The religion Paul invented

Christianity is an invention of Paul of Tarsus. 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. They expected a strong leader who would liberate the Jewish nation. Jesus did not live up to this expectation. 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 that is the foundation of Christian thinking.

His vision proved to Paul that Jesus still lived as his followers claimed. Jesus had died by crucifixion, so he was resurrected, Paul reasoned. And therefore, he must be the long-awaited Messiah. Following this rationale, Paul ran into theological problems. The Romans had executed Jesus after humiliating him in public. So, why did he have to die? Then Paul came up with an answer. In many religions, people sacrifice animals to please the gods. These animals do not die for their transgressions but to cover for the sins of others.1 And so, Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Paul did not make up that Jesus died for our sins. Christians probably believed that already when Paul joined the movement.2 In the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, ‘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 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

And it must have been God’s plan all along to save Her His chosen people in this way, Paul reasoned further, so observing Jewish religious laws is not critical for your salvation, nor do you have to be a Jew. That Jewish religious law is irrelevant is a dramatic change of mind for a former Pharisee, but it may make sense if he knew what had actually transpired. Several prophecies in the Hebrew Bible promise that all peoples in the world will accept the God of the Jews. To Paul, Jesus was the fulfilment of these prophecies. Rejecting all false gods and having faith in Jesus should be enough. Paul believed himself to be God’s missionary to spread the good news as this was also prophesied.1 Paul was a Jewish scholar who knew the Jewish scriptures, while most other Apostles lacked such education. And so, he could shape the theology of the early Church.

Paul dedicated his life to spreading the good news that faith in Jesus can save everyone. During his many travels, he founded Christian communities. His mission was not easy. The Jews often expelled him from their synagogues. But he was determined, and he worked hard. Paul’s universal message of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ that is open to everyone appeared to have been attractive. It allowed Christianity to become a major world religion. Another, perhaps more important reason for people to convert to Christianity during the first centuries, were stories about miracles Christians performed.1 But Christianity never became a success with the Jews.

There have been several contending versions of Christianity. The most well-known are the Nazarenes, the Marcionists, the Ebionites, and the Arians. They all derived their teachings from the scriptures that appear to contradict themselves. The Nazarenes continued to observe the Jewish religious laws. Jesus probably did not intend to abolish them either. 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 opposed to the evil creator God of the Old Testament. Indeed, God may not have been the deity the Jews imagined. The Ebionites claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was human and the last prophet before the coming Kingdom of God on Earth. They did not believe that Jesus was divine, nor did they think that he was born from a virgin. Jesus might have agreed. And Arians claimed that Jesus Christ, even though he was the Son of God, did not exist from the beginning of Creation.

For centuries, Christianity was in a state of flux, but Christian theology was gradually taking shape. There were several contradictions to deal with. For instance, Christians believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. And Jesus is God but the Father is also God. They are not the same but there is only one God. The Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the favoured religion of the Roman Empire. He oversaw the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the first effort to attain consensus about a uniform Christian doctrine. Constantine had invited the bishops of the Christian Church in the Roman Empire. More efforts to establish an official doctrine and a canon of scriptures were to follow. The Roman state promoted the official teachings so that the other strains of Christianity faded into obscurity.

The four Gospels of the New Testament probably were written between 70 and 95 AD, more than forty years after Jesus preached. The Apostles Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, most likely never wrote them. Scholars believe that they are based on collections of stories that were circulating. Storytelling is extremely inaccurate if nothing is written down. The authors of many letters of the Church Fathers are not the people those letters claim either. And we do not have the original texts of the New Testament. There are only copies made centuries later. Scholars have used these copies to reconstruct the original texts as much as possible.

Paul 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. Paul probably would not have dared to deviate too much from what he believed to be the truth. He had been a devout Pharisee and was a knowledgable scholar of the Jewish scriptures, so it is not far-fetched to presume that Paul intended to bring his own epiphany and the beliefs of Jesus’ followers in line with the Jewish religion and scriptures. Paul may have had help, but it is fair to say that he invented Christianity. His view that Christianity is not only for the Jews but for everyone won out. And he may have obfuscated what he thought to be the most troubling elements of the new religion so that we may find only traces of them in the writings of the Church Fathers and the Gospels.

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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