The Christianity of Paul of Tarsus

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following was taken from Christianity before Paul by Dr. James D. Tabor.  It was posted on the 29th November, 2012.  Christianity is not the religion of Jesus the Christ (a.s.).  It is the vision of Paul, who never met Jesus (a.s.) and who never had a close relationship with the disciples of Jesus (a.s.).  There is a reason why the study of Western Christianity is known as Pauline Christianity.

And behold! Allah will Say, “O Jesus the son of Mary!  Didst thou say unto men, `worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah”?  He will say: “Glory to Thee!  Never could I say what I had no right (to say).  Had I said such a thing, Thou wouldst indeed have Known it.  Thou Knowest what is in my heart, though I know not what is in Thine.  For Thou Knowest in full all that is hidden.” (Surah al-Ma’idah:116)

Dr. James D. Tabor writes about his understanding of Paul and his inordinate influence over Christianity over its supposed founder, Jesus (a.s.).

Over the span of my academic career I have taught a course simply titled “Paul,” and I half-jokingly tell the students the first day that Paul is one of those people for whom a last name is not necessary, much like Elvis or Madonna.  I have begun the course with what I intend to be a startling assertion: Paul is the most influential person in human history.  I have in mind, of course, the West in particular.  The foundations of Western civilization, from our assumptions about reality to our societal and personal ethics, rest upon the heavenly visions and apparitions of a single man - the apostle Paul.  We are all cultural heirs of Paul.  In contrast, Jesus (a.s.) as a historical figure - that is, a Jewish Messiah of his own time who sought to see the kingdom of God established on earth - has been largely lost to our culture.  In this holiday season, it is worth taking pause and thinking a bit about the historical origins of the Christian faith, and how much it depends on St. Paul.

Visit any church service, Roman Catholic, Protestant or Greek Orthodox, and it is the apostle Paul and his ideas that are central -- in the hymns, the creeds, the sermons, the invocation and benediction, and of course, the rituals of baptism and the Holy Communion or Mass.  Whether birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage or death, it is predominantly Paul who is evoked to express meaning and significance.  The fundamental doctrinal tenets of Christianity, namely that Christ is God “born in the flesh,” that his sacrificial death atones for the sins of humankind, and that his resurrection from the dead guarantees eternal life to all who believe, can be traced back to Paul - not to Jesus (a.s.).  Indeed, the spiritual union with Christ through baptism, as well as the “communion” with his body and blood through the sacred meal of bread and wine, also trace back to Paul.  This is the Christianity most familiar to us, with the creeds and confessions that separated it from Judaism and put it on the road to becoming a new religion.

Paul never met Jesus (a.s.).  The chronological facts are undisputed.  Jesus of Nazareth (a.s.) was crucified during the reign of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor or prefect of Judea, in April, 30 CE.  As best we can determine it was not until seven years after Jesus' death, around 37 CE, that Paul reported his initial apparition of “Christ,” whom he identified with Jesus (a.s.) raised from the dead.  He asked his followers when challenged for his credentials, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” equating his visionary experience with that of those who had known Jesus (a.s.) face-to-face.

1 Corinthians 9:1
1 Am I not I free?  Am not I an apostle?  Have not I seen Christ Jesus our Lord?  Are not you my work in the Lord?

Paul’s claim to have “seen” Jesus (a.s.), as well as the teachings he says he received directly from Jesus (a.s.), came after Jesus’ (a.s.) lifetime, and can be categorised as subjective clairvoyant experiences.

Galatians 1:12
12 For neither did I receive it of man: nor did I learn it but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Galatians 1: 18-19
18 Then, after three years, I went to Jerusalem to see Peter: and I tarried with him fifteen days.  19 But other of the apostles I saw none, saving James the brother of the Lord.

Galatians 2: 1
1 Then, after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus also with me.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10
1 If I must glory (it is not expedient indeed) but I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.  2 I know a man in Christ: above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not, or out of the body, I know not: God Knows), such a one caught up to the third heaven.  3 And I know such a man (whether in the body, or out of the body, I know not: God Knows): 4 That he was caught up into paradise and heard secret words which it is not Granted to man to utter.  5 For such a one I will glory: but for myself I will glory nothing but in my infirmities.  6 For though I should have a mind to glory, I shall not be foolish: for I will say the truth.  But I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he sees in me, or anything he hears from me.  7 And lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me. 8 For which thing, thrice I besought the Lord that it might depart from me.  9 And he said to me: My Grace is Sufficient for you: for power is made perfect in infirmity.  Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  10 For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ.  For when I am weak, then am I powerful.

These “revelations” were not a one-time experience of “conversion”, but a phenomenon that continued over the course of Paul's life.  Paul confessed that he does not comprehend the nature of these ecstatic spiritual experiences, whether they were “in the body, or out of the body” but he believed that the voice he heard, the figure he saw and the messages he received were encounters with the heavenly “Christ”.

2 Corinthians 12:2-3
2 I know a man in Christ: above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not, or out of the body, I know not: God Knows), such a one caught up to the third heaven.  3 And I know such a man (whether in the body, or out of the body, I know not: God Knows):

It was a full decade after Jesus’ (a.s.) death that Paul first met Peter (r.a.) in Jerusalem, whom he called “Cephas”, his Aramaic name; and had a brief audience with James (r.a.), the brother of Jesus (a.s.), and leader of the Jesus (a.s.) movement.

Galatians 1:18-23
18 Then, after three years, I went to Jerusalem to see Peter: and I tarried with him fifteen days.  19 But other of the apostles I saw none, saving James the brother of the Lord.  20 Now the things which I write to you, behold, before God, I lie not.  21 Afterwards, I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.  22 And I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea, which were in Christ: 23 But they had heard only: He, who persecuted us in times past does now preach the faith which once he impugned. 

Paul subsequently operated independently of the original apostles, preaching and teaching what he calls his “Gospel,” in Asia Minor for another ten years before making a return trip to Jerusalem around 50 CE.  It was only then, twenty years after Jesus’ (a.s.) death, that he encountered James (r.a.) and Peter (r.a.) again in Jerusalem and met for the first time the rest of the original apostles of Jesus (a.s.).

Galatians 2: 1
1 Then, after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus also with me.

This rather extraordinary chronological gap is a surprise to many.  It is one of the key factors in understanding Paul and his message.  What this means is that we must imagine a “Christianity before Paul” that existed independently of his influence or ideas for more than twenty years, as well as a Christianity preached by Paul, which developed independently of Jesus' (a.s.) original apostles and followers.

I have spent my thirty-year career as a scholar of Christian Origins investigating the silence between two back-to-back statements of the Apostles’ Creed, namely that Jesus (a.s.) was: “Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,’ and that he “was crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day, He rose again from the dead.”  Is it not striking that this oldest and most foundational Christian creed jumps from Jesus’ (a.s.) birth to his death and resurrection, entirely skipping over his life?  How did it happen that the way Jesus (a.s.) came into the world, and how he left - Christmas and Easter - came to define Christianity itself?  Here Catholics, mainstream Protestants and evangelicals all agree.  To be a Christian is to believe in the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, and thus to participate in the salvation Christ brought to the world as God-in-the-flesh.

In contrast, the original Christianity before Paul is somewhat difficult to find in the New Testament, since Paul’s thirteen letters predominate and Paul heavily influences even our four Gospels.  Fortunately, in the letter of James (r.a.), attributed to the brother of Jesus (a.s.), as well as in a collection of the sayings of Jesus (a.s.) now embedded in the Gospel according to Luke, we can still get a glimpse of the original teachings of Jesus (a.s.).  What we get in the letter of James (r.a.) is the most direct possible link to the Jewish teachings of Jesus (a.s.) himself.  James (r.a.) is quite sure that the “Judge” is standing at the door, and that the kingdom of God has drawn very near

James 5:7
7 Be patient therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.  Behold, the husbandman waits for the precious fruit of the earth: patiently bearing till he receive the early and latter rain.

He warned the rich and those who oppress the weak that very soon the Judgment of God will strike.  James (r.a.) seemed to be directly echoing and affirming what he had learned and passed on from his brother Jesus (a.s.).  It is important to note that James (r.a.) did not directly quote Jesus (a.s.) or attribute any of these teachings to Jesus (a.s.) by name - even though they are teaching of Jesus (a.s.).  For James (r.a.) the Christian message is not the person of Jesus (a.s.) but the message that Jesus proclaimed.  James’ (r.a.) letter lacks a single teaching that is characteristic of the apostle Paul and it draws nothing at all from the Gospel narratives.  What we have preserved in this precious document is a reflection of the original apocalyptic proclamation of Jesus (a.s.): the “Gospel of the Kingdom of God” with its political and social implications.


Popular posts from this blog

In Saudi Arabia, Mawlid is Bid'ah, the King's Birthday is Fine

Singapore Bans Ismail Menk from Entry

Some Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) in Art