When I was in college I used to get so perturbed by my Bible professors because they all seemed so annoyingly liberal. It was a shock to my system, since I grew up Southern Baptist and since the school I was attending was a Baptist college as well. Our religion professors were far more liberal than any of the students, most of whom had chosen this college precisely because they wanted a conservative Christian education. Our English professors were practically fundies compared to our Bible professors, and at first I thought that owed mostly to an interesting quirk in our denominational history.
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Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, theological conservatives in the Southern Baptist convention organized themselves and flushed out a majority of their seminary faculties because they felt so many of them had drifted too far leftward, ultimately assimilating neo-orthodox theology into their curriculum. The ousted professors didn’t have anywhere else to turn, so they sought out teaching positions at the undergraduate level, finding therein a more welcoming environment in which they could ply their trade. This is at least part of why the religion faculty at a conservative Baptist college could look far more liberal than any other department at an otherwise textbook evangelical school.
But time and experience have shown me that there is another reason my religion professors were so much more liberal than all us “preacher boys” looking to earn our bonafides before climbing into the pulpit: It turns out that anyone who takes the study of the Bible seriously will quickly learn that things are not as they were once told by the people they trusted. There is this sweet spot of biblical studiousness wherein you love it just enough to learn a lot about the world of the Bible, but not so much that you begin to figure out how much of it really doesn’t add up.
The gospels in particular begin to fall apart if you look into them too deeply. Any student of antiquity who learns to use the tools of his trade (e.g. form criticism, source criticism, textual criticism, redaction, etc) will soon discover layers of development within the text of the Bible that tell a story different from the one they learned growing up in church. Our pastors and our professors did their best to shield us from the conclusions they drew, but they did so accompanied by pangs of conscience which almost certainly drove them to drink.
Maybe this is why so many theologians love to meet at pubs. They need the alcohol to dampen their critical thinking skills so they can forget about all the angst they live with as professional theologians.
One of the first things you will learn as a serious student of the Bible is that strictly speaking, Jesus wasn’t the founder of the Christian religion. That honor belongs to the apostle Paul. But let’s backtrack a little bit and talk about the gospels first.
Who Wrote the Gospels, and When?
Jesus never wrote anything. He may not have even known how to write. It appears he may have learned to read (or else to recite from memory while standing in front of a scroll), but learning to write was a completely different skill set. Most students in the time and setting in which Jesus grew up learned by just listening and repeating what they heard. They learned to commit long stories, poems, and sermons to memory so that they could recite them upon demand. Most of them never learned how to read, and as best as we can tell, Jesus only knew how to speak Aramaic.
The same goes for pretty much every one of Jesus’s chosen disciples. They were mostly fishermen from a backwater corner of an Empire that mostly forgot they existed, and almost certainly none of them knew how to read or write. They wouldn’t have known how to speak Greek beyond a few catch phrases you might need to know when you go to market in a larger city. This is one of many reasons we have to believe that none of them were responsible for writing the gospels (none of which were written in Aramaic) that today bear their names.
About that, though. Who exactly was Mark, anyway? Do you know? Does anybody? Was he anyone who mattered in the story of Jesus at all? Source criticism informs us (no matter who employs it, conservative or liberal or anything in between) that Mark’s gospel was most likely the first one to be written. It also tells us that the other gospels used that gospel as a primary source for their own, including the one which commonly bears the name of Matthew, who was one of the original twelve disciples.
Mind you, the gospels never claim to have been written by him. But believers today are certain beyond the shadow of a doubt that in the process of writing his gospel this man, who was among the original followers of Jesus, utterly depended on the testimony of a guy of whom we know nothing at all, and who almost certainly was not among the people who followed Jesus during his ministry. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Why would one of the original Twelve depend so heavily on the record of a person who appears to have only shown up on the scene many years after the death of Jesus?
The longest of the synoptic gospels bears the name of Luke, who we are told was a travel companion to the apostle Paul. But why is he telling us about what Jesus said and did? Was he even around during any of that? Not according to the Bible. Luke doesn’t show up anywhere in the gospels or even in the chronicle of the early church which is similarly attributed to him. We are only told by Paul that Luke was a physician who accompanied him on his travels (that’s interesting), and later church tradition concluded that the good doctor must have been the one who wrote the third gospel as well as the “Acts of the Apostles.” The truth is we really don’t know who wrote either of those books.
And don’t even get me started on the fourth gospel, the one that bears the name of John (despite his never being named as the author). Someone went and figured out that 92% of the fourth gospel is unique among the gospel material. In that version of the story, Jesus speaks in long, thematically organized prose instead of short, pithy aphorisms like he does in the other gospels. Most scholars believe this gospel wasn’t written until many decades after the death of Jesus, and while it’s by far the most literary of the four gospels, for that same reason we should read it with the greatest skepticism of them all, given the amount of editorializing that clearly went into its composition.
What matters most for our thinking today is that these gospels weren’t the first Christian writings to be circulated among the surviving churches of the first century C.E.. Decades before there were any gospels compiled, the apostle Paul wrote letters to the churches he founded, and those letters give us a fascinating window into the earliest formation of Christian theology.
Christianity Reimagined for a Wider Audience
We first learn of early Christianity from reading the letters of Paul. The quirky thing about this is that Paul didn’t even belong to the earliest strains of the religion. In fact, strictly speaking if Paul hadn’t have come along, Christianity probably wouldn’t have ever become a separate religion at all. That’s why I and so many others call him the true founder of the religion.
The earliest followers of Jesus were from Judea. They were Palestinian Jews, so to speak, based in Jerusalem. Because that city was a destination site for a yearly pilgrimage, scattered people from all over the Mediterranean would regularly make their way to the Holy City, some of them even multiple times a year. While there, many of them became exposed to an Essene-like apocalyptic offshoot of Judaism which focused on the teachings of a rabbi named Yeshua, whose followers insisted he had died and had come back to life (they swore they knew several people who saw him afterwards).
Traveling back to their family homes scattered around the Roman Empire, the earliest Christians would have practiced a form of Second Temple Judaism which factored Jesus in as the culmination of the Mosaic covenant, but which still demanded that anyone who wanted to “follow” this man’s teachings would have to become a good Jew, getting circumcised, eating kosher, and observing all the special days and laws put forth by the Scriptures we now call the Old Testament. For the first 20 years of the early church, these were the only kinds of churches there were.
Somewhere into the early church’s third decade, a new kind of church began to grow up around a dissenting voice among the teachers in the north, based in Syrian Antioch. A theologically educated leather worker from nearby Tarsus named Saul (or when he traveled to Greek speaking places, Paul) began telling a story which many at first found hard to believe.
He began telling people that he had seen the risen Jesus in a vision he had after being thrown to the ground in a kind of seizing fit, accompanied by a bright light that seemed to leave him blind for a couple of days. Many today see in his story the telltale signs of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, which produces seizures robbing their victims of sight in varying degrees, also causing them to “see” things that aren’t actually there. They come and go without warning—although they can be made more frequent by a grueling daily schedule involving little sleep, frequent danger, and a great deal of emotional stress—leaving the victim with a weakened body and often permanently damaged eyesight (“SEE WHAT LARGE LETTERS I WRITE WITH BY MY OWN HAND,” Paul once wrote at the end of a letter he had been dictating).
After Saul/Paul’s vision, he became obsessed with re-reading the Hebrew Scriptures (well, technically the Septuagint, which had translated it all into Greek) in search of clues that would make sense of the coming of a Messiah that dies, which almost no one saw coming. If you’ve ever seen A Beautiful Mind, you know that a man determined enough to find patterns encoded within a text will find what he’s looking for if he cloisters himself long enough to focus his energies on finding them.
In fact, Saul/Paul emerged from his studies armed with a litany of citations which he insisted foretold, not only that Jesus was the promised Messiah for whom the Jewish people had been waiting, but that his message could be recontextualized into “good news” for people of every nationality—not just Jews—because the real basis for acceptance by Yahweh was found in believing the message of Jesus, not in following the outer requirements of the Mosaic Law.
Perhaps he discovered this key to unlocking hidden meaning in the text after observing both Jews and Gentiles worshiping under the same roof in Syrian Antioch, partaking of the same ceremonial supper and bathing in the same ceremonial waters of baptism. Whatever the inspiration, Paul saw within the text of the Old Testament a primer unlocking a secret code into a new meaning within the text that had been hidden from all the priests and rabbis before him. It had also escaped the notice of the original Twelve apostles, evidently.
Up until Paul’s day, the Jews had been awaiting a kind of geopolitical Messiah who would destroy the enemies of Israel and restore the nation to its previous glory. He would either lead the armies of Israel to overthrow the Roman Empire, or else he would lead the people of God into a sort of spiritual revival in which they regained their moral center and became beacons of light admired by the rest of the world. Whatever the outcome, the means of achieving it lay almost certainly in an unqualified devotion to God’s covenant with the nation of Israel.
But Paul saw in the message of Christianity a new way to interpret Moses around the centrality of faith rather than adherence to the outward demands of the Law.
So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” [see Genesis 15:6]
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (emphasis mine)
For what it’s worth, we now know from studying the rabbinical literature of this time period (see the groundbreaking Paul and Palestinian Judaism, by E.P. Sanders) that Paul was here creating a bit of a false dilemma. The version of Judaism he was using as a backdrop for presenting his own “gospel” (lit. “good news) was something of a caricature of the real thing, a straw man version of the religion against which his own message would stand out in the starkest of contrasts.
In reality, Paul’s Law vs. Grace dichotomy wasn’t really a common issue in the era of Second Temple Judaism. But over time, that’s how the Pauline churches came to see Judaism, and in retrospect they were so thankful that they were the beneficiaries of a superior message. It reminds me of the way people around me gush about Christianity being “a relationship, not a religion.” Clearly the Pauline way of looking at the Bible won out over all the others, and I can point to at least two or three reasons why it beat out all the others.
For one thing, Paul greatly expanded the appeal of the church by reinventing its message around faith rather than, well, becoming a good Jew. If Peter, James, and John had gotten their way, early Christianity would have died out during the first century along with the Essenes, with whom the early Christians had the most similarities. Alexandrian Christianity (in North Africa) celebrated the repentance message of John the Baptist as much as it did the message of Jesus, and you can even see the remnant of that offshoot in the person of Apollos (see Acts 18:24-19:10).
By reimagining the message of the church around faith rather than observing kosher laws, sabbaths, and circumcision, Paul made Christianity an international religion, one which could be received and practiced by people from any nationality in the world. That was frankly a brilliant innovation, and the man deserves ample credit for that.
For another thing, Paul worked feverishly to plant as many churches in as many places as he could, spreading his message all over Asia Minor, Greece, and eventually even to Rome. His tireless traveling and working day and night to provide for his own living expenses (a novelty among early Christian ministers) multiplied his own churches numerically beyond those of the original Twelve, who appear to have been content to remain based in Jerusalem for decades after the death of Jesus.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem around 70 A.D. wiped out the central cultus of the Old Covenant, destroying the identity of the Jewish churches beyond repair, scattering Jewish Christians to the four corners of the Mediterranean. When they fled from Palestine to the surrounding regions, they assimilated into Pauline churches which followed his own way of thinking over that of the earlier Judean churches. This led to a significant amount of conflict between the Jerusalem-centered version of Christianity and the Pauline model.
Incidentally it was these churches (and their founder) who later produced the writings that eventually became our New Testament, which would explain why Paul and his travels inexplicably take up half of the story of the early church in the book of Acts, with all the important people from the early days of Jesus’s ministry quickly fading into the background as if they were only around long enough to bring Paul into the picture.
Jesus 2.0 and the Gospel According to Paul
If you go back and reread the gospels with all of this ^^ in mind, you will notice how the themes that were most important to Paul seem to also be the most important to Jesus. Note how central death and the cross factor into the message of Jesus (when in reality he probably didn’t anticipate his own crucifixion but expected some kind of divine deliverance).
Notice how often Jesus, after healing someone, says, “Your faith has made you well.” When I first started reading through the gospels looking to see how much Jesus and Paul emphasized different things, I was struck by the similarities between their two messages. But in retrospect, it dawns on me that everyone whose writings survived to tell us about Jesus seem to be people associated with Paul. Isn’t that fascinating?
Even if we accept a Markan authorship of the earliest gospel, who the hell was Mark, anyway? He was nobody at all in the earliest days of the church. And who was Luke, and why are we to trust that he was in a better position to lay out the facts than all the other gospel writers (see his critical comment at the beginning of his gospel)? Did he mean to include Matthew’s gospel in his list of substandard reports on the words and deeds of Jesus? And if so, why are people today taking the word of a guy who never met Jesus over the account of someone who was supposed to be with him from the beginning? Honestly, once you start thinking about any of this, none of it makes sense.
Except for this: The closer you were to Paul, the more your own take on things won out over time. Those were the churches which survived the Roman persecution, and those were the communities which produced the writings that eventually overruled all the others. That makes sense, when you think about it, and that explains why Pauline theology wound up becoming the authorized version of Christianity for us today.
There were other versions, some of which survived in North Africa for many centuries afterwards (and remnants can be found still today). You can look at the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches and trace the influences of other traditions that didn’t get such an emphasis in the text of the New Testament, but which survived nonetheless through institutional preservation (and an awful lot of stable funding).
Theologies of the Protestant Reformation drew more heavily from returning to the text of the New Testament itself, and as a result, Paul looms much larger in the thinking of the strictest biblicists today. Evangelical churches today don’t even see how much they read Jesus through the lens of Paul, but everything they know about him has been passed down to us through a narrow sieve of Pauline theology.
For at least the Christianity of my own upbringing, Paul was most certainly the founder and chief theologian, not Jesus. Ironically, Paul almost never quotes Jesus, and virtually never makes reference to any of his specific teachings. Instead what we find is that whenever we do read what Jesus was supposed to have said, there is a very good chance that it tells us a lot more about Paul and his own thoughts than it does the thoughts of Jesus.
[Image Source: Apostle Paul by Aiden Hart]
Soon I hope to get today’s post and last week’s post recorded into an audio version and uploaded to this page. Check back soon to see if life has permitted such a feat.