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

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test