The Conversion

Should Christians Celebrate the Birth of Paul, Not Jesus?

Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus while neglecting the Apostle Paul’s role as the founder of the religion everyone practices today. Scholar James D. Tabor, the author of Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, on the more radical Christ.

Ned Frisk/Corbis

Millions celebrate the birth of Jesus without realizing that it was the Apostle Paul, not Jesus, who was the founder of Christianity. Jesus was a Jew not a Christian. He regularly went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, read from the Torah, observed the Jewish festivals such as Passover and Yom Kippur, and quoted the Shema: “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is One Lord.” In Jesus’ day the closest holiday to Christmas was the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia.

The Romans crucified Jesus for sedition in the year 30 AD, but his apostles, led by James his brother, continued his movement, believing that Jesus would return from heaven as the triumphant Messiah. They were called Nazarenes and lived as Jews alongside other Jewish sects of the time such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes.

Paul never met Jesus. He was not one of the original apostles. He was a zealous Pharisee who initially opposed Jesus’ followers and supported moves to repress them. His opposition to the movement dramatically reversed about seven years after Jesus’ death when he began to experience a series of clairvoyant visions—“revelations of Jesus Christ” he called them. Paul adamantly insisted that the message he preached did not derive from the apostles before him. He refers to James, Peter, and John, as the “so-called pillars of the church,” but quickly adds—“what they are means nothing to me,” insisting on his independence, based on his direct visionary access to Jesus. Over a span of three decades Paul had contact with the apostles in Jerusalem on only two or three visits, during which tensions were high. He operated independently in Asia Minor and Greece, preaching his message to non-Jews.

What Paul preached—his “gospel” as he called it—forms the basis of Christianity today. Paul taught that Christ was the divine Son of God who became incarnate, “born of a woman,” as he puts it. Jesus lived a sinless life and died as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. He was raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God in heaven, soon to return to judge the world. Those who accept Christ and his offer of salvation by faith will be saved, and those who reject it will be condemned. The reason this message sounds so familiar, so “Christian,” is that this gospel Paul preached became the basis of the major Christian creeds—from the early Apostles creed to the Nicean creed in the time of the emperor Constantine.

Christianity came to be defined by Paul not by Jesus. Since Jesus never wrote anything that has survived and the New Testament contains 13 letters attributed to Paul, it is the message of Paul that dominates. Even the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are heavily influenced by Paul. Although they are positioned first in the New Testament, historians agree that they were written in their final form toward the end of the 1st century, decades after the Paul and the original apostles were dead.

Historians have spent the past 175 years in a “quest for the historical Jesus” and the results, though always less than we would wish, are quite impressive. By carefully comparing the various layers of our New Testament Gospels, as well as other recently discovered texts such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Didache, a generally consistent message that can reliably be traced back to Jesus has emerged. What we have is not the Christ of Paul and the Christian creeds but a Jewish Jesus who proclaimed the imminence of the “reign of God,” calling for a radical overturn of societal structures of power, whether based on political power, wealth, class, or gender. This is the Jesus who pronounced blessings on the poor, the hungry, and the persecuted, and curses upon those with wealth, comfort, and power—while calling for “turning the other cheek,” loving one’s enemies, and doing to others as you would do to yourself. This is the Jesus who summarized true religion as loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. This is the Jesus who rebukes a devotee with the retort, “Why do you call me good, there is one who is good, God?”

In contrast, the theological elements in these Gospels that stem from a later theological perspective stand in stark contrast—whether the Christmas narratives of the virgin birth, Christian baptism in the name of “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” or eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist. Without Paul and his vision-based understanding of Christ it is unlikely that anything resembling Christianity would have ever emerged from the original followers of Jesus. The letter of James, the brother of Jesus, tucked into the back of the New Testament, is one of our only surviving documents witnessing to this form of “Christianity” before Paul. There one can still hear the voice of Jesus and the message he passed on to his first followers.

Ironically, Paul and Jesus were born around the same time—perhaps even in the same year, a few miles from one another. Jerome, the fourth-century Christian writer says that Paul was born in Gischala, in the Galilee, a town just 25 miles north of Nazareth. The Romans exiled Paul’s parents to Tarsus in Cilicia, around 4 BC when revolts broke out in Galilee following the death of Herod the Great. The newborn Jesus and his parents Joseph and Mary were dealing with the same upheaval at the precise same time—and Matthew knows a tradition that they fled to Egypt in temporary exile. It surely has to be one of the strangest twists of history that Paul and Jesus, who never knew one another, shared these common origins but each played separate and distinct roles in what eventually emerged as the new religion of Christianity.