But if Wilson thought his book likely to create controversy on publication next month, he is set to be outdone by the Australian theologian Barbara Thiering who not only denies the resurrection, but also claims that Jesus did not die on the cross. Thiering, a lecturer at Sydney University, says he was revived and recovered sufficiently to resume his marriage to Mary Magdalene, father three children, get divorced, re-marry and live on into his seventies.
Thiering's radical views are contradicted by a third book, The Sindone Mystery, about the Turin Shroud, in which an Italian doctor and theologian, Luigi Malcantraco, claims Jesus did die on the cross but it was not the crucifixion that killed him: it was a heart attack brought on by stress in the Garden of Gethsemane.
And if Wilson and Thiering's views are likely to raise ecclesiastical eyebrows, a fourth title, from the American novelist Gore Vidal, could cause widespread offence. In Live From Golgotha, Vidal, as St Timothy, retells the Gospels for the television age, while having a homosexual affair with St Paul. It has been compared to a Christian Satanic Verses. Vidal's publisher, Andre Deutsch, admit that the book satirises the Bible: 'I can imagine church people being upset by it,' a spokesman said. 'Not many people are left unscathed, especially Christians, but I doubt many Christians will read it.'
A N Wilson, whose claims are televised in a Channel 4 documentary next month, ironically abandoned orthodox Christianity after completing a best-selling biography of the post-war Christian apologist C S Lewis.
He says: 'The book is about Jesus, not Christianity, and Jesus would have hated Christianity, he wasn't a Christian. But for St Paul we would never have heard of Jesus. The idea of the Trinity, for example, would be laughable to Jesus who was a monotheistic Jew. The idea that he wanted us to worship him would have horrified him.'
In the book he writes: 'The Christian Eucharist is the mystery of mysteries, feeding the hearts and imaginations of men and women for two thousand years. The great cathedrals of Europe and of the Americas were built to house it. Wars have been fought over its significance. It is no small thing to recognise that it has no historical connection with Jesus of Nazareth.' Later he asks: 'How can we reconcile ourselves to the idea that the Fourth Gospel, with its great injunctions to love one another as Jesus loved his disciples, should concoct such a whopping lie as the story of Jesus's resurrection?'
Thiering's book, Jesus The Man, based on 20 years' research into the Dead Sea Scrolls, made Australian best-seller lists. She claims the Scrolls reveal a coded meaning in the Gospels. Her subsequent interpretation of the New Testament has Jesus born not of a virgin but of a nun. Joseph was his human father, he was born not at Bethlehem but at Qumran, there are no such things as miracles and Jesus was revived at his crucifixion by his disciples.
The Right Rev John Taylor, Bishop of St Albans, described Thiering's claims as 'incredible, purely speculative and nonsense'.
'These books . . . don't disturb the Church. They come and go, make their authors a few thousand pounds and disappear into history - unlike the New Testament.'
Dr Dick France, a New Testament scholar and Principal of Ridley Hall, Oxford, said: 'It's more rehashing of old ideas. The claim that you could be revived after crucifixion is totally nonsensical if you know what first century crucifixion is about. Even non- Christian scholars have argued that there is strong historical evidence for the Resurrection.'
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