Giles Fraser: Paul v. Jesus — a bid to take over?

02 May 2007

ON THE Fulcrum website last week (, the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, dropped a bombshell. “There is a substantial swathe of contemporary Evangelicalism which would rather elevate ‘Paul’ (inverted commas, because it is their reading of Paul, rather than the real thing, that they elevate) and treat Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as mere repositories of Jesus’s stories from which certain doctrinal and theological nuggets may be collected.”

Too many Evangelicals believe that “Paul’s epistles give us ‘the gospel’ while ‘the Gospels’ simply give us stories about Jesus.”

Dr Wright goes on to reveal that some people are now arguing that we must demote the Gospel reading from its pride of place at the apex of the first half of the communion service. Apparently, the current situation gives the Gospels too much prominence.

I was gobsmacked by this. Are these people embarrassed by Jesus?

Yet, when I think about it more, I realise I might inadvertently be making the opposite mistake. I almost always preach on the Gospels, sometimes on the Old Testament, yet very rarely on the Epistles. Am I embarrassed by Paul? I started to wonder whether there wasn’t some truth to the claim by the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, that Anglicans are made up of two religions: liberals for Jesus, Evangelicals for Paul.

Of course, the Paul v. Jesus argument isn’t new. Carl Jung may have had a point when he suggested: “Paul hardly ever allows the real Jesus of Nazareth to get a word in.” Thomas Jefferson, though, surely went way too far in suggesting that “Paul was the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” Yet it’s a view that is shared by Muslims. And I have a hunch that — though it may be dangerous to admit it — many in our pews secretly nurture similar anxieties.

The influential philosopher Slavoj Zizek has compared the relationship between Jesus and Paul to that between Marx and Lenin. He argues that it is too easy and sentimental to read the Paul and Lenin figures as selling out the original teaching. Rather: “It is an inner necessity of the ‘original’ teaching to submit to and survive this ‘betrayal’, to survive this violent act of being torn out of one’s original context and thrown into a foreign landscape where it has to reinvent itself — only in this way, universality is born.”

In other words, Paul needs more credit for taking Christianity global. That may be true. But the attempt to replace Jesus with Paul must rank as the most audacious takeover bid in the history of culture.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney. His most recent book is Christianity with Attitude (Canterbury Press, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-1-85311-782-4).

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