Impressions upon reading

Barrie Wilson’s

How Jesus Became Christian

(St. Martin’s Press, 2008)

I read and commented on two books by Dan Kane, an engineer, coworker and friend, on this site. In his first book he reaches out to fellow Christians to reconsider what they are being taught in their various churches and to come back to the pure Christianity taught by Christ and his disciples. In his second book he reaches out to Jews and invites them to reconsider their verdict on Jesus being their Messiah. Both books were well written and well argued, and I learned from both of them.

But they carry a medicine, dissolved in powerful logic, that I simply do not tolerate well since I am currently [see Note below] a non-believer. So I found an antidote. A Kane-antidote, and injected its words directly into my being through avid reading!

[Dan Kane disagreed with many of the premises in this review, pointing out errors in both Wilson's and my own statements below,  I will list these errors {as Kane called them} in an end-note, and make some comments on his comments.]

The antidote to Kane’s logical arguments, for me at least, is Barrie Wilson’s How Jesus Became Christian.

Of course Wilson is my antidote for 2009 when I discovered the existence of his book. I reviewed over 60 books on early Christianity previously, and reported the results on this site. I had come to the same conclusions that several others, also Wilson, had come to: Jesus was a Jewish reformer who was killed for being a political threat and he would be totally amazed to see what has been and is being taught, claimed and done in his name!

Wilson, a scholar, asserts that Paul took what was an end-of-the-world new sect within Judaism, one with a devoted following, married it with notions from Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions to fashion out of Jesus a God-man and have him conquer death through resurrection.  In doing this he created a whole new religion based on the believer's joining this God through partaking of his death and resurrection by both symbolic acts such as baptism to symbolically join in his death and enter his new life; communion to become part of this God; and, most importantly, having and exercising faith.

It was a new religion.  But it was carefully grafted onto the hoary roots of Judaism to give it the ancient authority it needed to have credibility in the Roman world.

Having achieved this, the new religion then turned on its rivals, and its roots, and attacked them.  It destroyed some of its competitors, and got a definite reaction from the Jews.

The anti-Semitism that has resulted in thousands of years of Christian word and physical attacks on Jews, and on making them a subservient cast in Christian societies where they were allowed to live, are explained by Wilson as necessary to bolster the claims of the new faith. If Jews were to be left alone they might prosper on their own and thus show that God has not forsaken them after all.

That is not how Wilson says it, but it is the gist of what I got out of many pages of close arguments that, to me, said as much.

In earlier times Jews were also potential witnesses against the claims of the early Christians of the Pauline variety.  Witnesses capable of saying that these new religionists were wresting the ancient scriptures to their ends, etc. One of the reasons Jews threw them out of their synagogues is that they were subversive, stealing converts into their easier-to-live religion with greater eternal promises. Another reason is that Jews had obtained a grudging tolerance in the Roman world, and the new Christians were getting into trouble yet trying to hide under Judaism. That was in the very early days.

Wilson does a great job pulling all this together in a way that has historical support.

Freke and Gandi are authors whose works I have read, reviewed, and whose message I have not liked in terms of tone, even though that message has historical validity. Wilson cites them approvingly, but in a limited way.

Wilson makes this case step by step and suggests if we read the New Testament in the order that the books were written, not in the order in which they were cobbled together, we would see an entirely different picture of Christian origins. I had heard this before, but Wilson was clear enough that, this time. I “got it.”

What you would be reading first is Paul’s letters, which do not convey the story about the experience of the voice/light on the road to Damascus, hardly mention anything at all about what the living Jesus said and did, but simply claims to be conveying knowledge from the risen Jesus, obtained by direct revelation.

If there was ever a Jerusalem conference in which it was decided that Paul would minister to the gentiles whilst the Jerusalem movement would minister to Jews everywhere, Paul never mentioned it. Where Wilson gets credibly revolutionary is when he suggests that the book of Acts was written to cement Paul’s new religion to the old to give it ancient authority.

Wilson suggests Acts is a fictional account. He piles on enough evidence to make this a credible charge.

He actually suggests, as I have done several times, that Paul’s religion came about the way the Muslim religion and the Mormon religion did. Through new revelation. Thank you Barrie Wilson for making this same observation (page 135).  

The only other person bold enough to make this type of observation was Edward O. Wilson who, I remember from some source, once observed that if you want to find out what caused and explains the Jesus phenomenon, study the Joseph Smith phenomenon.  It was societal frustrations, its inner needs, desires and expectations, that lit up a path that a sensitive soul discerned and followed. [I know I read this in some Edward O. Wilson tome or other, but can't find the reference, so I hope I am right in my attribution.]

Kane and Barrie Wilson do agree on one thing: Jews did not sit by and watch this spectacle unfold without reacting. This is one thing I learned from Kane’s book: Judaic scholars quickly wrote interpretations of the scriptures Christians were quoting to them to show that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah. These 'new’ interpretations were designed to take away their potential impact. Kane makes it seem as if this was a malicious thing that was being done. Kane is a Christian believer.

Wilson has a different viewpoint. He sides with the Jewish scholars. For example, there is one scripture where all Christians, including Kane (and me in my believing days) agree that Jesus’ life was foretold by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Wilson puts the famed passage of Isaiah 7:4 into a slightly larger context and argues that “virgin” is a mistranslation from the Hebrew almah, young woman, into the Greek parthenos, virgin, of the Septuagint  that the New Testament writers used as their source for scripture- citations in their Greek Gospels. If one uses almah, young woman, the whole edifice self-destructs, and as Wilson takes pains to show on his pages 208-209, it becomes a prophecy localized in time, and fulfilled.

When yet I was true believer, this was my most cherished set of sentences from Isaiah, a sentence only indirectly addressed by Wilson in terms of its messianic promise: