THE MIND OF THE APOSTLE
April 18, 1997
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages A.N. Wilson, literary editor of the London Evening Standard, author of Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. The new book has caused a stir in Britain because it challenges conventional, traditional thinking about the apostle, Paul, and about Jesus.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages A.N. Wilson, literary editor of the "London Evening Standard," author of "Paul: The Mind of the Apostle."
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Mr. Wilson, your new book has caused a stir in Britain because you challenge must of the conventional, traditional thinking about the apostle, Paul, and about Jesus. Letís begin, if you would, by telling us briefly who Paul was when he lived and about that conventional thinking.
A.N. WILSON, Author, "Paul": The conventional view really is that Paul, who is a fervent Jew, is employed by the high priests to persecute the Christians, and in the conventional view, Christianity is fully fledged religion already.
DAVID GERGEN: This is three years after Christ.
A.N. WILSON: Three years--two or three years after Christ was crucified. And the conventional view is this bigoted Jew is trying to put down the virtuous Christians, and then he walks to Damascus. And on his way there, he sees a blinding light from heaven, and he hears a voice which says, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?". And he says, "Who are you, Lord?". And he says, "I am Jesus, whom you persecuted." And from that moment on in the conventional story Paul has ceased to become a Jew--ceased to be a Jew and has become a Christian.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, tell us what your challenge to that view is, what you think.
A.N. WILSON: Well, I think most people whoíve gone into this now realize that the situation was very much more fluid and much more complicated than that. And Paul, of course, in his own account, in his lessons of the Gallatians, never once says as he was walking to Damascus--he said he was living in Damascus--when he had a revelation or an apocalypse, so out of that his life was changed, and he came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews, but he never says that he was converted from Judaism to Christianity. In fact, Christianity is not a word in his vocabulary. He never once uses it. He never uses the word "Christian."
DAVID GERGEN: But the essence of your book is rather than Jesus being the founder of Christianity, in fact, Paul over time helped form this breakaway group which becomes the Christian church.
A.N. WILSON: Yes. Paul is the leader of the sect within a sect which--eventually we can see historically is going to turn into Christianity. What I say in my book is if you have to stick a label on somebody and say founder of Christianity, the likely figure youíd stick that label on would be Paul, but, of course, in reality--
DAVID GERGEN: Instead of Jesus.
A.N. WILSON: Instead of Jesus.
DAVID GERGEN: And what was Jesus then in your interpretation?
A.N. WILSON: Well, Jesus, like Paul, was a Jew. And I donít think either of them had the smallest intention of founding a religion which a breakaway movement from Judaism. I donít think even Paul did. Jesus is a Palestinian Jew. Heís not merely limited to Palestine, the present day land of Israel, but to rural Galilee, and as far as we know, he had no interest whatsoever in the gentiles. A few fragmentary bits of Jesusís actual conversation which we have recorded in the synoptic gospels suggest that he had an absolute contempt for the gentiles. He called them "dogs" and "pigs." I mean, "Why cast your pearls before swine," he said when somebody asked him heíd preach in gentile city.
DAVID GERGEN: So in your view, Christ remained a figure within the Jewish community, but Paul went after the gentiles?
A.N. WILSON: Jesusís mission was the philosophy for the house of Israel. He says this--
DAVID GERGEN: He thought he was preaching to the Jews to make them better.
A.N. WILSON: He was preaching to the Jews to make them better Jews. Now, of course, at this time you have many, many groups within Judaism who are looking for the end of time.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
A.N. WILSON: And they believe that the, Mesheach, Messiah will come. And when heís come then various prophecies will be fulfilled. The old temple of Solomon will come back magically or miraculously into Jerusalem, the dead will rise up. And itís in the context of that idea that you have the stories about Jesusís resurrection. And fundamentally, when all thatís happened, the gentiles will realize the truth of Judaism and will rise up to praise the God of Israel. Well, what Paul does, very much within this context and very much as a Jew, he wants to press the "fast forward" button. He wants to bring the whole prophecy into effect at once. And so he goes out into the gentile world. He goes through Asia Minor. He goes into Greece. He goes into Macedonia, eventually reaches Italy, preaching the word to the gentiles, as if the Messiah was already among us.
DAVID GERGEN: And Paulís notion was--and what was really another interesting part of your book, was that Paul, like Jesus, believed the end was at hand. And he wanted to make sure that not just his gentiles could share in that salvation. And he was bringing that good news to them.
A.N. WILSON: The clock is ticking away through every one of Paulís letters.
DAVID GERGEN: He thinks, though, the end is actually coming in his lifetime.
A.N. WILSON: The end is coming in his lifetime, so even when his followers asked him quite practical questions about sexuality, about marriage, and stuff, in response to the marriage question, he says, Sure, get married if you like, but you do realize itís not going to be a very long marriage because--itís better to marry than burn. If youíre burning up with lust, get married, but within a few months, years, the end will be upon you.
DAVID GERGEN: So the gentiles join; they convert; they become; and they eventually become the base--
A.N. WILSON: They convert to a form of Judaism which is really very like what other Jewish missionaries--the pharisees, for instance--would have described as God-fearing--that is to say they accept a lot of the spiritual teachings of Judaism, but they donít follow the dietary laws; and they donít circumcise their male children.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. And they become the foundation of the basis for the Christian Church that emerges over time.
A.N. WILSON: Out of that group you eventually get Christians. DAVID GERGEN: And the paradox here is that Paul you identify as the founder of Christianity and yet you say because he believed the end of the world was at hand, he, himself, would have been horrified to be identified as a--
A.N. WILSON: I mean, he didnít set out to found a religion in the way that the prophet Mohammad set out to found Islam.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
A.N. WILSON: Not all. He believed himself to be interpreting Judaism to the Jews. He was a radical interpreter of Judaism. And he believed heíd cracked the secret of it. But he certainly was not attempting to found a religion called Christianity. As I say, Christianity was not a word in his vocabulary.
DAVID GERGEN: The other interesting paradox about Paul that you bring out is that many women, many feminist groups, many gays and others feel that theyíre, in effect, protected by Paul; that their places and--speaks disparagingly of them.
A.N. WILSON: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: And yet Paul--by bringing in gentiles, in effect, begins to democratize religion, and that lays the basis for a later democratization and political--
A.N. WILSON: I think this is one of the less important things about Christianity, as a matter of fact. Paul says that in Christ there is neither male nor female, bonds or free, Greek nor Jews, and all are equal in the eyes of God. This is an absolutely revolutionary ideal. And to profligate this among the slave class and among the bourgeoisie from which he came, was a time bomb. Now, of course, Iím not saying that Paul was advocating a democratic system of government or anything of that sort, but given the fact that this writings are destined to become the Christian scriptures and democrat--that he did believe this, and it is really part and parcel of the Christian ideal--you can see that the very modern ideas which perhaps took to the 19th or 20th century to be fulfilled or there in embryo in Paul, namely that men and women now are equal in the eyes of God, and they should enjoy equal rights politically. Of course, you mentioned the gays, and Iím afraid that Paulís, strictly by modern standards, unenlightened about that.
DAVID GERGEN: Final question, Mr. Wilson: If your book were to change oneís historical understanding, would it also change oneís sense of what you should believe religiously if youíre a Christian and go into a Christian church?
A.N. WILSON: I donít think so, myself. I mean, I think that if you read my book, or if you read other serious attempts to get to grips with New Testament problems, it might make you a little bit less bigoted if you happen to be a bigot, because youíd realize that the whole problem of Christian origins is very complex. But on the other hand, the Christ who worships and extolled is available. Thereís no reason, it seems to me, why a modern believer should not follow that path, and, indeed, thatís one of the reasons that Paul is actually an influential and important character.
DAVID GERGEN: A.N. Wilson, thank you very much.
A.N. WILSON: Thank you.