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The history of a faith is a subject that has fascinated me for a long time. It’s hard to study though without taking some facts on trust, and researching data that calls faith into question. I’ve thought it better to separate these two ways of seeing. It’s less confusing. This is my opinion on the achievement of Paul of Tarsus, the first missionary.
Studying its existing documents in their original sequence does explain a lot about how Christianity evolved. But people rarely look at the subject in this way. They are obsessed with two other approaches. The search for the historical Jesus, which is probably a chimera, with no evidence at all to make it possible. And the orthodox have a New Testament which they read out of chronological order so as to give the semblance of an historical development for which there is no real evidence.
The New Testament has been analysed by linguistic scientists who study how language evolves. This enables them to date within reasonable limits just when these books were written. The New Testament (considered chronologically) consists of six or seven so-called Letters written by Paul in the period 50-60 AD. These are followed by 20 other Letters and Gospels written by some of his converts in the period 60-130 AD. We know nothing that can be historically verified about the life of Paul, or of Jesus, nor of the anonymous authors of the other New Testament books, despite the names given these authors.
Roman records such as the so called Pilate Stone, and references in Tacitus, reveal that Pontius Pilatus was Prefect of Judea 26-36 AD, was recalled to Rome by Tiberius to answer for the unrest caused by his harsh treatment of the Jews, and after an interregnum by Marcellus, was replaced by Marullus in the period 38-41 AD. In this second period the unrest in Jerusalem continued, the new Emperor Caligula being the cause, who insisted that his statue as a god should be placed in the Temple, to the outrage of the Jews.
It seems possible, but is unproven, that a revered rabbi named Jeshua (in the common Aramaic language) of Galilee, who taught in the period 30-35 AD, may have been caught up in Pilate’s repressive measures to keep the lid on the cauldron of Jewish unrest, and executed as a seditious person. The one piece of historical information preserved in later Church doctrine was the statement in the Nicene Creed that Jesus “suffered and was crucified under Pontius Pilate”. This must have been about 35 AD, prior to the recall of Pilate.
Paul of Tarsus says that Jeshua’s place was taken by one of his brothers, Jakob (Ya’akov in Hebrew), known afterwards as James the Just. The disciples, who had dispersed back to Galilee at the time of Jeshua’s execution, were said to have come back to Jerusalem, perhaps bringing Jakob with them. Jakob and his followers were in Jerusalem 40-70 AD, when presumably they were destroyed with the city by the Roman army.
If we can believe Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, which is in no way historical but might be derived from the letters of Paul, it is possible that Jeshua taught a mystical form of Judaism based on personal purity and righteousness, which abandoned much of the ritual of the Law, on the supposition that the end of time was coming, and the Kingdom of God with it, and believers must allow this Kingdom within their souls. Perhaps Jakob taught the same doctrines. There may have been a small group of Jews, perhaps as many as 100, who formed one of the many sects that Judaism was divided into at this period, who revered Jeshua as a holy man like Hillel.
According to tradition again, one of these followers called Stephanos showed the intolerance that was to be typical of emerging Christianity as personal piety was succeeded by doctrine. He and the other followers of Jeshua and Jakob came under criticism by more orthodox Jews, probably because they seemed to abrogate the Law. Stephen, who was a Hellenised Jew like Paul of Tarsus, defied the Jewish authorities, and was prosecuted and sentenced to death by stoning by the Jewish Sanhedrin, which was according to the Law the punishment for blasphemy. Paul says he was one who joined in this drive for orthodoxy. This must have been about 45-50 AD.
In 50 AD there was said to be a council in Jerusalem of Jeshua’s followers rendered necessary because of the teachings of Paul, which the group now led by Jakob seemed to have found objectionable. After what had happened to Stephen they were probably wanting to keep a low profile. Much of this is supposition. But there was something in Paul’s teaching the group around Jakob found blasphemous. What were Paul’s teachings?
Paul was born in Tarsus, the capital of the province of Cilicia and its largest city, in about 10 AD. Its culture was Greek, its citizens were Romans and its Jewish tradition was of the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, the Temple based and politicised sect based in Jerusalem. The Pharisees came to prominence during the Babylonian exile as a group of scribes and rabbis who preserved traditions when the Temple was no more. They could be roughly described as equivalent to middle class and the Sadducees as aristocratic, and engaged in a broadening of their power base in the unstable times of the first century. They were often engaged in trade and were of economic importance in Judaism. Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul (he would have used either name throughout his life where appropriate) and his family were Pharisees, wealthy, learned people with a commitment to orthodoxy.
Paul can be thought of as attracted to the teachings of Jeshua as handed down by Jakob, despite his orthodoxy, because of their insistence on ritual purity. But he seems to have been really disturbed by Jeshua’s fate. A holy man of extraordinary wisdom who was killed as a common criminal by the Romans was surely not possible. All who had not known Jeshua personally probably had this same stumbling block. Many dismissed the teachings wholesale because of this ignominy. Paul seems to have been at first one of these.
Paul, because of his Greek education and familiarity with many devout Greeks in Tarsus, would have known something about these people’s religion. In Ephesos further south the Great Mother Astarte was worshipped. In Cyprus Aphrodite. These religions were all similar to an earlier one of Sumer of the goddess Inanna. A feature of all the religions was that the goddess had a consort, the consort died, though immortal, that the goddess resurrected her consort, and that through his sufferings he obtained immortality for all his devout followers. In northern Greece there was a similar rite to Orpheos, and in Athens, another one to Demeter. All these began as celebrations of the reviving life of nature through the seasonal changes, but during the first century the idea of personal salvation took over these faiths. During and after Paul’s time the rites of Isis and of Mithras offered the faithful immortality, and attracted more members than did Christianity. The idea of resurrection was particularly widespread in religions throughout the Empire. It was the reason the Egyptians embalmed their dead. These faiths were not missionary faiths, while Christianity was. Paul may well have found these ideas attractive, but as an orthodox Jew could not have given them his belief. The two sets of beliefs, in Adonis, as he was in Athens or Corinth (Adonai, ‘Lord’) and in Jeshua and his belief in the coming Kingdom and the need for ritual purity, may have worked a mighty conflict in his mind, until he found a way of resolving their differences.
Why did Jeshua die such an ignominious death? Could he have been Adonai, the Lord, the son of god, treated cruelly by the king of the underworld and dying to gain immortality for all who believed in him? There was only one thing wrong with this solution. To orthodox Jews everywhere it was blasphemy and punishable with death. To Greeks on the other hand this was all perfectly understandable. God had sons, many of them. God dying to save his believers was familiar from the mystery religions. So as Paul hammered his ideas out, probably for a period of years, 40-50 AD, he found Greeks willing to listen, and Jews who were scandalised. In 50 AD matters came to a head, Paul was summonsed to Jerusalem and reproved for his lack of orthodoxy. It was agreed he was to preach mainly to the Greeks, where he had had much success. He preached the length and breadth of the Greek world for ten years, 50-60 AD, and died sometime after, maybe in Spain, probably not in a Roman prison, a standard martyr tale of the early church, but perhaps as late as 80 AD, of illness or old age. He left letters behind though only seven have survived. And a lot of people he converted to his new faith and inspired to convert others.
Much of the above account is supposition. All we really know of Paul is the brief details contained in his letters, written 50-60 AD. By the time of pseudo Luke, thirty years later, Paul had become romanticised as a hero of the early church. The author of the third gospel and Acts, pseudo Luke, whom tradition said was both a physician and a painter, was a master of ekphrasis, a late genre of Greek literature which described paintings in words (or more generally one art in the form of another). The images in both the gospel ascribed to Luke and to Acts, such as the great light that threw Paul to the ground on the road to Damascus, are really paintings, not descriptions of events. As such they are compelling reading, but not necessarily reliable as history. Acts differs in major ways from Paul’s letters, and it is likely pseudo Luke drew on a late romanticised version of events, not Paul’s account.
The letters of Paul have survived, or some of them, and in them we can see both his evangelising and the growth of his ideas about Jeshua, now known by a Roman name, Jesus. The letters make it clear that what was later called Christianity was the creation of Paul, and that it was not acceptable to the original followers of Jeshua, who were led by Jakob and located in Jerusalem. This group were Jews, for whom there could be only one god. There was no son of god possible in Judaism. The followers of Jeshua attempted to pacify the orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and awaited the coming Kingdom of god as Jeshua had foretold it. What they got was total destruction in 70 AD when the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground and slaughtered all who remained within her walls. Paul, who was according to Judaism a heretic and blasphemer, survived, and it was his interpretation of the meaning of Jeshua’s death that became Christianity. This was a religion which, uniquely, had a founder who could not belong to it, and his teachings irrelevant to its basic doctrines.
Paul’s first surviving letter was to the Thessalonians, and was written about 52 AD. He addresses a fledgling church he had founded in Thessalonika in Macedon made up of Greeks (gentiles), some of whom were concerned that if they died before the second coming of Jesus they would not be saved. Paul reassures them the dead will be resurrected, and all will ascend to heaven. He mentions “god’s son, whom he raised from the dead” (NIV translation). A second letter to the Thessalonians, written the following year, whose authenticity is disputed, reassures the faithful again about the second coming. Paul seems to be here preaching the coming Kingdom of god that was probably Jeshua’s message but has added a saviour god (from the Greek Mysteries).
In 55 AD Paul wrote to the Galatians (north of his province of Cilicia) in several churches he had founded, asserting his authority as an apostle. After Paul’s meeting in Jerusalem with Jakob in 50 AD he had lost prestige and authority, for promulgating heterodox doctrine not authorised by Jakob, probably to do with the divine nature of Jesus and the meaning of his death. The Jerusalem church had sent disciples to Galatia to restore orthodoxy. Paul asserted his authority. What was at stake was how the Greeks or those not Jewish should convert. Jerusalem stated they must come within the Law and convert to Judaism, of which Jakob’s movement was a sect. Paul disagreed. He asserts his role as apostle to the gentiles, and dismisses the need for circumcision and rigid observation of the Law. Famously, “”there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus”. He is “sent by Jesus Christ and god the Father, who raised him from the dead”.
In the same year 55 AD, just after he had written to the Galatians, Paul wrote to his church in Corinth. The city was celebrated as a centre for the cult of Aphrodite (including temple prostitution) and her consort Adonis who died and rose again. Paul emphasises sexual purity in his message, and that Jesus is a son, not husband, of god. Here also the group in Jerusalem led by Jakob had sent disciples to correct Paul’s heterodoxy. Again Paul asserted his authority, received from Jesus directly, by which he means he has been inspired by his mystic vision of the Lord. Paul mentions the importance of ritual purity, as taught originally by Jeshua, to be ready for the coming of the Kingdom. He answers many questions about morality. Then he mentions what is an integration of Greek mystery doctrine into his teachings. Jesus died for our sins, he said. He rose again on the third day, and so will all the faithful be resurrected with him. This is close to what was probably taught at Eleusis and would have made conversion much easier for Greeks, who were familiar already with these ideas. Paul mentions the communal suppers where his followers were taught to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of the death of Jesus. “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes [again]”. This also was a familiar idea to Greeks from the religion of Mithras.
The following year, still in Corinth, Paul wrote to the church in Rome. There were several churches. Some were of Jews awaiting the Messiah, some following Jeshua’s call for purity and acceptance of the Kingdom of god. Yet again Paul’s authority was challenged, and he wrote partly to prepare the faithful for his visit to Rome, where he intended to go after visiting Jerusalem to pacify Jakob and his followers. He asserts again his mission to the gentiles. Because he was dealing with firmly entrenched but divisive doctrines from different sources Paul found it necessary to outline his teachings in some detail. What emerges is the distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘works’. Faith means total acceptance of Jesus the redeemer. Works means membership of a church through formal observances, such as the Jewish Law. But through faith the believer becomes one with Jesus, who can be said to be always resurrecting, rising to heaven, and the faithful with him. Formal observance means nothing in this context. Here is a reminder Paul was a mystic as well as a missionary, a unique combination. This letter contains the original precepts known as the sermon on the mount, later put into Jesus’ mouth, and the caution not to judge others later found as a parable in John: let he without sin throw the first stone.
In 57 AD Paul wrote from Ephesos to the Corinthians, usually called the second letter though there are signs of others written to this church, so the letter is a kind of anthology. It is mainly a defence of his teachings and an account of the opposition they have aroused and, yet again, an assertion of his authority to teach, derived from Jesus himself. It seems evidence that serious concern was being expressed in Jerusalem about some of Paul’s doctrines, and strenuous efforts being made to correct them.
Probably Paul’s last surviving letter is to his church in Philippi in Macedonia written in 60 AD. Once again he defends himself, and asserts his authority to teach. He affirms his love of Jesus and desired the church to follow him in this. Once again Paul expresses the strange mixture of combativeness, and ecstatic belief in Jesus and the meaning of his death. Perhaps the resistance he encountered from the church in Jerusalem made him intolerant. Under all the assertion of his mission and condemnation of those who oppose it there lurks a man who has finally found peace, despite his trials and tribulations.
This is all we know for sure about Paul. For 10 years he travelled through Greece, disputing with the group in Jerusalem led by Jakob on the interpretation of Jeshua’s life and teachings. Basically, Paul could not accept that Jeshua had died a useless death on the cross. That death must have had some significance. To the followers in Jerusalem Jeshua’s death was god’s will which they had to accept, but to Paul it was a sign of a new testament. Slowly he formulated a doctrine that incorporated many aspects of Greek Mystery religion into the original Jewish context of what he taught. He was no philosopher, had no coherent system of belief, but he was an obstinate, tenacious proselyter. We don’t have much information about Paul’s theology, probably given orally in greater depth to the leaders of churches he had founded. I think it likely that had Jerusalem not been destroyed we might never have heard of him. The followers of Jakob certainly fought hard to eradicate his work.
The remaining books of the New Testament enlarge on Paul’s teachings while preserving the essence of his belief, that Jesus had died to save mankind, who would be resurrected with him into heaven. In 70 AD this was still the basic message of the Gospel of pseudo Mark, a ‘life’ of Jesus which stressed his purity through the Baptist, the agony of his death and his resurrection that was the resurrection of all believers. Later writers added stories of miracle birth and ministry, others elaborated on the theological meaning of Jesus’ life and death, until the church was forced to bring some form of uniformity to the many divergent interpretations that were being made. Paul’s teachings were in opposition, not only to those of the group led by Jakob in Jerusalem, but to those Jews who were awaiting the coming of the Messiah, and to some gnostic groups. Paul suffered much opposition in his life from these groups, and his followers remembered this in their writings. This is why “the Jews”, or “the scribes and Pharisees” are shown as attacking Jesus and the evolving Christian church. It’s an anachronistic reflecting back of later developments to an earlier time. A memory of this early opposition is retained in the way followers of Islam think about Paul. He is to them what he was to Jakob, a betrayer of the teachings of Jeshua.
The followers of Jeshua, Jakob and the disciples, may have believed in the coming Kingdom of god and the need to be ready. They might have commemorated Jeshua’s death with a communal supper. They may have believed that in the coming Kingdom the faithful would be resurrected, Jeshua among them. We have Paul’s word he accepted much of this. Paul further adds that Jesus died shamefully on the cross to give the faithful immortality and forgiveness for their sins, and that he could do this because he was the son of god. These beliefs, he said, earned him the criticism and opposition of the group around Jakob. We can see it drove the churches founded by Paul out of Judaism and created a new religion, Christianity. And as the New Testament documents written after Paul’s time accept these doctrines, we can see they were all written by converts of Paul.
Paul had apparently suffered a crisis of belief as a young man, perhaps being exposed to too many divergent belief systems that seemed plausible to him. He resolved his doubts, and for the rest of his life all he wanted was to tell others the good news of what he had found. It was a battle, and he fought it tenaciously. Perhaps that’s the best way to think of Paul. He had a vision of the meaning of Jeshua’s death of relevance to most of the Greeks in the Empire, and he spread it passionately.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.