This is a book which is, in both senses of the expression, difficult to put down. As a cliché indicating readability, the phrase is deserved; those interested in the subject – nowadays it is hard to guess how many that would be – are almost bound to be intrigued by the book. When ‘putting down’ means trouncing or violently refuting, the book is safe, principally because one experiences no wish to do either of these things. The arguments are presented in mannerly fashion; though the writer is currently agnostic, he makes no attempt to stampede or manhandle the readers into agnosticism. The style is light, to the point of sprightliness sometimes, but without becoming facetious. Even when, for example, Wilson speaks of Jesus in the same breath and tone as he speaks of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood, he is making a serious point about the traditional techniques of rhetoric as used by St Luke, who, in this instance, drops historical names such as Caesar, Herod and Quirinius into his narrative to make his main character sound more authentic; and this point can be appreciated both by believers and unbelievers.
Wilson’s intentions sound actively benevolent. To readers who cannot easily get into the mood for understanding the New Testament his advice, à propos of his own book, is ‘Skip to chapter four. Then, maybe, come back and read chapters one, two and three if you find yourself in difficulties.’ This tutorial tone, kept up throughout, may make some readers feel that he underestimates them. Certainly one keeps expecting to come upon the sort of informative illustrations that this theme, when popularised, conventionally needs: they would depict, say, a detail from Holman Hunt’s The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, a third-century page from a Gospel with some famous saying of our Lord’s visible on it, and a few statutory oxen and donkeys. The surrounding text would be slanted and loaded, of course, to bring out some of Wilson’s main contentions: that the precocious boy in the Temple was just that, certainly not the Son of God born of a Virgin in Bethlehem; that the saying of Jesus in the MS must be either downright apocryphal or uttered on some other occasion by somebody else; and that the most famous beast in the annals of the Christian Church might have been two donkeys, as St Matthew maintained, or one, as stated by the other three Evangelists. In fact, there are no illustrations, and such an aid as the chart appended to Chapter Ten, showing how the four Gospel accounts compare with each other, is welcome.
It has apparently never been easy to find a good title for a book about Jesus. In the past they have tended to be either pedestrian like Ernest Renan’s La Vie de Jésus or pussyfooting like H.V. Morton’s In The Steps of the Master. A very recent one, Barbara Thiering’s Jesus the Man, falls flat: so many books have been called Somebody the Man that it is an irrevocable cliché even now that there is an alternative: he might be a god. Wilson, however, has succeeded: the single word, without any of the attributes or honours usually associated with it, is arresting. There can be no irreverence in its starkness for the author makes clear in a prefatory account of his aims that he does believe in and intends to discuss a historical Jesus: a holy man, a hasid, who possessed gifts of healing and who understood the relationship of God and man as most people could not. He was one of many at that time and probably no claim to be unique was made either by him or about him. This is a man his biographer can revere. His reverence is attractive; he often sounds as though he was borrowing it from believers in the divine Jesus. He may speak coolly of ‘the body of apophthegms assembled by St Matthew and known as The Sermon on the Mount’, but he can conjure up most appealingly a saint on a hillside calling out ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ to a holiday crowd who had other priorities. In a way, his technique is that of The Life of Brian, where a great preacher is felt to be present in the distance even while the camera settles with the jolly worldlings almost out of earshot as they chattily wonder why the cheesemakers should be blessed, or indeed the Greeks.
As he tells us, Wilson was for many years a practising Christian, but his theological studies at an Oxford seminary, and the reflections to which they gave rise, gradually eroded his faith. He realises that many of his fellow Christians were somehow able to reconcile their informed doubts with their beliefs, but he himself could not. Clearly he has nothing in common with the tough Christians of the past two millennia who believed because it was impossible. He would presumably despise them. Certainly when he speaks of contemporary believers his implication – as courteously worded as such an implication could be – is that we are not very bright. He relegates the divine Jesus (respectfully, almost affectionately, it is true) to a place in the realm of myth, folklore and pious fantasy: ‘he is there, to comfort and to save those who turn to him in faith.’ This disparaging picture of believers is also presented, at length, on the first page of the book, where he summarises the tenets of the Christian faith in a voice and words which, as opposed to those of the great Creeds, make us seem harmlessly daft.
My qualification to review A.N. Wilson’s Jesus is the fact that throughout my childhood I was a member, under strong duress, of the Plymouth Brethren, and for the rest of my life, voluntarily, of the Catholic Church. I am not and never have been a Biblical scholar, but, necessarily, I have a long familiarity with the Bible and with the problems that Wilson addresses. It was at a very early age, for example, that I turned a beady eye on the discrepancy of the donkeys. I knew better than to mention the difficulty and I certainly could not solve it, but I must have coped with it somehow. While on the subject of religious sects I must point out that Wilson writes as a Protestant, however cidevant, and this is bound to affect some of his arguments. A good example is his use of St James, whom he identifies as the brother of Jesus, to distinguish him from the disciples who were also called James. His theory is that the mysterious man who joined the band as they walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the day of the Resurrection and whom at supper they recognised as Jesus, was in fact James. He applies the same theory to the scene at the tomb earlier that day when Mary Magdalene encountered somebody she took to be the gardener until he spoke, at which point she greeted him with the name she usually kept for Jesus; well, this was probably James too.
As well as being an ingenious way of disproving the Resurrection, which of course Wilson wishes to do, it is a sympathetic idea in itself; and forward-looking too, in a Wagnerian sort of way, in view of the important part this James was to play in the history of the Early Church. It is as though we were hearing his motif for the first time. Catholics, however, are required to believe that the Virgin Mary had no children except Jesus. So on doctrinal grounds we cannot go along with this supposition of a close likeness which only blood brothers could be imagined to have; quite apart from the fact that we are required to believe in the Resurrection. And, as often, faith coincides with aesthetics: it would be difficult to accept that any of the Evangelists – such splendid writers – would spoil a story of this kind with a threadbare gimmick like a freak resemblance.
It is clear from this example alone that A.N. Wilson has a highly-developed sense of the plausible. From time to time in his demonstration that the narratives of the Old Testament are historically unsafe he cannot somehow reject a particular story altogether, so he finds a specious explanation of it. He builds on what is there. In the half-light of a shadowy garden at dawn it was natural that Mary Magdalene could not identify a face but equally natural that she should recognise a voice, and in the fraught circumstances she might, very believably, have mistaken the voice of James for that of Jesus; after all, voices run in families more often than features do. Wilson’s nose for plausibility is so alert as to seem almost his only aid to judgment. ‘There is nothing more probable than ...’, ‘the disciples could not possibly have ...’, and ‘it is unthinkable that ...’, afflict the text like hiccups at first; they die down later. Unfortunately, such challenges are apt to be counter-productive: of course the disciples could have, and so on. Yet it is difficult to see how else Wilson could have expressed himself; there is so little evidence, in the usual sense of the word, for anything in the New Testament. But what seems plausible varies too much from person to person to be truly helpful. A.N. Wilson, for example, is so much impressed by the account of the raising of Jairus’s daughter from the dead that he mentions it on three separate occasions, believing that she was not really dead at all and that the interest lies in the fact that when she revived, the caring, imaginative human being who to him is Jesus ‘commanded that something should be given her to eat.’ Other people can quite easily believe that it was a miracle but quibble – far from frivolously – at the concept that anyone raised from the dead would immediately feel like a hearty meal.
As Wilson has himself stated, he has nothing original to say about his chosen subject. That is true enough, but it is not the point. Certainly it is over a century ago that highly influential and heavily qualified scholars like Emil Schürer began to attack one of the central points of the Gospel story by asserting that Jesus could not have been born in Bethlehem. St Luke tells us that when Quirinius was governor of Syria, the Emperor Augustus ordered a general census for taxation purposes. Everybody had to report to his own family town. Joseph, a descendant of David, accordingly travelled from Nazareth in Galilee, where he was then living, to Bethlehem in Judaea, and here his betrothed wife Mary gave birth to her son Jesus. The scholars, both of yesterday and today, including A.N. Wilson, tell us that there was no census at that particular time, and that if there had been, Joseph was exempt as Galilee was then under an independent ruler. Wilson gives a thorough going-over of this kind to every event of Jesus’s life; what the disciples could not possibly have done, by the way, was witness his trial because by their own account they had all run away.
In spite of everything that A.N. Wilson can say, people will still be singing carols about the little town of Bethlehem this Christmas, but it will probably not be because they have read some inescapably convincing argument that makes them think he is wrong. There are such arguments: a neat little note to the third chapter of St Luke’s Gospel in Ronald Knox’s translation of the New Testament goes a long way to tackling the Quirinius part of the difficulty, and one need not be as ingenious as Wilson to think of some plausible reason for Joseph’s being in Judaea at the appropriate time. But I imagine that the question of the reliability of the Bible as history is not much heeded one way or another. (There is enough fuss about the Dead Sea Scrolls.) Only last year there appeared a remarkably good book, The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox. Though the arguments for and against have been around for some time, they are not exactly common knowledge today, and it would be better if they were; ostriches of all persuasions must sometimes get pleasant surprises when they take their heads out of the sand. At all events A.N. Wilson thinks it necessary to restate the issues, and I am sure he is right.
One of the many attractive things about his book is the respect he pays to his authorities in the field and the liveliness of the quotations he selects from their works. Geza Vermes, author of Jesus the Jew, is his clear favourite. I can see why, if only from the Professor’s description of the formal debate between Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and his colleagues, in the first century: ‘Having exhausted his arsenal of reasoning and still not convinced them, he performed a miracle, only to be told that there was no room for miracles in debate. In exasperation he then exclaimed “If my teaching is correct, may it be proved by Heaven!” whereupon a celestial voice declared “What have you against Rabbi Eliezer, for his teaching is correct?” ’ This is sheer Woody Allen: the McLuhan scene in Annie Hall. But Vermes goes on to explain ‘that this intervention was ruled out of order because in the Bible it is written that decisions are to be reached by majority vote.’ In the context of the present debate I cannot decide whether this sentence is encouraging or deeply disheartening.