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A novelist dancing on banana-skins

Faith & Reason: St Paul was not the inventor of a new religion in Christianity. He was a devout Jew who saw the fulfilment of an ancient covenant, argues Tom Wright, the Dean of Lichfield.
Jesus was a minor Galilean exorcist, according to A.N. Wilson; Paul, he writes in a new biography, was the real founder of Christianity. The General Synod office says it's above debating such matters - not realising that if Jesus was an unimportant Jew, turned by Paul into a mythological hero, then all its debates, bureaucracy and paperwork are a case of fiddling while Rome (or perhaps Canterbury) burns. Sorry, Synodpersons: this one matters.

Wilson, ever the novelist, invents a new Paul: a Temple policeman, paid by the Chief Priests, co-operating with the Roman forces. The pre-Christian Paul would be deeply offended. He was a strict Pharisee. Today, he would be a gun-carrying West Bank settler.

As a Christian, Paul remained a deeply Jewish thinker. His gospel was a Jewish message for the pagan world. Wilson suggests that he derived his view of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection from the mystery- religions (Mithras, Herakles, and all that), if not by direct borrowing then by subliminal imaginative memory. This theory was popular two generations ago, when de-Judaising Christianity was dangerously fashionable. It is now routinely abandoned. For Paul, Jesus' death and resurrection made sense within the Jewish, not the pagan, world-view. They were the long-awaited outcome of the whole biblical drama, the fulfilment of God's covenant purpose to deal with the world's sin. They meant that God's new world had already been inaugurated.

The only way to describe earth- shattering events like these was, for Paul, the language of myth and eschatology - two notoriously slippery words in recent theology, though Wilson dances around on these banana-skins without realising their danger. Of course Paul used mythological language. Virtually everyone who talks about God and the world is forced to. But his language derives not from paganism, but from the Jewish scriptures. The prophets regularly used "end-of-the-world" mythological language to invest this-worldly events with their theological significance. Paul exploited these resources to the full, not to distance himself from the Galilean Messiah, nor to imply that Jesus' death and resurrection weren't literal historical events, but to give to those events their full, multi- textured meaning.

For all Wilson's literary sophistication, he insists on reading what Paul meant literally (Jesus' resurrection) as though it were simply myth, while he can't recognise real Jewish mythology ("end-of-the-world") when it bites him on the nose. Of course Paul also had a strong future hope, for the total renewal (not the actual "end") of the whole world. But his stress lay on what Israel's God had already accomplished in the events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. He saw that literal, historical events, so far from being boring or irrelevant, were the explosive happenings in which the creator God had acted climactically and decisively within space and time.

Paul understood the universal significance of this Jewish message about Jesus. Israel's vocation, to be the light of the world, had been accomplished through her Messiah. The Messiah, in scripture, would be Lord of the whole world. Paul was a herald, proclaiming this new world ruler to his unsuspecting subjects. His utterly Jewish "gospel" thus challenged the grandiose claims of Caesar as no mere mystery religion could ever do.

What matters most, though, is Jesus himself. Several scholars, from many backgrounds, have recently written serious books about Jesus. None of them supports Wilson's case. If he doesn't want to read mine (Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996), let him consult others and tell us why he disagrees with them.

The cultured despisers of Christianity should not assume they have the field to themselves. If the Church protests, Wilson says we are frightened rabbits who can't face the facts. If the scholars object, he says we are trade-unionists protecting our closed shop. Who, then, would he be prepared to listen to? Other novelists?

Truth is served, not by tendentious statement and sound-bite, but by public debate. If Synod is too busy re-arranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic, let's do what Paul did: hire a hall and get on with the job. The sooner the better.

'Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely