Posted by Sumair Mirza in Reflections

Book Review: “How Jesus Became Christian” – Barrie Wilson

Review by: Rev. Tony Costa

Professor Barrie Wilson from York University published a new book entitled “How Jesus Became Christian”. Wilson converted to Judaism when he married his Jewish wife 32 years ago. He admits that his book will get a few people excited but he does not see it as a negative book at all. Of course, those whom Wilson expects to excite are Christians, why would anyone else be upset about what a university professor writes about Jesus?

Christianity has become an easy target for many who wish to make monetary profit. One need only remember Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ to recall that as long as someone writes something controversial about one of the most controversial figures in history like Jesus of Nazareth one can make considerable financial profits. The person of Jesus continues to provoke controversy and debate and one of the reasons I think is because Jesus is irreducible. He is very complex and cannot be reduced to merely a good man, a good rabbi, a prophet, which interestingly Wilson in his book reduces him to. Jesus’ question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13) continues to be asked today. The only satisfactory answer to that question is that given in Scripture, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew. 16:16), anything short of this is to deny the biblical Jesus…

Please see below for rest of the book review.

  • Alabamian

    Reverand Costa,

    Your critique of Wilson’s book has some interesting points. I very much like your point about “Maranatha”. Wilson ignores this obvious “Judaism” in the nascent Christ movement. However, reading Romans chapters 9 through 11 is hardly refuting Dr. Wilson. In fact, having read them, I would have to say you have referenced another portion of Paul’s writings that denies Judaism’s value. Paul writes of the “remnant”. I would interpret that to mean those Jews who proclaimed Jesus the Messiah, which was, and is, a remnant of Judaism, indeed. But that’s hardly a statement of Paul’s understanding nature toward Judaism. “They’re headed to Hell, except small number ain’t” isn’t exactly a comforting view toward the “they”

    Also, you use circular reasoning when you try to pin Paul and James together. The main argument of Wilson’s book is the misinformation of the book of Acts. To use Acts to tie Paul and James together, from Wilson’s thesis, only verifies you’ve bought the lie, as it were.

    I value accurate critiques of Wilson’s book, and your reference to Paul’s Aramaic is enlightening, helping to throw a bit of water on Dr. Wilson’s Pauline anti-Jewish fervor, but the other points you make, in my mind, only favor Dr. Wilson. There may be problems in Dr. Wilson’s thesis, but what is called for is scholarly criticism, not circular logic.

  • Dear Alabamian, thank you so much for your comments. I would like to address and respond to your critique of my review of Prof. Barrie Wilson’s book. I am glad that you noted that Wilson’s argument that Paul completely severed Jesus from His Jewish roots is completely baseless and that the Aramaic ‘Maranatha’ prayer (1 Cor 16:22) puts this notion to rest.

    However you have made some comments about my treatment of Paul’s material in Rom 9-11 and have alleged that I have argued in a circle in my review. First let me deal with your first point. You refer to my comments about Romans 9-11 and you assert that here Paul “denies Judaism’s value.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Paul nowhere denies his faith nor does he disparage his Jewish identity, on the contrary many times he affirmed it (Rom 9:1-4; 2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5). Paul saw his new found faith in the risen Messiah Jesus as what I like to call ‘fulfilled Judaism,’ a coming to completion in the Messiah and not a replacement of his Jewish faith. I have provided in my review some good scholarly work on this subejct.

    On your view that Paul holds that only the Jewish “remnant” that believes Jesus is the Messiah will be saved while those who don’t are lost is correct. However I think a very important point you overlook here is the fact that this idea was not foreign to the Jewish mind of Paul’s day. The Essenes whom most scholars believe lived in Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (between 100 BCE – 100 CE)were a Jewish sect that believed they were the chosen “remnant”, the “true Israel”, the “sons of light” (all words used in the New Testament of Christians), and that all others outside their community were apostate and allied with the “sons of darkness” led by the evil satanic spirit Belial. You can read this in the ‘War Scroll’ and the other documents of Qumran. Moreover, in the Jewish document known as “Jubilees” the same views are promoted that apostate Jews will be judged by God. In other words, in the time of Jesus and Paul and before them, there were Jews who held to the view that they or their particular sect were the believing remnant that would be saved while other Jews would be condemned with the unbelieving Gentile nations. If you read Paul carefully in Rom 9 you will see that he says the same thing, not all Israel is Israel, but only a remnant will be saved (Rom 9:27-29). In short, Paul’s assesment of the Judaism of his day was not out of line with other current Jewish views. Paul’s argument is an “in-house” one, that is, a Jew in debate with other Jewish sects. Notice how Paul refers to this Jewish remnant as the “Israel of God” in Gal 6:16, a term also used by the Essenes for themselves as opposed to the “false” Israel. The Saducees for instance denied the resurrection of the dead, but the Pharisees believed in it. Note the wording found in the Mishnah (which dates to about 200 CE) about what constitutes the basics of Jewish belief,

    “All Israel have a portion in the world to come, for it is written: Thy people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.’ But the following have no portion therein: one who maintains that resurrection is not a biblical doctrine, the Torah was not divinely revealed, and an Apikoros (“Epicurean, apostate”). (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1)

    Note that those who have no share in “the world to come [“olam ha-ba”]are those who deny the resurrection, deny the Torah is divinely revealed or inspired, and an apostate which can only mean in this context, an apostate from Judaism. Who were those who denied resurrection? The Sadducees would have been included in this category and they were also a Jewish sect but from the view of Pharasaic and later rabbinic Judaism they were lost and hell bound too and I am sure you would agree with me that in your words “this is not exactly a comforting view toward the ‘they'”. Here we see that even in 200 CE, the Jewish rabbis considered other Jews to be lost if they had denied resurrection among other things as essential to orthodox Judaism. The idea of Jews defining their theological beliefs against other Jews is not unusual, neither for rabbibinic Judaism nor the apostle Paul.

    Secondly, on your charge that I have argued in circle on the subject of Paul and James you have not provided any substantive argument to support your charge. Where does Wilson get the idea that Acts has “misinformation” on Paul and James? How is believing in the account of Acts an argument that I have “bought the lie”? What lie? Wilson seems to base this Paul vs. James conflict on the old school argument that Acts cannot be trusted, but this text has been vindicated again and again by archaeology and historical studies. If Paul opposed James in his letters then where is your evidence? I don’t see a conflict between Acts and Paul on the issue of James. Paul believed that what he preached and what James and the other apostle preached was the *same* gospel (Gal 2:6-9; 1 Cor 15:9-11). What I argued in my review is that the letter of James and the letters of Paul are not inconsistent with each other as has been supposed by past scholars and Wilson.

    Based on the points I raised above I am not persuaded by your charge that my treatment of Paul in Rom 9-11 or my arguments concerning Paul and James are circular. Accordingly, I believe my criticism of Prof. Wilson’s book remains justified.

  • Alabamian

    Reverend Costa,

    As for the historic veracity of Luke-Acts, I advise checking here …

    If the author can’t even get the birth date of what was, and probably still is, the most important human being to ever grace the planet, that’s not very accurate.

    But to the point, I’ve personally always been somewhat suspect of Acts due to the rather fanciful tale of Paul’s conversion. The Lukan account simply does NOT match Paul’s own telling of the same story decades earlier in Galatians. Compare Acts 9:1-30 and Galatians 1:13-2:21. Paul specifically mentions having a ‘revelation’ and taking off to Arabia by himself, then hanging out in Damascus. This process took THREE YEARS, i.e, the time when Saul had the vision to the time when he went to Jerusalem. No mention of blindness on Paul’s part, I think a detail he would have remembered, don’t you? Also, in Acts when he finally gets to Jerusalem, they’re all afraid of him. This strongly implies three years had not come to pass, and his reputation as a Jesus movement persecutor hadn’t had time to die down. Acts states “Without delay he proclaimed Jesus publicly in the synagogues, declaring him to be the Son of God.” Paul makes no mention of a mission in the three years before Jerusalem. And if he had, one would have thought that plenty of time to filter back to the apostles in Jerusalem, the two locales not being hugely distant, Roman Empire-wise. Paul himself makes no mention whatsoever of any fear on Peter’s part at taking him in Jerusalem (Gal 1:18). Also, in the next verse Paul makes it clear he DIDN’T see any apostles except Peter and James. He didn’t see Barnabas, unless Paul was lying and Luke was telling the truth (highly unlikely).

    Look, Lukan historical accuracy isn’t all that important. Luke, clearly, got a lot of things wrong and embellished a few facts. Fine. That doesn’t mean much about the overall story of Jesus and his Messiahship, only that one of the evangelists, written many decades later by someone who wasn’t an eye witness, recorded history more legendary than factual.

    I rather agree with your point, Rev. Costa, about the “otherness” of Paul’s view of Jews and his own religious movement, nascent Christianity. I further agree that Christianity, like Judaism, had many, many elements initially. For example, Justin Martyr wasn’t a trinitarian, though he was Christianity’s first true philosopher.

    I agree further that Paul considers James, though a Judaizing element, still a “Christian” But whether that included believing in a pre-existant Logos or just accepting Jesus as a human Messiah is open to debate, and perhaps wasn’t even considered controversial by the first “Christians.” After all, most Christians, especially before Domitian, weren’t very concerned with doctrine or orthodoxy since most believed Jesus’ return was imminent, and everyting would get sorted out, doctrinely, then. The main thing was to accept Jesus as the Messiah and all other concerns would be handled soon. Of course, as the decades wore on and Christianity became more dominant in the Roman world, it developed the need to speak authoritatively, and orthodoxy, the Trinity, and the Creeds were fleshed out. But all this came much later.

    Ironically, with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness and the plethora of other Protestant denominations (to say nothing of Greek, Russian and Roman Orthodocies), today Christianity is, more or less, in its original, theologically diverse state.

  • Dear Alabamian, could you please identify yourself by name? It is better to correspond with someone on a personal level by knowing their name. Let me address some of your points.

    On the issue of Luke and the census related to Quirinius there is nothing new here under the sun. This is an old objection. According to N.T. Wright and other scholars Luke may be referring to the census that took place “before” Quirinius where the Greek word “prote” can be translated “before” and not as “first”. If this is the case then the alleged historical discrepancy is resolved. It is unfair to charge Luke with something that we may have lost in translation.

    In the case of Luke and Paul I don’t really see a problem between the two. Luke of course is writing as a third party biographer and we would not expect him to mention every little point concerning Paul. Yes Paul does not mention his blindness in his letters as Luke does, but it is significant that Paul appears to have suffered from an eye ailment, one which some scholars have associated with his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12). Paul speaks of the Galatians willing to give him their very eyes, and Paul can speak of writing his name with very large letters at the conclusion of Galatians which indicates an eye ailment. Paul doesn’t go into much detail here about his condition but is it possible that his eye condition was related to the christophany? I think it is quite possible.

    You state concerning Luke, “one of the evangelists, written many decades later by someone who wasn’t an eye witness, recorded history more legendary than factual.” Luke never claims to be an eyewitness but he does tell us in his prologue that he interviewed those who were “eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:4) and who were leaders in the Christian community (those who were “servants of the word”). We must grant that Luke is honest enough to assert that he is not himself an eyewitness but that he consulted with those who were in the collection of his materials.

    I would disagree with you that Justin Martyr was not a Trinitarian. Justin noted that Christians adored the Father, the Word or Son of God and the prophetic Spirit. I would agree that Justin was a better philosopher than he was a theologian, but that he was a Trinitarian I think is certain.

    On various doctrines being central to early Christianity I think the New Testament is clear on this. There is an emphasis on keeping “sound doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:1ff; Titus 2:1), contending for the faith once for all delivered (Jude 3) etc. There is no doubt that Paul the earliest Christian writer held to a high Christology and that this belief predated Paul and had its source in the Palestinian community of the church. This is seen most clearly in 1 Cor 16:22 which I have referenced in my review of Wilson’s book. Note as well that James refers to Jesus as the “Lord of glory” or the “glorious Lord” (James 2:1) something which is said of God in the Old Testament.

    You mistakenly associate Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses with Protestant denominations. These groups are not considered “Protestant” and are theological considered heretical and non-Christian. I am not sure what you mean by “Roman Orthodocies”, I think you meant “Roman Catholicism”. I am not sure exactly what you are trying to convey here.

    As I said above, could you please identify yourself by name and furthermore, what faith community do you belong to? I think if we are going to discuss these issues we should be open with each other. Thanks for writing.