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Servant Jesus, liar Paul?

04 April 2014

Henry Wansbrough considers a theory


Plain Jesus: The events on Nisan 14
N. Micklem
Matador £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT706 )

THE thesis of this unusual book is that on 14 Nisan Jesus was crucified. On the previous evening, he had had supper with his disciples, at which the only significant event was that he washed their feet. Jesus saw himself as a servant, in accordance with Isaiah 42, quoted at the baptism of Jesus.

The companions of Jesus (whom the author calls "the servant persuasion") took as their manual of discipline the traditions that were within 20 years assembled in the Didache. The "pith" of this training manual was that the companionsof Jesus should be gentle, long-suffering, harmless, and good. Saul persecuted them.

Then Saul met the risen Lord. As Jesus had been killed on the day of the sacrifice of the Passover lambs, Paul excogitated two ideas: "the repugnant idea that God planned the death of his son in cold blood" as a sacrifice; and that Jesus had been the Messiah. Paul spread these ideas energetically, still persecuting the companions of Jesus, and now also everything to do with Judaism.

The trouble was that he had a chip on his shoulder because he had never met the historical Jesus or witnessed any of his life; so he scorned the original companionsof Jesus as simple folk. Paul could afford to be highly inventive and economical with the truth. His interpretation was later taken up and perpetuated by the Synoptic Gospels.

The book is written in a cheerful and informal style, with plenty of homely examples - "left-handed leg-spinners", training raw recruits how to use a rifle. The author selects facts at random, on the grounds that "scholars with all their learning cannot agree", with occasional reference to established as well as less well-known scholars.

Even the message that the book intends to convey is shrouded in over-confidence, so that the ramifications of the central import become clear only halfway through.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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