3 OCTOBER 1992, Page 27

The light imaginings of men

Charles Moore

JESUS by A.N. Wilson Sinclair-Stevenson,L15, pp. 269 There is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus', says Schweitzer at the begin- ning of his own The Quest of the Historical Jesus. 'No vital force comes into the figure unless a man breathes into it all the hate or all the love of which he is capable. The stronger the love, or the stronger the hate, the more lifelike is the figure which is pro- duced.'

A. N. Wilson was a believer and fairly recently lost his faith. At the time of his Damascene de-conversion he wrote a pamphlet full of anger against religion and the idea of God, particularly the Christian God, so one expected this life of the founder of the religion to be, using Schweitzer's terms, a work of hate. But it is not, nor yet a work of love. It is therefore interesting, but unsatisfactory.

Painfully aware that historians have Failed to penetrate the mystery of the life of Jesus, Mr Wilson still cannot avoid the traps. 'There is no historical method in existence which could possibly establish where Jesus was born,' he writes, and then goes on to explain, in the next paragraph, why he must have been born in Nazareth. Sometimes he uses knowledge of the cir- cumstances of the time to show where the Gospels are wrong. He dismisses the insti- tution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, on the grounds that a devout Jew would never have handed round wine at a Passover meal and said it was his blood (This smacks strongly of the mystery cults of the Mediterranean'.) He uses the Gospels' detail to undermine traditional assertions. Jesus cannot really have been a carpenter, Mr Wilson argues, because of his remark about beholding the mote in one's brother's eye and the beam in one's own eye: '... no carpenter in real life came anywhere near having a plank sticking out of his eye'. (No, indeed. But did Jesus real- ly think he did?) On other occasions, Mr Wilson will take a naturalistic detail as confirmation of his- toricity. He likes the late J. A. J. Robin- son's idea that the use of the word opsarion in the description of the Feeding of the Five Thousand proves that John was indeed the author of the Fourth Gospel. Opsarion means pickled fish and is the pre- cise term an actual fisherman would have used, rather than the more general word ichthus.

More often, however, Mr Wilson turns to his own conjectures. He says that Jesus was probably married and that the wedding feast at Cana may have been ('who knows?') his own. His theory env guess') of the Resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene and on the road to Emmaus is that they were in fact sightings of Jesus' brother James, or another of his brothers. He toys with Morton Smith's notion of Jesus as a magician, and speaks darkly of naked initiation rites. His most elaborate and sustained conceit is that Paul was an actual rather than metaphorical persecutor of Jesus, and was the same man as Malchus, the servant of the High Priest whom Peter attacked in the Garden of Gethsemane Of I had the chance to return in time and meet Paul, I should take a close look at his ears'). The book is full of the little phrases of supposition 'possibly', 'quite conceivably' etc.

After a while, it becomes apparent that Mr Wilson has written the wrong book. Although he shows wide reading, and deploys it adroitly to expound an archaeo- logical or linguistic or textual point, he does not seem to be interested in the his- torical Jesus. He only plays with the histori- cal Jesus. What interests him, and this is quite a different thing, is a Jesus who can be imagined, a character, like a character in great poetry or drama, or a character who can be met, who can fight his way out of the myths that surround him and explain himself to our age. Mr Wilson wants him to come forth, as it were, and be interviewed by Lynn Barber.

Well, he never has and he never will, and Mr Wilson, who has thought long and deeply about him, really knows this perfect- ly well. He warns continually against any- thing in the study of Jesus which purports to make all clear: 'If it makes sense,' he writes, 'it is wrong'. And he rails against the Gospels for not giving him what he wants. `What the New Testament so unsatisfyingly fails to reveal is the nature of the man.' To Mr Wilson, Jesus is like Shakespeare, an `extraordinary person' whose "personali- ty" remains invisible'. Some of the best touches in the book are those in which Mr `Poor David Gower. Not in the England team or on the Booker list.' Wilson brings his litetary skills to bear upon Jesus' utterances. He writes of his `ironic dialectic' and his 'disturbing conver- sational energy', of his receptiveness towards women, unusual at the time, of his ability to 'detect the source of trouble as the human heart'. This is all perceptive, so long as the reader is aware that he is not reading history, but the work of one who, in Schweitzer's phrase about Renan, is `offering in place of a solution the highly- coloured phrases of the novelist'.

What better way might there be, then, to approach the subject which is the most important to the history of the world? It will not do, obviously, to reject historical inquiry. Two centuries of study have shown that the Gospels are in many respects inconsistent, textually confused, and according to modern ideas of what consti- tutes fact, frequently wrong and even more frequently beyond the reach of proof. Nor will it do, however, to take refuge from this problem, which is probably, crude though it is, the main reason for the loss of faith, in the assertion that the whole thing is vitally, redeemingly true, but true only as a myth, whose relation to fact, if it exists at all, is little more than coincidental. As Mr Wilson points out in a subtle exposition of the story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria, the unique power of the Gospels lies in their unique combination of qualities — of scriptural reference, typological signifi- cance, literary self-consciousness and things that happened in a particular time and place: The more he [John] piles artifice upon arti- fice, trope upon trope, the more real his pic- tures become...

The way to start, it seems to me, is not, as Mr Wilson does, to curse the propagan- dism of the Evangelists, to reduce the beliefs of Paul by psychoanalysis and to mock the subsequent hierarchies who framed the Creeds and spread the Church, but to use them as the chief means of understanding. What else have we got? We cannot get very far with a sentence in Josephus and carbon dating and sifting bits of bone on what might have been Golgotha. We should not assume that our notion of an `extraordinary person' is a fruitful way of thinking about Jesus. Our form of sentimental individualism always wants to know 'What's he really like?', by which we mean, what is his relationship with his mother and whom has he slept with and has he got a sense of humour and what does he like for breakfast. That way of looking at Jesus gets one nowhere. The Evangelists invite us to look at him in a quite different way, and one which is, in fact, far less anachronistic. It does not occur to them that we should know him as a person, because they do not have our conception of a person. Their preoccupa-

tions are religious, not psychological or novelistic. They believe that something which they or their informants experienced in real life was the great religious event,

changing all life. Paul developed their belief, so did the great Councils and so does the Church to this day. It is absurd to dismiss this as repression, distortion and superstition, although all of these have often been present. A. N. Wilson is interested, on the evidence of this book, in imagining Jesus. Jesus is best imagined as God, and it is Christian orthodoxy which perpetuates and renews that great act of imagination.