Three very different books on the origins of Christianity.

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How Jesus Became Christian, by Barrie Wilson, describes a “Christian Cover-Up Theory” that Paul invented a totally new religion using aspects of the gentile mystery religions and his own understanding of Jesus. According to Wilson a fictional history linking Paul’s new religion with that of Jesus’ followers was invented by the author of Luke and Acts. Then as the new Christians gained followers they demonized and rejected the Jewish people so as to eliminate the witnesses who could identify that Christianity was a new invention grafted on with no legitimacy in the ancient Hebrew roots. Wilson argues we need to reclaim the original Jesus, a Jewish political teacher who argued for a strict interprepretation of the Torah in the belief that following such would be accompanied by the fall of the Roman empire and a new era of peace and justice.

In many ways Wilson’s description of Jesus is not new to me. What is new is the details of his demonization of Paul and Paul’s religion. Does Paul’s religion have any validity? If Wilson is right that it borrows liberally from the mystery religions, does that make it illegitimate? Or does it in some ways still have an appeal as many people today want to reach further back beyond the Hebrew scriptures in the search for spiritual truth? Does Paul’s religion reject or undermine the ethical teachings of Jesus and Judaism? Or does it translate the teachings in a way that maintains their essence while appealing to the gentiles? I take an opposition position to Wilson on these issues and my reasoning is because of some books I’ve read previously.

Natasha Freeman’s book The Story of Q portrays the commonality between Christianity and the mystery religions as coming out of their common roots in humankind’s inherent spirituality.

“No,” Roger replied. “I’m saying what history and the Bible itself are saying.” He moved to the front of the table. “That Christianity, Mithraism, Horus, Iusa, Iesous, Yeshua, all grew out of the same root, that they all emerged from the same foundation, the same place, the same ancient thing that used to be known as the collective spirituality of humankind. I’m saying that what these religions, these cultural adaptations of an ancient truth have in common is Jesus.”

The issue I have with Natasha’s book (and I’ll refer to her by first name because, long ago, I went to school with her and that’s still how I think of her) is the turning of everything into an allegory. One chapter describes the cross as a symbol of spirit (the vertical line) descending into matter (the horizontal line). Was the cross a symbol of ancient spirituality and if so, what was its connection with an instrument of Roman oppression? (Coincidence? Providence? Or perhaps a confused literal interpretation of something never meant to be taken literally.) Was the feeding of the thousands a symbol of how we are fed from within, a symbol of Virgo and Pisces? And if Jesus was a non-historical attempt at sharing mystery religious teachings does the Jewish setting matter? Or was it an attempt not at spreading Jewish ethical teachings with a gentile audience but spreading pagan spiritual teachings with a Jewish audience? While I like Natasha’s book and see how remarkably helpful it could be for those caught in the nastier aspects of Christianity, I’m not sure about the whole turning of everything into an allegory or sacred teaching.

The argument could be made that a lack of outside reports of Jesus suggest he never existed. That he existed only as story, and as allegory. That fails to convince me, first off because the Biblical texts are so determined to set him in a particular historical context shortly preceding Christianity’s spread and partly because I think it ever so possible that his existence was of so little importance to any of the larger (literate) players that no one would bother to record. I am inclined to think his story was exaggerated but that he still in some way existed.

Both Wilson’s book and Natasha’s book suggest that Paul basically invented Christianity from older pagan roots, but to one it is a bad thing, a distorting of a historical event, and to the other it is a good thing, a continuing on of sacred teachings. Then both take aim at later Christian writers for distorting the meanings of the text.

A third set of books to contrast this with is the books by John Dominic Crossan, particularity In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom which he co-wrote with Jonathan L. Reed and The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, which he cowrote with Marcus Borg. In the latter of those books the authors divide up the Pauline letters according to whether there is consensus that they are the original Paul or whether they are believed to be written latter or whether people are divided on them. They suggest the original letters were written by a radical Paul who promoted a radical anti-slavery, anti-Patriarchal, anti-Empire message. Later letters were more conservative and then ones written later still were reactionary, pushing back against the message of the original Paul.

The Apostle Paul that Crossan and his two co-authors describe as the original Paul is closer to Wilson’s concept of Jesus than to Wilson’s concept of Paul. They argue Paul identified throughout his life as Jewish. The Hellenization that Wilson argues was Jesus’ big context is not so much the issue for Crossan’s Paul, as much as the injustice within the Empire. Crossan and Reed describe Paul being concerned with “covenental theology’s peace through justice.” Pax Romana must be replaced with the Peace of Christ. The deified Roman Emperor must be replaced with Jesus. Crossan describes Paul as believing that the general resurrection had begun with Jesus’ resurrection and that soon the new era of God’s reign would be started. The ethical teachings and the belief in God’s Kingdom as a physical kingdom here on Earth are not lost in Paul’s teachings, as Wilson describes, but rather embraced and spread to the gentiles. There is a participatory aspect to the kingdom, whereby people are to help bring about the general resurrection not necessarily through stricter observance of the Torah but still in participation.

So how do different authors look at the same text and come out with such different interpretations? One of the points the different authors seem to really disagree on is the message in Galician’s regarding the need to circumcise or not. Wilson argues that Paul did not reference to any agreement reached between Paul and Peter because no such agreement was reached (and that the meeting in Antioch was a fabrication by the author of Acts attempting to graft the story of Paul onto the story of the Jesus community) and he argues that for Paul’s argument to move from Abraham to Jesus without acknowledging Moses or the Torah was part of Paul’s attempt to discredit and remove the Torah from his new religion. Crossan and Reed argue instead that Paul wrote about Abraham because that was the scripture that those arguing against Paul was using. Rather than viewing Paul as having a huge anti-Jewish agenda, they say he was trying a very difficult argument, without his own scriptures at hand.

Crossan and Reed tend also to describe Paul’s letters as reacting very strongly to particular situations. He wasn’t trying to write scriptures, he was trying to address the congregations with specific issues and, they argue, his lack of speaking about the specific details of Jesus or his stories is because he would have taught that to them when he was with them. The letters would have been addressing the challenging things. They also acknowledge him as being very human and at times writing angrily and defensively, and at times they seem to brush over some of the harder parts of Paul’s writings, dismissing his hostility as just hostility and not part of a greater program against the Jewish people.

Crossan and Reed’s book talk more about the gentile context – how Paul’s letters would have been heard, not in Jewish communities in Judah as Wilson is writing about, but in other areas of the Roman empire, where Paul’s teachings would have contrasted more with that of Plato and of the imperial propaganda around than with the Pharisees, Sadducees and zealots.

I love in particular the ending of the book In Search of Paul, by Crossan and Reed, where they write:

Our proposal is that both Jesus and Paul are not so much trapped in a negation of global imperialism as engaged in establishing its positive alternative here below upon this earth. If you are only against something, you are doomed to negativity, which is why imperial dictators are often replaced by postcolonial ones and foreign thugs are often replaced by local ones. (Emphasis in original.)

They write also:

Rome was not the evil empire of its ancient time. Rome was not the axis of evil in its Mediterranean place. Rome was not the worth thing that had ever happened to the preindustrial world. Rome was simply the normalcy of civilization within first-century options and the inevitability of globalization within first-century limits. Rome was maybe even the cutting-edge of civilization, although hear in the background the snickers from the Han Chinese at the other end of the Silk Road. But this is the crucial point for this book. Who they were there and then, we are here and now. We are, at the start of the twenty-first century, what the Roman Empire was that the start of the first century. Put succinctly: Rome and the East there, America and the West here.

It is because we are what Rome was then, that it matters to me to try to learn more about who Paul and Jesus were and how the early church transformed both of them. For those who want still to identify as Christian, we need to search out the ways in which the early Christians dealt with creating positive alternatives and how they countered the normalcy of evil. If they believed that the Kingdom was coming here on earth, that they would be freed of the evils of empire and inequality, and that they too had to participate in its creation, how did they understand the delay, and how can we, two thousand years later, still find hope? (Or is hoping for a just and equitable world an impossibility, two thousand years of trying with no success?) How can we today continue to work for its creation? Is it a spiritual transformation within the individual, an attempt at shared alternative lifestyles, or a challenge to the dominant social constructs? Crossan and Reed repeat the phrase “justice first than peace” as Jesus and Paul’s alternative to the imperial notion of “victory then peace.” What would this mean today in the context of various attempts to be tough on crime? What does this mean with regards to international politics?

 

 

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