A Christianity Before Paul?

You can imagine my reaction when I came across a recent item in the Huffington Post making the case that Christianity, as it arose around Jesus, was significantly different than the historic Christianity embraced by, well, almost everyone for nearly 2000 years.

That’s the argument behind a post from James D. Tabor entitled “Christianity Before Paul.” Tabor, the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is actually another of a long line of modern scholars that suggest that Paul’s understanding of the faith should be differentiated from that of Jesus’ own. There were several things in the post that raised an eyebrow, but I’ll include just a few samplings here (in italics), along with a brief response for each:

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.

These fundamental doctrines do enjoy a prominent place within Paul’s writings—that much is sure. But it would simply be false to say that they’re not robustly present in other parts of the New Testament as well. In fact, it would be a useful exercise to note all the places within the four gospels and, say, Hebrews and 1 Peter that touch upon one or more of these theological truths. Think of John’s famous assertions: “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14), or the author of Hebrews dwelling on Christ death atoning for our sins in chapters 9 and 10, or Peter’s declaration that God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).

And all this is to say nothing of the way the Old Testament constantly prefigures and prepares for these realities. For example, the idea of a substitutionary sacrifice is all over the Hebrew Scriptures. And so it’s no surprise that Jesus quite intentionally uses elements of the Passover meal, itself instituted in light of a such a sacrifice at the time of the Exodus, to signify his own body and blood, which would soon be offered on the cross for the sin of his people.

That both Jesus and Paul saw themselves as participating in and continuing the redemptive story that God had begun long before, a story with ideas that themes that had been recognized and ingrained in the people of God for hundreds of years, is one of many reasons why their teaching accords with one another.

What this means is that we must imagine a “Christianity before Paul” that existed independently of his influence or ideas for more than 20 years, as well as a Christianity preached by Paul, which developed independently of Jesus’ original apostles and followers.

This seemingly ignores the fact that Paul himself claims in Galatians 2 that both he and the other apostles held to the same message. And a careful reading of Luke’s account in Acts 15 finds Paul, Peter, and James of one accord about the truth of the gospel. In the same vein, we find Peter asserting continuity between his teaching and Paul’s (even noting that Paul’s writing should be understood as on par with other authoritative biblical writings;  see 2 Pet. 3:15-16).

We should also note that Paul himself maintained that his teaching was not original. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (15:3)—a phrase scholars acknowledge to be technical language for receiving a body of teaching and faithfully passing it on.

We are all cultural heirs of Paul. In contrast, Jesus 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.

Note the alleged contrast between Paul and Jesus in these statements. Paul is portrayed as helping chart the course of Western culture while Jesus is a “Jewish Messiah.” One imagines that Paul, a Jew himself, would be surprised that many would his ministry as some kind of break from a Jewish understanding of redemptive history.  See, for example, his discussion of the gospel’s consistency with both Abraham and David in Romans 4 or his preaching in the synagogue in Acts 13.

Those much more competent than me have responded time and again to positions like those Tabor takes in this post. So I’ll limit myself to one more thought. Tabor states that “the original Christianity before Paul is somewhat difficult to find in the New Testament.” On this we’d agreed. But as should be clear by now, I’d propose the reason for this is that a Christianity that can be differentiated in any substantial way from Paul’s teaching simply never existed in the first place.

Leave a Reply