December 31, 2006, New York Times Book Review, Conversion Story, By Damon Linker.
WHAT PAUL MEANT
By Garry Wills.
193 pp. Viking. $24.95.
Founding a religion in someone else's name can be a thankless task. For much of the past 2,000 years, Jesus Christ has received most of the credit for the noblest teachings of Christianity -- the golden rule, loving thy neighbor, turning the other cheek -- while Paul of Tarsus, who contributed so deeply to the development of Christian doctrine as well as to its rapid dissemination throughout the ancient world, has come in for abuse. Whether critics have taken aim at the church's otherworldly asceticism, its anti-intellectual hostility to ''the wisdom of the world'' (I Corinthians 1:20), or its frequent expressions of sexism and anti-Semitism, Paul has been made to shoulder the bulk of the blame.
In ''What Paul Meant,'' Garry Wills turns this standard reading of early Christianity on its head by arguing that Paul -- even more than the four canonical Gospels -- deserves to be recognized as our most reliable guide to Jesus' true teachings. While biblical literalists typically presume that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John contain straightforward accounts of Jesus' birth, life, ministry and death, written by some of his closest associates, Wills points out that modern scholarship paints a different picture. Far from having a ''simple biographical basis,'' the Gospels are ''sophisticated theological constructs, none written by their putative authors, all drawing on second- or third- or fourth-hand accounts -- and all written from a quarter of a century to half a century after Paul's letters,'' which were themselves written roughly two decades after the death of Jesus.
Much the same can be said of the Acts of the Apostles, the book (attributed to Luke) to which Christians typically turn for information about Paul's own life and ministry. It is in Acts that we find perhaps the most famous conversion story in world literature -- the account of Saul of Tarsus, the Jewish persecutor of Christians, being struck blind on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:1-19) After carefully weighing the evidence in support of this story and the very different (and less dramatic) one found in passages of Paul's own writings, Wills confidently asserts that Luke's version is a ''fiction.''
Indeed, on nearly every matter of theological significance, Wills defers to Paul (or at least to the 7 out of the 13 canonical epistles that he considers to be indisputably written by Paul) on the ground that his writings ''stand closer'' in time ''to Jesus than do any other words in the New Testament.'' Yet it turns out that using Paul to determine the practices and beliefs of the earliest Christians is no simple matter. For example, Wills argues that it is insufficient to read Paul in widely accepted English translations, since even the best of them import later developments back into the original texts. Instead Wills, following scholars like Krister Stendahl and John Gager, uses somewhat idiosyncratic terminology in order to transport his readers ''back into the Spirit-haunted, God-driven world of Paul in the heady first charismatic days of Jesus' revelation.''
In those days, he writes, there were no ''Christians,'' a term applied later, usually by their pagan opponents. Instead, followers of Jesus called themselves ''brothers'' or ''the holy'' or ''the called.'' There was likewise no institutional ''church,'' only informal ''gatherings,'' which took place in the name not of ''Christ'' but of ''Messiah.'' (''Christ'' is a transliteration of ''Khristos'' -- the Greek word for ''Messiah'' -- which is a title, like ''Lord,'' not a proper name, which also explains why Paul did not refer to Jesus' followers as Christians.)
Paul and his fellow followers of Messiah Jesus, Wills argues, can hardly be considered anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they were themselves a sect of apocalyptic Jews, preaching the imminent end of the world to a skeptical Jewish establishment. Only much later -- after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70, and after Paul's remarkable success in spreading his distinctive form of Jewish messianism among the Gentiles -- did the radicals begin to think of themselves as a distinct religion.
Well, not a ''religion.'' Wills insists that Jesus and Paul both opposed ''religion,'' claiming that the worship of God was not something ''based on external observances, on temples or churches, on hierarchies or priesthoods.'' Both Jesus and Paul were, in fact, ''killed by religion.''
Only in the Middle Ages, sometime before the ninth century, did the institutional church, with its ''male monopoly'' on ''offices and honors,'' decide that ''a woman apostle was unthinkable.'' To obscure the radical egalitarianism practiced by the founders of the faith, who believed that women could be ''prophets in the gathering,'' the Roman hierarchy had to engage in what Wills calls a ''Soviet-style rewriting of history.'' What most present-day Christians, and especially orthodox Roman Catholics, consider to be essential elements of the faith, he argues, must be understood as corruptions of Jesus' and Paul's intentions.
With this bracing book, Wills, who continues to call himself a Catholic, further cements his reputation as one of the most intellectually interesting and doctrinally heterodox Christians writing today. By argument or by implication, he manages to reject the legitimacy and authority not only of the papacy and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy but also of the early church councils, the church fathers and even, in many instances, the Gospels themselves. In their place he substitutes spontaneous devotion to God and neighbor -- and commitment to the politically subversive view that ''love is the only law.'' So much for Christianity necessarily serving as a handmaiden of conservative politics.
Damon Linker, former editor of First Things, is the author of ''The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege.''