Did the Apostle Paul come up with the Christian faith? Did he misrepresent Jesus’ teaching? Furthermore, why do Paul’s critics accuse him of having done so?
Paul of Tarsus
Paul of Tarsus was very impressive in his times, and has had a powerful influence on world history and culture. His forthright teaching on ‘justification by faith alone’ inspired the Protestant Reformation. Cities like Sao Paolo and imposing cathedrals like St Paul’s, London, have been named after him. As a missionary church planter and letter writer, Paul almost single-handedly changed the course of history with an amazing burst of energy in one decade: AD 47-57.
It is interesting to compare Paul with Jesus and, indeed, with Jesus’ original disciples. Jesus and the Twelve were drawn from the marginally upper strata of the peasant class in rustic Galilee. Apart from a basic primary level synagogue education, Jesus appears to have been self-educated. Paul, however, was from a wealthy diaspora family, and he shared with his father both the citizenship of Tarsus and (more significantly) that of the Roman Empire. From his youth, he was educated in Jerusalem by Gamaliel, the greatest teacher of his generation—under whom he was the perhaps the most eminent student.
Paul rose to public prominence as the leader of the High Priest’s pogrom against the new messianic sect of the Nazarenes, and was indirectly responsible for the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Paul’s numerous letters reveal a man of high intellect, a luminous writing ability and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Greek Bible. Although educated in the culture of Judaism, his writings display a remarkable capacity to understand the Greek culture into which his missionary travels took him. One has only to think of his superb chapter on love, read so memorably by Tony Blair at the funeral of Princess Diana (1 Cor 13).
On these grounds, we might understand why some people regard Paul as the real genius who inspired the rise of Christianity. This is the more so when we consider that chronologically, he was probably the earliest writer of the texts of the New Testament. Paul wrote nine letters during his missionary burst (AD 47-57) and the remaining four from prison (AD 57-65). Possibly the letter of James and the letter to the Hebrews were written during the same AD 47-65 time frame, but the Gospels, the Acts of the apostles and the remainder of the New Testament were essentially written after Paul—that is, between (say) AD 60-95.
Influence on the rest of the New Testament
So did Paul’s writing influence the content of these later texts? Was Paul the real inspiration for the rest of the New Testament and, in that sense, the inventor of Christianity?
There is little evidence that Paul’s letters influenced the remainder of the New Testament. You will look in vain for echoes of Paul’s teachings in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, or in any other part of the New Testament.
Indeed, it appears that Paul was not altogether popular with other leaders in early Christianity. Think, for example, of James’s letter where he appears to be correcting Paul’s doctrines or, more probably, a distorted version of Paul (Jas 2:14-16). Then there is the semi-critical note about Paul sounded by Peter in his second letter (2 Pet 3:15-16).
Moreover, it ought not be assumed that Paul’s letters were universally available. Each of Paul’s letters was an individual, handwritten text, delivered by hand to scattered congregations. They were not available in even a limited sense beyond their immediate recipients—at least, not for many decades, when a corpus of Pauline texts was created. But this was at the end of the era of the apostles—possibly into the next century. Remember this was all a millennium and a half before the invention of the printing press and two millennia before the photocopier and emails. All texts then had to be laboriously hand-copied. In an era when few were literate and even fewer were skilled copyists, it meant that Paul’s texts were simply not available outside their original circle of recipients.
Did Paul’s letters influence the remainder of the New Testament? We may safely say that this possibility is quite remote. Although Paul has many enemies among the scholars, it is hard to think of many who attack on Paul because of the literary and therefore theological influence he had on other New Testament writings.
What, then, are scholars’ grounds for their opposition to Paul? Put simply, it is Paul’s moral influence, not his supposed literary influence on other texts. In a word, Paul’s critics don’t like what Paul has to say about Christ.
Consider William Wrede’s famous verdict at the turn of the last century, where he declared Paul to be the “second founder of Christianity” who “compared with the first, exercised beyond all doubt the stronger—not the better—influence”.1 Many giants among the theological elites followed Wrede. Prominent among these was Rudolph Bultmann, the most influential biblical scholar of the first half of the 20th century, who stated that Paul was “the founder of Christian theology”.2
These negative views of Paul are also found among many intellectuals outside the specialist forums of the New Testament academy. The philosopher Nietzsche called Paul “the genius of hatred” who falsified true Christianity:
The type of the redeemer, the doctrine, the practice, the death, the meaning of the death, even the sequel to the death—nothing was left untouched, nothing was left bearing even the remotest resemblance to reality. Paul simply shifted the centre of gravity of that entire existence beyond this existence—in the lie of the ‘resurrected’ Jesus.3
In addition, in the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, which is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, there is a fantasy scene in which Jesus hears Paul preaching the crucifixion and resurrection. The following exchange takes place:
Jesus: Now I live like a man. I have a family. I eat, work, have children. Do you understand what I’m saying? Don’t go around the world spreading these lies about me. Because I’ll tell everyone the truth.
Paul: Look around you! Look at these people. Do you see the suffering and unhappiness in this world? Their only hope is the resurrected Jesus. I don’t care whether you’re Jesus or not. The resurrected Jesus will save the world; that’s what matters…
I created the truth. I make it out of longing and faith. I don’t struggle to find truth; I build it. If it’s necessary to crucify you to save the world, then I’ll crucify you. And I’ll resurrect you too, whether you like it or not…
You don’t know how much people need God. You don’t know what a joy it is to hold the cross, to put hope in the hearts of men, to suffer, to be killed—all for the sake of Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God. Messiah…
I’m glad I met you. Now I can forget you. My Jesus is much more powerful.4
Kazantzakis echoes the outlook of Nietzsche, who, in turn, is consistent with the views of the continental giants of biblical scholarship.
In brief, then, we observe that the chief line of attack on Paul from specialist and non-specialist alike is that Paul perverted the teachings of Jesus by making him a dying and risen Saviour from sin and death.
Responding to the critics
How, then, do we answer these criticisms of Paul—in particular, that he invented Christianity?
We must begin at the beginning in circa AD 34, when the young Pharisee was attacking the early disciples of the Nazarene. Consider these texts from his letter to the Galatians:
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. (1:13)
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (1:18-19)
And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” (1:22-23)
On grounds of straight history, it is not possible that Paul invented Christianity. From his own pen, he states that he attempted to destroy the church of God (i.e. in Jerusalem) and its faith (i.e. its doctrines). This was in the year circa AD 34, about 12 months after the historical life span of Jesus. Furthermore, within three years, he returned to Jerusalem and visited the apostles, Peter and James. By the time he went to Tarsus, there were also multiple churches in wider Judea. In other words, Christianity (its faith, its leaders, its institutions) were already there and Paul tried to destroy it. He did not invent it.
Along similar lines, we note that Paul was a transmitter of basic doctrines that were formulated before him. Reflect for a moment on Paul’s words to the Christians in Corinth—words that were written in the mid-50s, referring to his visit to Corinth five years earlier:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and
that he appeared to Cephas
then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers…
Then he appeared to James
Then to all the apostles…
Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
(1 Cor 15:3-7, 11)
If Paul “delivered” these core teachings in Corinth in AD 50, it prompts the vital question as to when he ‘received’ them. Most likely it was either at his baptism in Damascus in circa AD 34 or in Jerusalem three years later. Clearly, Paul is saying that he didn’t invent the teaching about Christ’s death for sins, his burial and resurrection, and his appearance to numerous witnesses. On the contrary, others had formulated this body of instruction in the brief space between Jesus and Paul’s instruction in these teachings—a period as brief as one year, but no longer than four years. Moreover, the other leaders, including Cephas (Peter) and James, also preached the same things. The important thing, then, is to understand that Paul did not originate these basic teachings.
In passing, we should note that the outline of the verbal gospel message Paul ‘received’, which coincided closely with the summaries of the gospel message in the book of Acts, dictated the skeletal shape the Gospels followed. Paul did not invent this skeletal outline.
Attitude to Christ
It’s true that Paul was a highly educated man from a wealthy family, whereas Jesus was a poor man who earned his living by manual labour. The contrast is sharp at any time, but was no less so in that deeply stratified society. The temptation for Paul would have been to look down on someone like Jesus, who came from humble circumstances. But there is not the slightest hint of such an attitude in the writings of Paul, the former Pharisee. True, Paul recognizes the reality of Jesus’ ‘poverty’ (2 Cor 8:9):
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that though he was rich,
yet for your sake he became poor,
so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Paul, however, understood that Christ was “rich” before he came into this world, being “in the form of God” and sharing “equality with God” (Phil 2:6). Though he took the “form” of a crucified “servant” or ‘slave’, he was at the same time the Son of God, as Paul often said. For Paul, this previously elevated but now lowly Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah (Christ)—the Lord (whom Paul often described in terms used for Yahweh in the Old Testament, e.g. Phil 2:10; Isa 45:23) and God’s own Son (e.g. Rom 8:3, 32). Great Paul is eternally humble before his Lord and master, poor though his Lord had been in his mortal life.
Paul’s letters are permeated with profound devotion towards Jesus, who was and is the Christ, the Lord and the Son of God. On one hand, Paul was overwhelmed always by Christ’s love for him, the ruthless persecutor. He wrote of the “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20b) and of being driven ever onwards by “the love of Christ” (2 Cor 5:14a). He spoke of himself as “a servant of Christ Jesus” (Rom 1:1), and even near the end of his life, he spoke of his burning passion to ‘know’ his Saviour more and more (Phil 3:10).
Despite his immense erudition, Paul always deferred to the teachings of his Lord. When faced with the complex issue of divorce and remarriage, Paul based his response on the Lord’s known teachings (1 Cor 7:10). Even in so mundane a matter as the payment of ministers, Paul relied on the teaching of the Lord (1 Cor 9:14), to say nothing of so important an issue as Jesus’ return (1 Thess 4:15). Paul’s teachings invariably submit to the teachings of his master.
In fact, Paul’s letters are dotted with references to the example of the Lord. We think, for example, of Paul’s willingness to suffer deprivation, his renunciation of marriage as a ‘charisma’ or gift for serving Christ, his studied humility in lowering himself to exalt others, and his contempt for persecution. Paul based and conformed his entire life on the pattern of Christ’s life.
As a Pharisee, Paul had shaped his life by the precepts of the Law. But as a man ‘in Christ’, the life and teaching of his Lord became the template by which he lived. Paul crafted his ministry on “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor 10:1). He called on Jewish and Gentile believers to “welcome one another” as Christ had welcomed them (Rom 15:7), most likely recalling how Christ had welcomed sinners and eaten with them. He enjoined the Corinthians to imitate him because he imitated Christ in his passion to seek and save the lost (1 Cor 10:33-11:1), and encouraged the Ephesians to “walk in love” because Christ had first loved them and died for them (Eph 5:2).
Transmitter and applier
To sum up, there is no denying that Paul was well-educated in the Law and the (Greek) Bible, as well as highly intelligent and someone who worked tirelessly to establish Christianity in the Gentile world. True, he was one of the earliest converts in the brief period following the life span of Jesus. His letters are the oldest part of the New Testament, apart from the possible exception of the letter of James and the letter to the Hebrews. Yet there is little, if any, evidence that his letters were known outside the circle of their original recipients, and such evidence there is suggests that Paul was a controversial figure and the object of criticism, rather than emulation. Few, if any, scholars hold that Paul’s letters were a determinative influence on the remainder of the texts of the New Testament.
The criticism by Wrede, Bultmann and others is that, in the centuries since, Paul’s teachings differed fundamentally from Jesus’ teachings, and that many have followed Paul’s version. It is in that sense that these scholars speak of Paul as the “second founder” of Christianity who, in their view, regrettably eclipsed the teaching of Jesus. On the contrary, we have argued that Paul initially attempted to destroy Christianity, along with its ‘faith’, ‘church’ and leaders. So how could he have invented something he had been bent on destroying? Furthermore, the message of the now-converted Paul coincided with the preaching of the other apostles and church leaders of the time, and was centred on Christ crucified and risen. Genius that he was, Paul was not at all an innovator, but a transmitter and applier of teachings that went back, first, to those who were apostles before him, and, beyond that, to the Lord himself.
- Why might people find it attractive to think that Paul invented Christianity?
- Note the various arguments that Paul Barnett uses to show that Paul didn’t invent Christianity. Which arguments do you feel are strongest, and which are weakest? Can you think of other arguments to use?
- Philip Pullman, the author of The Golden Compass and the His Dark Materials trilogy, is releasing a new book called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ in April 2010. It is designed to show that Jesus was a good man, but others (like Paul) have turned him into something he isn’t—that is, the saviour of the world. How might the release of this book create opportunities for you to talk about Jesus with those around you (family/friends/work colleagues)?
- Ask God to have mercy on Philip Pullman. Ask God to send the Holy Spirit to change Pullman’s mind and show him the mercy of the crucified and risen Christ.
- Pray for Christians around the world whose faith might be unsettled by books like this. Ask God to help them to keep reading and obeying the Bible.
- Ask God to use the release of Pullman’s book to create opportunities for Christians to talk about the real Jesus. Ask God to help you to be brave and to take hold of any opportunities that come up.
- William Wrede, Paul, translated by Edward Lummis, Philip Green, London, 1907, p. 179. ↩
- Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Baylor University Press, Waco, 2007 (1951, 1955), p. 187. ↩
- Fredrich Nietzsche, ‘The Anti-Christ’, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, translated by RJ Hollingdale, Penguin, London, 1990 (1895), pp. 166, 167 (chapter 42). ↩
- The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorcese, screenplay by Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, Universal Studios, 1988. ↩