Paul’s letters are the first Christian documents, and they reveal two things. First, that there is a lively cult of the Messiah among the fledgling gentile congregations of Asia Minor; second, in the Letter to the Galatians, we discover that there is an all but irreconcilable rift between Paul and his gentile followers on the one hand, and, on the other, the Jerusalem “church”, which insisted that the followers of Jesus continue to observe Judaism with regard to the dietary laws, circumcision and so forth.I'm endeavoring to lead a Sunday School class on the book of Acts, and Wilson's observation (stylishly made but academically commonplace) is what strikes me in reading the book. It's an irenic, smooth-over-the-differences account by the early Christian equivalent of those early American historians who depicted the founding generation as the best of friends.
Time passes, and what scholarship slowly realizes is that the Pauline, gentile “church” – destined to separate itself entirely from Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in ad 70 – is also destined to rewrite history. The Jews protesting at Paul’s activities in Galatia in ad 51 are Trotsky sitting beneath the strutting figure of Lenin. They are about to be airbrushed out of the story.
Only as the Ebionite sect does later history know, or guess, very much about those who took an entirely different view of Jesus from the one that developed as orthodoxy – with the definitions of the Councils of the Church, Christ’s status as Second Person of the Trinity, Christ as an incarnation of the godhead, and so forth.
To the reader whose notion of the founding Church is based on childhood storybooks, the strangeness of Acts is so pervasive that it takes some time to sink in - like the disappearance of Peter in the second half of the book, which becomes merely an account of Paul's doings. Peter, rewritten as an advocate of the mission to the Gentiles, simply ceases to be a necessary part of the story.