Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty


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by A. N. Wilson

W. W. Norton & Company, London (1997)

A Pauline Biography

There is much to commend, and much to like, about this book. I am not so sure that it brings Paul alive in a way that is entirely historically accurate, since so much of Wilson's portrait is dependent on traditional assumptions about Christianity and Paul's role in it. But the author succeeds in bringing the times alive, and by the end of the book we have gained a strong sense of the personal depth and historical significance of Paul which could perhaps, with not too much trouble, be realigned within a different picture of Christian origins.

Wilson is a prolific novelist, biographer and journalist, and the literary editor of the Evening Standard in London. His biographies include the best-selling Jesus, which created something of a stir when it was first published several years ago. It is clear that Wilson has brought to both books (Jesus and Paul) considerable research and reflection, as a competent and conscientious biographer or historical novelist would do. He draws on a wide array of scholarly and historical sources, and demonstrates a mix of viewpoints and conclusions, from the radical to the conservative (such as the now outdated view that the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome). The total product is clearly a personal one. From New Testament scholars he has drawn mixed reactions, and some of them have called his reconstructions "fanciful". This from a discipline which itself has never been a stranger to 'fancy'.

Wilson uses as an overall framework for his portrait of Paul the linear narrative of Acts, even as he cautions the reader regularly about the historical unreliability of this piece of Lukan storytelling. (He suggests that Acts was written around the year 80, by the author of the third Gospel). In so doing, he gives us a presentation of Paul in that same linear form, carrying him from a background in Tarsus, through his "conversion", and along the routes from Antioch to Europe, through Corinth and Ephesus in the pattern of an Acts which is only tentatively regarded as accurate. (He postulates that the entire sea voyage account of the latter chapters of Acts may simply have been lifted from another source and recast to star Paul—by no means an impossible fancy.) This makes for stimulating and easy-to-follow reading, even if we come away with a less than comprehensive view of Pauline theology. But then, the latter entity has always proven elusive even at the hands of more professional scholars, to the extent that more than one school of Pauline study has pronounced the entire corpus to be a conglomerate second century product, leaving the "genuine" Paul relegated to dim legend.

Upon Acts' narrative framework, Wilson hangs many colorful details of the figures and history of the time, with not a few digressions into relevant and interesting byways, from the nature of writing materials and the empire's delivery system for letters and official documents, to the pervasiveness of belief in magic and spirit powers (things which Paul thoroughly believed in). We meet the ultimate patroness of those seeking control over such powers, the goddess Artemis, that "indispensable pillar in the cultural structure and life of Asia," who later had many of her features and following transferred to Mary (p. 182).

We learn that Tarsus, which Acts identifies as Paul's birthplace, was the center of Mithras worship, whose initiates "either drank the blood of the sacred bull or drank a chalice of wine as a symbolic representation of that blood" (p.25). Later, Wilson does not hesitate to see Paul's understanding of the sacrificial nature of Christ's death as being "in the same light that the followers of Mithras saw the death of the sacrificial bull" (p.166); or to link Paul's very un-Jewish concept of the sacramental Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23f) with Greek cultic precedents; its very name, kuriakon deipnon, was "borrowed from the Mithraic mysteries" (p.165). He observes that "there is not the slightest suggestion by Paul that this tradition derives from anyone who was actually with Jesus on the night before he died." That Jesus, a pious Jew, could have asked his disciples "to drink a cup of blood, even symbolically, is unthinkable" (p.25), since the drinking of blood was one of the most fundamental taboos in Jewish life. Rather, Wilson concludes that "Paul believed he had received instruction from Jesus himself about the institution of this great Christian sacrament." (Compare my Supplementary Article No. 5: The Source of Paul's Gospel.)

Wilson gives us many insights into the world Paul moved in, its workings and its people. When Paul crosses into Europe and begins his missionary work in Philippi, we meet Lydia, the gentile "god-fearer" (partial convert to Judaism), a moderately prosperous widow who is a dealer in dyed cloth; her substantial home becomes the 'church' where local converts to Paul's preaching of the Christ meet. Wilson digresses to give us a picture of women's position in the Roman empire, usually one under the control of father or husband.

From there he goes on to survey the generally reprehensible view of women in early Christian tradition, culminating in the extreme (and occasionally disgusting) misogyny of Tertullian and Augustine, who "set the pattern of Christian attitudes toward sex, women, the human body and relations between the sexes for a thousand years" (p.140). As to whether Paul was more than incidentally responsible for this, Wilson tends to excuse the apostle as being more libertarian than he is generally given credit for, even if not overly enlightened where women were concerned. (Though some things were put into his mouth by later editors of the letters.) And I would agree with Wilson that the roots of Western anti-sexuality lie not so much in certain Jewish attitudes toward women (they were also far from enlightened in this area), but in the basic Platonic dualism, going back to Orphism, of the evil of matter vs. the purity of the soul and its need and desire to escape from the body. For the Church Fathers, woman became the scapegoat for the sinful and degraded nature which most of the ancients assigned to the material world.

Against this, Wilson sets the picture of Corinth, a center of painting and sculpture, but at the same time infamous as the brothel of the ancient world. (The very name of the city became a crude colloquialism for fornication.) It is probably no accident that Paul deals with sexual issues more in the Corinthian letters than anywhere else. At Corinth, too, Wilson finds occasion to inform us on the practice of speaking in tongues, and the fact that the butcher shops of the ancient world were the religious temples. Here priests slaughtered animals in sacrifice to the gods (Judaism, of course, being no exception) and made the surplus meat available to the consumer—or rather, to the cooks of the consumers' households. This made the whole issue of eating meat a crucial one for Christian converts, since it was likely to have been sacrificed to idols and evil spirits (as they saw it), and how was this to impinge on the purity and faith of the meat-eating believer? Paul takes a notably pragmatic approach to this burning question.

The Psychology of the Apostle

At most turns, Wilson offers us a sympathetic picture of Paul and, above all, some very interesting insights. In fact, he sees Paul's fundamental temperament as somewhat unique, neither Platonic nor Jewish: namely, in how he saw the nature of human morality and the issue of right vs. wrong.

The Jewish outlook on such things, as evidenced in the Psalms, for example, was that God was forgiving if approached in a spirit of repentance; that while two competing impulses, to good and to evil, existed within the human psyche, God had revealed the way to be good and all it took was determination to overcome the baser instincts and follow the correct path. Platonism, too, believed that righteousness was a human quality that could be mastered. In contrast, here is Paul's view of things, according to Wilson (p.123):

Such a world cried out for vengeance or redemption, and Paul had seized on the idea of Christ. His was a redemption from outside, one created by God in his predestinarian good will. Men's and women's own determination meant nothing and was useless. "Human souls were, for (Paul), self-contradictory devices imprisoned in flesh which was always, through weakness and desire, going to lead them into disaster." All the Torah had succeeded in doing was to highlight the impossibility of conforming to good: indeed, by setting unattainable standards, the Law had simply multipled and guaranteed sin, and was thus a "curse".

Instead, humanity needed a higher intervention. And it had gotten it. All that was required was faith and acceptance of the divine gift of Christ. Righteousness was bestowed, not achieved.

Wilson does not speculate (or psychoanalyse) in any great depth as to just what it was in Paul's personality and experience which led to such a bleak outlook. He notes that it has been fashionable of late to regard Paul as a repressed homosexual, who "hated the carnal aspects of his homosexuality and denounced homosexual practices in passages (notably Romans 1) which have caused anguish to gays and lesbians ever since" (p.229). Thus it may have been this which led to Paul's view that "human nature is at war with itself, 'that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh' " (p.230, Romans 7:18). Perhaps it was disgust for his own flesh which led Paul to the conviction that "flesh and blood can never inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 15:50).

Interestingly, having brought the subject up ("only because others have"), Wilson declares that the idea is "not proven and, surely, supremely unimportant" (p.230). He does have a point when he says (p.230) that

However, this does not change the fact, one which could be considered no less than supremely important, that much of Christian theology and moral outlook over the last 2000 years could very well be based on the unacceptable (to himself) sexual orientation of a single man, one who was the new movement's greatest champion and architect. History is probably full of such bizarre, buried realities.

The Apocalyptic Paul

Another element which Wilson focuses on is Paul's apocalyptic outlook. It has been, in my experience, somewhat astonishing to witness New Testament commentators doing their best to pussyfoot around Paul's blatantly evident views about the impending end of the world and Jesus' anticipated arrival from heaven (as in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, Romans 8:21-23, 13:12, etc.). (Burton Mack, in his Who Wrote the New Testament? is most anxious to play down Pauline apocalypticism.) Once this viewpoint in Paul is squarely faced, however, much of the picture of his ministry and the response it provoked falls into place, as well as an understanding of why the authorities and the wider world in general tended to react so negatively to the Christian movement.

Wilson points out that, although Paul counselled his followers to "revere the existing powers" and to accept the role of the authorities whom God has put in their places (e.g., Romans 13:lf), at the same time he preached that when the day of the Lord arrived—and it would be soon—such political systems would be completely overthrown. This in itself would have been a seditious idea, sufficient to explain the public disorder and the recurring prosecutions, or threat of prosecution, which Paul encountered almost everywhere he went. It is virtually certain that Paul spent time in Ephesian prisons, perhaps in other mission centers as well. He provoked riots in several places, was beaten and flogged and chased out of town in others. Putting it down to apocalyptic preaching (rather than the promulgation of yet another salvation doctrine based on a spirit-world deity, something which could be found on almost every street corner) makes eminent sense.

Based on this view of Paul's activities, Wilson makes an intriguing proposal about Paul's final, fateful visit to Judea which, according to Acts, seems to have led to a period in prison at Caesarea of at least two years. He suggests that Paul not only believed the end was in sight, but that "the messianic prophecies were to be fulfilled through himself and his fellow-Christians who shared a belief in his Gospel" (p.226). In keeping with the typical sectarian mentality from time immemorial, Paul and his fellows regarded themselves as an elect, a "remnant whom God will save." The air of the time was saturated with prophecy, a trembling expectation. Do Paul's actions, asks Wilson (p.207), not indicate that he believed he himself "had been appointed to make these prophecies come true"?

Thus Acts' presentation of things (supported by the remark in Romans 15:25-26)—that Paul's motive for delaying his westward plans by going back to Judea and into the lion's den was to deliver a collection of money to the distressed church at Jerusalem—may have been only a superficial motive for the enterprise. Paul's subsequent behavior in the holy city may reveal another, more dramatic intention. Does Paul entertain the wild hope that by going to Jerusalem and engaging in a climactic missionary campaign within the heart of Judaism, that a key remnant of Jews will be won for Christ, and God will set in motion the events leading to the new Israel and the Kingdom? Since Acts' portrayal of what Paul does here (as everywhere in its account) is a tendentious product from Luke's much later generation, we cannot be sure what happened, but subsequent developments would indicate that Paul did indeed cause yet another riot, the last of his studded career, and he was arrested by the Roman authorities. Allegedly, he brought a gentile into the forbidden part of the Temple. Rather than provoke the onset of the Kingdom, Paul had set into motion the events which would lead to the end of his own life.

Yet, ironically, as Wilson points out, we do not know the end of that life, the when, the where, the how of it. Three traditions held currency some time after Paul's passing. That he had been martyred in Rome, that he was acquitted, that he went to Spain to cap his missionary career "at the ends of the earth." But the unreliability of Acts as an historical document makes it impossible even to be sure that he ended up in Rome at all, though Wilson thinks it probable that he did. The multiple traditions, the uncertainty in Christian reports, including Acts' perplexingly uninformative ending, all conspire to indicate that no firm knowledge of Paul's fate or where he ended his life survived at all.

Paul the Mystic

That Paul was a mystic goes almost without saying, but Wilson styles him (p.220) as "perhaps the greatest poet of personal religion," and his epistles as "letter-poems." The secret of his immortality is "his belief that the believer has access to God . . . not through a system of beliefs and rituals but through the operation of the heart and the thoughts." He calls Paul, "the first romantic poet in history."

Wilson's styling of Paul as poet leads him to examine how Paul viewed and portrayed the Christ he sought to immortalize in the lines of his epistolary poems. Once again (as in the case of Burton Mack) we see an author recognizing how early Christians regarded their Christ of faith, and it is entirely in terms of spiritual, mystical properties. This does not prevent Wilson (again like Mack) from calling up the historical figure to stand beside the spiritual portrait, as if to remind us that he must surely be there, even if beyond the edges of the pages on which Paul has penned his poetic verses.

"Christ is the presence of God in the world . . . a force or a presence within the believer" (p.166). Wilson's additional phrase in the above gap, "and not just the figure of the historical Jesus," is not only unjustified by what Paul actually says, it is unnecessary. In a longer passage (p.170) Wilson puts it this way:

The insertion of the historical Jesus idea is unnecessary, because all these things, these attitudes toward Christ, even the love Paul felt for this pre-existent deity, are perfectly understandable—and common to the mystical thinking of the time—when placed in an entirely spiritual, non-historical setting.

When Wilson states (p.233) that Paul "barely alluded either to the teaching or to the virtue of Jesus of Nazareth or to his famous healing power," his "barely" is an exaggeration, for there are none of these things in Paul, and the "allusions" are the product of wishful thinking. Wilson insists (p.53) on a probable mistranslation of 2 Corinthians 5:16: ". . . though we knew Jesus when he was alive, we no longer see him physically." He admits there is an alternative "possible" translation as exemplified by the New English Bible: "Worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of any man: even if once they counted in our understanding of Christ, they do so now no longer." But he calls this an "intrusion" on the text, a "ruthless reinterpretation." Yet even C. K. Barrett, notorious for wringing from the texts every possible glint of reference to the historical Jesus lurking in the mind of various epistle writers, acknowledges (Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p.170-1) that the famous kata sarka ("according to the flesh") of this passage does not describe an attribute of Christ but Paul's action of "knowing". It thus has no effect on Christ's nature and leaves the concept of him as an entirely spiritual figure unscathed.

In fact, Wilson penetrates to the heart of understanding the Pauline type of mysticism when he says this of the pseudo-Paulines, Ephesians and Colossians (p.233): "[W]e find Paul's Christ mysticism developed . . .to a point where Jesus has been all but forgotten and Christ, a purely spiritual being, seems synonymous with our most spiritual selves." When he quotes Colossians 3:1-3: "and your life is hidden with Christ in God," one wonders that so many are unable to appreciate the natural impression which the documents convey, that the Pauline type of belief centers on a spiritual figure in the heavenly realm, and that we can lift no historical Jesus from their pages simply because no such entity resides there.

Conflicts and Contradictions

Like so many other commentators, by placing the Gospel picture behind the epistles and attaching Gospel preconceptions to the Jerusalem group of apostles, Wilson is led down the all-too-familiar path of analyzing an imagined "dichotomy" between Peter and Paul, between Jesus and Paul. Contrasts are drawn between the "religion of Jesus" as exemplified in the localized, Palestinian-oriented teachings of Jesus on the one hand, and on the other the ecstatic, universalised religion of Paul, with its cosmic "atoning sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, the glorious promise of the Resurrection and everlasting life" (p.239). The Petrines on the one hand have "clung to the memory of Jesus," while Paul on the other has gone off to apply "the perceptions of heaven."

Here we have the well-worked, inspiring tapestry with its clashing colors and divergent lines which scholarship has long spun for earliest Christianity, but neither Wilson nor New Testament scholarship in general will acknowledge the fact that the supporting pillars of this exhibit are incongruous. The second exists nowhere in the first century documentation of Paul's time. From a Pauline cross which was a happy spiritual mystery, to the bleak Gospel Calvary where history's greatest injustice was perpetrated, from spirit forces conquered in the higher realm of heaven, to earthly demons in the form of Jews, the pattern of the evidence is sequential rather than bipolar. The only dispute in evidence between Pauline and Petrine "branches" of the movement is the one concerning the application of the Jewish Law to gentiles. This is something which is never related to the views or presence in recent history of an historical teacher. The so-called contrasting gospels centered on Antioch and Jerusalem, the two strands of Jewish-Christian and Hellenistic views of Jesus, the clash of personality and vision between the faithful orthodox Peter and a radical Paul who has scandalously transformed the humble rabbi into part of the Godhead and severed the connection to his human person and teachings, all these are nowhere in evidence in the only contemporary record we possess, Paul's own letters. It is indeed amazing how much can be spun out of preconception.

The spinning extends to some of the features of Paul's career which Wilson thinks to draw from implications in Acts and the epistles. They are dependent, of course, on that most basic of preconceptions: the existence of an historical Jesus in Paul's immediate past. Near the beginning of his Pauline journey (p.53), Wilson asks this question, beginning with a quote from E. P. Sanders (Paul, p.10):

And Wilson goes on to itemize what it was that Paul underwent in his missionary career, the trials and perils and persecutions, on behalf of this man he never met. There is no doubt that Wilson has put his finger, in the trail of many others, on the greatest conundrum in the orthodox picture of Christian beginnings, though this conundrum needs to be broadened to encompass all those involved in the new faith movement, missionary and converted. No rationale is adequate to explain how a simple preacher, squarely within a Jewish milieu, could overnight have been transformed into a cosmic deity with Hellenistic characteristics, regarded as a world redeemer whose arrival was expected from heaven to "bring the present pattern of things to an end and establish a rule of the Saints." That so many across the empire, not just Paul, could adopt such convictions about a man they never met, is more than a paradox. Wilson is right. It simply doesn't make sense.

However, Wilson's reason for raising this point is to offer us a possible solution. But his proposal that in fact Paul may have met the man after all is wholly speculative. He suggests that Paul's prior activity as a persecutor of the early church would indicate that he belonged to the Temple police, and in that capacity he may have played a role in Jesus' arrest, perhaps even witnessed his death—leading to a lifelong guilt over the affair. But to suggest that Paul was motivated in his conversion and career by a fixation about the death of Jesus and his own role in it is fanciful, not the least because such a fixation generated not an iota of information in his letters about the circumstances of this supposed historical event. (Paul does not even tell us that Jesus underwent a trial, let alone give us a hint of the picture or existence of Calvary.) And by thinking to point to an otherwise lacking "psychological interest or compulsion" that could have inspired Paul in his 30-year career, Wilson ignores the fever of the time which impelled many proselytizing preachers and prophets, Jewish and pagan, to crisscross the empire and spread the mysteries of this or that deity, the benefits of this or that philosophy, none of whom are presumed to have been historically involved in any fate of the figure they might be preaching.

Finally, like so many before him, the force of preconception leads Wilson down yet another very familiar deductive path (p.116):

But such a deduction must then cope with a different dilemma. Where is this remarkable person and name in the record of the times, and why, in Wilson's observation (p.233), are only four books out of the 27 of the New Testament "about Jesus"? Why are the rest (with the exception of Acts) about a deity who shows no connection or identification with a recent man, remarkable or otherwise? If Paul declares, "I want to know Christ" (Philippians 3:10), why has he no knowledge to impart about Christ's human dimension, his earthly career? If Christ has taken hold of him (Philippians 3:13), why has the grip of Jesus of Nazareth been so completely loosed, swept away by the beckoning of heaven? Rather, the movement "grew up" from the force of current conceptions about that heaven and what entities dwelt and operated within it, as almost all religious movements have done. The "virtue, eloquence and personal magnetism", as well as the "person" to whom they were attached, are properties which came later. Modern scholars are still reinventing them.

Wilson declares (p.235) that in Paul's time, alongside the worshippers of the exalted Christ, there must have been those who actually remembered Jesus of Nazareth, the "real person." Too bad such people didn't commit those memories to paper.

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