Paul vs. Jesus’ Jerusalem-based Followers
My last post concluded a 3-part article on the importance of authorship claims for New Testament (NT) books (expanded from an intended 2-part one). Some of the important issues that come into play are featured in the article below.
Jewish Orthodoxy vs. Creative Theology
Let me spell it out clearly up front:
We have no better simplified explanation for most of the non-Jewish or even anti-Jewish concepts and attitudes of the Gospels and Acts than the direct or indirect influence of Paul. (Now, this is oversimplified, to be sure, but I must leave it that way for here.) Another, perhaps more significant issue re. Paul’s influence on the early development of Christianity is that it is in clear and powerful conflict with both beliefs and practices of the Jerusalem-based followers of Jesus, including his “Twelve Apostles” (by then 11 of the original twelve plus the appointed Matthias, according to Acts).
A cautionary note:
You have to look rather closely and read between the lines in the only account, biblical or otherwise, of the early months and years of Jesus’ followers as they apparently re-convened in Jerusalem not long after the crucifixion, that of the book of Acts. If you do not read carefully you may miss the significance, as even many theologians traditionally have, of several statements and additional implications there as to the orthodox Judaism that those Jesus followers observed and believed in. For some period (hard to date precisely) believing Jesus to be the promised Messiah was viewed as a sect within normal limits of acceptable Jewish belief and worship. And it was not the only such messianic sect of the general period by any means. Of course, after the crucifixion, Jesus was not a viable messiah unless he was seen as raised by God and very soon to be returning (because the whole point was the liberation of Israel and the envisioned peaceful Kingdom).
(By the way, if the above is correct, it means that Jesus’ personal disciples and the earliest Jerusalem believers did not at all believe in his deity and did not believe the Law had been set aside nor the Temple sacrificial system superseded by a “substitutionary atonement”.)
Apparently (from our minimal historical records) the first really creative theology around Jesus to go beyond the bounds of Jewish orthodoxy was Paul’s, perhaps worked out along with some of his colleagues. However, this radical new theology was apparently mostly his own combination of existing “pieces” from a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish sources, built upon the general concept of Jesus as having been raised by God in some manner, soon to return to establish the Kingdom of God. This was the core.
It was apparently enough common ground with the “Jerusalem Pillars” for Paul to operate successfully upon, though not without extensive conflict. That is until his last appearance in Jerusalem, his subsequent arrest and slow trip to Rome.
The Impetus for a New Kind of Faith
So we’ve covered how Paul and the Jerusalem “Church” (essentially a Jewish gathering or movement, not Church as we now think of one) shared the critical motivating core of belief in Jesus having been raised to God’s “right hand” (not as part of deity but to a powerful place), soon to set up his Kingdom.
There are plenty of implications arising out of the scenario above which will have to be left aside for now. I will only focus on one:
How Paul’s claimed experience of encountering Jesus relates to storied encounters of the risen Jesus by others (especially the Apostles); and the implications for the supposed “historicity” of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. (The reasons modern Christians have made this so important we cannot go into here, significant as it is.)
Paul argues strongly for the idea of resurrection (not universally accepted in either the Judaism nor the paganism of the day) in his first letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 15, particularly).
Now note that neither here nor elsewhere does he argue clearly for the physical resurrection and at least partly corporeal state of Jesus afterwards as do the Gospels. He definitely and importantly omits any “empty tomb” ideas (writing much earlier than the Gospel writers). Some feel Paul’s concept of resurrection is the same as in the Gospels/Acts, as his position about the reality of a resurrection of “whole persons” (presumably, not his words) in a “spiritual body” (HIS words) could imply this…. As is often the case with Paul’s creative (inventive) genius, his thought train lacks logical/linguistic precision (even in the original Greek) and can be confusing.
However, note that his argument for the resurrection is based on “appearances” of Jesus to others and to himself, apparently in the same general manner (he at least makes no distinction… no pre/post ascension issue for example, and his clearly was post “ascension”). Jesus “appearance” to Paul was clearly visionary, not of the “touch-and-see” Gospel variety, per both Paul’s own and Luke’s accounts (in Acts). So what does this all imply?
First, an “aside”: it is clear Paul’s recounting of things carries more historical or factual weight than does Luke’s in Acts, his Gospel or the other Gospels…. All, including Paul, had agendas to serve, but the Gospel writers a more complex and “distant” one…. And none of them, including Paul, was writing to and for Jerusalem/Judea/Galilee Jews or others who were likely to have been present around the time of the crucifixion and in the vicinity.
So, among other things, the comparison of the several accounts implies strongly that the convoluted, complex “resurrection accounts” of the Gospels are later concoctions, not “eye witness accounts”. Similarly the muddled accounts in Acts of Paul’s visionary encounter with Jesus are almost certainly not from Paul’s own mouth as perhaps spoken to the supposed traveling companion of Paul. (This is what Luke has often traditionally been deemed to have been.)
There are other lines of strong evidence for the late (post-apostolic) dating of the accounts of the Gospels as well… but it is fascinating how most Christians conflate Paul’s experience and his related arguments with Gospel/Acts accounts of the origins of belief in Jesus’ messiahship and eventual elevation to godhood.
This is a godhood of which Paul was an early, perhaps the earliest proponent, and the original Apostles/disciples almost certainly never believed in. That is despite it being presented that way particularly in John — almost surely the latest Gospel. It appeared well after the deaths of all the Apostles, or at least after their disappearance from history before or following the war and Jerusalem’s destruction, 66-70 CE.
Final point: Paul’s statements also undercut the idea of any need for as well as the actuality of an “ascension” of Jesus, who supposedly had a resuscitated physical/spiritual body and spend time instructing the disciples after his being raised and reviving their faith.
Had this specific lore (as in the Gospels) of post-resurrection encounters with Jesus really been the vital restorer of faith and motivation for an aggressive mission by the “Jerusalem Church’s” belief, as is so widely believed, Paul would have either used it OR explained how/why it was wrong. (He did this regarding the continuing need for circumcision, following the Law and other points, repeatedly). He would have done this rather than write as he did… as himself seeing Jesus in the same manner as so many before him, and the “last of all”…. Also interesting how he presumed no one else had belatedly received an appearance or might yet. It seems he wanted to be the one to lay out the radical new theology around Jesus the Christ.
Most of this he claims “The Lord” to have revealed to him… fits with the elevated status Paul asserts for himself, with the repeated point that it was direct from God, not via the Jerusalem Apostles…. Paul was the main inventor of the abstract theology come down to as as the core of Christian faith.
Not that his theology is phony or bad in its entirety… aspects were and are liberating and inspiring. But it is vital that we recognize its differences from Jesus’ beliefs and teachings and those of Jesus’ direct followers and their immediate converts. From there we can go on to clear-eyed sorting of various beliefs and the emotions and actions they tend to spur.
There were at least TWO major strains of Jesus-belief growing in the early-to-mid-first century which only began to be fully merged AFTER Jerusalem was effectively off the scene after 70 CE. Luke was the chief “historian” to disguise the true picture, though he couldn’t completely. It is important that WE get clear on just how and why the theology of Paul differs from a simple following of Jesus’ teachings; and how BOTH Paul and the Jerusalem believers were motivated largely by the false hopes of supernatural intervention by God to liberate Israel and/or the entire world.