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Conflicting Theology: Review of “Paul and Jesus” Part 1

April 5, 2013

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Do you know why Paul may well be the most influential thinker in Western History? Perhaps exceeding Jesus himself?

Yes, I mean above even famous philosophers or political leaders.  Many Christians dispute that he is perhaps more influential than Jesus (or have never thought about it)! It is an unexpected and radical thought to many, Christian or not.  Certainly, it is because of Jesus and beliefs about him that Paul ended up being such an impacting figure.

Still, as to the upcoming review, let’s start here:  That Paul was indeed more influential than Jesus on the eventual shape of Christianity is the contention of Dr. James Tabor, author of Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity.  It’s not so much about comparative ratings but that Paul molded subsequent Christian beliefs and practices in a distinctly different direction than what Jesus had set.  I believe Tabor also proves this claim beyond reasonable doubt.  And it does matter in important ways to all of us indirectly, and to many people directly in their way of thinking, managing emotions, hope for the future, etc.  Many Christians feel (and I mean feel) their eternal destiny hangs “in the balance,” of one kind or another, based largely on Paul’s theology… either whether they are “elect,” whether they have sufficient or “saving” faith, whether they have done things that are worthy of damnation regardless of their faith, etc.  

Now Tabor is quite aware that the idea of Paul essentially inventing a different religion is a minority view among Christians overall and certainly not accepted by many biblical scholars and theologians, especially those taking a primarily traditional interpretation of early Christianity.  One of the reasons I so greatly appreciated this book is that Tabor shows his strong familiarity with more traditional and all major positions… varying ways of viewing Paul and his relation to Jesus’ actual teachings and to “The Twelve” Apostles.  He then analyzes key issues on an historical and literary basis (including theological concepts) as well as any of the many scholars of the Bible and early Christianity I’ve read.

Let me step back a moment…. For my non-religious readers, as I’ve started on above, what the Apostle Paul accomplished is something quite worth understanding, at least in its broad outlines….  And much of that is not under dispute among traditional Christians, radical theologians, or fascinated people, like Dr. Tabor, who study and teach historically without trying to convert others’ minds or hearts in any particular direction.  In my own case, I held to a position much like Tabors’ well before reading this book, but he has solidified it even further as making the most sense out of things that can be very confusing about Paul from within the New Testament and in Paul’s own writing itself.  This is whether one considers just the seven “genuine” letters almost universally accepted as his or an additional one to six others disputed among scholars as to authorship.

Well, just setting the stage adequately for a meaningful review of this important book I see is involved enough that I must give only a quick further summary and teaser and leave the meat of review for a later post.  (If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe so you’ll get email or RSS alerts whenever I post — usually just once, sometimes twice a week.)

So here is a small sample of Paul and Jesus: Tabor (pp. 24, 25) says that the thriving form of Christianity in the

“…late Roman Empire was heavily based upon the ecstatic and visionary experiences of Paul.  Christianity, as we came to know it, is Paul and Paul is Christianity…. Its main elements are: 1) the forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ, God’s divine Son, based on his sacrificial death on the cross; 2) receiving the Holy Spirit and the gift of eternal life guaranteed by faith in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead; and 3) a glorified heavenly reign with Christ when he returns in the clouds of heaven.  The mystical rites of baptism and the ‘Lord’s Supper’ function as experiential verification of this understanding of ‘salvation.’

It is difficult for one to imagine a version of Christianity pre-dating Paul with none of these seemingly essential elements.  Yet that is precisely what our evidence indicates.  The original apostles and followers of Jesus, led by James and assisted by Peter and John, continued to live as Jews, observing the Torah and worshipping in the Temple at Jerusalem, or in their local synagogues, while remembering and honoring Jesus as their martyred Teacher and Messiah.  They neither worshipped nor divinized Jesus as the Son of God, or as a Dying-and-Rising Savior, who died for the sins of humankind.  They practiced no ritual of baptism into Christ, nor did they celebrate a sacred meal equated with ‘eating the body and drinking the blood’ of Christ as a guarantee of eternal life.  Their message was wholly focused around their expectations that the kingdom of God had drawn near, as proclaimed by John the Baptizer and Jesus, and that very soon God would intervene in human history to bring about his righteous rule of peace and justice among all nations.  In the meantime both Jews and non-Jews were urged to repent of their sins, turn to God, and live righteously before him in expectation of his kingdom.”

Can Dr. Tabor make a viable or perhaps even a very strong case for this “thesis,” as he calls it? He is not the first to make such a case, and I think he does succeed… in a way that is readable for someone hardly familiar with New Testament content and concepts yet is challenging for the sophisticated scholar.  More on how he does that when this review continues…. Comments meanwhile? 

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