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How Jesus Became Christian

New book about Jesus counters more standard portrayals

By Foster Freed

How Jesus Became Christian
By Barrie Wilson
(Random House Canada) $32.95

York University professor Barrie Wilson’s How Jesus Became Christian is a bound-to-be-controversial re-examination of the Jewish roots of Christianity. Given its subject matter, it is a book to which I wish I could respond more favourably.

Wilson’s account has undeniable strengths. In particular, the sections of the book that deal with the challenges facing the Jewish people in the ancient Greco-Roman world are quite insightful. Those sections have the potential to assist open-minded Christian readers with correcting some of the false impressions concerning Jews and Judaism that continue to be prevalent within the wider Christian world.

It is also clear that Wilson has a high regard for Jesus of Nazareth, offering a portrait of Jesus that rightly (if, perhaps, too one-sidedly) emphasizes his continuity with the Judaism of his times, especially the Judaism of the Pharisaic party. Wilson’s exploration of the Sermon on the Mount is especially helpful, reminding us of the characteristically Jewish emphasis that Jesus placed on actions rather than beliefs.

Alas, it is also in his portrait of Jesus that Wilson’s distinctive biases begin to intrude. Because he regards Saul of Tarsus — the Apostle Paul — as the great corrupter of the message of Jesus, rather than as an authentic interpreter of Jesus’ message, Wilson eliminates from his portrait of Jesus any possibility of continuity between Jesus and Paul. While the resulting portrait of Jesus nevertheless offers an important corrective to more standard portrayals, the resulting portrait of Paul — besides being scandalously unfair — fails to locate Paul as the profoundly Jewish thinker that he actually was.

Wilson, a convert to Judaism from an Anglican background, was obviously motivated to offer this book out of a commendable desire to address the church’s deplorable tendency to demonize things Jewish. Unfortunately, too much of his book sounded like a throw-back to the unfortunate inter-religious polemics of an earlier age. It appears that Wilson’s solution for building bridges between Christians and Jews is for Christians effectively to acknowledge that their religion is based on an ugly series of cover-ups and lies. To the ears of this thoroughly Pauline convert from Judaism to Christianity, that doesn’t sound like much of a solution at all.

Rev. Foster Freed is a minister at Knox United in Parksville, B.C.
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