A while back I wrote a column entitled “Paul is not Jesus.” Since then I’ve stumbled across several online lectures and magazine articles giving Paul credit for creating the Christian religion. The articles implied that Jesus was a charismatic prophet whose legacy endures only because of Paul. I feel I need to write about this subject again.
As is commonly known, Paul was an enemy of those who followed Jesus, even to abetting in murder. Several years after Jesus’ death and resurrection Paul recorded his own conversion after being confronted with a vision of Jesus so brilliant it blinded him for several days. His discipleship began then as an ignorant new “believer.” It took him several years to learn the basics of “The Way of Jesus” from others with more intimate knowledge and experience, and the rest of his life to mature into deeper understanding. Along with partners and assistants he established new worshipping congregations among the pagans of what is now Turkey, Greece and Macedonia. He trained and guided his own disciples to establishing other congregations. Letters to the congregations he founded, to congregations founded by others, and letters attributed to him, speak to the difficulties new Christians had living into their faith, and testifying to his own developing understanding in which he frequently changed direction.
The letters were and still are included in the canon of the New Testament mostly because they were the only apostolic writings we had, and because they tell one story of a part of the early church. It’s regrettable that some Christians take the letters to be the inerrant word of God. They certainly testify to God’s truth, and to the way one late comer apostle taught others about Jesus Christ in far off lands. Divinely inspired as they are we can learn much from them, but they are not the inerrant word of God.
There was a vibrant Christian movement in the Levant by the time of Paul’s conversion. By the time of his execution, around 65 a.d., there were centers of Christian learning in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome, none of which owed their establishment to Paul.
With all of that said, the importance of the Pauline texts remains important and worthy of study. They help us understand the troubles of early congregations that were often like our own troubles. They illuminate and reveal God’s word even if they are not themselves God’s word. They tell us of the courage and perseverance demanded of the Christian life, regardless of conditions and happenstance. For all these reasons and more, they carry great authority for modern Christians, but they are not the authority of Jesus Christ. It is the gospel record that bears the full authority of God’s word.
For Christians it is Jesus who fulfills all the law and prophets, both past and to the end of time. Everything must be understood from that center. It’s true that the gospels were written by different people at different times from multiple sources during the last half of the first century, after Paul had died. They cannot be harmonized, but each writer did the best he/she could to get the essential truths down right. Some historical scholars try to bracket divine inspiration, or anything supernatural, but Christian truth is supernaturally spiritual; it cannot be bracketed out. To accuse gospel writers of fabrication is arrogant cynicism. To claim their inherency in every word is to manipulate their message into idols of one’s own making. To trust in them is to follow in God’s way of love, proclaiming the good news of the world’s salvation through Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. None of us are up to the task, but we can do the best we can with what we have, just as Paul did, to continue spreading the good news by word and deed.
© Steven E. Woolley
1 thought on “Paul Is Not Jesus: Part II”
Another interesting post on Country Parson, Steve, that returns us to the issue of trusting the authority of the word.
Paul’s letters (however adjudicated as to degrees of “authenticity”) are, of course, the earliest documents in the Christian tradition. But then Paul never met Jesus, as neither did any of the authors of the Gospels. So there is no “first-person” “eye-witness” testimony. There is, rather, the transformation of an oral tradition into a set of writings of which, again, Paul’s are the earliest.
Given that the oral tradition is itself lost in the sense that whatever it was, was itself transformed into a written tradition, the question of “authority” turns on the sense of inspiration at work in the transformation from passing down by word-of-mouth to passing down by way of this act of writing.
If the above makes sense, it makes Paul’s own situation genuinely interesting in the way it is different precisely because Paul’s relation to what I’ll just call the “Jesus movement” is one of officially sanctioned persecution. His response to the “word-of-mouth” passed down to him concerning Jesus is that it constitutes an abrogation of the Law that needs to be suppressed if not exterminated.
At least that’s Paul’s response until Jesus Christ directly interrupts him in a way that knocks him off his horse.
Paul is holistically interrupted: his entire world is interrupted from the ground up.
And then, evidently, he goes off to Arabia to spend roughly three years trying to come to terms with the radical depth of the interruption.
Where, then, does Paul’s “authority” come from? Well, yes, inspiration. But when I said above that Paul never met Jesus, it was, of course, Jesus of Nazareth that he never met. The whole point of Paul’s interruption is his meeting Jesus Christ, and then having to come to terms with the overwhelming event of that meeting.
The way Paul came to terms with it during his three years of meditating on it, then made him an Outsider in relation to the Jesus community in Jerusalem, that is, to those who had in fact known Jesus of Nazareth. And, as you know better than I do, that led to a conflict between the “home community” and the “diasporic community,” a conflict ultimately rooted in how each understood the source of its authority in relation to Jesus.
So Paul’s understanding of his own authority as the self-proclaimed “smallest” of the Apostles was rooted in the way he came to terms with his original interruption by Jesus Christ. And of course, he himself translated that experience into writing his letters to the diasporic communities, and his doing so precisely in the larger context of his conflict with the self-understanding of the “home community.”
The closest Gospel to the above situation is, I think, John’s since John’s Gospel also appears to be rooted in direct inspiration from Jesus Christ, rather than an attempt to show how Jesus of Nazareth became Jesus Christ.
So, yes, Paul is simply not interested in Jesus of Nazareth. And however much he wants to show respect (and raise money for) the “home community,” in the end, he is not interested in it either.
Rather Paul is interested in the transformation of the Roman World into the Body of Christ, where the paradigm of that transformation is the transformation of the Cross from the vehicle of Roman control to its being the locus of a complete transformation in the meaning of “death” and “life” through the fulfillment of the promise of Resurrection as that itself originally interrupted Paul on the road to Damascus.
How, then, is Paul’s inspiration related to the inspiration of the Gospel writers who came after him?