My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I FINALLY finished this book! It took me forever because it’s fairly dry and the content doesn’t interest me as much as that in some other books. Still, this was a fairly interesting book to read. The author is apparently an agnostic or atheist and ensures one understands he believed Jesus was a Jew with no intention of starting a religion, and undoubtedly not the son of God or God himself. If you’re a Christian and you can get past that, you’re good to go. This book presents Paul as THE founder of Christianity and THE individual responsible for asserting Jesus was the Messiah, gone to glory in the clouds, and returning again some day — soon. The author asserts Paul thought Jesus was returning in a matter of months or years, thus the urgency in some of his letters.
When I read nonfiction books, I don’t underline passages — I turn over page corners so I can go back and catch important portions of the text. Normally I will have turned over 10-20 pages in a typical nonfiction book. In this book, I must have turned over 50 pages or more. I often quote from these passages, but I obviously can’t do that here — I don’t have the time or inclination.
Wilson asserts that Paul was a traveling tent maker and that’s how he supported himself, along with donations. He also calls into question whether Paul was a one time Pharisee or not. He alludes to Paul’s potential homosexuality, in his nonstop efforts to force sexual morality on people and in his almost loving letters to Timothy and other men who were his followers. Yes, sacrilege, I know. Still, interesting stuff. Wilson writes,
“Old-fashioned liberal Protestants detected in the Gospels the seeds of modern feminism — Talitha cumi, Damsel arise, became the motto of Victorian Christian feminists. The Jesus of the Gospels outraged Jewish opinion by speaking to the woman at the well of Samaria, and by offering forgiveness to the prostitute who, though she had sinned much, had also loved much. Impossible, says such wisdom, to imagine the misogynist puritanical Paul extending such forgiveness, nor being so much at ease with the opposite sex.”
We also get in-depth details on Paul’s travels here and their context, which I found really helpful. You also get a history lesson on Rome, at the time, and the state of the Jews. Wilson additionally delves into other religions and gleefully admits to Paul having stolen some traditions from paganism for Christianity.
Wilson is pretty hard on Luke and his book of Acts. He asserts much of it is contradictory to Paul’s own writings and probably made up. And his arguments, which I can’t paraphrase here, are good. (I didn’t know Luke was a Gentile.) Wilson also deals with Paul’s intent focus on evangelizing and converting Gentiles, something he argues Peter and James were opposed to. Of Luke, the author writes,
“By the time Luke writes up the story, perhaps twenty years or more later, it must be obvious that the Lord has not come and that all Paul’s immediate prophesies and predictions about the nature of the world and God’s purpose for it, have been not just slightly off beam, not open to interpretation, but plumb wrong. Christianity — not a word which Paul ever used — will have to sort out the contradictions of all that. It it Luke’s dull task to smooth over the cracks and hide the glaring discrepancies in his story, and to persuade ‘dear Theophilus’, some Roman magistrate or bigwig, that the Christians are safe, good citizens. As Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem shows, he was none of these things.”
Wilson deals with Paul’s end, which we don’t know, and for that he takes umbrage. He asserts that Paul could have been acquitted by Nero or some other Roman official, he could have been made a martyr, as many people believe, or — this is Wilson’s own belief — he could have been let go and traveled to Spain, starting churches, but dying in oblivion.
I’m going to end my review with Wilson’s final (and long) paragraph in the book, because I think it’s a good synthesis of what he is trying to accomplish in writing this book.
“It could be seen, then, that the essence of the Gospels, the thing which makes them so distinctive, and such powerful spiritual texts, namely the notion of a spiritual savior, at odds with his own kind and his own people, but whose death on the cross was a sacrifice for sin, is a wholly Pauline creation. The strange contrarieties which make the Jesus of the Gospels such a memorable figure — named his insistence on peace and kindness in all his more notably plausible of ‘authentic’ sayings, and his virulent abuse of Pharisees, his Mother, and the temple authorities on the other — could point less to a split personality in the actual historical Jesus, and more to the distinctive nature of Paul’s spiritual preoccupations a generation later. Even in this respect, therefore, Paul seems a more dominant figure in the New Testament tradition than Jesus himself. The Jesus of the Gospels, if not the creation of Paul, is in some sense the result of Paul. We can therefore say that if Paul had not existed it is very unlikely that we should have had any of the Gospels in their present form. The very word ‘gospel’, like the phrase ‘the New Testament’ itself, are ones which we first read in Paul’s writings. And though, as this book has shown, there were many individuals involved in the evolution of Christianity, the aspects which distinguish it from Judaism, and indeed make it incompatible with Judaism, are Paul’s unique contribution. It is for this reason that we can say that Paul, and not Jesus — was — if any one was — the ‘Founder of Christianity’.”
Interesting, thought provoking book. Recommended.