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Paul's Ambivalence: Disciple of Jesus or Inventor of Christianity? Paul's Ambivalence: Disciple of Jesus or Inventor of Christianity?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-09-12 08:33:03
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I’d like to briefly follow up on Dr. Larry Nannery’s recount of Paul as a “delusional individual” who invented Christianity and “made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” 

There is much that needs to be investigated if we are to resolve the enigma that is Paul, not to speak of the enigma that was Jesus, but it seems to me that the first question ought to be: Was Paul a Pharisee? This is not merely a matter of idle curiosity. It is bound up with the whole question of the origins of Christianity, for, if Paul was not a Pharisee rooted in Jewish learning and tradition, but instead a Hellenistic adventurer whose acquaintance with Judaism was recent and shallow, the construction of myth and theology which he elaborated in his letters becomes a very different thing. Instead of searching through his system for signs of continuity with Judaism, we shall be able to recognize it for what it is -- a brilliant concoction of Hellenism, superficially connecting itself with the Jewish scriptures and tradition.

Christian attitudes towards the Pharisees and thus towards the picture of Paul as a Pharisee have always been strikingly ambivalent. In the Gospels, the Pharisees are attacked as hypocrites and would-be murderers: yet the Gospels also convey an impression of the Pharisees as figures of immense authority and dignity. This ambivalence reflects the attitude of Christianity to Judaism itself; on the one hand, an allegedly outdated ritualism, but on the other, a panorama of awesome history, a source of authority and blessing, so that at all costs the Church must display itself as the new Israel, the true Judaism. Thus Paul, as Pharisee, is the subject of alternating attitudes.

In the nineteenth century, when Jesus was regarded as a Romantic liberal, rebelling against the authoritarianism of Pharisaic Judaism, Paul was deprecated as a typical Pharisee, enveloping the sweet simplicity of Jesus in clouds of theology and difficult formulations. In the twentieth century, when the concern is more to discover the essential Jewishness of Christianity, to define the origins of Christianity as an outgrowth of Judaism, the Pharisee aspect of Paul is used to connect Pauline doctrines with the rabbinical writings -- again Paul is regarded as never losing his essential Pharisaism, but this is now viewed as good, and as a means of rescuing Christianity from isolation from Judaism. To be Jewish and yet not to be Jewish, this is the essential dilemma and ambiguity of Christianity, and the figure of Paul.

Nietzsche was convinced that Paul was not sincere in his beliefs, that "his requirement was power" but then neither was he convinced that Jesus was sincere and considered Christian ethics an ethics for slaves and servants. A Messiah would have come in power and glory and would demonstrated that power and glory; instead what we have is a loser dying on cross! This “search for power” is of course hardly surprising in Nietzsche and his theory of the “Ubermensch.” Nietzsche cannot bring himself to believe that Paul, "whose home was the principal center of Stoic enlightenment," is sincere when he offers up a “hallucination” as proof that The Redeemer still lives. Paul invented the doctrines of 'eternal life' and 'the Judgment' as a means to his ends. In Die Morgenrote, Nietzsche had earlier discussed Paul's frustrations at being unable to master, and to comply with, Jewish law, and hence Paul "sought about for a means of destroying" that law. Christianity offered Paul just the weapon he had been seeking, so goes the Nietzschean theory.

Modern Christianity does not accept this Nietzschean explanation but some scholars now claim that it is founded upon the 4th century Roman doctrine that Paul was the only one who knew the real Jesus, and his disciples were too Jewish to understand his teachings. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we now know that the vast majority of Gentiles were too Pagan to comprehend the true teachings of Jesus, and too heathen to comprehend the very spiritually founded Gnostic teachings of Paul.

The great theologian Soren Kierkegaard, writing in The Journals, echoes the above sentiment: "In the teachings of Christ, religion is completely present tense: Jesus is the prototype and our task is to imitate him, become a disciple. But then through Paul came a basic alteration. Paul draws attention away from imitating Christ and fixes attention on the death of Christ The Atoner. What Martin Luther in his reformation, failed to realize is that even before Catholicism, Christianity had become degenerate at the hands of Paul. Paul made Christianity the religion of Paul, not of Christ Paul threw the Christianity of Christ away, completely turning it upside down. making it just the opposite of the original proclamation of Christ"

Moroever, the brilliant theologian Ernest Renan, in his book Saint Paul, wrote: "True Christianity, which will last forever, comes from the gospel words of Christ not from the epistles of Paul. The writings of Paul have been a danger and a hidden rock." Albert Schweitzer, winner of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, has been called "one of the greatest Christians of his time." He was a philosopher, physician, musician, clergyman, missionary, and theologian. In his The Quest for the Historical Jesus and his Mysticism of Paul he writes: "Paul....did not desire to know Christ....Paul shows us with what complete indifference the earthly life of Jesus was regarded....What is the significance for our faith and for our religious life, the fact that the Gospel of Paul is different from the Gospel of Jesus?....The attitude which Paul himself takes up towards the Gospel of Jesus is that he does not repeat it in the words of Jesus, and does not appeal to its authority....The fateful thing is that the Greek, the Catholic, and the Protestant theologies all contain the Gospel of Paul in a form which does not continue the Gospel of Jesus, but displaces it."

Paul condemns the ritual observance of the Law in the manner of the Pharisees. But the Ebionites, like the Essenes, which were Jewish sects at the time of Jesus, never observed the Torah/Law in ritual -- but rather, in the Spirit. Thus, the Ebionites understood what the modern Christians do not as seen in these words in the New Testament: "Don't think that I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets; I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass, one jot or one title shall in no way pass from the law or the prophets until all be fulfilled. But behold one greater than Moses is here, and He will give you the higher law, even the perfect Law, and this Law will you obey. Whosoever therefore will break one of these commandments which He will give, and will teach men so, they will be called the least in the kingdom; but who so ever will do, and teach them, the same will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. They who believe and obey will save their souls, and they who don't obey will lose them. For I say to you, that except your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." So, the crucial question is this: were the Gentiles too heathen to comprehend what some scholars consider the Spiritual/Gnostic Transcendental teachings of Paul? Furthemore did the Roman Emperor Constantine adopt a Pagan form of Pauline Christianity which survives in place of the Genuine Spiritual Teachings of Yeshua (Jesus) to this very day? I think a rereading of Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man and Fabbri’s Jesus on Trial would supply at the very least an initial answer to such a question.

In any case, one can always ask, "Who founded Christianity, Jesus or Paul", or who founded Islam, "Muhammad or Umar", or who founded Judaism, "Moses or Joshua", or who founded Buddhism, "Buddha or Siddharta?" And yet, it is always Christianity which is labeled with this question by those who would attack it and destroy it, those who more often than not have a personal ax to grind against it.

It seems at first sight highly unlikely that a religion which is focused so uniquely on Jesus, could or should be founded by someone else. All adherents to the Abrahamitic religions, be they Jews or Christians or Moslems would of course contend that their religion was founded by God. Perhaps it would be more logical then to assert that it was Moses who introduced Judaism, and Muhammad who introduced Islam, Confucius who introduced Confucianism, and Jesus who introduced Christianity.

Is it conceivable that the depth of theology in Paul's writings was wholly made up or borrowed and that perhaps Jesus never really existed? For instance, the scriptures speak of the unity of God. Thus, we are all monotheists and we have a complex view of God's monotheism. We Christians believe that God is a triune God; the very word tri-une implies unity. This may not be easy to understand given that a mind such as Augustine grappled with it but would one expect God's essence to be easily explainable? Some say it is impossible and to construct such a rational god is to be involved in idolatry, the major sin of the Bible: the worshipping of the products on one’s hand or one’s mind.  We need to consider, however, that if Paul was the founder of Christianity, then he should have diverted from this doctrine. Yet, he doesn't, but continues to say the same thing. "A mediator" he writes in Galatians 3:20 "does not represent just one, but God is one." We find this also in Romans 3, and every Christian believes it.

Indeed, Jesus is the founder of Christianity. If the objectionable material (the personal claims of Jesus) are rejected, the teaching of Jesus that remains in the Gospels, not to mention his deeds, become exceedingly difficult to account for and nearly impossible to understand. Then one begins to cut and paste and one ends up writing one’s own personal gospel as Thomas Jefferson did. All that Jesus founded, Paul and Peter and the others merely expounded. Jesus and Paul both taught about: the atonement, the trinity, the church, salvation by faith, the forgiveness of sins through the shedding of his blood, that Jesus was the bread of life which we had to depend on for salvation, and that Jesus was the good shepherd who laid down his life for us. Jesus, the founder, laid down his life that you might live. Paul, the expounder, laid down his life that you might hear. Then, the final question is this: are we willing to lay down our lives that others can hear and live? If not, then we shall make Paul a mere Pharisee who simply wished to appear pious and satisfy his Nietzschean appetite for power. Ultimately it is not what we believe that will save us but what we did to “the least of my brethren.” As the founder of Christianity said repeatedly “by their fruits you shall know them.” Food for thought.  

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James Woodbury2012-09-14 05:02:17
One problem I have with your article is that you seem to take too long to get your sound concluding paragraphs in defense of St.Paul and too much space indulging the theories of his denigrators.
James W.
P.S. Ernest Henan was not, in my opinion, "a great theologian", merely a typical, though undoubtedly talented, representative of his age and its spirit.

Emanuel Paparella2012-09-14 09:31:28
James, thanks for your comments and corrections. I appreciate your dialogue which is always thoughtful and convivial.

Actually, the whole article has 12 paragraphs and 8 are dedicated to the issue of whether or not Paul was a Pharisee which to my mind is crucial to tackle the issue in a scholarly and not in a doctrinal way. The title, after all, was in the mode of a question not that of a declaration of orthodoxy. I suppose I was being overcautious in attempting to provide a balanced unbiased account of the two contrasting positions, independent of their orthodoxy. As you know, that is the way Aquinas proceeds in his Summa; first he gives the negatives and then he reasons about them and provides the solution to the conundrum.

As it is, some Ovi contributors have taken to call me "the Pope's advisor" on Catholic orthodoxy...and one cannot be to cautious, for I don't agree with the Pope on everyone of his pronouncements.

Clearly my position arrived by contrasting two opposite positions and as expressed in the last four paragraphs is that I do not support the theory of Paul’s "invention" of Christianity and the non existence of Jesus the Christ. The Prologue to St. John's gospel on the Word that became flesh would be more than convincing in that respect even if we eliminated all the epistles of Paul from the New Testament.

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