Oh, Mr Wilson!

I hope not to be as annoyingly menacing as ‘Dennis’, but I do fear that my curiosity will bring a level of frustration to some.

Recently, I began (re)reading AN Wilson’s book, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, primarily because it was one of those books I thought I read completely but was not entirely sure. I just finished the third chapter and I cannot begin to recall how many times throughout I’ve laughed or shook my head at some of the assertions Wilson makes. Since there are 13 more chapters (plus an appendix), I will either find my sides rather sore from splitting or my neck in a foam brace from too much oscillation (or both).

At the start of his chapter on Tarsus (chp 2), Wilson mentions (far too briefly) the story of Cleopatra’s arrival to Tarsus for some, shall we say, extra-circular activities with good ol’ Marc Antony. It does not appear that Wilson discounts the historicity of the event in general. However, he does point out that this general story found its way into the writings of Plutarch, North and Shakespeare and was elevated to the place of a glorious tale of love and passion. For Wilson, it was at this point that the general, historical event was turned into a celebrated myth to be remembered throughout time. Then, a seemingly random comment emerges:

Even this story [i.e. the rendezvous between Cleopatra and Marc Antony], which seems so romantic, starts out with a dubious political pedigree. Christianity does not own a monopoly on myth-making (23–emphasis mine)

Wilson then goes on to provide an alternative reading for the historical event which reveals the ‘dubious political pedigree’–i.e. the real story. After offering this variant perspective, Wilson dives into a discussion about the freedom Paul experienced in travelling via Roman roads and sea-faring ships throughout the Mediterranean region. Then, the discussion turns toward the social and religious life of Tarsus leading up to and surrounding the time of Paul. Thus, Wilson’s ‘Christianity does not own a monopoly on mythmaking’ comment appears to be not only random but also one given for the sake of effect (or, affect). I do, however, have a distinct feeling that this apparently random comment will play a crucial role later on in Wilson’s book. For now, I will simply voice my curiosities regarding Wilson’s comment.

First, the very premise is unqualified (and dare I say, unjustified); he just throws it in as though it is indisputable fact–or ought to become so. Second, Wilson assumes that historic Christianity would either claim to be in the business of myth-making or that it would it take legal action on those who engage in intellectual copyright infringement or want a piece of the mythical pie for themselves. Third, and following a strand implied the second, labelling something ‘myth’ is often an interpretative decision made by an external reader–generally one who is far removed from the events described, and commonly by one who personally dislikes (or disagrees with) the contents. Finally, and I realise this may be a tired argument but it still holds relevancy, Wilson does not seem to recognise the historical and literary progression needed for mythical texts. This progression requires several generations so that the reliable witnesses, who could refute false accounts, are all dead and gone.

However, Wilson seems to be ill-concerned with the potential issues that arise from these assumptions. He simply has an argument (i.e. gripe) and he wants to make it. Given the context of Wilson’s comment, it would appear as though he wants to suggest that Paul has a hand in the myth-making process of the Christian story. If that is not Wilson’s intent, then the comment is contextually meaningless and carries no real relevance other than shock-value. If, however, it is Wilson’s intent to say that Paul does contribute mythical elements to the Christian story,* then the comment is not necessarily meaningless; it’s just sadly hilarious.


* My hunch is that Wilson does want to take the discussion in this direction.  I base this on the way in which the chapter continues and ends.  Wilson dives into a discussion about the Mithraic worship practices of Asia-Minor in general and Cilicia in particular. For Wilson, because Paul grew up in Tarsus during the formidable years of his early life (a point of serious scholarly debate), Paul must have been influenced by the rites, practices, and (mythical) stories told about the gods of the Mithras cult. This influence thus shaped Paul’s view of belief–especially belief in one claiming to be the Son of God, who died for the sins of the world and now lives eternally in heaven with God. (Bruce Chilton’s book, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography makes a similar case, which is also sadly hilarious).

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