How Jesus Became Christian— Barrie Wilson
In How Jesus Became Christian, Barrie Wilson challenges the way most people think of Christianity, arguing that what we know today as Christianity is not the religion created and preached by the historical Jesus and, in fact, bears little resemblance to what he taught. Rather, Wilson says, contemporary Christianity was a creation of Paul, decades after Jesus’ death and quite separate from the religion being taught by Jesus’ original followers.
Wilson brings Jesus back to his Jewish roots and context, laying out the different groups within Judaism in the 20s AD and situating Jesus and his teachings in their original milieu. He shows that Jesus was a Jewish teacher, involved in these intra-Jewish disputes and had no desire or intention to create a religion. Wilson explains that Jesus never thought of himself as anything other than Jewish and this included adherence to the beliefs and practices of Judaism. When he died, his movement lived on as what Wilson calls “the Jesus Movement,” led by Jesus’ brother James. But then, in the 50s AD, something changed.
Paul, who was born Jewish but who no longer identified with Judaism as an adult, had an epiphany, a revelation of the Christ, while in the desert. It was Paul who created a new religion, what Wilson calls “the Christ Movement,” which adopted the figure of Christ, ignoring the historical Jesus and his teachings and scorning the Jesus Movement he had founded. Because Paul’s movement was easier to follow and convert to because it did not require observance of the Jewish laws, as the Jesus Movement did, and because it tapped into the appeal of Roman mystery religions, it grew and outstripped the Jesus Movement.
Wilson alleges that through the writings of members of the Christ Movement many years after Jesus’ death, especially the Book of Acts, the real Jesus was obscured and a new Christ substituted. In particular, all Jewish aspects were removed and, indeed, denied and vilified. Eventually the two religions were, on paper, merged. After the Jesus Movement died out, the Christ Movement was left with its claims unchallenged. Wilson traces this process through both the writings of Paul and his later followers and through the changing roles and actions of the two movements in society. He offers a cogent account of how what Jesus actually said and advocated was gradually transmuted until it became something that would have been unrecognizable to him.
It is an argument sure to create debate but Wilson has garnered considerable praise for How Jesus Became Christian from fellow religious scholars and book reviewers alike. James D. Tabor, head of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte and author of The Jesus Dynasty, called the book “It is beyond doubt one of the most significant works on early Christianity to appear in decades. Wilson’s sober and carefully documented assessment of the evidence is as challenging as it is compelling.” Booklist wrote that “anyone interested in the topic will find that this book opens new ways to look at old (in some cases very old) arguments.” Professor Patrick Gray of York University and the Toronto School of Theology said “How Jesus Became Christian is a groundbreaking and highly controversial work that is sure to provoke considerable attention.” The Globe and Mail reviewer, Allan Levine, wrote, “Wilson has produced a significant and sensational work of scholarship. And it is truly religious dynamite.”
Barrie Wilson is Professor of Humanities & Religious Studies at Toronto’sYork University. A specialist in early Christian origins with several academic books to his credit, this is his first work intended for a more general public.
— Caroline Patton