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St. Paul’s Big Magic Trick

As the theory goes, Paul took a simple "Jesus movement" and conjured a whole new "Christian" faith out of it

Trent Horn

Brandan Robertson, until recently the senior pastor at Missiongathering Christian Church in San Diego, is no stranger to controversy. He defends homosexuality, endorses the morality of polyamorous relationships, and once called Jesus a racist.

Now, just recently, he tweeted this: “And what if Paul, the early churches biggest enemy, became a ‘Christian’ to stop the Jesus movement from expanding. He took what was primarily a sociopolitical movement and turned it into a religion that mirrored pagan cults.”

Robertson has since backtracked, saying his tweet was just a “curious inquiry.” Maybe that means there’s no point in answering it, but it does bring to mind an old argument, popular among liberal biblical scholars, that’s always worth dismantling: that Paul created Christianity. The basic claim—sort of like what Robertson was musing about—is that the “Jesus movement” was just a socially conscious wing of Judaism that spoke out against oppression and exploitation. It was Paul’s theology, expressed in letters like Romans and Galatians, that transformed this simple movement dedicated to ethical monotheism into one that made salvation a matter of faith in a trinitarian deity.

There are three big problems with the “Paul invented Christianity” thesis.

First, Paul acknowledges that the sources for the most important parts of his theology predate him and that he received them from others in the movement. Consider the doctrine of the Resurrection, which is completely alien to the concept of Jesus merely being a rabble-rousing rabbi concerned about social justice. Saying Christ rose in glory before the end of the world was unheard of in Jewish eschatology and makes more sense in the “mystery religion” Paul allegedly invented.

But in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul reveals that the knowledge of Christ’s resurrection to the other apostles came from a pre-existing creed. He begins in verse three, saying, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received,” and then he recites the facts related to Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and appearances to the apostles and finally to himself. Scholars also acknowledge that Paul’s descriptions of Jesus being “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4) and the hymn about how Christ was “in the form of God” before he became man (Phil. 2:6) belong to hymns Paul received from those who were “in Christ before [him]” (Rom. 16:7).

Second, there’s no plausible explanation for why Paul would abandon Judaism and start some new mystery cult that looks exactly like what we understand as Christianity today. One theory is that Paul suffered tremendous guilt for persecuting Christians after he saw that their message of reform was worthwhile to share. This is similar to some Protestant views of Paul—that he struggled with his inability through Judaism to atone for his many sins until he found peace in the sola fide theology Jesus had preached. But both of these views are flawed because Paul never expressed any pre-conversion guilt regarding Judaism or his persecution of heretics. In his letter to the Philippians, he boasts of his old life without qualification:

If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless (3:4-6).

Another theory is that Paul wanted the honor and prestige that would come with being one of the chief theologians in a new religion. But if that was his motivation, the immense suffering Paul endured without any earthly rewards in return would have made him rethink this plan quickly. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul memorably describes these different trials he bore:

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren (11:24-26).

Paul did see Christianity as having something he could not gain in his old life, but it wasn’t success or even spiritual self-help. It was simply the glory of the God-Man made manifest to him. Or as he says in his letter to the Philippians: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (3:7-9).

Finally, the “Paul invented Christianity” thesis creates a false dichotomy between the preaching of Paul and the preaching of Jesus. Ironically, it isn’t just liberal pastors like Robertson who float these ideas. Conservative Protestants do this as well when they try to square the sola fide they think Paul is preaching with the ethical demands Jesus requires in the Gospels. In 2010, popular pastor John Piper even gave a talk entitled “Did Jesus Preach Paul’s Gospel?

But as Brant Pitre, Michael Barber, and John Kincaid note in their book Paul: A New Covenant Jew, Paul’s theology was not that of pagan mystery religions, but the natural fulfillment of the covenant theology already present in Judaism. They write, “The gospel Paul proclaims is unintelligible apart from the Jewish world into which he was born.” But the trio also point out that Paul wasn’t merely a Jew set out to reform his ethnic heritage from a purely humanistic perspective: “Paul did not simply attempt to use Israel’s scriptures to make sense out of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth; for the apostle, the revelation of Jesus Christ also involved coming to an understanding of the scriptures (cf. 2 Cor. 3:14-16).”

In summary, did Paul create Christianity?

If by create you mean take a socially conscious branch of Judaism and intersperse it with a mythic tale about a cosmic Christ, then no. But Paul’s unique contribution to Christian theology cannot be understated. In the prologue to the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas even calls Paul “the apostle” (a title not even given to St. Peter!). In that respect, we can acknowledge the unique theological insights into and portion of the deposit of faith that God chose to reveal through a man who humbly called himself “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9).

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