Garry Wills on Paul

I picked up Garry Wills’s What Paul Meant at Costco while I was waiting for my glasses to be repaired, and I soon returned to buy the book.

Wills reminds us that Thomas Jefferson regarded Paul as the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus” (page 1). But Jefferson was wrong. Wills writes,

But scholarly enquiry has destroyed the idea that the Gospels have a simple biographical basis. They 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. If we want to see what the original Jesus communities looked like, the first and best witness to this is Paul… (pages 9-10)

Wills also calls into question the account of Paul offered in Acts. That book claims that Paul participated in the murder of one Christian, threatened others, and dragged believers “back in chains to Jerusalem.” That is highly unlikely, writes Wills (pages 34-5). Paul could not have had the authority to do such things, Wills writes, nor would the local authorities have let him get away with it.

Wills account makes for interesting history. But there is something odd going on here. Wills writes sincerely of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus; clearly Wills’s intent is to show how Christianity properly rests on Pauline doctrine. Yet at the same time, to defend Paul, Wills refutes the historical accuracy of other sections of the Bible. So the riddle is how the Bible is for Christians both inspired by God and filled with human errors and misunderstandings. But that is a riddle that will take me some time to fully answer (from a critical perspective). In the meantime, I may quote a few more interesting passages from Wills’s book as I finish reading it.

2 thoughts on “Garry Wills on Paul”

  1. If you are interested in the first two centuries of Christian history I recommend that you visit the site of Early Doherty and read many of his articles relating to the “Jesus Puzzle”.

    I suggest that you read the Jesus Puzzle in a nutshell which he has a link for near the top of the page. Its a short 12 part explanation. Doherty’s basic thesis is that Christianity did not develop from a historical Jesus; ie an actual man. But rather it developed from a mythical Jesus; a cult like belief in a salvation figure which was part and parcel of the ancient world. As such Christianity borrows heavily from the Jewish Salvation model, Platonic philosophy, other Greek philosophy such as Stoic wisdom, and many other pagan religious practices. There is nothing new in Christianity. It is a composite of much of the thinking of the ancient world. The bottom line regarding Paul is that the Jesus he worshiped was not a human man but a mythical demi-god who lived and was crucified in *another* realm, not on Earth! The historical Jesus really starts to develop with the Synoptic traditions 40 or 50 years after the alleged Christ’s death. Read Doherty’s site for more. If you are interested in this sort of thing then you will get a lot out of it as Doherty is a well researched and intelligent skeptic who pretty much shows that Christianity anything but the “word of God” but rather a tradition that borrowed from many elements of the Greco-Roman world.

    Bill Visconti

  2. There is plenty new in Christianity. There is no comparable figure to Jesus. He was crucified in shame while most of his followers abandoned him. Yet his followers emerged believing in his message and that he was still alive. There was no one like Jesus.

    Unfortunately, too many of his followerss did the very things he criticized.

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