POOR ST PAUL! Analysts from Muhammad to Dan Brown have blamed him for corrupting Jesus’ message and “turning it into” Christianity. Paul is reproached as being the first to turn Jesus from being a humble Galilean rabbi into a god.
This approach became current in nineteenth-century Europe. Several German thinkers popularized the idea that St Paul, not Jesus, developed Christianity as we know it. Paul, it was alleged, changed Jesus’ message for his own uses. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche railed, “The life, the example, the teaching, the death of Christ, the meaning and the law of the whole gospels – nothing was left of all this after that counterfeiter in hatred [i.e. St Paul] had reduced it to his uses.”
What Does St Paul Say?
We read St Paul’s claim in Galatians 1:11-12 that “… the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”St Paul insists that his message did not come from any human source but directly from God. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as recorded in Acts 9:1-9 was followed, according to Acts, by his baptism in Damascus where, after a few days, “… in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (v. 20).
God, St Paul affirmed “was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (Galatians 1:16); Paul does not tell us how or to what degree this revelation took place. The purpose of his writing was not to satisfy our curiosity. By saying that Christ was revealed in him might suggest that this was a kind of interior illumination, perhaps not unlike some people’s inner conviction that God loves them.
Paul Echoes Christ
While some critics continue to advance the idea that St Paul reinvented Christianity, others have pointed out the continuity between the early teachings of the Lord Jesus and those of St Paul. These are a few examples of how the teaching of St Paul about Christ iterates the preaching of Jesus about Himself:
Christ’s Death and Resurrection — Jesus: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 17:22-23).
Paul: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Christ’s Death Was a Sacrifice Freely Offered — Jesus: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Paul: “…and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:2).
The Risen Christ is the Source of Life — Jesus: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes” (John 5:21).
Paul: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Christ’s Divinity — Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM” (John 8:58).
Paul: “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). And: “ Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7).
These passages offer a good illustration of the different types of language used by Jesus and Paul to express the same idea. Jesus taught in a Semitic culture to farmers, fishermen and sheepherders. He often echoed Old Testament ideas — also part of His hearers’ culture — often giving them new or expanded meaning.
When John describes Jesus’ confrontation with the Jews he uses the same words (egō eimi — I am) we find in the Greek Torah (the Septuagint) account of God’s appearance to Moses. When the prophet asked God’s name he answered “I am the One Who Is” (egō eimi ὁ ὤν – Exodus 3:14). Jews would have caught the allusion at once — and did. They realized that Jesus equated Himself with The One Who Is. “So they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple” (John 8:59).
St Paul is writing to city dwellers — merchants, craftsmen, officials — in a Greco-Roman culture. Rather than using stories or allusions to the Torah he defined Jesus as “the fullness of Deity in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Not many Jewish farmers would have understood Paul’s definition and not many Colossians would have understood Jesus’ allusion — but both meant the same thing.
Did the Church Change the Gospel?
There was a “change” between Jesus’ initial preaching in Galilee and the Gospel that Paul taught. Neither the Church nor Paul had anything to do with that change. What fully clarified Christ’s teaching was the light shone by His resurrection. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry He spoke regularly in parables. Before His death, however, Jesus’ disciples had so grown in their under-standing of Him and His work that “His disciples said, ‘Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure! Now we know that you know all things, and need none to question you; by this we believe that you came from God’” (John 16:29-30).
When Jesus had risen from the dead He opened His disciples’ mind still further to understand the full meaning of the Old Testament’s messianic prophecies. “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). Had Jesus “changed” His message or made it clearer?
When the first believers in Jesus brought the Gospel into the Greco-Roman world they began the process of expressing it in the way of thinking current in that world. They did not change the message but stated it in a way their new hearers can understand, making it clearer for them as the Lord had made it clearer for His disciples.
And one of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question, to test him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13: 8-10).