The founder of Christianity: Jesus or Paul?

A response to the Wright - Wilson Debate on May 27, 1997

On Tuesday the 27th of May, two prominent men (A.N. Wilson, the biographer and critic for the Evening Standard', and Dr. Tom Wright, the former lecturer at Oxford and Cambridge, and currently Dean of Lichfield) came together at St. James church in Piccadilly Circus to debate on the topic of who really could be credited for founding Christianity: Jesus or Paul. I went assuming A.N. Wilson would be up to his usual cynical self and thereby do a 'stitch-up job' on Dr. Wright. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that Dr. Wright handled himself brilliantly, and showed not only his true academic credentials throughout but came across as a man of faith, for whom this debate went beyond a simple intellectual exercise, but permeated many core ideas for which we in the church are deeply indebted.

It was obvious from the opening statements that A.N. Wilson, a self-styled 'authority' on Paul, who himself admitted his interest was due to a passing hobby, and a man who feels more at home penning his populist editorial pages than in the heady confines of a theological exercise encompassing the enormous tomes written on the life of Paul, was, I felt, quickly overwhelmed with the sheer immensity of the task he had taken on. Realising his predicament he wisely stuck to a single area of concern, that of the Eucharist, believing it impossible that Christ could have instigated such an idea, due to his abhorrence as a Jew to the drinking of blood, and the fact that it was not mentioned by him in the gospels (outside of Mark's gospel, whom Wilson assumes was dependent on Paul, having written 15-20 years later - though he chose not to give any support for his argument).

Wilson a number of times rellied on the teachings of his Jewish friend Hyam Maccoby, who takes his cue from the discredited Christian writer Epiphanius, an Ebionite writing 3 centuries after Paul. Maccoby, like Epiphanius before him suggests that Paul was a failed Pharisee, and was therefore intent on creating a Jesus more in line with surrounding secular thoughts, and so divorced from his Jewish environment. The Jesus whom Paul created, according to Maccoby, would never do or say the things the gospel purports to have him say, as they would be anathema for a first century Jewish teacher to preach.

Wright, the class-act theologian that he is, having studied this subject for the past 25 years, took a different tact altogether inundating us with a 'quick' overview of the sophistication of Paul's teaching, which he reminded us should never be understood piecemeal, but must be critiqued in its entirety, and in its context (i.e. within a first century Jewish environment). Thus, the symbolism used by Christ in sharing in His death by the Eucharist was to be taken as such and nothing more.

The contention that Paul introduced non-Jewish themes into the teachings of Jesus, was, according to Wright simplistic and ungrounded, as he pointed to numerous Jewish writers and thinkers who maintained many similar positions during and even before the first century.

In the ensuing question and answer period which lasted for over an hour it was obvious to me that Wilson was loosing ground on the 'foundation of Christianity issue'. Alluding to Paul's many apocalyptical statements, he suggested that this proved Paul believed he was in the last days, and so did not consider the ramifications of his new movement carrying on beyond his own lifetime. Wright again relied on the depth of his experience and research by producing numerous first century Jewish apocalyptic examples, maintaining that this motif was commonly employed not to signify the end of a past age but the beginning of a new one, which fit neatly into the former prophecies of the coming Messiah.

Wilson knew he was outclassed, and decided to play his typical trump card, declaring that in the end we simply could not credit such a system of beliefs which incorporated a 'man walking on water,' or a faith which asked us to believe that dead people actually got up and walked around without anyone noticing. Relying on his manipulative editorial style Wilson deliberately strayed from the debate topic, playing on the humanist incredulity of the miraculous, hoping that the audience would pick up and follow his lead.

The reaction from the audience was not what he intended. While there were some who succumbed to his ploy, the majority were accutely aware that this had little significance to the topic at hand and waited to see what other ploys he might try to write into his script. One solicitor stood up and asked Wilson if he had an alternative to offer to a world sinking into moral depravity and ethical chaos. Another girl, offering her testimony to the Spirit's work in her life seemed to even unhinge Wilson somewhat, forcing him to admit that he had no answer to her transformation, yet conceding that if nothing else, Christianity might be credited with giving us a sense of our past, as well as a set of stable traditions and good architecture which we could be proud of (possibly music and art), but little else. The ensuing silence in the hall spoke volumes as people wrestled with the sheer absurdity of such a claim.

Wright would not be stymied by the seemingly 'Humean' argument of the logical positivists' for verification, knowing full well that depending on ones presuppositional base that question would never find a satisfactory resolution in a two-hour exchange of ideas, and is equally damaging for the person asking the question. Instead he wisely brought the debate back to the original agenda, maintaining that the differences in intent between the sayings of Jesus and Paul had little to do with a discrepancy in theology, but all to do with the historical fact of the resurrection. Jesus pointed constantly to the coming event of the resurrection. Paul no longer needed to do likewise because that event had already passed. Thus his mission was to take the community on from there, addressing the ramifications of that event in the life of the church.

I walked away from the debate feeling greatly encouraged by the defence orchestrated by Dr. Wright. He spoke forcefully for the necessity of Christians today to refrain from isolation, and seek to bring these areas of disagreement into the public forum. His knowledge of the subject and conviction of belief spoke volumes in comparison with Wilson's self-proclaimed 'wishy-washy' stance. In the end I felt that Wilson was unconvincing and out-of-his-element, resorting to ridiculous innuendos against the hopelessness of maintaining a faith dependant simply on the miraculous. On the other hand I was inspired by Wrights forthright responses, convincing me that these areas of contention had reasoned and understandable answers. The A.N. Wilson's of our day have had free reign to castigate our most cherished beliefs primarily because no-one has had the courage to take them on in public. Wright has taken that step in an area in which he is world renowned. The rest of us need to follow his example and be equally courageous to stand up resolutely for that which we believe. Maybe then the world will think twice before assuming authority in areas they know little about. Then possibly the message will get out that indeed the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, expounded by Paul speaks as much to us today as it did to the early church who first read the epistles written by Paul nearly 2,000 years ago. As Wright so eloquently concluded, "Paul was one true voice in a rich harmony of true voices of the early church, but the writer of the song was Jesus."

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