There's no doubt about it. Today's American publishing industry has discovered religion. Alerted by savvy marketing staffers to the sales potential of religiously oriented titles, mainstream publishers are pushing out a perhaps unprecedented flood of books on biblical and other spiritual topics.
That's the good news. The bad news is that a large number of these new titles are often rehashings of the old historical revisionist school which, since the late 19th century, has aimed at debunking the historicity of the Gospels—the idea that the New Testament contains the essential facts about Jesus and the apostolic age. It was only a matter of time before the industry discovered the Apostle Paul, the near-contemporary of Jesus who is often called Christianity's “second founder.”
Now, to be fair, A.N. Wilson, British author of Paul: the Making of the Apostle, a well-known biographer and novelist and current literary editor for the London-based Evening Standard, is no mere sensation-seeking demythologizer. He uses a wide and often informative historical sense in examining his subject, his writing is careful as well as vivid, and he has a true historian's sense of prudence about his inevitable (and abundant) speculations—an occupational hazard in a book that purports to get inside the “mind” of one of history's most complex thinkers.
There are rewards here. Wilson's background material on Tarsus, Paul's birthplace, is illuminating, as is his convincing portrayal of the biblical motivation for Paul's epic mission to the Gentiles—namely, Isaiah's prophecy that, in the messianic age, the Gentiles would join the people of Israel in the worship of the one true God. In this sense, as Wilson rightly stresses, Paul should be seen not as one breaking with Judaism in order to evangelize non-Jews, but, like Jesus himself, fulfilling and upholding the Torah's ultimate purpose.
Nevertheless, Wilson's treatment, for all its elegance, exhibits the old debunker's tendency to mistrust (and bypass) the only historical sources we have for the life of Paul (namely, the New Testament), and construct a portrait of the Apostle based largely on negations of Christian tradition.
According to Wilson: Paul was not a student of the Pharisee Gamaliel, a “Jew's Jew,” as the Apostle himself asserts in Galatians, but a Diaspora Jewish businessman of highly dubious religious credentials, who does not seem to have read Hebrew.
Paul's conversion to faith in Christ a few years after the crucifixion was not so much the result of a vision on the way to Damascus, but triggered by his guilt as a member of the Jerusalem-based Roman temple police force that arrested Jesus (this, on the basis of a single ambiguous phrase in Galatians).
His often acrimonious relationships with Jewish authorities and even other Apostles had less to do with his theology than with the fact that he was a well-known collaborator with Palestine's Roman occupiers.
Paul did not, as tradition attests, die in Rome at the end of a long imprisonment, but probably died alone in Spain—the stated goal of his last missionary journey—still waiting for the end of the world.
Wilson's Paul is not without interest, mind you. He's something of a novelist's dream: a renegade self-hating Jew who turns the tables on the religious establishment of his day, a guilty bystander to a judicial murder who ends up worshipping his victim, a religious genius who wrests the remnants of a failed messianic movement from its narrow nationalistic preoccupations and turns it into a wildly successful mystery religion, a shrewd businessman who was also a Blakean-style mystic, dreaming of universal salvation.
Like most revisionist readings, Wilson's account has precious little to do with the figure of Paul that comes to us from the New Testament—the single contemporary witness to the life, thought, and character of the Apostle. What Wilson and his colleagues in crime have done, and continue to do, is like a historian who decides to reconstruct the life of Socrates in direct opposition to Plato's dialogues, our only source material on the philosopher's life. It might be fun, it might be interesting, but, absent any solid evidence, it would hardly be Socrates.
And there is an agenda here. Most revisionist readings of Paul, from Joseph Klausner's 1939 From Jesus to Paul on, have had in common a clear and concerted effort to rescue Jesus from Paul, his principal ancient apologist. In these accounts, Jesus is some kind of charismatic Jewish sage. Paul, on the contrary, is the “evil” inventor of the “Christ ideology” that became orthodox Christianity.
Christianity without Paul is quite literally nothing. Jesus, with the layers of exegesis, scholarship, and ceremony stripped away, is a Jew, a fastidious and fervent Jew who wanted to lead his followers into a stricter, purer observance of Judaism. It is Paul who claims divinity for him, and makes him the center of an entirely new religion.
This adds up to the repudiation of the reality of the Church. Modernity has long hoped to have Jesus in some way without the bother of the Church—to appropriate aspects of the Nazarene's heritage into the evolving general consensus by bypassing all that two millennia of faith in him has taught. Paul, clearly, is the figure that stands directly in the path of that attempt. For Paul, Jesus and the Church are inseparable.
More than any other single insight, it is the vision of the Church (the ekklesia, the “assembly”) as the body of Christ, his physical continuation on earth, that stands as Paul's unique and irreplaceable contribution to Christian thought.
After a dose of Wilson's speculations, it's surely in order to let the Apostle speak for himself: “There is one body and one Spirit,” Paul writes in Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift…. The gifts he gave were that some would be Apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building it up in love” (4, 4-16).
Gabriel Meyer, a Register contributing editor, is based in Los Angeles.