The Christianity that might have been

The problem, you see, was the apostle Paul. At least that’s how Barrie Wilson, Professor Emeritus in Humanities and Religious Studies at York University, views things.

Last night’s book event, sponsored by the University of Toronto Bookstore, might not have had the pizzazz of recent similar events (what, no musicians? no free donuts??), yet Innis Town Hall was packed to the gills, needing extra chairs as people just kept piling in.

All for a book about the first century “Jesus Movement,” the Dead Sea Scrolls, and how the apostle Paul made Jesus “Christian.” Not subjects usually discussed over breakfast or in the elevator, but obviously of massive interest to many people.

Professor Wilson, during an interview with long-time colleague and fellow professor Patrick Gray, addressed three things from his study of Christianity’s early history: 1) how the very human Jesus of the gospels became the pre-existent divine being who was written about, 100 years later; 2) how Christianity separated from Judaism; and 3) why that split resulted in such bitter Christian anti-Semitism.

Part of the answer is to ask another question: which Christianity do you mean? Because there were at least three versions. We know about Gnosticism, and of course are familiar with the Paul-inspired version of today, but not many know about the “Jesus Movement” described in the Dead Sea Scrolls, led by Jesus’s brother James, which included Jesus’s family, the remaining eleven disciples, and people who actually knew and followed Jesus during his lifetime. They believed in keeping Jewish law, visited the Jerusalem Temple regularly, and got along with other religious sects of the time: Essenes, Zealots, and even Pharisees.

Then came Paul, who avoided these believers, who never met Jesus, and whose writings rarely quote or refer to Jesus and his ministry. Paul developed a religion about “the Christ,” a more mystic understanding of a divine being with cosmic, salvational purpose. This was the religion he preached to Gentiles, which had little connection with the actual Jesus or his teachings.

But equally significant was the growth of anti-Semitism in Paul’s writings and those of his followers. As Wilson says, you can trace this development through the documents, decade by decade, starting with Paul’s eagerness to throw off the Torah (Jewish law), and continuing with attacks on Jewish leaders as well as claims that Jews never had a covenant with God to begin with, or that it had been replaced by “the Christ.”

When Emperor Constantine and various church Councils chose which writings to make “official” while imposing Christianity on the empire, it was documents written from the Pauline perspective (even the four canon gospels) that they picked. Wilson did not speculate whether the fact that these men were mostly Gentiles might have determined their choice, but one wonders.

What Wilson does say is that if we view Jesus through the “prism of James” rather than the “prism of Paul,” we discover a very different Jesus.

The most striking element of last night’s interview, and the audience questions afterward, was the friendliness. Professors Gray and Wilson have been disagreeing on last night’s topic for many years, but chuckled about it quite amicably during the interview. Canadian theologian Tom Harpur, who contributed a word in the book, adheres to an even more radical view, that Jesus didn’t even exist, being simply another manifestation of the pagan Mediterranean “dying god” myth. Yet Wilson was equally glad to have Harpur’s endorsement, despite this major disagreement.

I kept waiting for someone in the audience to yell, “Why do you hate God? Repent and be born again!” But it never happened. Apart from the fascinating subject matter, last night’s event demonstrated that there are still rational venues where you can disagree on religious subjects and not need to get upset – let alone want to kill each other.

If that attitude had prevailed at those early church Councils or in the centuries afterward, we might have a very different world today, and indeed a very different Christianity.

Do I want to read this book? As a long-time student of ancient religious history, and after listening to such an amicable discussion, I want to read it very much.


One thought on “The Christianity that might have been

  1. E. I. Sanchez says:

    This is very interesting. People keep re-inventing Christianity. It sells books and it makes good conversation.


    p.s. If I write a book, i’ll make sure to have donuts in my book tour!

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