How did Jesus, who was a faithful Jew during his lifetime, became the source of a radically new faith that broke away from Judaism in the decades after his death? Barrie Wilson, author of How Jesus Became Christian, thinks he has the answer. And he is not pleased.
It is not exactly earth-shattering news that Jesus was Jewish. But even if most Christians acknowledge this at some level, the question of what it means for Jesus to have been Jewish is another thing altogether. What kind of Jew was Jesus? Was there something about his brand of Judaism that carried within it the germ of what later became the breakaway faith of Christianity? Would he have approved of the religion that was created in his name? And was his self-understanding the same as what later Christians understood him to be?
That's a lot of questions, and I will add another one to the list--if he wouldn't have approved of the religion that he spawned, does that really even matter? I would suggest that when prophets die, they lose control over their franchise. It comes with the territory of being dead. And the movements they create often take on lives of their own, whether they would have liked it or not. After Buddha died, for example, Buddhism moved in many directions, including some that he never would have anticipated. So if gentiles later appropriated a Jewish prophet for their own purposes, so what? Isn't this just part of what Marcus Borg calls the post-Easter understanding of Jesus?
What annoys Wilson is that there is a tendency among Christians to Christianize Jesus, that is, to make him more like a modern gentile Christian than a devoutly Jewish prophet, and thus to push his Jewishness into the background. Wilson is not alone in this concern; there has recently been a sort of cottage industry of Jewish authors, such as Amy Jill-Levine and Julie Galambush, who have in recent years tried to reclaim Jesus's Jewishness. On the other side of things, although Marcus Borg's idea of a post-Easter understanding of Jesus resonates with some progressive Christians, there seems to be a need on the part of some more conservative Christians to deny that this process took place at all; they instead want to believe that the pre-Easter and post-Easter understandings of Jesus were essentially the same with each other and with Jesus's own self-understanding during his life. It just makes things easier for some people if God incarnate himself just said how it was going to be, no questions asked and with no later evolution in thinking.
Barry Wilson, on the other hand, accepts that a post-Easter understanding did emerge in contrast to Jesus's own self-understanding, but, unlike Borg, he doesn't like it. And he doesn't think that this post-Easter understanding came from Jesus's own inner circle of disciples, but rather only from one individual who didn't know Jesus at all.
Wilson blames all the differences that arose between these understandings of Jesus on Paul himself. He occasionally alludes to the possibility that the disciples who knew Jesus may have believed that he was resurrected after his death, but he insists that their fundamental understanding of both who he was and what he practiced and believed was essentially the same both before and after he died, and this understanding was quite simply that Jesus was a great but still very human, Torah-observant Jew who had a powerful message about an in-breaking eschatalogical reality. Those who knew him--James in particular, but also Peter--carried on Jesus's movement after his death in Jerusalem, as observant Jews. It was, by contrast, Paul, who had not known Jesus during his lifetime, who promoted a theology that was, Wilson argues, radically different from what Jesus himself taught and lived. His was a theology that he did not strictly learn from the apostles, but from his own mystical experiences. Paul seemingly admitted as much in the epistle to the Galatians, when he wrote:
the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; nor I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.Not only that, but Paul makes it additionally clear in Galatians that he did not initially meet with Jesus's disciples:
But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.If he didn't learn the Gospel from anyone, and if he didn't confer with any human being, then wasn't he basically just making it up as he went along? Is it any wonder he was in conflict with the Jerusalem branch of the Jesus movement?
Wilson argues that neither Jesus nor the disciples who survived him in Jerusalem founded a new religion, but that Paul did, and, most important of all--and this is vital to his thesis--that there was really no continuity or common ground between Paul and the Jerusalem followers of Jesus. In this view, Paul's was a religion about Jesus, while the Jerusalem disciples shared the Jewish religion of Jesus. The Jerusalem disciples, then, may have believed that Jesus was resurrected, but they had no specifically "post-Easter" understanding, which related to two essential points: 1) who Jesus was, and 2) how his life and death affected their relationship to the Torah. Perhaps partly because the Jerusalem community of followers of Jesus could have been largely wiped out in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but also because Paul's religion seemed to demand less of its converts than Judaism did, it turns out that Paul's religion achieved dominance and overwhelmed that of the original followers who knew Jesus. The Jewish-oriented Ebionites who existed after that period of time and who continued this Jewish understanding of Jesus eked out an existence in the years that followed, but were eventually declared to be heretics, and their sect died out.
And that's the real crime, as far as Wilson is concerned. He believes that Paul in his new religion co-opted the bona fide Jesus movement and claimed it for himself. He believes there was a massive "cover-up" in Christian history, in which "the original message of Jesus and the Jesus Movement, Jesus' earliest followers in Jerusalem, became switched for a different religion" that was invented by Paul. The book of Acts was, in this view, part of a propaganda effort in order to lend credibility and a pedigree to Paul's religion by associating it with Jesus's bona fide disciples, when in fact (Wilson argues) Acts has little credibility as a historical document. If you think that Wilson is beginning to sound like a cranky conspiracy theorist, well, he does to me too.
I'll grant that Wilson raises some valid points. It is true, for example, that Acts sometimes contradicts Paul's accounts. And I myself have noted in the past that Paul's doctrinal positions differed from those of his Jerusalem counterparts, who actually had known Jesus. But to me, this represented the diversity that was found in Christianity from the beginning. Paul may have been taking the religion in new directions, but was that necessarily a bad thing? Wilson attacks everything about Paul's theology and finds nothing of value in it. For one who opposes anachronistic thinking about Jesus, Wilson engages in some rather anachronistic thinking of his own about Paul, taking for granted that Paul both advocated the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and that he believed that Christ was God incarnate. The radical Paul that Dominic Crossan identifies, who stood on behalf of all excluded people, is missing from Wilson's caricature.
Religions do evolve and often contain with themselves the seeds of diversity, but Wilson will have none of that; from his perspective, there was no real diversity in the early Christian faith at all, because he asserts that there were two different faiths--Paul's, and that of the Jerusalem community of disciples. In fact, he never really accepts the idea of diversity within Christianity at all--for him, the Gnostics were not Christians either; apparently nobody was a Christian except for those he identifies as (borrowing a term from Bart Ehrman) "proto-orthodox". As April Deconnick has pointed out, there are big problems with the term "proto-orthodox." In fact, early Christianity was quite diverse, which is why DeConnick prefers to use the term "plurodoxy" to describe what took place. Ultimately I think that Wilson's veers too far into the realm of conspiracy theories for me to really take his argument completely seriously, even if I think he has some interesting point to make.
The Historical Context
Wilson argues that the overriding context of Jesus's ministry was a time of deep resentment by most Palestinian Jews over what he calls the "problem of Hellenization." By this he means that large numbers of people resented what we might today call multiculturalism, seeing foreign influences as a threat to the integrity of Jewish faith and culture. He further argued that they desired to reinstate, with God's help (with or without a Messiah) a culturally homogeneous Jewish society that would not only be free from the intrusion of Greek (and Roman culture), but also would lie at the center of a new Golden Age in history. The Roman Empire was resented, not strictly because it was an oppressive system of imperial class domination--although it certainly was that--but more importantly, according to Wilson, because it was using its imperial might to impose corrupting foreign influences on the cultural and religious traditions of the Jewish people. Although some parties (the Sadducces, for example) collaborated with the foreign rulers, others responded to Roman rule with a kind of religious fundamentalism and xenophobia. For Wilson, Jesus was part of this general opposition to cultural and religious pollution from outside influences.
And herein lies his objection to Paul. He believes that Wilson accuses Paul of having effectively betrayed everything that Jesus stood for:
Paul accomplished by argument what Antiochus Epiphanes had tried to achieve by force: a religion detached from Torah, assimilated into common Hellenistic culture. (p.115)From his point of view, Palestinian Judaism was more or less homogeneous on matters of basic theology and practices, but was divided over matters of strategy. Various competing factions agreed for the most part that there was a problem (the threat of cultural dilution by foreign influences), and the only question was how to respond to it. Among the strategies employed were: collaboration (the Sadducces); education and piety (the Pharisees), withdrawal (the Essenes); or violent resistance (the Zealots).
Even if Wilson stresses the divergence in strategies among different Jewish factions, it is their purportedly homogeneous stance towards the Torah that leads him to conclude that it was inconceivable that Jesus's view of Torah observance could have been any different from, for example, that of the Pharisees.
Was Judaism really as theologically homogeneous as Wilson claims? Is it really self-evident that Jesus would have taken a strictly conservative approach to the Torah as Wilson suggests? Is it possible that Jesus was more of a rebel against the prevailing religious status quo than Wilson gives him credit for?
Jesus's Life and Ministry
One of the weaker parts of Wilson's book is his treatment of the Gospel accounts of Jesus's life. One of the more bizarre decisions that he makes in this book is to treat the later synoptic Gospels, or at least Matthew, as more accurate sources about Jesus's life than the earliest one (Mark), on the assumption that the later authors "corrected" Mark. Part of the reason why he thinks so much of Matthew becomes clear later in the book, when he asserts that Matthew was actually a product of the anti-Paul Jewish Jesus movement, rather than of Pauline Christianity. This leads him to take at face value the questionable assertions in Matthew, such as that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, despite the many strong arguments that the birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke were mythological in nature; that being said, he does nevertheless manage to reject the virgin birth parts of those stories.
As for Jesus's teachings, Wilson does recognize the political impact of Jesus's ministry. However, for Wilson, the opposition to Roman rule was based not so much on its role as an oppressive Imperial force and oppressor of the peasant classes, but as an imposer of a polluting multiculturalism on the Jewish people. Thus, from Wilson's point of view, Jesus was not against tribalism (as John Shelby Spong would put it), but was instead uber-tribal to the core. From Wilson's perspective, the prevailing Jewish mindset of the time was tribal, and therefore Jesus must have been also.
It is interesting to contrast this with what Spong has to say in Jesus for the Non-Religious. Where Wilson paints a Jesus who just went along with the flow, Spong suggests that it was precisely because tribalism was the norm that Jesus was so remarkable in being anti-tribal. Spong writes,
The tribal God of Israel was still alive and well in the first-century Jewish world in which Jesus of Nazareth lived. It was inevitable, therefore, that the fully human Jesus confronted this tribal mentality. (p. 242)Spong cites examples from all three of the three synoptic Gospels to support his case. For example, he writes:
Mark is quite specific in saying that when Jesus departed from Jewish territory by crossing the Sea of Galilee, a great crowd followed him. Mark identifies the members of that crowd as being "from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon (3:7-8). Many of these areas, especially those regions beyond the Jordan and near Tyre and Sidon, were inhabited by Gentiles. Jesus proclaimed his message of reconciliation to "unclean" Gentiles and in so doing called his followers to step beyond their tribal boundaries and taste the meaning of a new and enhanced humanity, a humanity that did not hate, fear, or denigrate members of another tribe. (p. 244)The Easter Experience
Wilson argues that there is no real point of contact between Paul and the Jerusalem disciples. But there is one teensy little issue that he glosses over--Easter. Okay, not so teensy. While it is true that Paul claims to have discovered his gospel through a mystical experience rather than having learned it from those who knew Jesus, one thing he does not claim is to have been the only one to have undergone such a mystical experience of the risen Jesus. On the contrary, he makes it quite clear that he was merely the latest in a long succession of such people, starting with a member of the Jerusalem church, Peter, and continuing with various other individuals. This is one area in which I think Wilson's theories miss the boat. The Easter experience lies at the basis of the continuity between the Jerusalem disciples and Paul.
Wilson describes the non-Pauline Jesus movement view of the resurrection this way:
For the Jesus movement and the Ebionites, no particular significance was attached to Jesus' death and resurrection. He died and was resurrected, like all righteous people will be. (p. 159)True enough. However, I would argue that Easter was not a mere theological statement that Jesus rose from the dead. Rather it represented the experience that the followers of Jesus underwent and interpreted to mean Jesus's exaltation in the presence of God. This is an experience that not just Paul had, but, at least according to Paul, many of the disciples had as well.
Did Paul go off in different directions from those who knew Jesus? Sure. But I would suggest that the differences between him and the disciples, while theologically significant, were different interpretations of the Easter experience, and as such, represented simply the diversity that characterized the Christian faith from the beginning. Just because Paul took things in a new direction, was that necessarily bad? Paul's theology had a strongly progressive element that he is often not given enough credit for. Paul is often accused by modern theological progressives of having been conservative or sexist, when in fact, in the seven bona fide letters that we know he wrote, he was anything but a reactionary. He offered a radically egalitarian vision that stood in contrast to the hierarchical nature of society, and he was no fan of the Roman Empire. When he said that "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus," he was standing in opposition to the prevailing tribalism of his era. Later biblical epistle writers, writing under Paul's name, tried to undo the progressive message that Paul preached by introducing a more conservative message. But the real Paul was something different from that.
As far as Easter is concerned, I believe that mystical experiences of a risen Jesus (as described by Paul in Galatians) has nothing to do with mythological tales of Jesus walking on the road to Emmaus. I do not, for one, believe that Jesus was physically resuscitated from the dead and then walked around showing his scars to his followers. But I do believe that Jesus, after his death, was indeed the subject of mystical experiences, by his disciples and later by Paul as well. And these experiences were interpreted by those who underwent them to mean that Jesus was "declared to be the son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness" after his death, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans. Another crucial aspect to this mystical experience was that Jesus was believed to be Lord--which was a political as well as a theological statement that stood in contradistinction to the Lordship of Caesar. These Easter experiences were thus inseparable from a proclamation of Jesus as the un-Caesar.
I think that, after Jesus died, Wilson's distinction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus turns out to problematic for two reasons. First, the movement that Jesus started took on a momentum of its own and thus could not remain forever a mere imitation of what Jesus said and did; I thus believe that the faith after his death was never just the religion of Jesus, though of course it paid close attention to and emulated that faith in many ways. Second, Jesus was a charismatic religious leader who stood in opposition to Roman authority, and the followers of Jesus found the best way they knew how to express their allegiance to the movement he founded by making their religion in some sense about him. As Dominic Crossan points out, declaring Jesus to be Lord was high treason in an era when Caesar was considered Lord.
In other words, maybe it makes sense to say that Christianity both was and was not the religion of Jesus, and that it both was and was not a religion about Jesus. And this still holds true today.