Founder, Corrupter, or Defender? – an Excerpt from Paul as a Problem in History and Culture

The following is an excerpt from Paul as a Problem in History and Culture by Patrick Gray.

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While the notion that Paul founded Christianity should not be rejected out of hand as patently ridiculous, neither is it as self-evident as its proponents seem to think. Paul may be the earliest Christian writer, but he indicates that the movement was already up and running by the time he stopped persecuting it and became a member. He claims to be handing on traditions that he has received from others, not introducing novel teachings. Furthermore, as the ardently pro-Paul author of the Acts of the Apostles indicates, he is not the first follower of Jesus to reach out to non-Jews.

And it should not count for nothing that very few Christians—and even then, only very recently—have ever thought of Paul as the founder of their faith. That title is reserved for Jesus. It may not be found in Scripture or in any of the historic creeds, but most Christians of most times and places reserve that title for Jesus.

Cover ArtWho deserves the title? Answering this question is not as straightforward as it may seem. It may be the case that key terms in the debate, such as “founder” and “Christianity,” are not defined with sufficient clarity to yield a single correct answer. But this observation is hardly satisfying. Semantics are only one variable in a more complicated equation. There is something other than purely objective historical investigation going on in the various attempts to solve it.

When it is said that Paul is the founder of Christianity, much more is implied than that a particular name belongs in a particular box on an organizational flowchart. Neither is giving the title to Jesus free of historical and theological presuppositions. Because Jesus is the default choice, however, it is clear that Paul’s “advocates” are trying to say something more. Indeed, they are saying more, and usually more than they realize. To call them Paul’s advocates, of course, is a bit misleading since they are certainly not his defenders. Almost without exception, to refer to Paul as the founder of Christianity is to pay him a backhanded compliment.

This is just one of many ways to register one’s protest against the outsized impact Paul has had on the church and, through the church, the rest of the world. Criticism of Paul is almost as old as Christianity itself, but it can be found with increasing frequency over the past two centuries. The sources from which it issues can be surprising.

According to Adolf Hitler, “The decisive falsification of Jesus’s doctrine was the work of St. Paul,” who “used his doctrine to mobilize the criminal underworld and thus organize a proto- Bolshevism.” David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, comments that while “Jesus probably differed little from many other Jews of his generation.” it was Paul’s “anti-Jewish emphasis” that “gave Christianity a new direction.”

According to Sayyid Qutb, who deeply influenced Osama bin Laden and has been called “the philosopher of Islamic terror,” Paul’s preaching “infected” Christianity from the beginning because it was “adulterated by the residues of Roman mythology and Greek philosophy.” And when Mahatma Gandhi explains, “I draw a great distinction between the Sermon on the Mount and the Letters of Paul,” he leaves little doubt as to which one he prefers.

Who would have guessed that a loathing for Paul is the one tune that this unlikely quartet would sing in harmony?

©2016 by Patrick Gray. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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Comments

  1. First, let me say that this sounds like a very intriguing and worthwhile study and I hope to read it soon. However, I want to point out the following excerpt:

    “And it should not count for nothing that very few Christians—and even then, only very recently—have ever thought of Paul as the founder of their faith. That title is reserved for Jesus. It may not be found in Scripture or in any of the historic creeds, but most Christians of most times and places reserve that title for Jesus.”

    When Dr. Gray says that Scripture never gives the title “founder of their faith” to Jesus, I immediately thought of Hebrews 12:2, where the author of Hebrews refers to Jesus as “the founder and perfecter of our faith”.

    It might be argued that, coming as it does in the context of Hebrews 11, the great faith chapter, and being as it is a passage of exhortation to strengthen the faith (as in trust), confidence, and hope of a beleaguered and battered church, this is referring to Jesus not as the author of THE historic Christian faith but rather of the founder of the personal faith and trust within each Christian. That would all be true, as far as it goes. However, it doesn’t go quite far enough, for this title comes in the first half of verse 2, immediately before referring to Jesus sufferings and death on the cross, his triumph (“scorning its shame”), his (implied) resurrection, and his subsequent and continuing reign at the right hand of God, all in the second half of verse 2. I take this to be a clear indicator that the reason Jesus is the author of each believer’s faith individually and of the community of believers as a body is because he is the object of their faith. Jesus creates faith in each believer (Eph. 2:8-9), and he is the object of the faith he creates in them. So Jesus is the founder of the Christian faith for without him there would be no faith or trust or belief in any person’s heart. And Jesus is the founder of the faith for without him there would be no savior and Lord to look to, no object to place one’s faith in.