Who really founded Christianity? Was it Jesus, as most Christians believe? Or did St. Paul invent an elaborate mythology—a shameless, self-serving ruse, some would say—that has distorted or destroyed the authentic teachings of Jesus?
If the idea seems crazy, be assured there are some rather crazy proponents of this basic perspective. For example, a website titled “Just Give Me the Truth” (www.justgivemethetruth.com) has a page declaring—screaming, really—that “Paul was Satan in the flesh,” “Paul was never recognized as an apostle by the disciples or Jesus,” and “Paul worked to destroy and undo everything Jesus and his disciples did and were doing.”
A Brief History
If that were the extent of it, it wouldn’t be worth spending much time and energy on it. But this theory has developed a notable scholarly pedigree in modern times. It has been taken up by well-educated and influential men, some of them Scripture scholars. The basic roots can be traced back to the mid-18th century and the influential Tübingen School of historical criticism. Although David Strauss (1808-1874), the author of the famous Life of Jesus (1835) is better known today, it was the work of the Hegelian Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860) that began driving a wedge between Jesus and Paul. Baur used Hegel’s theory of dialectic to argue that early Christianity was marked by two opposing theses, represented by “Pauline Christianity” and “Petrine Christianity,” and that a synthesis of the two was established in the second century.
In the preface to his 1845 book, Paul: His Life and Works, Baur wrote:
I advanced the assertion which I have since maintained and furnished with additional evidence, that the harmonious relation which is commonly assumed to have been between the apostle Paul and the Jewish Christians with the older apostles at their head, is unhistorical, and that the conflict of the two parties whom we have to recognize upon this field entered more deeply into the life of the early Church than has been hitherto supposed.
More theologians (mostly German and Protestant) pushed through the crack in the door opened by Baur, and soon it was wide open. The work of two men is worth mentioning here: philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Lutheran theologian Georg Friedrich Eduard William Wrede (1859-1906). Although Nietzsche in The Antichrist (1895) mocked Jesus as an “idiot,” he reserved special hatred for “the Christianity of Paul,” which he argued was radically different from the teachings of Jesus. Paul, he wrote:
represents the genius for hatred, the vision of hatred, the relentless logic of hatred. What, indeed, has not this dysangelist sacrificed to hatred! Above all, the Savior: he nailed him to his own cross. 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 had reduced it to his uses. Surely not reality; surely not historical truth! . . . Christianity is the formula for exceeding and summing up the subterranean cults of all varieties, that of Osiris, that of the Great Mother, that of Mithras, for instance: In his discernment of this fact the genius of Paul showed itself.
Paul, in other words, was a master synthesizer of wildly divergent beliefs, the better to gain him a wide following.
Wrede was an ardent practitioner of historical criticism who argued, in The Messianic Secret (1901), that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. The Gospel of Mark, Wrede believed, made Jesus out to be a secret Messiah who was simply a teacher and miracle worker. In his book Paulus (1907) Wrede wrote there was “an enormous gulf between this man and the Pauline Son of God,” and that Paul’s belief in “a celestial being” and “a divine christ” prior to his belief in Jesus resulted in Paul becoming “the second founder of Christianity.” He further argued that Paul, although a Jew, constructed a theology that was mostly Hellenistic in character.
Newer Variations on the Theme
These same basic lines of argument have been explored further in recent decades by authors intent on demonstrating that if Paul was the “founder” or “creator” of Christianity, then Jesus was not the Incarnate Son of God. A good example on the popular level is Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (1997), by biographer A.N. Wilson, which portrays Paul as a complex and enigmatic mythologizer. “The genius of Paul and the collective genius of the ‘early church,’” Wilson states, “which wrote the twenty-seven surviving books we call the New Testament, was to mythologize Jesus.” Because Paul was well-educated and traveled, he “had a richer language-store, a richer myth-experience, than some of the other New Testament writers, whose mythologies were limited to Jewish liturgy or folk-tale.”
“One does not need to revive the old History of Religions School,” Wilson insists,
to see how obvious all of this is. One is not saying that Paul crudely invented a new religion, but that he was able to draw out the mythological implications of an old religion, and the death of a particular practitioner of that religion, and to construct therefrom a myth with reverberations much wider than the confines of Palestinian Judaism. (72)
For Paul, historical fact and detail are of little interest: “The historicity of Jesus became unimportant from the moment Paul had his apocalypse” (73). Wilson, in other words, is more nuanced and sophisticated than Dan Brown, but shares his same basic assumptions. (Note: Wilson recently reverted to Christianity. See “A Doubter Finds His Faith Again,” page 17.)
A similar approach can be found in The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (Harper and Row, 1986) by Hyam Maccoby, a Jewish author. Maccoby’s central thesis is that “Paul was never a Pharisee rabbi, but was an adventurer of undistinguished background” and that “Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion.” Paul, Maccoby insists, “not Jesus, was the founder of Christianity” who relied on “pagan myths of dying and resurrected gods and Gnostic myths of heaven-descended redeemers.” A more scholarly work that comes to the same basic conclusions is Paul: the Founder of Christianity (Prometheus Books, 2002), by Gerd Lüdemann, a German theologian who has admitted that he is no longer a Christian.
Where Are the References?
Most of those who claim Paul created Christianity based on a mythical Christ figure with little, if any, basis in historical reality point to the small number of references in his writings to the teachings and life of Jesus. (See “Details, Details,” below.)
While Paul often mentions the death and resurrection of Jesus—an obviously central theme for him—almost nothing is said about Jesus’ family, birth, baptism, miracles, discourses, and parables. Paul does state in several places that he is passing on information or instruction he had received “from the Lord” (1 Cor 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:23-25; 14:37; 2 Cor 12:9; 1 Thes 4:15-17), but he does not quote Jesus directly. Critics argue he was simply using claims of personal revelations as a basis for his supposed apostolic authority. In addition, they ask why Paul doesn’t quote Jesus in places where it would be to his benefit to do so. For instance, when Paul states, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean” (Rom 14:14), why does he not refer to Jesus’ teaching about food and defilement (Mk 7:17-23)?
Paul’s Writing and Work
Several substantive points can be made in response. The first is that the letters of Paul are largely occasional in nature; that is, they were written to address ongoing issues and questions in churches that were already established. They were meant to be primarily works of exhortation, not argumentation. None of them, after all, were addressed to non-believers; they were not evangelistic in nature, but aimed at exhorting, encouraging, correcting, and pastoring. Because of this, many scholars believe that Paul did not need to quote from Jesus’ teaching, writes David Wenham in Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?, “because he and his readers have been taught it and know it well. In his letters his task is to discuss what is disputed and unclear, not to repeat what is already very familiar” (5). While this argument from silence is unconvincing to many critics, it intersects very well with the second point, which is made by N.T. Wright in What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? , which is that Jesus and Paul had quite different roles in the “eschatological drama” of salvation history.
This argument rests on the priority and the validity of the Gospels, asserting that if Jesus really was the Messiah, did proclaim and establish the Kingdom of God, did die and rise from the dead, and did ascend into heaven, then he was completely unique. Therefore his teachings and life would have been the first things passed on by oral teaching and preaching, liturgy, and example (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 76-79). Paul understood himself to be a “servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1); as such, Wright argues, he didn’t simply “repeat Jesus’ unique, one-off announcement of the kingdom to his fellow Jews. What we are looking for is not a parallel between two abstract messages. It is the appropriate continuity between two people living, and conscious of living, at different points in the eschatological timetable” (181).
Jesus believed that he had been sent by God to “bring Israel’s history to its climax” and Paul believed that Jesus had succeeded in this heavenly, covenantal mission. Paul was not interested in establishing a new religion or an ethical system or a syncretistic mixture of mystery religions. He was, Wright stressed, “deliberately and consciously implementing the achievement of Jesus” (181). Or, in his own words: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:10-11). And part of this work—this participation in what Jesus had achieved by his death and resurrection—was to apply and live out the reality of this salvation in many different cultural contexts, including Palestine, Greece, Asia Minor, and Rome.
In the words of New Testament scholar James Dunn, the “Jesus-tradition” was “a living tradition, a tradition that was evidently adaptable to different needs and diverse contexts” (qtd. in The Jesus Legend by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, 229-30). That tradition was rooted in historical fact, but was lived out in the present, with the belief that Jesus was the resurrected, living Lord of Lords.
The authors of The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition also point out that Paul writes of the “meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor 10:1), as well as his profound humility (Phil 2:5-7), and that Paul “consistently held up Jesus’ life—and his own life as modeled on Jesus’ life—as examples to be emulated (1 Cor 11:1). In light of this, it cannot be regarded as a coincidence that Paul’s own thought, attitude and conduct paralleled closely what we find in the Jesus of the Gospels” (209).
This is especially notable because it shows that Paul understood Jesus as a real, historical person, not as a mythic savior figure with little or no connection to earthly life. For first-century Jews and Greeks alike, it was taken for granted that it was only possible for a community or group to imitate the character and behavior of someone who was real and whose life was known. This is part of the reason the Gospels were written: to preserve and present the words and actions of Jesus, so that, in the words of Paul, readers would “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29; cf. 1 Cor 11:1).
The Living Christ
Jean Cardinal Daniélou (1905-74), the great patristic scholar and theologian, wrote about Paul’s understanding of Jesus in Christ and Us (Sheed & Ward, 1961). He argued that “it was completely pointless to insist on the human details of the life of Jesus; first, because they were not questioned in Paul’s circle, and second, because they were not what mattered most.”
Daniélou was not, of course, dismissing the importance of historical fact, but was emphasizing the importance of priority. “What did matter,” he explained, “was the witness borne to the Sovereignty of Jesus. That is why, even when he mentions features of Jesus’ history, Paul always give them their theological meaning” (4-5). Daniélou noted the danger of Jesus simply being seen merely as a great historical figure of the past rather than who he is today. “Paul’s personal gospel,” he wrote, “is to proclaim that Jesus lives.”
But that is not the gospel of the critics who believe Paul was the founder and inventor of Christianity. To the extent that they might acknowledge some sort of gospel, it is a myth—perhaps inspiring, fascinating, and even admirable—but nonetheless a myth only. But for Paul and for all true Christians, Jesus is no myth, but is alive and real—”a stumbling block” to many, “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24).
There actually are many allusions in Paul’s writings to specific, historical details from the life of Jesus, including:
- Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh” and was also a descendent of Abraham (Rom 1:3; Gal 3:16).
- Jesus was born and raised as a Jew (Gal 4:4).
- The names of some of Jesus’ disciples, including Cephas (1 Cor 9:5)
- The words and actions of Jesus at the Last Supper (1 Cor 11:23-25)
- The betrayal of Jesus (1 Cor 11:23)
- Jesus was executed by being crucified (Phil 2:8; 3:18; 1 Cor 1:17-18; Gal 5:11; 6:12), with the assistance of certain Judeans (1 Thes 2:14-15).
- Jesus rose from the dead (Rom 1:4; 4:24-25; 8:11;1 Cor 6:14; 15:4-8; 2 Cor 4:14; Gal 1:1; 1 Thes 4:14).
- After the Resurrection, Jesus “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor 15:5).
- He also appeared, post-Resurrection, to “to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles . . . ” (1 Cor 15:6-7)
A Doubter Finds His Faith Again
A.N. Wilson, leading British biographer, novelist, and self-described “born again atheist,” wrote in 2009 about his return to Christianity:
As for Jesus having been the founder of Christianity, the idea seemed perfectly preposterous. In so far as we can discern anything about Jesus from the existing documents, he believed that the world was about to end, as did all the first Christians. So, how could he possibly have intended to start a new religion for Gentiles, let alone established a Church or instituted the sacraments? It was a nonsense, together with the idea of a personal God, or a loving God in a suffering universe. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense. . . .
[T]he existence of language is one of the many phenomena—of which love and music are the two strongest—which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the Incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in his image, and continually restores humanity in his image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits. . . .
My departure from the faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus. My return was slow, hesitant, doubting. So it will always be; but I know I shall never make the same mistake again.
(“Why I Believe Again,” New Statesman, April 2, 2009)
References and Resources
Over the past few years a number of excellent works have taken up the topic of Paul as founder of Christianity and my main article draws heavily upon those detailed studies. Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1995), by David Wenham, is widely acknowledged to be the most thorough of the scholarly works on this topic. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1997), by N.T. Wright is a good introduction for readers looking for a shorter, more accessible work. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Baker Academic, 2007), by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, an impressive work of scholarship with a strong apologetic focus, contains the chapter, “The ‘Silence’ of Paul? What, If Anything, Did Paul Know About the Jesus of History?” Finally, The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus (InterVarsity Press, 1998), by Ben Witherington III, is a helpful introduction that emphasizes the Jewish character of Paul’s personality and theological vision.