As Wilson states at the outset, the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith are two different beings. There have been numerous attempts to construct a "biography" of the historical Jesus, all of which have encountered the difficulty that the books of the New Testament were not intended to provide that kind of information. A few scholars have gone so far as to suppose that Jesus never existed, a view which Wilson finds implausible. What distinguishes Wilson's approach is that he is a novelist and a biographer, and these skills inform the way he deals with his material.
It is central to Wilson's view that Jesus must be understood in a Jewish context, something he makes clear in his opening chapter. Christians, however, generally hold that Jesus was proclaiming a message to the whole world, an idea that Wilson traces back, no doubt correctly, to Paul, who almost certainly introduced the central Christian doctrines of original sin and of Grace. Paul is in fact a crucial figure in the transformation of Christianity from a Jewish sect into a world religion, and Wilson therefore devotes the whole of his second chapter to him. Wilson is not, of course, original in emphasizing Paul's vital role in Christianity, but he does contribute one new suggestion: he thinks it is possible that Paul knew or at least saw the historical Jesus. If this was the case, Paul's failure to mention the fact then becomes something of a puzzle, but Wilson seems to take this as additional evidence for Paul's wish to emphasize the mystical and visionary aspect of Jesus as opposed to his historical existence. There seems to be some danger of getting into a circular argument here.
In dealing with Jesus, Wilson uses his novelist's imagination to try to depict the man as opposed to the myth. As he says, this is difficult to do, because the Gospel writers have different aims, a principal one being to show how Jesus's sayings and actions fulfilled Scriptural prophecies. The Evangelists seek to instruct and inspire the faithful, not to write history. But with his novelist's eye Wilson seizes on small details that they occasionally let slip and which he thinks allow us to glimpse authentic events. And he is alert to places where the Gospels hint at disagreements and arguments which we are not supposed to know about: for example, between the followers of John the Baptist and the early Christians, and between the followers of James, who adhered to the Jewish view of Jesus, and the "Hellenizers" who took Paul's universalist line.
To illustrate the way in which he thinks we should read the Gospels, Wilson provides a detailed discussion of the feeding of the five thousand. He is relatively uninterested in questions about the actual occurrence of Jesus's miracles, preferring instead to investigate their symbolic significance and the reasons why they are included in the story. But he provides a new slant on some of them; for example, he speculates that the wedding feast at which Jesus turned water into wine may have been at the occasion of Jesus's own marriage. Whether or not this is correct, it is a timely reminder to the reader that we do not know whether Jesus was married; but if he was not, as Christians generally assume, it would be rather surprising in a Jewish context. Wilson also makes the valid point that, judging by some of his recorded utterances, Jesus was rather unsympathetic to the idea of family life.
Wilson has no difficulty in demonstrating that the Gospel accounts of the Nativity and of Jesus's childhood contain a large element of legend. But the central act in the drama of the Gospels is, of course, Jesus's trial and crucifixion, and Wilson finds numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies in the narrative of these events too. As for the Resurrection stories, he thinks we shall never know what happened but suggests, rather tentatively, that the young man encountered by the women at the empty tomb, and later interpreted as an angel, may have been a member of a group who wished to take the body away for burial in Galilee. The alleged sightings of Jesus himself after his crucifixion may, Wilson thinks, have been of Jesus's brother James.
Wilson is a sensitive writer who has done his homework; he knows New Testament Greek and is well read in the primary and secondary sources. He also writes very well. His book is therefore worth reading by anyone with an interest in the historical Jesus and how he was transformed into the Saviour of mankind. Unsurprisingly, he does not provide any answers to major questions, but he is consistently interesting and he has some useful insights to contribute. And he is certainly right to say that, in reading the Gospels, we must learn to think in a way that is quite alien to the modern mind.
See also Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle and other book reviews in my Religion category.
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