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Paul and the Origins of Christianity

  • On the Sources
  • James, The Brother of Jesus
  • Theology and Person of Paul
  • Paul and the Jerusalem Church
  • The Fate of the Jerusalem Church
  • Jewish Christianity
  • Conclusions
  • " is...a fact of history that St. Paul and his successors added to,..., or imposed upon, or substituted another doctrine for...the plain...teachings of Jesus..."
    H.G. Wells (1866-1946)

    "The conversion of Paul was no conversion at all: it was Paul who converted the religion that has raised one man above sin and death into a religion that delivered millions of men so completely into their dominion that their own common nature became a horror to them, and the religious life became a denial of life."
    George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

    On the Sources

    Like our study of Jesus earlier, it is important to critically evaluate the primary documents available to us. The documents are mainly to be found in the New Testament, although we will need to supplement these with extra-canonical writings including the writings of the church fathers and some apocryphal works.

    A Christian might think that The Acts of the Apostles, which purports to be a historical account of the development of the early Church, provides complete information about this period of Christianity. However a closer analysis shows that this is not case.

    First we note that although Christian tradition claims to know the author as Luke, the companion of Paul, the evidence shows otherwise. Indeed the author of the two volume Luke-Acts is unknown to us . [Or course, for ease of reference we will continue to refer to the anonymous author of Acts as "Luke"-but always remembering that this is merely a shorthand for "the anonymous author of the two volume work known to us as the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles"]

    Furthermore, critical historical research over the past two hundred years have shown that our "Luke" cannot be considered a very reliable historian. In the twentieth century, with the advent of new methodologies of historical and literary research, scholars made another startling discovery: that the speeches in Acts are unhistorical and are essentially the literary invention of the author. Scholars have also noted that the picture of Paul as presented in Acts is not completely compatible with what we can derive from the genuine Pauline epistles.

    While it is certainly not to be doubted that Acts contained some historical data, care and skepticism must be applied when using the information derived from it.

    From Acts we move on to the epistles of Paul. In the New Testament there are thirteen epistles attributed to him: Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus and Philemon. However only seven of these thirteen epistles attributed to Paul in the New Testament are authentic. The pastoral epistles (I & II Timothy & Titus ) are generally regarded as spurious. While Ephesians, Colossians and II Thessalonians have their authenticity disputed; with most scholars doubting Pauline authorship. In our analysis of the history of the origins of Christianity below, we will be relying mainly on the seven undisputed epistles: Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon.

    We can dismiss the two epistles attributed to Peter as forgeries. They will be of no use to us in our study.

    Having provided ourselves with the proper grounding on the documents pertaining to earliest Christianity, we can now proceed to analyze the period in detail.

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    James, The Brother of Jesus

    The most important figure in earliest Christianity just after the death of Jesus, was, not Paul, not Peter, but James, the brother of Jesus.

    James was referred to in the New Testament as "the brother of the Lord" (Galatians 1:18; Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55-56). Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions have tended to minimize his role; the former claiming that he was the cousin while the latter saying that he was Jesus half brother, the son of Joseph but not of Mary. However the historical evidence is unequivocal in telling us that James was the full biological brother of Jesus.

    A critical appreciation of the historical sources all tells us it was James, and not Peter, who was the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem church following the death of Jesus.

    We also know that, unlike Paul, James was a devout Jew and a strong proponent of the continued validity of the Mosaic laws for all followers of Jesus.

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    The Theology and Person of Paul

    Now if James, was faithful to the teachings of Jesus and did not repudiate the law, how did Christianity develop into the law-free religion we find soon after? The crucial personality here is Paul, the self-proclaimed Apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13, 15:16-18 Galatians 2:2).

    Paul, the apostle formerly known as Saul, was a trained Pharisee, a Roman citizen and a tentmaker by profession. Very importantly, he never met the human Jesus. His conversion was a purely personal hallucinatory experience.

    The theology of the atonement did not originate from Jesus. It originated from Paul of Tarsus! Unlike the Jerusalem Church, headed by James, Paul was not shackled by the historical Jesus; he invented Christian theology. It is in the epistles of Paul that we find the kernels of many tenets and dogmas of modern Christian theology. Paul's theology expressly contradicts many of Jesus' teachings.

    Pauline theology was to be fully developed by later Christian theologians but it cannot be doubted that Paul metaphorically planted the seeds for the subsequent development and evolution of Christian theology. In this sense, it is certainly valid to call Paul the true founder of Christianity.

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    Paul and the Jerusalem Church

    While Paul was preaching what was essentially his own innovative theology about Jesus, what was going on with the apostles; the ones who knew the earthly Jesus was, and were aware of his teachings? Of course Christian mythology, primarily through the Acts of the Apostles and the forgeries known as the Petrine epistles, have presented the teachings of apostles as being essentially in harmony with Paul and his teaching. That this was not the case is what we will be showing here.

    The problem can be traced to Paul's preaching to the Gentiles. After complaints by Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, Paul was summoned to Jerusalem to meet the church there headed by James, Peter and John. In this so-called "Jerusalem Council" an uneasy truce was agreed upon by both parties. It was a truce that did not last. For immediately following the council meeting, an incident occurred at Antioch which, in retrospect, severed forever the ties between Paul and the Jerusalem church.

    While Paul wanted to keep some ties to the Jerusalem Church, it was obvious that the latter did not share the same sentiments. Indeed the evidence from Paul's own epistles show that the Jerusalem church, headed by James, actively opposed Paul's missionary activities by sending out emissaries of their own to combat his gospel.

    Paul's final attempt to reconcile himself to the Jerusalem Church, by delivering the collection he promised during the "Jerusalem council", met with failure. A careful reading of the evidence shows that the Paul's collection was rejected by the Jerusalem Church and that they very probably "had a hand" in Paul's arrest!

    We can conclude that the Jerusalem church, which consisted of Jesus' brothers and the apostles who knew the earthly Jesus (such as Peter and John), never accepted Paul as a "fellow apostle". Indeed, their intense opposition to Paul's mission can only mean that they viewed Paul's theology as heretical.

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    The Fate of the Jerusalem Church

    Apart from the devout Jewishness of James and the leadership of the church in Jerusalem, we have ample evidence that the congregation as a whole consisted of devout Jews who remained faithful to the Torah. We also know that the Jewish-Christians of Jerusalem were never called Christians but were referred to (or referred to themselves) as Nazarenes and as followers of The Way. There is also evidence that the term ebionim (Hebrew for the Poor) was somehow associated with the movement.

    Here we will look at what happened to the Jerusalem church in the decade immediately following the deportation of Paul to Rome (circa 60 CE). As we have seen above, the Jerusalem Church was strongly opposed to Paul and his mission. Paul's arrest and his extradition to Rome should have marked the ultimate victory for James, and his congregation. However events were to take place rapidly that would turn this victory into a pyrrhic one. There were a couple of events which happened during that decade that was to profoundly change what eventually became known as Christianity.

    The first important incident was the death of James in 62 CE. The loss of James probably weakened the control the church had over the other churches outside of Palestine.

    The second crucial event was the Jewish Revolutionary War of 66-70 CE. Being devout Jews, the simmering tensions between the Jewish people and Rome must surely have affected the Jerusalem church as well. It is highly likely that the majority of the congregation perished in that Jewish War against the mighty Roman Empire.

    We have evidence that some of them did manage to escape into the Transjordan during, or just before, the war. However this was probably only a very small remnant of the church. They were never able, from such a reduced strength, to challenge the emergent Gentile "Catholic" Church. In the next section we will study what history tells us happened to them and their descendants.

    We have seen that the Jerusalem Church, consisting as it was of Jesus' relatives and his apostles, was the legitimate heir to the mission and message of Jesus. Yet the Jewish War of 70 CE resulted in the scattering of the remnants away from Jerusalem and other parts of Judea and Galilee. In order to identify the probable theological descendants of this church, it is important to note, from what we have discovered so far, the five main differentiating characteristics of the Jerusalem Church:

    • They were all, without exception, devout and practicing Jews and demanded at least some adherence to the Mosaic law by Gentile converts.
    • James held the prominent position in the church. He remained unchallenged as the leader for three decades until his death in 62.
    • They were opposed to Paul and his law-free mission.
    • The Jewish war had a devastating effect on the Jewish Christians but some of them survived by escaping to the Transjordan.
    • They were never called Christians. They were called Nazarenes, Ebionites and followers of The Way.
    These five are the distinguishing features by which we will be able to recognize the true descendents of the Jerusalem church.

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    Jewish Christianity

    The period flanked by the two Jewish Revolutionary Wars, 70-135 CE, was an extremely murky period in the history of the evolution of Christianity. We do not have a Josephus, like we did for the years preceding the first Jewish War, to record events during that period in detail. However there are some documents dated to this period that give us an idea of the development of Jewish and Gentile Christianities. The epistle of James, a pseudonymous epistle written circa 85 CE, seems to have originated from a Jewish Christian community that kept the Mosaic laws, exalted James, the brother of Jesus, and denigrated Paul. On the other side of the fence we find in the epistles of the Gentile Christian bishop, Ignatius of Antioch. Written around 110 CE, his epistles show us that Pauline Christianity was hitting back, calling Jewish Christianity a thing of the past.

    Later documents - the polemics of the church fathers, some scattered references in the liturgies and writings of the emerging Rabbinic Judaism and a fourth century "romance" called the Pseudo-Clementines - allow us to at least get a glimpse as to what the situation was like from the early second century and thereafter.

    From these sources, we know that from the early second century onwards, the region of the Transjordan was populated by Jewish Christians. They were called Nazarenes and Ebionites. They were described as Jewish Christians because they continued to adhere to an (albeit modified) form of Judaism, while at the same time preaching Jesus as the messiah. Unlike the Gentile Churches that was quickly gaining strength elsewhere, they revered James. In their writings they considered Peter subordinate to James. While the Pauline corpus (the collection of his epistles) was quickly gaining canonical status in the Gentile church, the Jewish Christians continued to oppose the influence of the self-proclaimed "Apostle to the Gentiles".

    When we compare these to the developing Gentile proto-orthodox [a] church we find something different. We know that the Gentile Church did not require circumcision or any strict adherence to the Mosaic laws; they held Peter and Paul in high esteem rather than James; Paul was, to them, the Apostle to the Gentile par excellence; they were spread out geographically and of course, they were called Christians. We can safely conclude that the Gentile churches that developed outside the Jewish Christian one did not have the characteristics of the original congregation in Jerusalem founded by the brothers and apostles of Jesus.

    It is obvious from our comparison of the two developing churches and the original church in Jerusalem, that the Jewish Christians had the distinguishing features of the original Jerusalem church. In other words they were the true theological descendants of Jesus.

    The gentile church was not only different, they advocated positions (such as the importance of Pauline theology) that were actively repudiated by the original apostles of Jesus. It is easy to see, in retrospect, who the heretics really were.

    In their battle against the Jewish Christians and other heretics, Gentile proto-orthodox Christianity developed the fiction of the Apostolic Faith. These claims, by not means unique to the proto-orthodox, consisted of them having an apostolic scripture; having leaders who who were supposedly friends or disciples of the apostles-called the apostolic fathers and having the bishops of their churches who derived their authority from the apostolic succession, are all demonstrably untrue.

    The Jewish Christians, however, did not get any divine favors for being true to the teachings of their founder.

    By around 90 CE, they were excluded from the Jewish community who called them minim and excluded them from synagogue service. By the time of the second Jewish Revolt of 132-135 CE, the so-called Bar Kochba Revolt, the Nazarenes were no longer considered part of the developing Rabbinic Judaism.

    Rejected by the Jews, the Nazarenes and Ebionites did not fare any better with the Christians. The Gentile churches, the original heterodox followers of Paul, instead of recognizing the Nazarenes and Ebionites for who they actually were, branded them heretics and began to persecute them. They twisted the meaning of their name, Ebionites, calling them "those of poor understanding."

    Perhaps the most ironic (but apt) description of the Jewish Christians is that, in the words of Gerd Ludemann, they were "heresiologists who became heretics". [1] They were heresiologists because they were the first to recognize the first heretic, Paul. They became heretics because Christianity evolved and grew in the direction of Paulinism. A fitting epitaph for them can be found in Walter Bauer's important work Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity:

    The Judaists [i.e. the Jewish Christians-PT]...were unable to admit that the Pauline gospel could be adequate even for gentiles. Rather, they were fully convinced that this proclamation as such, because of its inadequacy, separated men from the messianic salvation. Thus, if one may be allowed to speak rather pointedly, the apostle Paul was the only heresiarch known to the apostolic age -- the only one who was so considered in that period, at least from one particular perspective. It could be said that the Jewish Christians in their opposition to Paul introduced the notion of "heresy" into the Christian consciousness. The arrow quickly flew back at the archer. Because of their inability to relate to a development that took place on hellenized gentile soil, the Judaists soon became a heresy, rejected with conviction by the gentile Christians. Basically, they probably had remained what they had been in the time of James the Just, but the majority of the faithful ultimately came to deviate so much from them that the connection had to break. Thus the Judaists become an instructive example of how even one who preserves the old position can become a "heretic" if the development moves sufficiently far beyond him. [2]

    By the fifth century CE, the true followers of the historical Jesus became just another footnote in Christian ecclesiastical history. The real story of Jesus ended with them. The other story, the one told by the "apostle" Paul, continues to this day.

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    What are our conclusions here? That:
    • Jesus did not talk about the atonement and that this innovation came from Paul of Tarsus. It is to Paul that Christianity should trace its roots. The origins of Christianity as we know it came, not from Jesus, but from Paul.
    • The leadership and importance of James, brother of Jesus, was suppressed by the developing Gentile Church but it is through James that we would most likely be able to trace the original teachings of the earthly Jesus.
    • The original followers, the successor to James and the apostles of Jesus (whether they number twelve or not), were the Jewish Christians (called Nazarenes and Ebionites), who never preached of a heavenly divine Jesus. They fought Pauline Christianity to the end of their days.

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    a.It would be misleading to simply call this group the "Gentile" Church. Broadly speaking there were three major groups of Christians that fought among themselves for supremacy during the second century of the common era: the Jewish-Christians, the Gnostics and the group that finally won the battle, whom we shall call the proto-orthodox. The last two groups mainly consists of Gentiles. The term is taken from Bart Ehrman's book Lost Christianities:The Battle for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford, 2003: p7). Proto-orthodoxaptly describes this third group. It was the beliefs and practices of this group that came to dominate Christianity of a later era; hence the term "orthodox". However various aspects of the their theologies, especially with respect to the person of Jesus and the concept of the triune godhead was as yet underdeveloped. It was to have taken the theological descendents of this group another two to three centuries to fully develop their doctrines: hence the term "proto".

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    1.Ludemann, Heretics: p27
    2.Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christainity: p236

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