As stated in my previous post, in recent years there have been a growing number of people that believe there was never just one Christianity, but instead many “Christianities,” and what we call Christianity today is simply the “one” that won out. Specifically, many proponents of this claim argue that the Apostle Paul essentially hijacked the true message of the “Jesus movement” from his original followers, and invented more or less what we today call Christianity. So for today’s post I will pose the question: Did Paul Invent Christianity?
Now as noted in yesterdays post (Christianity or Christianities?) there was certainly disagreements in the early Church, but never over the core message. The essential truths of what came to be known to the world as Christianity were established long before Paul’s letters. Therefore the idea that Paul hijacked the message of Jesus away from his original disciples and transformed the faith into a religion about Jesus’ death and resurrection is absurd.
For starters, if Paul’s teachings had contradicted the other disciples, then surely they would have spoken out against him. However, just the opposite happened. The Apostle Peter, who was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, had this to say about Paul:
“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.”
In this passage (from 2 Peter), Peter is endorsing Paul’s teachings, thereby refuting any modern notion that claims Paul had hijacked away “the true message” from the original followers of Jesus. Now I should point out there is a split among scholars if Peter actually authored this letter; but I of course believe he did and to those of us who are people of faith, this is solid confirmation. However, in order to make a stronger argument I will continue further.
The fact that Paul in his own writings acknowledged once persecuting the church should prove beyond doubt that he could not have invented its message. Now I should say when it comes to Paul’s letters, just like with Peter, there is some debate among scholars. In total, there are thirteen letters in the NT that were written by the Apostle Paul. Of these thirteen, there are six disputed letters: 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Not surprisingly the support for authenticity comes from the Old School scholars, while the New School Scholars virtually all reject the pastorals (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) but are more evenly split on 2 Thessalonians, Colossians & Ephesians. There are then seven letters that remain that are undisputed. Meaning all scholars in the field (both Old School & New School) accept these as authentic and actually written by Paul. They are: 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Galatians and Romans. Now I of course believe that all thirteen letters of Paul are authentic, but for the purpose of making a stronger argument I shall limit myself to the undisputed seven letters.
First, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians he provides a personal account of meeting the Lord’s brother James, and Peter, one of his closest disciples. So we can immediately connect Paul to Jesus’ brother and closest disciples. He also acknowledged he once persecuted the Church, saying:
“I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they praised God because of me.”
Therefore, these passages illustrate that both the faith and its message predate Paul’s conversion; and after his conversion Paul later came to meet with the Lord’s brother and closest disciples, thereby connecting him with those present from the beginning. Paul goes on to say in Galatians that:
“After fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem … I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles … James, Cephas (Peter) and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me (and Barnabas) the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles.”
This proves not only that the message and Christian faith predate Paul, but he and his ‘God given’ message to the gentiles was received and recognized by those considered pillars of the faith, i.e. Jesus closest disciples (original followers) and his brother James.
In 1 Corinthians Paul again admits that he once persecuted the Church, and states that what he is now passing on he “received” from others:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.”
Paul’s use of the words “received” and “passed on” are significant in that they are rabbinical terms used for the handing down of teachings. What Paul is saying, is that what he is presenting, is existing truth that he himself once received. This passage relaying the facts about Jesus’ death for our sins and his resurrection contains the earliest creed of the early Church; a creed that was recited by believers prior to the conversion of Paul or the NT ever having been written. In fact, many scholars believe Paul received this creed from James and Peter themselves while visiting with them in Jerusalem the first time just three years after his conversion.
Therefore, it has been demonstrated that there was never multiple “Christianities,” but instead always one Christianity that goes back to Jesus and his earliest followers (see yesterdays post). And though they had their disagreements as can be found in the NT texts, the core message was never in dispute. Furthermore, this core message and Christian teachings predate the conversion of Paul. Therefore we can say on solid grounds that Paul did NOT invent Christianity. However, I do not want to minimize his importance in the course of early Christianity. The Apostle Paul in answering the call to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, more than paved the way in transforming Christianity from a small Jewish Sect into a truly global religion.
Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.