Did St Paul invent Christianity?

by frankbeswick

St Paul was one of the earliest theologians, but he did not invent the movement that he joined or its basic beliefs.

For about eighteen hundred years people agreed that Christianity came from Jesus, but after the enlightenment it became fashionable among some progessive scholars to claim that Jesus had not said much that was attributed to him and that the church had invented much of what was said about Jesus. The greatest culprit, these scholars believed, was St Paul, whose powerful creative mind had invented the idea of Jesus as an incarnate deity, and they went on to assert that if only we could strip away Pauline thought the original Jesus would emerge. This view occasionally surfaces today, though it holds little favour with genuine Scriptural scholars

The Claims

The enlightenment in Europe was an intellectual movement that promoted science as the highest form of knowledge and demoted non-scientific pursuits, one of which was religion. Traditional religious people naturally rejected the demotion, but there were always those who were influenced by the spirit of the age. Some of these became atheists, but others tried to hang on to some shreds of religious belief, and were effectively deists, thinkers who believe that there is a God who does not intervene or act in the world.

Many "progressive" thinkers  tried to hang on to the shreds of their Christianity, but to such thinkers Jesus was a problem. His story was plainly replete with extraordinary events,such as miracles, virginal conception, resurrection, and religious experiences. Jesus, as always, evokes decision, and so there were three possibilities: accept the traditional story in some form, qualified or not; reject Jesus totally, or redefine his story in terms acceptable to the dominant  intellectual culture  of the time. The latter took the view that Jesus was merely a teacher of ethics and that all the supernatural elements in the story had been legendary accretions added as embellishments by a myth making early church.Thus we gained the quest for the historical Jesus, which attempted to delve through the gospel traditions to find the truth, which of course would be a Jesus who was an enlightened, very nice, teacher of ethics.

But this still left Jesus' divine status to be accounted for. The claim arose that Jesus had never claimed to be divine, but that the church had invented his divine status under the influence of hellenistic [Greek]thought patterns, and the culprit was Paul. Wrede, a nineteenth century Protestant scholar advanced this particular view, and the idea that Paul was  a mythmaker was advanced by the twentieth century Bulltmann, who argued that he had inspired a mythmaking process in the churches that he founded. Furthermore, as the pure Palestinian Jewish Christianity crumbled under the poltiical pressures of the Jewish revolt, it was Paul's Christianity that triumphed.

Readers will note that the beliefs outlined above are not facts, but theories, and they are the product of judgments that are theory-loaded. They are therefeore only as good as the theories on which they are based, but this point has not been adequately made clear over the years. There were always scholars who opposed this view, including the Albert Schweitzer, made famous not only as great theological scholar but also for his work as a medical missionary.


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Saint Paul

St. Paul is one of the most important figures in Christian history. As Saul of Tarsus he vigorously persecuted Christianity, even collaborating in the death of Christianity s fi...

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What is Christianity?

Christianity has several elements. There is the memoria Jesu, the remembrance of Jesus' life,death and resurrection.It is a set of beliefs, centred around Jesus, which it attempts to interpret.   Christianity is also a community of those people committed to Jesus' cause. This community originated from the apostles and the group around them, about one hundred and twenty strong, who remained after Jesus went. This community was centred on the idea that Jesus had died and was risen from the dead and that he lived on through his Spirit operative in his community, which we know as the church.

It is clear to all scholars that Paul did not invent the Christian community, so in this sense he cannot be the originator of Christianity.For example, he was introduced to the church in Jerusalem by Barnabas and there is no evidence of a community growing round him that saw itself as distinct from the apostolic church in Jerusalem. Paul did not establish his own community based on his own religious experience, but joined into the established one.The churches that he founded remained in unity with the overall church across the ancient Mediterranean world.  In the  Acts of the Apostles he tells us that when the dispute over whether Gentile converts should be circumcised or not he did not establsh a non-circumcising group, but sorted out the issues with the church in Jerusalem to preserve unity. Paul stands as a lasting rebuke to those who break unity to establish their own cults and churches.

Paul did not invent the memoria Jesu, as the story of Jesus was already in circulation when he watched the martyrdom of Stephen [Acts 7]. In fact Stephen was killed for claiming that he could see Jesus standing at the right hand of God, a claim that parallelled Jesus claim before Caiphas, a claim that implied some kind of superhuman, possibly divine status for Jesus. It was most likely the claims that the early church was making for Jesus that turned Paul into a persecutor of Christians, until his life-transforming experience on the road to Damascus [Acts 9.] There was a church ministry proclaiming Jesus before Paul was converted.

This is significant, because Christianity can be theologically fractious, and Christians have been willing to break communion with each other, sometimes for trivial reasons that bring disgrace on their faith. But according to the letter to the Galatians, Paul went to Jerusalem and presented the gospel that he preached to the apostles, who approved it. Presumably they saw it as being compatible to the one that they were preaching. Note that they did not learn this gospel from Paul, but saw his preaching as compatible with theirs. There is no evidence of dissension at this point. Paul's dispute with James, Jesus' brother, was about the need for circumcision, and there was compromise/agreement on this matter at the council of Jerusalem.

Church history

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Early Theologians

Theology is the discipline in which religious people reflect on their faith in a systematic way, using concepts from philosophy and images from their cultural milieu. Paul had undergone a profound religious experience when he encountered the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus. It forced him to rethink his ideas and commitment. As a rabbi he drew on his Jewish theological background as material for his rethinking. As a well-educated man he would have been aware of hellenistic ideas, which would have helped him in his theological thinking, but his main source was Jewish, a point made by leading scholars, such as Schweitzer and Neil Wright. As a dedicated Jew, a member of the strict Pharisee movement, he could do anything else

Paul's thinking made a vast contribution to the faith, but it was a means of deepening and thinking out the faith in the resurrected Christ that he shared with his fellow Christians. Had he been theologically alienated from the main church, they would not have preserved his works. There were dissident thinkers whose works were not preserved by  the church, which shows that  the church  did not preserve written works without approving them.Paul's works were preserved by the church and his thought accepted because he expressed the faith he shared with other Christians in a convincing way. He spoke theologically what other Christians said and believed in a less intellectually sophisticated manner. Paul, therefore, did not invent Christianity,He  was a possibly the most important inventor of Christian theology, one component of the whole faith, but not the faith in its totality.

It becomes less and less possible to think that Paul invented Christianity when we realize that he was not the only theological thinker in the early church. There is the Beloved Disciple. This is the person whose testimony is recorded in John's Gospel, though this gospel, once thought to have been written in the early second century AD, was actually in process of evolution, possibly from sometime in the sixties until the late first or early second centuries. It is almost certainly not the apostle John, but someone else close to Christ, some think Lazarus, the main whom Jesus raised to life in John 11.

John's Gospel is an intellectually sophisticated piece of literature that owes little to Pauline thought, though there are some parallels. Paul and the Johannine writer do not contradict each other, but they differ theologically.Christian theology in the early stage stood on two main foundations, Paul and the writer of John. Luke was part of Paul's missionary team, and so his work is close to Paul's though not as deeply thought out.

Early church

The Early Church (The Penguin History of the Church) (v. 1)

Examines the beginning of the Christian movement during the first centureis AD, and the explosive force of its expansion throughout the Roman world.

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The History of the Church: From Christ to Constantine (Penguin Classics)

"Could I do better than start from the beginning of the dispensation of our Saviour and Lord, Jesus the Christ of God?" Bishop Eusebius (c. AD 260–339), a learned scholar who li...

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Neil Wright, writing in What St Paul Really Said explains the relationship between Paul and Jesus Jesus and Paul saw themselves as part of Israel's great drama of salvation, but they had different roles within it. Jesus, Paul knew, was the key acrtor in the drama, but Paul was his interpreter a few years later on. Paul drew on his rabbinical knowledge and his cultural awareness to think out the implications of Jesus, whom he had come to know in a religious  experience. He used this knowledge to spread the Christian faith around the Roman world. Yet while Paul founded churches, they were always part of the wider community and he was totally against sectarianism and divisiveness.

When dealing with historical figures it is vital to understand them in their own terms, else we read into them our own agendae. This is what the secular world has been doing with Paul, re-defining him to suit itself and often belittling him. What I note, though, is that many who talk about and criticize Paul have never read his works. In fact, I find that this is so of the Bible as a whole. There are many who criticize it without having bothered to read it.

Updated: 01/03/2014, frankbeswick
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cmoneyspinner on 01/06/2014

@frankbeswick - Of course not. Why should the righteous be destroyed with the wicked?

frankbeswick on 01/04/2014

I agree with you in your comment about scholars, as some seem to undermine the Way, but I cannot class every one of them in this way

cmoneyspinner on 01/04/2014

Yes I know. As Paul himself asked the disciples at Corinth: "Did I die for you?" The claim is insulting and divisive. So-called serious scholars sometimes appear to me like nothing more subversive miscreants, trying to unravel The Way and hinder people from entering the kingdom of heaven. I appreciate very much you writing this Wizzle and allowing for public review and comment.

frankbeswick on 01/04/2014

I know that it sounds catchy, but the claim was made by some serious scholars.

cmoneyspinner on 01/04/2014

Did St Paul invent Christianity? Invent? It's a catchy title.

frankbeswick on 01/04/2014

The clash with James was about circumcision, not about the total message. Paul recognized James' status and apostleship.

If you read Galatians 2 you find an account of Paul's meeting with the other apostles and their agreement on his gospel

Paul did not claim that Jesus spoke only to him in death, as the second criterion for apostleship was witnessing the resurrection, and Paul recognized the claims of the other apostles as being higher than his. Furthermore, both Paul and Peter were at Antioch in the same church, before Peter went to Rome. Paul later turned up at Rome in the same chuirch as Peter, and there are no records of discord in that church. There was one argument betwen them, over Peter's letting himself be bullied by the Judaising group. There seemed to be general friendship between Paul and Peter, one major argument not withstanding.

The claim that modern Christianity is in opposition to what Jesus taught is theory loaded, governed by false assumptions derived from deistic thought in the seventeenth century. However, the church's message derived not primarily from the teaching of Jesus in his life. but from the experience of the risen Lord and the Spirit in the Christian community after his resurrection. What are euphemistically known as Liberal Christian thinkers fail to realize these important points.

davestone13 on 01/04/2014

Just for the record, whatever you think of Paul's institution of Christianity, it ran afoul of Jesus' surviving apostles, including his brother James, who rebuked him for braking away from what Jesus actually taught. Paul claimed a higher authority than those with whom Jesus openly associated in life, based on his insistence that Jesus spoke to him and only him in death.

Until the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Jesus Movement that remained there, Paul was getting nowhere because the apostles did not approve of his claims. Modern Christianity is fully dependent on an acceptance of Paul in opposition to the actual beliefs stated by Jesus and maintained by the apostles who survived him.

ologsinquito on 01/03/2014

Frank, this is a good argument that will hopefully change some minds and hearts. St. Paul's conversion reminds us that with God, all things are possible, and that we should never write anyone off as being too far gone in the wrong direction to change their ways.

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