Book of the Week: How Jesus Became Christian

by James Tabor

This week I highly recommend Prof. Barrie Wilson’s book, How Jesus Became Christian (New York: St. Martins Press, 2008; Random House in Canada). Prof. Wilson teaches at York University in Toronto and specializes in Christian Origins. You can read more about him and his work at his web site here. I will go so far as to say that I judge this single book to be one of the most important contributions to an understanding of Christian Origins published in many decades. Prof. Wilson’s book represents an absolute “sea change” in our understanding of how one moves from the historical Jesus (Jewish Prophet, Charismatic Healer, Teacher, Messiah figure), to the new religion called Christianity, created by the apostle Paul and given a definitive stamp of approval by what became the “standard story” of Christian Origins preserved in Luke-Acts.

Books that explore a “from Jesus to Paul” theme are quite common in the scholarly field: From Jesus to Paul (Klausner); The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (Maccoby); From Jesus to Christ (Paula Fredrikson); From Jesus to Christianity (Michael White); Paul: Founder of Christianity (Lüdemann); and Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (Segal), to name a few more recent titles. However, in my view, Wilson has advanced the discussion miles beyond any previous work with his daring hypothesis regarding the stark and uncompromising dichotomy between what he calls the “Jesus Movement” and the “Christ Movement,” created and espoused single-handedly by the apostle Paul. Wilson goes a long way to putting an end to the wishful thinking that there is somehow some kind of continuity between Paul and his “gospel” and the message of James, Peter, and John, and those early Jewish followers of Jesus commonly known as “the Jerusalem Church.” Here is Prof. Wilson’s summary in his own words:

From Jewish rabbi and messiah-claimant to a Gentile God-human, in only 100 years! Explore how this happened.

Meet the members of the Jesus Movement under Jesus’ brother, James, in Jerusalem. These first followers of Jesus looked upon their rabbi as a teacher and possible messiah. He had announced the coming Kingdom of God that would bring about the messianic era. Gone would be the occupying colonists, the Romans. The righteous would be rewarded. The dead would be resurrected. It would be a time of universal peace and the worship of the one God. Jesus said that would happen soon.

Enter Paul, the developer of the Christ Movement. Paul never met the Jesus of history and rarely quotes him. His religion is founded on a vision, a mystical encounter with the Christ, the God who emptied himself and took on the form of a human. The focus of Paul’s new religion was on the suffering and death of Christ, the hope being that just as he was raised from the dead, so, too, would we be.

Paul’s religion was different in origin, beliefs and practices than the religion of Jesus. Explore just how different!

Wilson’s writing style is clear, his documentation is impeccable, and he makes his case with a strength and a level of persuasiveness that in my judgment leaves counter proposals in the wayside.

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