The Banality of Unbelief: Jesus Eludes the Historical A.N. Wilson

The publication of A.N. Wilson’s Jesus: A Life (Norton) last fall was preceded by a sour wind of uneasy anticipation. Its author, a prolific British comic novelist and literary biographer, had once been a high Tory, an early ’80s Young Fogey, an essayist of stinging wit, and, most fascinatingly, a Christian apologist in the train of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and C.S. Lewis (two of Wilson’s 22 books are biographies of Belloc and Lewis). In an age in which Christian high culture is nearly extinct and Christian low culture marginalized to near-extinction by mass consumerism, the literate and scathingly witty Wilson was a welcome presence in the Church Militant a decade ago.

As a student at Oxford during the 1970s, Wilson was a devout Anglican. Then he converted to Roman Catholicism. Then, partly out of disappointment with the appalling English-language liturgy that the Catholic Church has adopted after the Second Vatican Council, and partly because his wife remained loyal to Anglicanism and wished to raise their children as Anglicans, Wilson re-affiliated with his country’s established church. Finally, in 1989, he forsook Christianity completely. His abandonment of the Church coincided with his abandonment of his wife to marry Ruth Guilding, a stylish art historian ten years his junior. The hasty divorce disappointed not only Christians but feminists among his British literary friends. Nor did Wilson simply abandon the faith. He turned his pen and caustic wit to the service of anti-Christianity, became a latter-day Julian the Apostate who compared the pope to an ayatollah, and urged crowds to boo the pontiff at every turn. As he worked on Jesus through 1991 and much of 1992, there was speculation that Wilson planned to launch a literary neutron bomb intended to challenge the credibility of Christianity’s Founder.

I met Wilson in January 1992, when he was on a promotional tour for his latest novel, Daughters of Albion. At a Washington, D.C., bookstore, Wilson, a slight, prematurely aged-looking man (he is in his early 40s), read aloud several hilarious passages from Daughters to a full house and then sat down at a little table in the back of the store to autograph copies of the novel. When only a handful of autograph-seekers approached Wilson, I blurted out to Wilson, “Perhaps they’re afraid of you. They’re probably afraid you’ll say something really clever and make them look stupid.”

I thought that a withering riposte might follow, but Wilson flashed a smile and shook his head politely. That gave me the courage to approach him again. I told him how my husband had been entertaining me by reading aloud passages from Daughters. Then I tossed the question at him: “Why did you lose your Christian faith?”

He smiled and looked sad. He told me it was a long process that had begun while he was researching Lewis’s biography. “It disturbed me that he seemed to be ignorant of modern New Testament studies,” Wilson said.

“Don’t you think,” I ventured, “that there’s something circular about today’s biblical studies? There’s basically nothing to go on but the four Gospels themselves. There aren’t very many historical references to Christ, and the pseudoevangelia are even more fanciful and otherworldly than the Gospels themselves. Don’t you think that modern biblical scholarship is actually a species of literary criticism?”

I knew very little about modern New Testament studies myself, having written a single brief magazine article about them six years previously. I also had inadvertently learned some of the lore and lingo of this field from the dumbed-down New Testament Lite sermons of “progressive” priests. I expected an acidulous reply from Wilson.

Instead, he said, “It’s true that we don’t have very much to go on besides the four Gospels. But I think there are things we can learn.”

Then Wilson told me about a recent lecture he had given on the subject of death. He had been one of several writers invited to speak on death as part of a series. During the lecture, he had talked about the difficulty of believing in an afterlife. Several weeks later, he received a letter from a woman who had been in the audience. She told Wilson that while he was speaking, she heard a male voice behind her saying distinctly, “Tell him he’ll be surprised by joy.” When she turned around, the woman wrote, she saw that there were no men sitting behind her.

Wilson grinned. Surprised By Joy is the title of one of Lewis’s books. “It was the ghost of C.S. Lewis,” he said. “So perhaps I’ll regain my faith after all someday.”

Seven months after this brush with Wilson, my editor at Washington City Paper assigned me to write an article about John P. Meier, a Catholic priest who teaches biblical studies at the Catholic University of America. Meier had just published a book, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday), the first of a three-volume exploration of everything that contemporary New Testament scholars have to say about Jesus along with Meier’s own suppositions. Using Meier’s extensive bibliography, I immersed myself in the field, speed-reading dozens of books. I spent three hours interviewing Meier himself, a diffident, charming, and deeply learned man who has held onto his Catholic faith despite his immersion in the religious skepticism that permeates this branch of scholarship (he packs his faith and his learning in two different mental suitcases). Meier’s office at Catholic University was hung with icons from the Eastern Church, including a Christ the Pantocrator over his desk that was certainly at variance with the merely human “historical” Jesus that is the stuff of New Testament studies at most universities and mainline Protestant and Catholic seminaries these days. By the time I finished writing the article, titled “The Newest Testament,” in early September, I was convinced that everything I had supposed about modern-day New Testament studies was correct.

So when I turned to Wilson’s book, I found no blasphemous detonations, but I found very little that is genuinely original, either. In fact, the book was a letdown, not half as entertaining or interesting as Wilson’s novels. Jesus, which claims to be a “biography” of the figure whom Christians call the Savior, akin to Wilson’s biographies of Belloc, Lewis, Tolstoy, and others, is actually a conventional, even a disappointingly conventional book. In writing it, Wilson has worked in a well-trod 200-year-old tradition born during the Enlightenment and peculiar to Western modernity—the “search for the historical Jesus.”

The Mundane Jesus

The “historical” Jesus is a Jesus that is purely human, divorced from the superstructure of Christian faith and thus completely different from the Jesus that Christian believers encounter when they read the Gospels. The historical Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, did not have a virgin for a mother, was not the Son of God and the Jewish Messiah, did not work very many miracles (outside of a few faith healings whose miraculousness existed in the minds of believers), did not institute any sacraments, and did not rise from the dead. In theory, this rather mundane character—who might have been a gifted preacher or a dissident rabbi or an outcast philosopher or a social revolutionary—is a reconstruction of the Jesus encountered by the people of his time who did not feel any inclination to follow Him: a majority of the world’s population, then as now.

Historical-Jesus researchers use what is called the historical-critical method of biblical scholarship, the reading of biblical texts without the freight of religious presuppositions. Jesus researchers insist that they are merely examining His life with the same scientific rigor that any historian would bring to the life of any famous and enigmatic figure. But the search for the historical Jesus does not stop with a scrutiny of how Jesus would have appeared to an unbeliever in the context of Jewish society under Roman domination. Historical-Jesus researchers take their theories a step further and maintain that Jesus actually thought of Himself exactly the same way they do. Not only did the non-believers of early Christian times view Jesus as a mere mortal; He viewed Himself that way. Thus, the historical Jesus is never a Christian, much less the Founder of the faith. Whatever is Christian about the historical Jesus is strictly a creation of His followers, or as some would say, power-grabbing church authorities after His death.

Furthermore, the historical Jesus always has a curious tendency to embody the pet philosophical and ideological proclivities of the Jesus researchers themselves. One of the ironies of Jesus research is that the historical Jesus, purportedly an objective re-creation made with the latest scientific tools and subject to rigorous empirical verification, invariably emerges as a creature of the historical period, right down to the decade, that happens to have Him under its microscope. No figure goes out of date faster than the historical Jesus.

Nonetheless, virtually all Jesus researchers operate under this consensus about Him: that He was some sort of modern man out of His time, an anti-Establishment figure whose outspoken and unorthodox views got Him crucified by fearful authorities. Over the centuries, as intellectual fashions have waxed and waned, Jesus researchers have posited Him as a sage, a charismatic healer, an Enlightenment-era deist/rationalist, a preacher of the social gospel, a soi-disant exorcist (the researchers do not, of course believe in the existence of actual demons), an early humanist, a very early feminist, an unsuccessful Jewish reformer, an existentialist philosopher, a proto-Marxist revolutionary, and a sandwich-board prophet with a self-generated mission to warn listeners of the imminent end of the world (He was way off on the timing).

The historical record around which these re-creations wind lushly is actually very slender. Outside of the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there is almost nothing to go on. Jesus merited a single passing reference in the works of the Roman historian Tacitus and a handful of passing references in the works of Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian who chronicled the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Besides the canonical Gospels, 18 other early documents and fragments, sometimes called the pseudoevangelia, purport to narrate Jesus’ life or sayings. Most scholars agree that all these documents were written quite a bit later than the four canonical Gospels (although a minority of researchers, mostly Americans, insist that The Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus whose full text was discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, actually predates the canonical four). Archaeological findings such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and gleanings from recent digs in Israel have shed light on the everyday life and the religious life of the first century, as has sociological and demographic research about the era, but archaeology and sociology reveal nothing specific about Jesus.

All this means that Jesus researchers have little to do besides read, reread, and take apart the canonical Gospels, with the intent of reconstructing the “real Jesus” behind purportedly pious fantasies. Visits from angels, the Christmas manger—those are mere “theologoumena,” or pious myths illustrating theological propositions, not descriptions of events that actually occurred. Miracles, if they occurred at all, may otherwise be rationally explained. Even the Gospel records of the sayings of Jesus go through a bowdlerization process, with remarks disturbing to the modern sensibility (such as His forthright prohibition of fornication in the Sermon on the Mount) tidily expunged as later interpolations by disciples. This technique is the “critical” part of the historical-critical method. As one can see, this is essentially a species of literary proto-deconstructionism that predated by two centuries Harold Bloom’s efforts in the Yale English Department to pull apart and decode literary and, later, religious texts.

Historical-critical scholars have tried to work out an objective methodology for deciding what in the Gospels actually comes from Jesus, using such criteria as: whether it sounds idiosyncratic enough; whether more than one evangelist recorded it; whether it threatened the power structure or tended to embarrass the early Church; or whether it has a pithy, humorous tang that satisfies people’s expectations about the way Jesus ought to talk. All the criteria have been the focus of intense dispute among the scholars themselves. It is easy to see how the historical-critical method opens itself to the charge that anyone can read whatever he wants into or out of the Gospels. The method also sets up a slippery slope: If some things in the Gospels don’t come from Jesus, perhaps nothing in there comes from him. That seems to be the conclusion of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who meet twice a year to vote on whether Jesus really said what the Gospels say he said or did what the Gospels say he did. The Seminar has so far voted to reject about 80 percent of the Gospel sayings of Jesus (including the Lord’s Prayer) as not likely to have come from His lips. The seminar’s recently published Gospel of Mark lists only one out of 111 sayings of Jesus as absolutely authentic (it’s the passage that in the King James version reads, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”—so we know the historical Jesus wasn’t a tax protester).

German Roots

Jesus research got its academic start in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany during a flowering of German scholarship that also dominated classical studies, the sciences, and philology. Like these and other branches of German learning, the Jesus quest has been colored by German romanticism and German philosophy, particularly the theory of Hegel that consciousness evolves through history via a dialectic of opposing ideologies. Christianity was the result of a supposed dialectical synthesis of “Jewish” strains from the Apostle Peter and “gentile” strains from Saint Paul. Biblical Judaism (also the subject of historical-critical focus) had its own supposed dialectic: between a “legalistic” strain represented by the Torah and a later “prophetic” strain that emphasized social reform.

The historical-critical method was born in the notion of the modern mind that came into being during the Enlightenment and persists to this day: a mind that is fundamentally materialistic, suspicious of the metaphysical and the paranormal, and skeptical of all that cannot be verified empirically in a value-neutral vacuum. The great enemy of modernity—with its promise of scientific and even political and social progress—is religion, all religion, but especially Christianity, the established faith in every European domain when “enlightened” thinking first became the dominant culture of intellectuals and academics. Religion, at least in its traditional form, is authoritarian, makes mental demands on its adherents that go beyond the scientifically verifiable, and stakes out claims for itself that virtually guarantee clashes with non-believers.

A key component of the modern undertaking has been a revolt against traditional religion in the name of reason, science, progress, and freedom. Advocates of modernity who have not tried to banish religion altogether have tried to reform it so as to make it more up-to-date and rational—more acceptable to the skeptical modern mind. To this end, Enlightenment scholars went to work on the Bible. The first major figure was Hermann Reimarus, a professor of Oriental languages at the University of Hamburg. Reimarus was a deist, a promoter of what was then called “natural” or “rational” religion. His The Aims of Jesus and his Disciples, published in the late 1700s, presented a deist Jesus who worked no miracles, preached mainly moral philosophy, and required of his followers no particular dogmatic beliefs.

A whole string of “liberal lives” of Jesus followed in the nineteenth century. They presented Jesus the progressive social reformer; Jesus the proto-Freemason (He belonged to a secret “order” of Essenes who guided His career); Jesus the preacher of the brotherhood of man; and, towards the end of the century—as the era’s optimism began to wear thin—Jesus the prophet of an end-of-the-world that He erroneously thought would take place shortly after his death (Albert Schweitzer was the most famous proponent of this still-prevalent theory). The most popular of the nineteenth-century chronicles was Ernest Renan’s 1863 La Vie de Jesus. Renan’s Jesus is straight out of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (and Jesus Christ Superstar): a handsome innocent who rides around Galilee on a mule preaching a “sweet theology of love” and enjoying an unusual amount of attention from attractive females.

Along the way, biblical studies developed genuinely sophisticated scholarly tools, producing texts and translations superior to those that existed previously and shedding light on the meaning of ambiguous passages and the aims of their authors. Biblical archaeology, which also developed scientific rigor during the nineteenth century, helped scholars determine how Jesus and His contemporaries actually lived. But one did not need to be a biblical scholar to produce a historical Jesus resembling that of Reimarus or Renan or David Friedrich Strauss, another famous nineteenth-century researcher. Thomas Jefferson, a rank amateur, simply sat down with his razor blade and literally cut out of his Bible everything that did not accord with his deistic beliefs.

In the twentieth century, Rudolf Bultmann, a protégé of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, postulated an existential Jesus who could be known only by believers who radically reinterpreted all Christian “myths” about his life into calls for personal authenticity. The “God is dead” movement of the 1960s yielded a book called Jesus Is Dead. A 1986 book, The First Coming, by Thomas Sheehan, a lapsed-Catholic philosophy professor at Loyola University-Chicago, cast Jesus as a courageous striver for “human liberation,” a role that dovetailed nicely with one of Sheehan’s pet projects, lending moral support to the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador. A 1991 book, The Historical Jesus: Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant by John Dominic Crossan, a professor of biblical studies at DePaul University, casts Jesus as a colorful itinerant magician, bandit, Cynic philosopher, and class warrior who battles patriarchy, hierarchy, and corruption while preaching a message of radical egalitarianism.

Alongside the overtly ideological school of Sheehan and Crossan has grown another school, more modest and rigorous in its methodology, that concentrates on the Jewish milieu, religious and cultural, in which Jesus preached His message. In the view of this school, which includes some Jewish scholars, some Christians (Meier), the historical Jesus was not a revolutionary but simply one of many reformers and would-be reformers of Judaism who lived in first-century Palestine. After his death, some of these scholars postulate, a few of Jesus’ disciples, led by Saint Paul, distorted Jesus’ reform efforts into a cult geared mostly toward converting gentiles, not Jews.

Wilson claims to belong to this latter school, which stresses the traditional Jewish modes of prayer, Midrash, and ritual that inform the Gospels, and he acknowledges a heavy debt to Geza Vermes, author of the 1973 book Jesus the Jew. But in reality, Wilson’s “biography” of Jesus is in part a sometimes fanciful and often unscholarly re-creation of Jesus’ life, and in part a screed against organized Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism. Wilson even characterizes Saint Paul, the inventor (as Wilson sees it) of that distortion called Christianity, as a “Catholic,” a maneuver which should both bring a smile to the lips of Orthodox Christians who everywhere iconize Saint Paul and annoy evangelical Protestants for whom Paul functions as an Angelic Doctor. Here is Wilson’s view of the Christian Church: “If it were even half possible that an historical personage existed who said the words attributed to him in the Gospels, there could be no greater insult to his memory than to recite the creeds, invented in a Hellenized world which was, imaginatively speaking, light years away from both Jesus and ourselves.”

The Vivid Picture

Near the outset, Wilson writes, “I should maintain that the Gospels do furnish us with a number of very vivid pictures of Jesus, and a number of sayings and stories attributed to Jesus which are highly unlikely to have been invented.” The “vivid picture” that he subsequently unscrolls is the same one, given slight changes in taste, that seekers of the historical Jesus have painted since their quest began. He strips Jesus of His miraculous birth (“sheer silliness” and “moral vacuity,” sniffs Wilson after a perusal of ancient accounts of Christ’s nativity and childhood that deliberately conflates Gospel and apocryphal material); His resurrection from the dead (“perhaps… the body of Jesus rests in Nazareth near His mother’s house”); His institution of the Eucharist, (invented by Saint Paul and then worked back into three of the four Gospels, says Wilson); His miracles (mostly passed over by Wilson, though occasionally dismissed as “improbable”); His moral precepts that seem rough sledding for us late twentieth-century folk (Wilson interprets Jesus’ forthright prohibition against divorce as a subtle way of reminding His listeners to follow their own consciences on this question); and His belief in Hell (my biblical concordance lists at least a dozen references by Jesus to that fiery destination that Wilson ignores).

As the book draws to a close, Wilson’s attempted rationalizations of Gospel events move into the fanciful and even the absurd. For example, Wilson posits that the high priest’s servant whose ear Peter cut off (and Jesus miraculously restored) in the Garden of Gethsemane was actually Saint Paul in a hitherto unnoticed Gospel appearance. (Saint John’s Gospel gives the servant’s name as Malchus, malko means “king” in Hebrew, and Saul, as Paul was known until his Damascus-road conversion, was the name of a Hebrew king—so QED.) Wilson thinks that the “young man” whose garment was pulled off in the same Gethsemane scuffle, was the same “young man” who Saint Mark describes as sitting at Jesus’ empty tomb when the women arrived on Easter morning (the youth was presumably one of the body-snatchers). And Wilson’s explanation of the appearance of the Risen Christ at Emmaus made me laugh out loud: the disciples could have mistaken the still-alive Apostle James (called Jesus’ brother in the Gospels) for his dead look-alike, the Lord. I guess that Wilson is implying that Paul, James, and the young man in the garment (Mark?) got together and cooked up the story of the Resurrection.

Like many a modern, Wilson does cotton to the Jesus Who dined with prostitutes and wrote in the sand instead of condemning the woman taken in adultery. But once Wilson has weeded out a Jesus he can live with from what he sees as fanciful muck (walking on water, changing water into wine, and so forth), the figure that remains is not so much vivid as twee: wry, ironic, non-judgmental, anti-proselytizing, anti-sexist, anti-authority, anti-war, anti-capitalist. “We shall look in vain… among the words of Jesus for an ethical blueprint,” Wilson writes (he has already X-acto-knifed out of the Gospels the many words of Jesus that indicate exactly the opposite). Wilson’s is a Jesus with elbow patches shaking up the first-year students at a red brick university.

If Wilson’s historical Jesus could stand for the Labour Party in an Islington town-council election, this merely reflects the devolution of His biographer. For A.N. Wilson, too, has become like all the rest. When he shed his wife, he also shed his Young Fogey tweeds and homburgs. (If he now favors black turtlenecks, Dr. Martenses, and other near-caricature impedimenta of the hip intellectual’s uniform, he could pass for one of Dieter’s guests on the “Sprockets” segments of “Saturday Night Live.”) There is something pitiable—and comic, too—about this prim middle-aged literato trying to recapture a bohemian youth he never had in the company of his arty new wife (their private life must be something out of—well, an A.N. Wilson novel). When people abandon their faith, they usually believe they are striking a blow for individuality and originality. Actually they lose their identities: they become fungible human byproducts in the great secular-humanist landscape that is crowded with sad and cynical souls who look and think alike.

The Historical Wilson

While I was reading Jesus, I found myself embarking on a search for the “historical” A.N. Wilson, attempting my own reconstruction of the “real” man behind Wilson’s pious fantasies. My first clue came when I noticed that Wilson’s favorite of the four Gospels is Saint John’s. That may be because the extraordinary beauty of the fourth Gospel touches Wilson the writer, or it may be because the Gospel’s omission of the institution of the Eucharist (alone among the four) appeals to Wilson’s new anti-sacramental bent. “The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel… tells the Samaritan woman that the Father is to be worshipped neither on the holy mountain, nor in Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth,” Wilson writes, giving the passage his usual antinomian gloss. Indeed, Wilson breaks ranks with the vast majority of biblical critics and joins a minority of scholars who believe that the Fourth Gospel is more historical than was previously believed and may even reflect the influence of the apostle and fisherman whose name it bears—just as the Church fathers affirmed.

I found another clue to the workings of Wilson’s mind beginning on page 50 of Jesus, as he quotes extensively from a 1960 book called, The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship. The book is by Aileen Guilding, a “New Testament scholar,” as Wilson describes her. I began to wonder: is this woman perhaps a relative of Wilson’s wife—her aunt or her sister or even her mother? The several pages of attention Wilson gives to Aileen Guilding’s book seemed revealing. The effort indicated some insecurity on Wilson’s part, some desire to ingratiate himself. Suddenly it became clear that in the writing of Jesus, Wilson was not simply exorcising the Christianity of his youth. He was publicly weaving intellectual and emotional ties with a new family and casting off the old. It was an exercise in erasure of the past that seemed faintly humiliating, like the canned confessions Chinese dissidents used to sign in order to get out of Mao’s prisons.

Wilson might have thought that in writing Jesus he was finally catching up with the times. In fact, Wilson might merely have caught up with yesterday. For example, some textual scholars have recently concluded that at least a few of Jesus’ followers likely called Him the Messiah or the Son of God even before His crucifixion. If so, that would drastically change what scholars of the historical-critical school believe to be the historical Jesus’ own self-conception—that perhaps He considered Himself to be the Second Person of the Holy Trinity after all.

There also is the question of whether the free-thinking post-religious modern mind actually exists outside of the rarified circles in which Wilson moves. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of people believe in miracles—real, supernatural miracles. Almost as many believe in angels, astrology, witchcraft, exorcisms, weeping statues, gods and goddesses, past lives, energy from crystals, channeled spirits, out-of-body experiences, returns from the other side of death, bargains with Satan, a resurrected Elvis, visits from extraterrestrials, and so forth. This is, after all, the post-modern era, in which the bedrock values and assumptions of the Enlightenment are under challenge from every quarter.

While I was researching and writing “The Newest Testament” for Washington City Paper, I occasionally would open up the Gospels themselves. There, the real (or perhaps purported) words of Jesus would fly up at me through the fog of the two centuries of reinterpretation that I was perusing as part of my job. I would flip through the Gospel pages at random, picking out pericopes: “For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always….” “No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old….” “My doctrine is not mine but His that sent me.” The words pierce the brain like a cannula. They are always concise, always astonishingly beautiful, always uttered with the most shocking presumption of uniqueness and authority. So that it is not surprising that biblical scholars, while claiming the most rigorous standards of scientific objectivity, soon enough find themselves on a personal quest for the man behind those words. The scholars are Jesus-haunted. But they also are disingenuous. For it is one thing to reject the Gospels as whole-cloth lies and the Jesus they portray as an invention, a madman, or a fraud. It is quite another thing to claim to have special new insight into a radically different figure who can be discerned “behind” these documents of faith, and to hold this figure up as a model superior to the Jesus of faith. If, as Chesterton said, Jesus is not what He said He was—Messiah, Son of God, one with His Father—He is not admirable at all but best dismissed as a deluded egomaniac. True God or fool, that is the truly haunting choice.

Wilson, too, is Jesus-haunted—hence his angry and troubled book. “The truth is that Jesus remains too disturbing a figure ever to be left to himself,” he concludes. Wilson is talking about Christianity and its presumed distortions of Jesus, but he could as well be talking about himself. One can only hope, or perhaps pray, that his own quest, his own reading of the sacred texts that he cannot put down, eventually will lead him back to the faith that the Gospels report—and call forth.

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