The religion Paul invented

Paul’s reasoning

Paul of Tarsus created Christianity as we know it. Jesus started it, but Paul turned it into the religion we know today. Paul was a Pharisee who devoutly observed the Jewish religious laws. Christianity began as one of the small Jewish sects founded by an end-time prophet who claimed to be the Messiah. Many Jews awaited a messiah, but they expected a strong leader who would liberate the Jewish nation from Roman occupation. Jesus did not live up to their hopes and was crucified. Paul was at first a fervent persecutor of the followers of Jesus, but then he received a vision. According to his own words, Jesus appeared to him. It was a turning point in his life and an event that shaped the future of humankind. In his book The Triumph of Christianity, Bart Ehrman tries to reconstruct Paul’s reasoning, which is the foundation of Christian thinking.

Jesus didn’t live up to the expectations of a messiah, but his vision proved to Paul that Jesus still lived as his followers claimed. Jesus had died, so he was resurrected, Paul reasoned. And therefore, he must be the long-awaited Messiah. Following this reasoning, Paul ran into theological problems. The Romans had humiliated Jesus. And then they had him executed. So, why did Jesus have to die? Then Paul came up with an answer. In many religions, including Judaism, people sacrifice animals to please the gods.1 And so, Paul turned Jesus into the sacrificial Lamb of God.

The sacrificial lamb is a revolutionary new type of saviour. He is someone who, by his death, provides redemption for humankind. But Christians already believed Jesus died for their sins when Paul joined their movement. In the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes, ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Simon Peter and then to the twelve apostles.’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-5) These were the things passed on to him, possibly as a creed.2 Paul joined the Christian movement a few years after the crucifixion, so the passing on of the creed indicates it was an original belief taught by Jesus. That may be as close as the scriptures can bring us to the earliest Christian beliefs.

It must have been God’s plan to save Her/His people this way, Paul reasoned further, so observing Jewish religious laws is not critical for your salvation, nor do you have to be a Jew. Jewish religious laws being irrelevant is a revolutionary thought for a Pharisee. Prophecies in the Hebrew Bible foretell that all peoples will accept the God of the Jews. To Paul, Jesus was the fulfilment of these prophecies. He concluded that rejecting false gods and having faith in Jesus should be enough. Paul believed himself to be God’s missionary to spread the good news.1

Paul was a Jewish scholar who knew the Jewish scriptures, while the other Apostles lacked such education. And so, he could shape the beliefs of the early Church and the future Christian religion. It is not clear who changed the gender of God and when. But because Paul was the most educated Apostle, he likely played a significant role in the process. There probably was confusion. The Jewish deity Yahweh was male, and many early Christians were Jews. Paul may have resolved the inconsistencies by making the Christian deity male too. After all, they were supposed to be the same. If you look at it this way, the gender change becomes understandable.

Spreading the good news

Paul dedicated his life to spreading the good news that faith in Jesus could save everyone. During his many travels, he founded Christian communities. His mission was not easy. His message caused upheaval, and Jews often expelled him from their synagogues. But he was determined, and he worked hard. It seems that Paul’s universal gospel of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ that is open to everyone caught on. But it is a strange tiding and not something you would be inclined to believe if you have grown up in a different tradition, whether you were Jewish or worshipped local deities, so its success begs for an explanation. Sources from that era indicate that stories about miracles Christians performed made people convert to Christianity.1

An example of such a miracle was the healing of a lame man when Paul and Barnabas visited Lystra. As the story goes, Paul had healed the man. The Lycaonians then concluded that Paul and Barnabas were gods in human form. The priest of Zeus brought bulls and wreaths to the city gate because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. Paul and Barnabas explained they were only human and messengers of the good news that the God of the Jews, who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and everything in them, had decided that all nations should no longer go their way. And the proof, they said, was that the Jewish God had shown kindness by giving us rain from heaven and crops in their seasons and filling our hearts with joy (Acts 14:8-18). The proof thus were the seasons, the crops and the rains. They had always been there, so that doesn’t prove anything. Hence, it must have been the miracle of healing that made people believe Paul’s most peculiar message. And the story appears to confirm that.

Paul’s message led to a riot in the city of Ephesus. Demetrius, who made silver shrines of the goddess Artemis, and brought in a lot of trade for the local businesspeople, realised the consequences of Paul’s good tidings. He called the craftsmen together and workers in related occupations and said, ‘You know, my friends, we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray many people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited and that the goddess herself will be robbed of her divine majesty.’ When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ Soon the whole city was in an uproar (Acts 19:23-29). A mob seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s travelling companions from Macedonia, and brought them to an assembly in a theatre.

A city clerk managed to quiet the crowd in the theatre. He said, ‘Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Since these facts are undeniable, you should calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case, we would not be able to account for this commotion since there is no reason for it.’ After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly (Acts 19:35-41). More upheavals and riots were to come in the following centuries.

Contending versions of Christianity

During the first centuries, there were several versions of Christianity. It points to contentious issues suggesting that early Christian beliefs differ from Christianity today. The most well-known are the Nazarenes, the Marcionists, the Ebionites, and the Arians:

  • The Nazarenes continued to observe the Jewish religious laws. Jesus probably did not intend to abolish them. It was Paul who came up with that idea.
  • The Marcionists preached that the benevolent God of the Gospel who sent Jesus Christ into the world as the saviour is the true Supreme Being as opposed to the evil creator God of the Old Testament. And indeed, the creator may not be the deity the Jews imagined.
  • The Ebionites did not believe that Jesus was divine, nor did they think that he was born from a virgin. That probably is also true.
  • The Arians claimed that Jesus Christ, even though he was the Son of God, did not exist before Creation. That makes sense too.

Christianity was in a state of flux. That began to change once Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine invited all the bishops in the Roman Empire to the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. It was the first effort to create a uniform Christian doctrine. More efforts followed. The Roman state promoted the official teachings of the Church, so other strains of Christianity faded into obscurity.

The Gospels of the New Testament date from between 70 and 95 AD, more than forty years after Jesus preached. The Apostles Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John most likely never wrote them. The Apostles were uneducated Aramaic-speaking Jews, while the authors were Greek-speaking educated Christians who were not eyewitnesses. Scholars believe Mark, Luke, and Matthew are collections of stories that circulated among early Christians. The author of the Gospel of Luke even says so (Luke 1:1-4).

Storytelling usually is inexact and wrong. Whenever someone retells a story, details change, new episodes appear, parts disappear, and the story might become more spectacular. And so, the Gospels likely do not accurately tell what happened. Several letters in the New Testament have unknown authors, even though the letters claim otherwise. And we do not have the original texts of the New Testament. The oldest copies date from centuries later. Scholars have used these copies to reconstruct the original texts as much as possible.

Eliminating Paul’s perspective

But Paul must have known more. He became a follower of Jesus early on. He came to know Jesus’ disciples, who were first-hand witnesses of the events that had taken place. And so his silence on the matter might be telling. Dealing with the facts and deciding what to do may take time and emotional struggles. During emotional struggles, people sometimes become better writers. Paul’s poem about love is one of his best pieces (1 Corinthians 13).

Paul may have had help, but it is fair to say he invented Christianity. He was a knowledgeable scholar of the Jewish scriptures. Paul might have tried to bring his epiphany and the beliefs of Jesus’ followers in line with the Jewish religion and scriptures. He may have chosen to obscure the most controversial issues, like God’s gender and Her marriage to Jesus. His perspective may stand between us and the original teachings of Christianity. Uncovering it may bring us closer to the truth.

Latest revision: 15 March 2023

Featured image: Head of St. Paul. Mosaic in the Archbishop’s Chapel, Ravenna, 5th century AD (public domain)

1. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. Bart D. Ehrman (2018).
2. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher. Bart D. Ehrman (2014). HarperCollins Publishers.

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