We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Who created the institution that has come to be known as Christianity? Well, Jesus is a leading contender, of course. In the wake of recent scholarship, James and Thomas are growing in stature. British novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson, however, joins the group that favors Paul.

“Favor” may not be quite the right word. Many commentators who note the influence of Paul’s epistles, which constitute a significant chunk of the New Testament, deplore his influence. It was Paul, his detractors argue, who made the church hierarchical, punitive, homophobic, and misogynistic. Nietzsche attributed much of what he hated in Christianity to Paul, “a very tormented, very pitiable, very unpleasant man who also found himself unpleasant.”

Wilson doesn’t mention Nietzsche’s antipathy to Paul, although he does, curiously, suggest that Paul “thought himself into one of those extreme positions of metaphysical isolation which we would associate with the nineteenth-century spiritual exiles Nietzsche or Kierkegaard.” Yet Wilson also concedes that much of Paul’s message was specific to his time. Indeed, he even makes the defense that the apostle never intended that people follow his teachings 2,000 years later. Like many Christians (and Jews) of that era, Paul was “getting ready for an imminent End” when the Messiah would return and life on earth would cease. The very fact that Christianity exists today indicates that Paul (and other early Christians) made at least one major miscalculation.

The subtitle of Wilson’s book is, tellingly, The Mind of the Apostle. This work is not a biography of Paul in the traditional sense, and indeed the title character all but vanishes from the book during several chapters that sketch the theological tenor of the first century A.D. The chapter titled “Paul in Arabia,” for example, is barely about that at all. Later, the book follows Paul via the epistles he wrote (or is credited with writing) to the Thessalonians, the Corinthians, the Ephesians, the Galatians, and the Romans; it supplements the apostle’s teachings with what is known about his visits to these cities (not much) and what is known about the places themselves (a little more).

The book does indulge in some biographical speculation, but it doesn’t attempt to argue for certainty about very many points. The most dramatic convert to Christianity may not have been a Jew at all, the author notes, although he probably was. As a Greek-speaking native of Tarsus, however, Paul was both detached from the most rigorous practice of Judaism in Jerusalem and exposed to many other religious traditions, including the cults of Mithras and Herakles (better known by the Latin version of his name, Hercules.)

Wilson is not the first to notice that some godlike aspects of Christ’s career, notably the virgin birth and the rise from the dead, bear a suspicious resemblance to the myth of Herakles. Wilson also contends that the tradition of the Last Supper (and thus Holy Communion), which Paul outlines in Corinthians, would have been “unthinkable” to Jews of the period and is instead “borrowed from the Mithraic mysteries.” To Wilson, such synthesis is evidence of Paul’s “sublime religious genius.”

Though most details of Paul’s life are vague or unreliable, the period can be credibly rendered. What must be noted foremost about the first century is that it was a time of remarkable turmoil and wrenching change. Some 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion (assuming that the event took place and the date is correct), the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, thus ending the Jewish state and many Jewish institutions and sects. As a result, both Judaism and Christianity, which at the time of Paul were intimately connected, were dramatically transformed during the period. (If such early Christian groups as the Gnostics are largely inscrutable to modern scholars, so are such contemporaneous Jewish sects as the Essenes.)

It was also an age in which the Roman republic was still adjusting to being an empire, and during which two of the most notorious emperors, Caligula and Nero, briefly ruled. They and other emperors declared their own divinity (some more seriously than others), but they had plenty of competition from mystery cults, local deities, and gods borrowed from points east and south. Though the Romans and the Jews each enforced certain religious precepts, it was not for centuries—after Christianity and Islam divided up the world around the Mediterranean—that significant uniformity was brought to religious thought and practice.

Though Wilson reports such jibes as others calling Paul’s teachings “Judaism for export,” his own opinion of the apostle’s message is considerably higher. He quotes approvingly Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s judgment that Paul “is certainly one of the great figures in Greek literature,” and adds that the apostle “could be described as one of the most important and influential figures who ever lived.” Wilson argues that Paul’s epistles are the earliest extant Christian texts, and that “the Jesus of the Gospels, if not the creation of Paul, is in some senses the result of Paul.”

As his use of phrases like “in some senses” indicates, Wilson is aware that he’s on shifting ground, and he rarely makes outright assertions that the (very limited) documents don’t support. Still, the author is a little evasive when he tries to defend some of Paul’s dictums that seem disagreeable today. Was Paul’s aversion to gay sex, despite its wide acceptance in Hellenistic society, a reflection of his own repressed homosexuality? Wilson shrugs. Did Paul teach that “women should be silent in the churches”? No, Wilson contends, that was a later interpolation into his first letter to the Corinthians. Was Paul “the patron saint of toadies and high Tories” because he preached acceptance of Roman authority? Perhaps, Wilson concedes, but he was also “the great libertarian of religious history.”

Paul’s writings—whoever wrote them—are indeed powerful. To demonstrate that, Wilson need only quote the passage (also from 1 Corinthians) that begins, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Wilson pushes his luck, however, when he suggests that “Paul had many friends and was much loved.” Paul: The Mind of the Apostle makes the case for giving Paul his due, but that doesn’t mean you have to like the guy. CP