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The Real Jesus: The Real Paul?

November 16, 2011

Isn’t it mind-boggling that for over 250 years Christians have maintained significant focus on who Jesus really was, discussing it in many venues? Not that Christians hadn’t before, especially in the first 250-300 years!

It’s also quite interesting that much discussion of who Paul really was is much more recent… understandable but interesting.   Is Paul more the founder of Christianity as we now know it than is Jesus? The wide-spread (and still spreading?) idea that Paul indeed is, has been an inevitable outcome of critical Jesus (and the Gospels) studies of modern times.   The in-depth look at Jesus as presented in the Gospels–virtually our only source of information, plus a little, indirect, in Paul and the rest of the New Testament–has reasserted Jesus’ “Jewishness” and the fully Jewish context of his life and teachings.

Now, further attention to the “real Paul” is raising important questions that have been largely passed over until recently: Was Paul really a Pharisee? What did that really mean? What kind of Pharisee? What was the extent of Greek (Hellenistic) influence on his brand of Judaism, and subsequently on his creative new theology? The list could go on and on.

There are a series of questions that challenge both the “critical” (analytical/historical) scholar and the Bible student.  This includes the bulk of preaching pastors, who accept traditional linkages and the supposed smooth continuity between Jesus, the twelve Apostles, and Paul.  I will sometime later explore these more in depth here.  For now suffice it to say that there is no shortage of puzzling things about Paul, from his real upbringing and education to his inner being to his theology.  These have been long recognized by what I’m calling the traditional crowd, as well as others.

Since that general group (recognizing there are significant variations within it) is the largest and most lively aspect of American Christianity and of much of the developing world, these Paul issues I expect to become more and more important.  The discussions of who Jesus was gradually expanded to include new looks at key issues of “end times” and prophesy.  This broke out over a century ago with Albert Schweitzers’ book, “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” (not an easy read by any means, but influential as its observations “filtered down” toward the pew).  Tied up with his Jewish Apocalyptic emphasis are questions about what the Kingdom of God is, as Jesus envisioned it.  This has gotten massive attention in the last century and right up to now.  Christians want not only a “relationship with God” through Jesus, but a clear understanding and implementation of the Kingdom of God (either by us as inspired by Jesus and God, or as it is expected, by millions, to soon be supernaturally instituted).

So one of the major aspects of such a focus inevitably involves Paul.  Was Paul’s expectation of the soon-return of Jesus part-and-parcel of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God (or Heaven)? Was Paul’s vision of the uniting of Jews and Gentiles, not to mention gender and social “classes,” a natural extension of what the Jerusalem followers of Jesus under Peter, James, and John conceived and began? The writer of Acts would certainly lead us toward that conclusion. But is that the way it really was?

What of the numerous clear and substantial differences between Acts’ and Paul’s accounts of crucial things like his “Damascus Road” experience, the Jerusalem Council, his mission to the Gentiles, etc.?

There are fascinating and important insights being advanced even just now, nearly 2000 years later, about these and more theologically central issues.  Are they being looked at, taken seriously by the bulk of Christians? It doesn’t appear so.  They may think these are “merely academic” issues.  Perhaps the issues require too much thinking or sustained attention.  (Actually, they do require much attention).

But also, and more importantly I believe, they threaten to upset the apple cart. For example, the vast majority of biblical scholars have agreed for decades that only seven or so of the 13 New Testament books attributed to Paul in the texts or tradition were actually written by him or a close associate of his.  Yet this is nearly completely ignored by Evangelicals and most conservative Christians.  Why? Well, to seriously engage this question, let alone to accept the majority consensus, would be to open at least a No. 10 size can of worms.  Never mind that properly relegating the Pastoral Epistles to a later period could simplify a lot of things and greatly help the egalitarian-gender-roles faction among Evangelicals.  Things more to the core of a world-view and construction of spiritual meaning are at stake.  I get that.

Still, I’m hoping some of the more courageous and dedicated explorers among traditional Christians, as well as more liberal ones, will begin engaging the conversation around deeper looks at Paul.  If they look around enough, they will see that there are good alternative ways to find spiritual meaning, a basis for morality, and the various things that concern us all.

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