Why do you call Paul the “real author” of Christianity?

I’ll give you a quick summary of why I think Paul is central to founding what we now call Christianity, and then I’ll give you a counter-view. Paul and his teachings occupy a huge part of the New Testament, which tells us that, at least by the fourth century, people saw his teachings as incredibly important. Paul wrote his letters before any of the gospels were written, and he spent his life up to the time of his execution spreading the word about Jesus around the empire and setting up churches. So by the time the gospel writers set down Jesus’s story, it had already been affected by Paul’s ideas–though perhaps the ideas he writes about were not original to him. 

Paul was a Pharisee (an educated Jew with a Hellenistic education) so he was uniquely qualified to spread the message of Jesus to gentiles. The Jesus he wrote about and talked about was not Jesus the teacher, as Paul had no knowledge of Jesus’s teachings. His version of Jesus focused on Jesus’s death and resurrection and the process by which others could partake in eternal life through him.

In other words, Paul was teaching a mystery religion like other popular mystery cults of the time–cults of Mithras, Isis, Dionysus, Aesclepius, and others. Let’s take Mithraism so I can explain. Mithraism taught that the sun God Mithras died and was resurrected and sent to Heaven on a chariot. Mithras’s birthday was celebrated on December 25,and people were initiated into the cult through wine and a ritual meal or feast. From Mithraism and other mystery religions, Christians may have taken the birthday, the solar halo, the communion, and the idea of personal resurrection through.  initiation. Now, it’s unclear how much of Paul’s idea of the “mystery” of Jesus came from him and how much came from others. 

A central Christian concept that Paul articulated in his idea of justification by faith, explained in Romans. Here I’ll quote Bart Ehrman’s blog on Paul:

In this model the Jewish Law plays no role in salvation.  Those who have broken the Law and incurred the sentence of death cannot remove their guilt simply by obeying a number of other statutes, just as a convicted embezzler will not be set free by pleading that he has obeyed all of the traffic laws.  The only way to be restored to a right standing before God (= “justified”) is through the death of Jesus, a payment of the penalty owed by others.

This idea is incredibly important for modern Christians, especially Protestants, but Jesus never says it. Moreover, as  Jew, Jesus would have rejected the idea that the Torah has no effect on salvation. In Matthew, in particular, Jesus says that Torah law is central to his teachings: 

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 

Other gospels frame the issue differently, but I quote Matthew because it seems to best reflect Jesus’s Jewish Jesus movement, the one headed by his brother and friends.

Now, Bart Ehrman argues that even though Paul is incredibly important to those who assembled the New Testament and to Christianity today, he was not important at the time. Ehrman cites Paul’s disagreement not only with the Jerusalem movement of Jesus’s family, but also with followers of Jesus in Galatia and Corinth:

My sense is that despite the centrality that Paul has to the NT today, he did *not* have that kind of centrality in his day.  He was one voice among many.   The other voices, in places, drowned his out.  And in yet other places, probably his voice was not heard at all (for example, in Matthew’s community).  Only later, after Paul’s day, was he thought to represent the “correct” understanding of the faith. (Ehrman’s blog entry https://ehrmanblog.org/pauls-importance-in-early-christianity-for-members/ (Links to an external site.) )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *