin Gill, of the University of Kent, Canterbury, seemed to prefer the "if it's not broken don't mend it'' school of thought.

"It is in the nature of universities to pose radical questions and debate them but it is not something that should be put into the public arena as a lot of people will not have the background knowledge and understanding to discuss it and they may find it offensive.

"If there is a coherent picture of Jesus in the Gospels, and there is, then why not start with that. There is no need to start turning everything upside down and spending a lot of time speculating for the sake of it,'' he said.