New book explores the roots of early Christianity

Did Paul substitute the teachings of Jesus for his own radically different religion? Is today’s Christianity more about the Christ figure than what the Jewish rabbi Jesus really preached? Was there a Jesus cover-up? Those are just some of the questions York Professor Emeritus Barrie Wilson addresses in his new book How Jesus Became Christian.

A launch for the book will take place from 5 to 7pm on Tuesday, March 18, in the Harry Leith Room 004, Atkinson Bldg., Keele campus.

"The religion of Jesus is not being followed by Christians today," says Wilson, a professor of humanities and religious studies. "Paul was not a disciple of Jesus, he had different beliefs and practices and he never even met him."

Wilson asserts Paul was not a faithful follower of Jesus. Jesus taught about the coming Kingdom of God – the universal rule of God – and adherence to the Jewish Torah, while Paul developed a faction of Christianity based on the Christ figure, which shunned the Torah. Paul’s own brand of religion displaced the teachings of Jesus and, at the same time, a divine Gentile Christ was substituted for the human Jewish Jesus. Although Jesus’ brother James continued to preach the teachings of Jesus, Paul’s version was what caught on.

The New Testament is Paul’s version of Christianity, not a neutral collection of church writings, and was endorsed by the same group that endorsed the cover-up, says Wilson.

"I think Paul was a religious genius, but that said, I don’t think it is the religion of Jesus," says Wilson. "Paul presented the Christ figure in terms that were familiar to the early Christians. His was a more familiar religion, it was universal and it was easy to follow."

The book also delves into how Christian anti-Semitism came about and its connection to the Jesus cover-up. "Anti-Semitism is rooted within New Testament writings and is the result of the cover-up," says Wilson, who is not afraid to take on contentious and controversial subject matter.

Anti-Semitism is the result of psychological guilt on the part of Christians, says Wilson. Paul’s version of Christianity was substituted for Jesus’ teachings, so the Jews, as witnesses to that, had to be erased from the earth.

Wilson says friends, family and students were always asking him questions about religion, such as "How did Jesus, a Jew, become a Christian?". That was part of the impetus to write the book, he says. "No one had told them that story in a popular way. So the book really came about because people are interested in the story."

Right: Barrie Wilson

Another reason for the book was the discovery, in the last 60 years, of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic writings. They provided key information about the period of early Christianity, while at the same time, raising many questions.

The book is a straightforward and accessible look at the development of early religion. "How Jesus Became Christian is intended for general readers who are curious about the origins of Christianity, who are interested in the big picture and who are perplexed by some of the same mysteries that have intrigued me over the years," says Wilson. "How did the Jewish Jesus of history become the Gentile Christ of faith? How did early Christianity become a separate religion from Judaism? What really accounts for Christian anti-Semitism?"

While Wilson admits his take on Paul is more radical than that of most of his colleagues, he contends that it is an important perspective to tell. "I hope it is a catalyst for discussion and that it leads to finding out more about the truth of this mysterious period."

He is also the author of Hermeneutical Studies: Dilthey, Sophocles and Plato (Lewiston NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990) and About Interpretation: From Plato to Dilthey – A Hermeneutic Anthology (New York: Peter Lang, 1989).

Wilson received the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations Award for the Best Educator in 1981. He is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Canadian Society for Biblical Studies.

How Jesus Became Christian is being published in five countries – New Zealand, Australia, the US, the UK and Canada.

To watch a video of Wilson talking about his new book, prepared by the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, click here. An article about How Jesus Became Christian is also available in Atkinson’s latest issue of Encore.

Food and refreshments will be served at the book launch. RSVP by Friday, March 14, to Michael Legris at or ext. 22078.

By Sandra McLean, York communications officer