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Was Paul the Founder of Chistianity?

Copyright 2004 by John Baskette

One of the contentions of the ABC documentary is that Paul was the true founder of the Christian faith. The liberal scholar Marvin Meyer unequivocally states, "Paul is the founder of Christianity." Even the evangelical scholar Paul Maier is quoted to say that Paul was "almost" a co-founder of Christianity. It is asserted that Christianity would have been very different without Paul, and that Paul effectively, "founded a new religion."

Admittedly, the importance of Paul to early Christianity and the formation of the New Testament can scarcely be exaggerated. Regardless, the ABC documentary makes some critical errors in its analysis. First it greatly underestimates the accomplishments of the rest of the church. Before we explore further, try answering the following questions:

  1. The major centers of orthodox Christianity were Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. Did Paul found any of these churches? If so, which ones?
  2. Who was the first apostle to proselytize Gentiles?
  3. Does the theology of the 2nd Century gentile church reflect primarily or solely the influence of Paul and his teaching?
  4. Do early Christian apocryphal works reflect the influence of Paul and his teaching?

The answer to these questions in every case is "No." Paul did not found any of churches in those locations that became the major centers of the faith. The first person to proselytize gentiles was Peter as recorded in Acts 10. A survey of the writings of the church fathers from the early 2nd century reveals a wide range of influence, and a lack of appreciation for Paulís theology. J. Gersham Machen points out:

"The use of Pauline Epistles as normative for Christian thought and practice can be traced back to very early times, and has been continuously ever since. Yet certain considerations have been urged on the other side as indicating that the influence of Paul has not been so great as might have been expected. For example, the Christianity of the Old Catholic Church at the close of the second century displays a strange lack of understanding for the deeper elements in the Pauline doctrine of salvation, and something of the same state of affairs may be detected in the scanty remains of the so-called ĎApostolic Fathersí of the beginning of the century. The divergence from Paul was not conscious; the writers of the close of the second century all quote the Pauline epistles with the utmost reverence. But the fact of the divergence cannot altogether be denied." [1]

Numerous early church writings emphasize ideas that were not characteristic of Paul. One example is from the most popular of the 2nd century non-canonical works, the Shepherd of Hermas, which exhorts us as follows, "Whosoever therefore shall walk in these commandments, shall live and be happy in his life; but whosoever shall neglect them, shall not live, and shall be unhappy in his life (Hermas 124:3-4)." This popular work emphasized works in a way that does not sound a lot like Paul. This is not to say that these early church works contradict Paul complete, or that the authors were not orthodox. But, if Paul really was the founder of Christianity, we would expect to see a far greater prevalence of Pauline vocabulary and teaching. Instead we see a wide range of influences including the influence of John and Peter. This is consistent with the understanding that Paul was a follower of Jesus -- even a very influential follower of Jesus -- but it is not consistent with the idea that Paul founded Christianity.

Christianity spread in many directions through the work of many apostles during the first and second centuries. Paulís work is better known due to Paulís writings that form such a large part of our New Testament. But the church was growing in other areas as well Ė for example in North Africa by John Mark, to Ethiopia (Acts 8:26ff), and to places like Edessa in Syria (see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05282a.htm). In fact, as is evident from the book of Acts, the Christian faith had already spread well beyond Palestine even before Paul was converted. As Matthew makes clear well before Paulís conversion, evangelizing the world was always part of the church mission. Jesus says, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19,20)."

But, didn't the ABC documentary quote one scholar (Paul Maier no less) saying exactly this (i.e. that there were numerous others teaching Christianity throughout the world)? They did, but as their example, they discussed the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. This is a great distortion because Dr. Maier certainly did not have gnostic heretics in mind when he made his statement. The ABC documentary is not supporting the idea that Paul was one follower of Jesus of many who preached a common gospel. Paul is regarded as the founder of Christianity not merely because of his energetic and successful evangelistic efforts. He is regarded as the founder because as David Wenham puts it, "Paul was an innovator who brought into Christianity all sorts of ideas and emphases that complicated and spoiled the original religion of Jesus." [2] In other words, Paul is the founder of Christianity because he largely invented Christianity.

Can this claim be supported?

The answer to this question also is no. The overwhelming evidence of scripture shows continuity between the teachings of Jesus, the apostles (including James and the early church in Jerusalem), and the teachings of Paul. Furthermore, there is continuity between the teachings of the Old Testament and the New Testament. The following table shows only a small sample of this continuity.

Teaching

Source

Citation

Jesus is the Christ

OT

 

Jesus

Matt: 26: 63-64

Apostles

Peter

Martha

Matt: 21: 1-9; Mark 11:1-10

Matt: 16:16

John 11:27

Paul

Romans 1:3; 9:5

Lamb of God

OT

Gen. 22:8,12-16; Ex. 12:3; Isa. 53:7

Jesus

 

Apostles

 

Phillip

Mark 1:36

Rev. 5:1

I Peter 1:18-20

Acts 8:32-33

Paul

I Cor. 5:7

God as Father

OT

Isaiah 9:6

Jesus

Mark 14:36

Apostles

 

Paul

Romans 8:15; Gal. 4:6

Jesus as unique Son of God

OT

 

Jesus

Matt.11:26, Matt. 21: 33-40

Mark 12:1-11.

Apostles

John 3:16

Paul

Gal 4:4, Romans 8:3

Jesus as Lord

OT

 

Jesus

Matt. 24:42-51; Mark 12:35-37

Apostles

Mark 1:3

Paul

Rom. 1:1, 10:9, Phil 1:1, I Cor. 4:1, Rom. 10:9.

Kingdom of God

OT

 

Jesus

Matt 12:28; 18:3-4; Mark 1:15; 10:15

Apostles

Acts 3:19-26

Paul

Eph. 1:10; 5:5, Col. 1:13

Redemption through His death

OT

 

Jesus

Mark 10:38-45; 14:35-36

Apostles

Matt. 16:21

Paul

Romans 3:21-26, I Cor. 7:23

Founding of Church

OT

 

Jesus

Matt. 16:17-18, Matt. 18:15-17

Apostles

Acts 2:14-21

Paul

I Cor. 12:27

Good News to Jews first, then to the Gentiles

OT

 

Jesus

Matt. 10:5; 15:23-28; 24:14; Mark 13:10

Apostles

Acts 1:8; 2:14; 8:14-17; 10:44-48; 15:6-11

Paul

Romans 2: 9-10

divorce

OT

 

Jesus

Matt 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-2

Apostles

 

Paul

I Cor. 7:10-11

Return of Jesus like a thief in the night

OT

 

Jesus

Matt: 24: 43,44

Apostles

 

Paul

I Thess. 5:2-4

A crucified Messiah

OT

Numbers 21: 6-9

Isaiah 52:13

Apostles

Acts 2:23

Rev. 11:8

Jesus

John 3:14

Paul

I Cor. 1:23, 2:2

Resurrection

OT

Jonah 1:17;

Apostles

Acts 2:31

Jesus

Matt 12:40: Mark 8:31,9:31

Paul

I Cor. 15:3,4

Passover/Lordís Supper

OT

Exodus 12:11

Apostles

 

Jesus

Matt. 26:26-30, Mark 14:14,22-26

Paul

1 Cor. 5:7, 11:23-26

Christ "the Rock/the Cornerstone"

OT

Exodus 17:6, Deut. 32:4, Isa. 8:14

Apostles

1 Pet. 2:8

Jesus

Matt. 16:18, Mark 12:10

Paul

Rom. 9:33, 1 Cor. 10:4

 

The ABC documentary depicts what it called a "running battle" between Paul and Jesusís closest friends, a battle that Paul "lost". But Paul, "didn't let disagreements stop him!"

But, how severe was the battle? And how sharp the disagreement? A key passage for examining the basic Christian message is found in Paulís writings in I Cor. 15:3-8:

"For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ also died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time."

F.F. Bruce comments on this:

"Paul wrote this to the Corinthians about A.D. 55, not more than twenty-five years after the events in question, but evidently he had communicated the content of this "tradition" to them by word of mouth five years earlier. If we remove his personal contribution from what he delivered to them (such as verse 8, "Last of all, ... he appeared to me also"), what is left is what Paul himself and Ďreceivedí several years before that." [3]

These verses contain what scholars have identified as an early creed of the church the must have formed only a very short time after the events. Many scholars of the original languages argue that the Greek of this passage reflects a Semitic substratum, meaning that it is a translation of an Aramaic original. This tells us that Paul did not author this early creed, but rather received it just as he says at a very early date, no more that a few years after the resurrection.

This creed, short as it is, contains a number of central truths; Jesus is the Christ or Messiah. He fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. He died for our sins. He was buried, and rose again the third day, and was seen by believers and non-believers.

The ABC documentary claims that the idea that Christís crucifixion represented some kind of victory was original with Paul, but the creedal statement contradicts this claim. Moreover, this early creed shows that the Paulís gospel was essentially the same as the gospel he received, very likely in Damascas or Antioch shortly after his conversion.

The verses that follow are similarly remarkable, Paul says that Jesus appeared to Peter, then to James Ė Paulís theological nemesis if we are to believe the ABC documentary. Paul is likely repeating what he learned from his first visit to Jerusalem in 35 A.D. Paul described this in Galations 1:18-19 where he says that he visited first Peter, then James. The resurrection appearances that Paul describes are likely those that Peter and James shared with him during that visit.

This passage is prima facie evidence that Paulís gospel was the same gospel preached by Jesusí friends in Jerusalem, and that Paul was also a friend to the apostles and church in Jerusalem.


[1] Machen, J. Gresham. The Origin of Paul's Religion. Grand Rapids, Michigan:Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1925, p. 6. This is a classical work on this subject from a conservative perspective, showing the true source of Paul's Religion.

[2] Wenham, David. Paul, Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids, Michigan:Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995, p. 20. Wenham's book is an excellent and scholarly work that demonstrates fairly conclusively that Paul cannot be regarded as the Founder of Christianity.

[3] Bruce, F. F. Paul & Jesus Grand Rapids, Michigan:Baker Books, 1974, p. 44.


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