Paul of Tarsus invented Christianity. 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 was to 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.
His vision proved to Paul that Jesus was still alive 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. Jesus had been executed after being humiliated in public. 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. These animals do not die for their own transgressions but to cover for the sins of others.1 And so, Jesus became the sacrificial Lamb of God.
Paul did not invent that Jesus died for our sins. Christians probably believed that already when Paul joined the Christian 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 As Paul joined the Christian movement very early on, only a few years remain between the crucifixion and the establishment of this belief, so this may be as close as we can get to early post-resurrection Christianity.
And it must have been God’s plan all along to save
Her His 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 revolutionary thought for a Pharisee. Prophecies in the Hebrew Bible foretell 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.
Spreading the good news
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. His message caused upheaval, and the Jews often expelled him from their synagogues. But he was determined, and he worked hard. Paul’s universal gospel of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ that is open to everyone seemed to have caught on. But the stories about the miracles Christians performed were probably a far more important reason for people to convert to Christianity.
One example was the healing of a lame man when Paul and Barnabas visited Lystra. After Paul had healed the man, the Lycaonians concluded that the gods must have come down to them in human form. The priest of Zeus brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. Paul and Barnabas explained that they were only human and brought the good news that the God of the Jews, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them, had suddenly decided that all nations should no longer go their own way. And the proof is that the Jewish God has shown kindness by giving us rain from heaven and crops in their seasons and filling our hearts with joy (Acts 14:8-18). That argument is unconvincing, so it must have been the miracle of the healing that made people believe it.
Paul’s message generated upheaval in the city of Ephesus. Demetrius, who made silver shrines of the goddess Artemis and brought in a lot of business for the local craftsmen, realised the consequences of Paul’s good tidings. He called the craftsmen together and the workers in related trades and said, ‘You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of 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). The people 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 ought to 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 of such upheavals and riots were to come in the following centuries.
Contending versions of Christianity
During the first centuries, there were several contending versions of Christianity. It points at 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. 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, the owner of the universe 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 true. And Arians claimed that Jesus Christ, even though he was the Son of God, did not exist before Creation.
For centuries, Christianity was in a state of flux. That began to change once Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. He oversaw the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the first effort to attain consensus about the Christian doctrine. Constantine had invited all the bishops in the Roman Empire. More efforts to establish an official dogma and a canon of scriptures followed. 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 Mark, Luke, and Matthew are collections of circulating stories. And storytelling is inaccurate if there are no writings. Many of the 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. There are only copies made centuries later. Scholars have used these copies to reconstruct the original texts as much as possible.
Eliminating Paul’s perspective
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 was 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. 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. Only his perspective may stand between us and the original teachings of Christianity. And removing his interpretation may bring us closer to the truth.
Latest revision: 23 April 2022
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.