Did Paul distort Jesus’s Message?

Posted on August 7, 2015 by Matt

With increasing volume and frequency the motivations of the Apostle Paul’s contributions to Christianity have been called into question. For sometime, most critical scholars would not dare to paint Paul in a negative light. Even the Jesus Seminar, the group of skeptics that deny nearly every recorded word of Jesus except for easily recalled platitudes “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render to God, that which is God’s” still accepts the majority of Paul’s writings as authentic. Most critical scholars accept everything from Paul except for the Pastoral Epistles (1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus). Robert Price (who thinks that the extreme skepticism of the Jesus seminar is far too conservative) is one of two New Testament scholars, with pertinent terminal degrees, who argue that Jesus never existed. Even with Price’s extreme skepticism he still held to the authority and authorship of Paul for some time. Price’s view concerning Jesus and Paul however became highly problematic when scholars began to utilize the accepted writings of Paul to refute him. This tactic became so successful that Robert Price eventually relented and…decided that Paul never existed as well.

 

The problem with Presupposition

 

The difficulty when considering the New Testament as a purely historical document is that no one is impartial when it comes to this text. It seems there is no one who does not have a strong opinion concerning the New Testament and strong opinions always carry with it the weight of “presupposition” or bias. Humans are already incurably biased (a good litmus test to determine if one is biased, is to simply ask her if she is). People who are the most limited by bias and presupposition will always be the people who think that she is completely free from it. I am horribly biased toward Christianity; it is not only my life but also my livelihood. However, there are a few safeguards I can implement to limit the degree of presupposition when bearing in mind the New Testament, specifically when considering the text purely as an historical document.

Every “skeptic” I dialogue with concerning doubts about the historical reliability of Jesus, The Apostle Paul, or The New Testament has never reached her errant conclusions via a systematic or methodological approach to history—most “skeptics” base her errant conclusions off of vague talking points given by other skeptics. Further, my suspicions concerning lack of method become apparent when the skeptic’s plight for obscurity in history is limited solely to the New Testament. If one is only skeptical concerning the New Testament, then not only is this not true skepticism, but it is presuppositional imbedded skepticism.

Even when pressed, the skeptic cannot even create (or know how to begin to create) a logically consistent and sustainable model of philosophy of history that could be applicable to any historical event, person, or document, let alone the New Testament. My usual response is to (via Socratic method) create a philosophy of history with the skeptic in tow. By the time we have completed the list of desirable attributes for a profitable philosophy of history, the list usually includes every areas of which the New Testament has abundant evidence (Early eye witnesses testimony, multiple eyewitness testimonies, embarrassing facts, enemy attestation, documents that undergo textual criticism, and documents that have a short time frame from when they were written and when the earliest copies were found). At this point, it is quite easy to determine if this skepticism is based on presupposition or not. If after laying out the historical method and how this method provides sufficient evidence for New Testament reliability she is still skeptical then the evidence is not at issue but rather the culprit is presupposition.

Since attacks on Jesus have for the most part completely failed, the source of these attacks has switched targets and become focused on Paul. Thus, instead of questioning the scope of Jesus’ claims, “skeptics” have left Him alone (for now) and have gone after Paul arguing that he never knew Jesus, and that he created a religion independent from Jesus and Jesus’ message. This view will not last long because it is completely absurd. I wish to present a series of evidences, which will not only expose the inherent presupposition against Paul, but also utilize internal Biblical evidence, historiography, and reason to prove that Paul was the disciple of the historical Jesus.

Enter the Skeptic

 

One issue that always comes to light in situations of unchecked bias and “skepticism” is the type of cherry picking of verses and Biblical events. Do not misunderstand me, I am not maintaining that one must relent and argue, “you must either take the Bible (or any historical document) completely or reject it completely.” The primary issue I have concerning the general acceptance or denial of various Biblical passages is that the denial or acceptance is based solely on that text contradicting or affirming a given worldview independent of Christianity. Or that a major problem occurs when the denial or acceptance of a given segment of Biblical data is only contingent upon it contradicting or affirming one’s worldview.       “General acceptance and denial,” is typified if one argues something like, “Paul never met Jesus and the content of the epistles is vastly different than the gospels.” Such a statement, unless accompanied with an early first century citation, (of which there are none) would be nothing other than pure rhetoric, which is obviously not based on any historical evidence and therefore should be disregarded.

The cherry picking of various facts because they adhere to a given worldview is common among both laymen and scholars. Cherry picking is not based on historical method but rather it is due to presupposition. Presupposition occurs when the text is engaged and one’s background, worldview, and bias weed through the verses that do not correspond with his worldview and are then rejected. For example, when I dialogue with Latter Day Saints I ensure that he adheres to the authority of the New Testament before we begin our discussion. The missionaries are usually quick to affirm the text’s authority, however every dialogue reaches an eerie impasse when I begin to refute his worldview via the New Testament. Latter Day Saint methodology concerning the New Testament is paradoxical at best. Before appealing to the text I set up my arguments by ensuring that the Mormon holds to the reliability and authenticity of the New Testament. I usually achieve this before I tell the missionary that I train people in how to refute Mormon theology. The moment is “errie” because once the New Testament is no longer a device to bolster the Mormon worldview then it immediately becomes an obstacle that the missionary must overcome. Unfortunately for the Mormon, I have already allowed him to voice authority and authenticity concerning the text. He is left in a “lose-lose” scenario. Either, he admits that the New Testament is errant, and thus his view should not be heeded because it is not trustworthy (because he lied) or the New Testament is accurate and authentic, however if this is the case there is no room for “another testament of Jesus.”

The primary problem with the cherry picking view is, it relies on the overall acceptance of the New Testament as evidence, but yet denies crucial points which conflict with a contrived Non-Biblical worldview. Since this is the case, then the New Testament is not on trial, but rather the worldview which is attempting to utilize the New Testament to affirm the view but yet not to deny. What a suspicious position, the most popular “book” of all time, which has been scrutinized and studied more than any other text solely has the ability to affirm a worldview which is contradictory to the Bible but however is incapable of denying it. Huh? What about that makes sense? Thus, if one is going to choose which Biblical texts one should adhere to and yet neither provide a consistent historical method or why his worldview is true independently of the Bible, then such assertions should be immediately dismissed as pure bias and have no role in proper Biblical interpretation.

 

The authority of the Apostle Paul

 

Concerning, Paul, both types of “skepticism” are utilized in maintaining that he perverted the original Christianity of Christ to create the modern version of the religion. The vague comments are quite easy to refute and include statements such as, “Paul never met Jesus,” “Paul did not know anything about Jesus,” “Jesus was Jewish and not Christian,” “Paul founded Christianity apart from Jesus and distorted it into something that Jesus never intended.” Fortunately for me, in refuting the vague view I can also easily refute the cherry picking view.

The writings of Paul (according to the majority of New Testament scholars) predate the writing of the Gospels. While I argue that the it is likely the Gospels were written first, I will accept this assertion for the purposes of my argumentation. Two of Paul’s earliest works actually give evidence that Paul received the content of his epistles by very early sources. For example 1st Corinthians is most likely the earliest of Paul’s Epistles and was written about 20 years after Christ died. Another Epistle, which is widely accepted by critical scholars as authentic is Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In the ancient world a 20-year time gap does not even register as a gap (the majority of time gaps in the ancient world are hundreds of years) however it is easy to establish that aspects of these Epistles predate even the writing of said Epistles. In fact a high Christology (a view that Jesus is God) can be established (via these two epistles) from within about the year of the Resurrection of Christ. Or that, the miniscule time gap of 20 years is reduced to a single year via an in-depth study. Dating the content of the epistle’s closely to the Resurrection (and the Gospels) is crucial in ensuring that Paul lacked sufficient time (and as will be argued shortly Paul also lacked “motivation”) to establish a separate religion.

Jesus’s Jewishnesss is considered much more readily defensible and accepted by critical scholars than his Hellenistic aspects. Scholar, JND Kelly’s central thesis in “Earliest Christian Doctrines” maintains that it was only due to the unwavering monotheism of second temple Judaism that Christianity flourished in the beginning. Or that, Jews were the earliest converts and leaders of the early church, and it was due to their strict monotheism that the Jewish devotion to Christ as God was so resolute. At that time in Rome, no other religion or worldview was given dispensation by the Roman government to worship his own god without consenting that Caesar was also god. Judaism was the only religion given a dispensation from the Roman mandate because Jews were the only people in the entire world who were so dogmatic that their God alone (Yahweh) was worthy of worship—Rome realized that no semblance of control could be applied to the Jews unless they were free from worshiping Caesar as god. At first Christianity was seen as simply an evolved form of Judaism and was left alone by the Roman officials. However, once it became evident that Christianity was not only distinct from Judaism, but that the established Jewish ruling class found Christians and Christianity to be repugnant; Rome began to crack down on the early church.

Thus, even without considering relevant texts, bearing in mind that at first, it was difficult to distinguish Christianity and Judaism, it seems that the claim that Christianity was a completely unique religion is a bit unwarranted. While Jesus did refute various aspects of religious tradition, he did affirm, “Do not think I have come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” If the life and ministry of Christ is both based on and yet distinct from Judaism, it seems likely that Jesus would employ someone with a strong scholastic and Jewish background who would be able to properly interpret, explain, and explicate His teachings; enter Saul from Tarsus.

In 1st Corinthians 15 Paul (formerly Saul) not only establishes the Jewish roots of Christianity, but also his early reception of the Gospel. “For, I declare unto you, that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was seen by Cephas and James, and over 500 brethren at once…” It seems strange to consider these verses as being of much help concerning the authority and authenticity of Paul but this section actually results in a fantastic argument. There are a plurality of subjects in these verses that authenticate Paul and the early message of Christianity, but I wish to merely focus on two. First, the words that Paul utilized at the beginning, “declare,” and “received,” were technical rabbinical language that one would predicate before quoting his teacher. Saul’s well known teacher was Gamaliel, a famed Pharisee who sought the end of Christianity. If Paul is going to quote from a Rabbi it seems highly unlikely, that Paul would quote a man which sought to end the very Gospel he was currently preaching especially when the content of that quotation refers to Jesus as dying for the sins of mankind; in the Jewish mindset only God can forgive sin, therefore to claim that someone else (Christ) can forgive sin is evidence of His (Christ’s) deity. Therefore Paul not only quoted a Rabbi other than His former Jewish one, but quoted one who had a high Christology. The only two logically consistent sources for this quotation are either a Post-Resurrected Christ or another Apostle of Christ. No matter the source (Rabbi), the quotation confirmed Him as being involved with Christianity from very early on. And if Paul was involved early on it is unlikely that he distorted the message of Christ. Further, if Christ was Paul’s Rabbi then obviously, Paul never preached a new religion but the same message as Christ. Paul’s usage of the word “Gospel” in the context provided is also evidence of His knowledge of Christianity. While the term “gospel” was relatively common in the Ancient Near East, it was not commonly utilized in terms of a religious context. The fact that Paul is aware of and utilizes the “Gospel” in this unique Christian aspect is further evidence that Paul was on board with the same message of Jesus and the Apostles from the beginning.

What if Paul received the message from the Apostles? Even if this was the case, Paul still could not be accused of creating a new religion. In fact, the verse I quoted from 1st Corinthians is actually an ancient creed, which pre-dated Paul’s writing by about 20 years. Creeds are found throughout the New Testament Epistles. They are actually relatively easy to notice, as the writing style will suddenly change within the text and will take on a poetic feel. Creeds are a series of teachings that are comprised of crucial doctrines and were either read or sung at early church gatherings. The 1st Corinthians 15 creed is significant because it has a High Christology (refers to Jesus as God, because only God can forgive sins) which entails that the Christian conception that Jesus was God was confirmed very early and thus was not likely the product of myth (this is perhaps one of the reasons Kelly argues that it was the high Christology of Christ and the strict monotheism of 1st century Judaism that allowed for the flourishing of Christianity). Or that, by the time Paul wrote his first epistle, the early Church was already worshiping Jesus as God.

 

Would the Apostle’s encourage a heretic of Jesus’ teaching to continue?

 

If Paul did receive the gospel from the Apostles, then when did he receive it? The three men who knew Jesus best were arguably James (his half brother), and the Apostles Peter, and John. It is recorded in Galatians 2:9, that these four met and that they fellowshipped together. And though Paul had never spent any time with the Pre-Resurrected Jesus, the three men who knew Jesus best felt confident in him continuing to preach what he had been preaching. The text claims that the three men gave Paul the “right hand of fellowship,” which was meant to convey that Paul was given a “thumbs up” to continue teaching and preaching the same Gospel as the men who knew Christ the best were also preaching. Now if Paul was truly the creator of Christianity or had so perverted it beyond the original intent of Christ, would not these three forbid Paul from preaching this false gospel? Barnett in his book Jesus and the Logic of History writes that during this time of fellowship it is likely the Paul was able to learn even more about the historical Jesus. Also this instance is significant because it showed that although these Apostles had never met before they had each received their Gospel message and authority from Jesus.

Therefore, while it seems unlikely that Paul received the gospel from anyone other than Jesus, he could have received it from the Apostles very shortly after the Resurrection. The reason that one should deny that Paul received the Gospel from the Apostles is the events that were also recorded in Galatians. A key hermeneutic tool is recognition of patterns—patterns of thought, an author’s tendencies, writing systems, and so on. Patterns are helpful because when a pattern is broken it tends to stand out. In his letters, Paul has a standard greeting. His greeting usually contains, an introduction of himself, a statement of credentials (usually a reference to receiving his apostleship from God), a note to the church he is writing, a blessing to the church, and a note of thanksgiving for the church. This pattern is seen in virtually all of the Apostle Paul’s writings. The only letter missing a key aspect of this introduction is his letter to the Galatian church—the thanksgiving is omitted.

Paul neglects the thanksgiving because he is quite upset with the church, “I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you by the grace of Christ and turning to a different Gospel.” This passage is hardly used as a defense for a historical Jesus or the early church but allow me to continue. First of all, Paul is definitely claiming to have knowledge of the Gospel of Christ. Now it could be noted that I am equivocating on the word “gospel,” and that since it merely means “good news” it is in reference to a lower case “g” gospel, and the upper case “G” Gospel was what was recorded by the Apostles. This could be a plausible argument if not for my second point, that is in chapter 2, verse 11 of Galatians, Paul states that he admonished Peter to his face for refusing to fellowship with gentiles while other Jews were present.

This is absolutely crucial. What right or authority did Paul have to rebuke Peter? If Peter did not consider Paul as an authoritative source to the degree of being able to rebuke him, would Peter have let the admonishment continue uncontested? Peter is not known for being silent. In fact, he seemed to always put his foot in his mouth. Yet, when Peter was called out by a wretched Pharisee (Paul), he accepted the admonishment. Would Peter accept criticism from a person who is preaching a different Gospel? Further, It is evident that Peter accepted the correction because there is no record of Peter contesting the claim in any of Paul’s Epistles or the Epistles of the other Apostles. In fact, the opposite seems to be true in that not only does Peter accept the criticism from Paul, but goes as far as to say that Paul’s writing is Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). So not only does Peter accept rebuke from Paul (which is unlikely unless Paul had some authority concerning the teachings of Jesus), but even goes on to claim that Paul’s writing is on the same level as the cherished Old Testament Scriptures.

How easy would it have been for Peter to argue something like, “Who do you think you are talking to, did you eat and sleep with Christ? Did He say that you are the ‘Rock of His Church’? Did Jesus give you the keys to heaven?” It would have been very easy for Peter to claim such things, or even “you never even knew Christ.” So not only does Peter not attempt to resist the rebuke against him, but he considers the correction to be sound and from an authoritative source. Thus, it would seem that Paul had the same knowledge (or quite similar) of Christ’s teaching as that of Peter. Further evidence of Paul’s knowledge is when Paul met with James, Peter, and John received from them the “thumbs up” to continue preaching the Gospel.

A final source of evidence concerning that it is unlikely that Paul was the founder of Christianity is that not only is there is a severe lack of motivation for him to create a new religion but the religion has already existed by the time he became involved. By the time Paul enters into the scene Christianity was beginning to spread and he was tasked with binding men, women, and children who confessed Christ and returning them to Jerusalem to be put to death for the errant teachings. The crucial question is not just “How could Paul create a religion which was already created,” but “What would motivate a man to join a religion of which the members were being systematically hunted and put to death?” Enter the Post-Resurrected Christ; the only conclusion that can explain the data at hand (that Paul went from terrorizing and killing the early church to being a leader) is Paul’s account from Acts is trustworthy and he had an encounter with the Risen LORD.

Jesus was very Jewish and the entirety of the Gospel message was based on the Old Testament Scriptures. And while Jesus excelled in teaching, fishermen and tax collectors lack the intricate knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. Thus, in order to properly connect the Gospel with the Old Testament Scriptures the early Church and Apostles were given a man who had the capacity to explain Jesus’s teaching in light of those Old Testament Scriptures. While it is likely that Jesus was the Rabbi of Paul, no matter where he received his knowledge of Jesus and the Gospels, the people who knew Jesus the best encouraged Paul to continue to preach the Gospel that he was preaching. Lastly, since not only did the emergence of Christianity predate Paul, but there was no earthly benefit for Paul to join the Christians being slaughter (let alone join to distort the message) it is very likely that Paul was merely a faithful preacher of the Gospel and not the innovator of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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