The criticisms that Paul 'invented' Christianity, or 'distorted' the message of Jesus, often boil down to two primary claims:
- Paul sought to abolish Torah observance
- Paul deified Jesus, equating him with the God of Israel
1. Paul, and the role of Torah
A recent publication, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, contains commentary and perspectives by leading Jewish scholars. In the back is an essay titled Paul in Jewish Thought by Daniel R. Langton.1
In the opening of this essay, Langton summarizes a common Jewish view on Paul:
Generally speaking, Jews have regarded the apostle to the Gentiles suspiciously as a kind of self-hating Jew and as the "real" founder of the Christian religion.
Langton surveys a few Jewish perspectives on Paul from throughout history. In early Rabbinic literature, Langton sees 'some tantalizing references' to Paul as an antinomian who rejected the instruction of his teacher Gamaliel. The Medieval Toledot Yeshu ('Story of Jesus') apparently conflates Peter and Paul into a single individual: 'Simeon Kepha (or Paul, as he was known to the Nazarenes)'. This 'Paul' is again accused of rejecting Torah and introducing completely new practices into the community of 'those who followed Yeshu as the Messiah'.
The general portrait is that Paul brought in such innovation, the Christian movement was no longer recognizable as what had come before him. Even still, Langton insists, 'such an image was by no means widespread'. But then Langton comes to the nineteenth century rise of critical scholarship:2
German Protestant biblical criticism increasingly viewed Christianity as brought about by Paul's universalistic teaching. As the cliché states, Paul turned the religion of Jesus into the religion about Jesus. Among the earliest proponents of this view was the German scholar Heinrich Graetz (1817-91), whose immensely influential History of the Jews (1853-76 [English translation 1891-98]) presented Paul as the "inventor" of Christianity, distinguished Paul's superficial Jewish learning from Jesus' high-mindedness and moral purity, and argued that Paul's antinomian theology made him the "destroyer of Judaism."
In other words, the specific idea that Paul created a new religion by distorting Jesus' message mostly originated in the nineteenth century. Langton highlights other scholars who claimed Paul 'injected pagan elements into the religion of Jesus', including:
- American Reform rabbi, Kaufmann Kohler (1843-1926), specifically his Jewish Encyclopedia article 'Saul of Tarsus'
- German philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965)
- Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue in the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks (1948-), specifically his One People?: Tradition, Modernity, and Jewish Unity
But in contrast to Paul's critics, Langton also lists a few who 'argued that Paul remained authentically Jewish':
Close to the end of his essay, Langton summarizes the views of a few more recent Jewish commentators on Paul:3
Mark Nanos (1954-) has gone so far as to claim that Paul was entirely Torah-observant and that he expected other Jewish followers of Jesus to be so as well. . . . Daniel Boyarin (1946-) maintains that despite the fact that Paul had found the Law problematic, his letters ("the spiritual autobiography of a first-century Jew") show him to be a Jew facing many of the same kinds of challenges that Jews face today . . .
Mark Nanos also has an essay included in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, titled 'Paul and Judaism'. In this essay, Nanos writes:4
More controversial [than accepting Paul 'was born and raised a Jew'] is whether he continued to practice Judaism after his change from being a persecutor of the followers of Jesus to becoming an apostle to the nations (i.e., the Gentiles).
Nanos explains Paul with this:5
Paul's letters arguably indicate that he lived in a Torah-observant manner, including eating according to prevailing halakhic conventions for an observant Jew. But that is not the way he has been most commonly interpreted. Rather, his urging of non-Jews to remain non-Jews, and his own self-deprecating comments about the supposed superiority of his standing as a Jew relative to their own questionable standing in the larger Jewish communities, has led many to suppose that Paul was demeaning the value of Jewish identity and behavior, of Torah as well as Israel. If, however, we look at the rhetorical context of his comments, we see that in all his extant letters they are directed to non-Jews.
Bringing this into a context of the compatibility of Paul and Jesus: Paul himself did not stop following the Torah, and did not expect Jewish followers of Jesus to stop either. He only argued that non-Jews were not required to start following the Torah after coming to believe in Jesus as the messiah, and this argument spilled over into his letters.
Because Jesus said virtually nothing (recorded) on the issue of non-Jews following Torah (and there were a variety of Jewish views on this subject at the time, as there are now), and because Paul did not expect Jewish followers of Jesus to reject Torah (according to Langton, Nanos, etc.), there is little ground to see Jesus' and Paul's teachings as explicitly contradictory on this matter.
2. Paul, and Jesus as God
The other question is whether Paul was the first to deify Jesus, identifying him with the God of Israel. There is huge disagreement on this point in the scholarly community. Some take the critical opinion that Paul perverted Jesus' message by deifying him. Others argue that the perception of Jesus as God is entirely compatible with Jewish thought. Still others claim that neither Paul nor any of the earliest Christians actually perceived Jesus as God.
2a. Christians before Paul identified Jesus as God
Arguably, Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado are the two most well-known scholars who argue that not only did the earliest followers of Jesus (i.e. before Paul) perceive Jesus to be 'God', this idea, while never-before-seen in Judaism, was completely at home within the wider stream of Jewish thought, and should not be understood as a pagan 'corruption'.
In summary, Bauckham and Hurtado make similar arguments in their writings6 that, prior to Jesus, different Jewish groups wrote about exalted humans (e.g. Enoch, Abraham, or Moses), specialized angels (e.g. Michael, or Yahoel), or divine hypostases (e.g. God's Wisdom, or God's Logos) who mediated between God and his creation in a unique way. The language, ideas, and tropes surrounding these figures were then applied by the earliest Christians to Jesus, with one unique 'mutation': Jesus' followers identified him with the God of Israel:7
Now I turn to my second objective, namely, to demonstrate that earliest Christian devotion [to Jesus] constituted a significant mutation or innovation in Jewish monotheistic tradition. By "mutation" I mean that earliest Christian devotion was a direct outgrowth from, and indeed a variety of, the ancient Jewish tradition.
Please note that our knowledge of such mediator figures largely comes from the Dead Sea Scrolls, a huge swath of Jewish literature that was not discovered until long after Paul's critics had been accusing him of creating a new religion in his deification of Jesus. The people who accused Paul of corrupting Judaism into something pagan that allowed for a divine Jesus had no idea such language, ideas, and tropes were actually very common place within the Judaism of Jesus' and Paul's time, even if the actual perception of a human as God was a distinct 'innovation' within 'the Jesus movement'.
Hurtado argues that this identification of Jesus with God is evident in hymns (e.g. Philippians 2.6-11; Colossians 1.15-20) and creeds (1 Corinthians 8.6; perhaps also the Maranatha, 'Come, Lord!' of 1 Corinthians 16.22) that existed before Paul embedded them into his own letters, as well as devotional practices that had been going on before Paul began following Jesus (e.g. prayer and worship for God are directed 'through' Jesus; baptism is done in Jesus' name; Jesus is the center of the Eucharist).
In other words:8
All along, the evidence in the Pauline letters pointed to an origin of the cultic veneration of Jesus [i.e. as God] in the earliest years of the Christian movement and among Christians from an undeniably Jewish background, including Aramaic-speaking believers. Some earlier history of religion researchers apparently found it difficult to reconcile this with their notions of what could be expected of Jewish Christians. Thus they attributed the origin of the cultic veneration of the risen Christ to a later stage of the Christian movement and invoked the influence of pagan cults as the cause.
2b. Paul and early Christians did not identify Jesus as God
Still, an opposing view is that Paul never deified Jesus, nor did any of the other early Christians, and that insisting as much is a severe misinterpretation of Paul's letters.
Pamela Eisenbaum, a Jewish scholar of Paul, insists he remained 'a radical Jewish monotheist' even after becoming a follower of Jesus. Paul certainly revered Jesus greatly, above and beyond the Torah and other people. For Paul, 'Jesus has replaced Torah as the key to salvation'.9 But according to Eisenbaum, Paul made a consistent distinction between Jesus and God in his theology, even when writing his letters:10
. . . from the perspective of outsiders to the Christian tradition, Paul has sometimes been ridiculed for having abandoned monotheism. Such ridicule is part of a more general theological critique, advanced for centuries by Muslims and Jews, against the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, namely that God became human, and the notion of a triune God, namely that God is three-in-one, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. . . . Jesus is clearly a divine figure of unique status in Paul's letters, and this has led many historians to conclude that devotion to Christ as developed by Paul must have come from outside—that is, non-Jewish—influences.
Eisenbaum interacts with Hurtado on his views on the early acceptance of Jesus as a 'divine figure of unique status', but she homes in on different key points of the ancient Jewish texts about mediator figures and how those same ideas are used for Jesus. Her conclusion is that:11
A shift in devotional focus from God to Christ may have already begun with other New Testament writers, but these writers come at least a generation after Paul. As noted by many scholars, Paul carefully distinguished between Jesus and God and did not worship Jesus as if he were a god, nor does the apostle treat Christ as the equivalent of God, the use of similar language notwithstanding. Rather, confessing Jesus as Lord was supposed to point people toward God; it was not meant to distract people from God nor to complicate the unitary nature of God. One misunderstands Paul if one misses this point.
While Paul's exact views on either Torah or Jesus may still be debated, there is sufficient reason for thinking Paul did not 'invent' Christianity. Whatever his views on Torah or Jesus, there is at least a historical congruency between Paul's theology as represented in his letters, and the various beliefs in the stream of Second Temple Judaism. It is a huge question on where we should locate Jesus in this stream, but it's entirely possible Paul is much closer to Jesus than his critics tend to think.
1 Daniel R. Langton, 'Paul in Jewish Thought', in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2011).
2 Ibid., p.586.
3 Ibid., p.587.
4 Mark Nanos, 'Paul and Judaism', in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2011), p.551.
5 Ibid., p.553.
6 e.g. Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament (1998); Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (1988, 1998).
7 Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (1998), p.99.
8 Ibid., p.125.
9 Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not A Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (2009), p.173.
10 Ibid., p.177,178.
11 Ibid., p.189.