Did Paul Invent Christianity?

By Ben Witherington, III

The question, “Did Paul invent Christianity?”, has frequently been asked. In fact, some have been so sure that Paul was the originator of this religion that they called him the first great corrupter of the simple religion of Jesus. We still hear today the cry “back to Jesus” which has as its flip side “and away with Paul”. You hear this for example from various members of the Jesus Seminar. Like so many caricatures this one deserves to be put in its place.

To a large extent the answer to this question depends on what one means by “invent” and also what one means by Christianity. Certainly Nicean or Chalcedonian Christianity did not fully exist in the first century A.D. Nor did Catholicism or Protestantism for that matter. All the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews, and all the books of the New Testament were written by Jews, with one or two possible exceptions (e.g. the author of Luke and Acts). Certainly the very earliest followers of Jesus did not see themselves as creating a new religion. They were sectarian Jewish followers of Jesus. However, through a process which involved a variety of factors (growth, evangelization, and conversion of many Gentiles, Christocentric rather than Torah-centric focus, expulsion from various synagogues in the Empire) the Jesus movement de facto became a separate entity from early Judaism, and in fact it appears that this was already the case during the lifetime and ministry of Paul. One can say that Paul was a catalyst which helped lead the Jesus movement out of Judaism and into being its own religious group. Paul was not the inventor of Christianity, but in some senses he was its midwife, being most responsible for there being a large number of Gentiles entering this sectarian group and not on the basis of becoming Jews first (i.e. having to keep kosher, be circumcised, keeping the Sabbath) which in turn changed the balance of power in the movement everywhere in the empire except in the Holy Land.

But there is more to it than that. Consider a text like 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Here Paul says he became the Jew to the Jew and the Gentile to the Gentile in order that by all means he might win some to Christ. Now this is a very odd way for a Jew, indeed a former Pharisee, to talk if he thought he was still a part of Judaism. Or notice already in his earliest letter, Galatians, written about 49 A.D. Paul says in Galatians NIV, 1:13-14, “You have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews.”  Judaism is apparently a thing of the past for Paul, something he is no longer “in” or “advancing in.” It appears that Paul believes he is in something else – namely he is “in Christ” or put more broadly “in the body of Christ,” seen as a separate entity from Judaism.

In any religious movement that endures for any length of time there are always pioneers or trailblazers who see the way forward more clearly than others, and certainly Paul was one of these. It is clear enough that his insistence that salvation or the new birth must be by grace through faith in Jesus had implications that only a few had fully worked out in Paul’s day. For one thing, in Paul’s mind this meant that even Jewish Christians were no longer obligated to keep the Mosaic covenant and its law. They could do so as a blessed option, or as a missionary tactic (as Paul did), but it was not required even of Jewish Christians, much less of Gentiles. The answer to the question, “Must one become a Jew to be a follower of Jesus?” was answered in the negative by Paul. Now in theory others such as Peter and James agreed about the basis of salvation, but when they asked the question “How then shall Christians live?” There was disagreement especially when the subject became “how then shall Jewish Christians live?” James and other members of the Jerusalem community believed that Jewish Christians should indeed be obligated to keep the law, if for no other reason than to be a good witness to their fellow Jews, and thereby win some of them to Christ.

Paul however understood the radical implications of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. He understood that this meant that if you required circumcision and law observance of the Jewish Christians, but not the Gentile ones, you were in effect creating two different Christian groups, two different ways of following Jesus. The Judaizers who dogged Paul’s steps in Galatia understood this problem, which is why they more consistently argued that everyone, including Gentiles must keep the Mosaic law.

At the end of the day, Paul’s view of the Mosaic law and whether it should be imposed on Christians most clearly reveals that Paul understood that being in Christ meant something more and something different from being “in Judaism”. This is why in an elaborate argument in Galatians Paul compares the Mosaic law to a child minder or a nanny, who was meant to oversee the people of God until they came of age, but now that Jesus has come they are not under that supervisor any more (see Gal. 4). Paul even goes so far as to say that one of the main reasons Jesus came born under the law was to redeem those under the law out from under its sway (see Gal. 4:5). Those under the law are seen as being in bondage to it, until Christ came and redeemed them. Now this is clearly enough sectarian language, the language of a split-off group from Judaism. Paul insists in Galatians 2:21 that a person could be set right, or kept right with God by the observance of the Mosaic law then “Christ died for nothing.” He even urges his converts “every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law” (Gal. 5:3 NIV). This is also why, in a salvation historical argument in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 he speaks of the Mosaic law, and even the Ten Commandments, as a glorious anachronism, something which was glorious in its day, but which is rapidly becoming obsolete.

It is this radical message, not merely about salvation through the crucified Christ, but religious living without keeping the Mosaic law any longer being required, that got Paul whipped, stoned, and in general run out of one synagogue after another. 2 Corinthians 11:25-27 probably also indicates that there was a contract out on Paul set up by some of his fellow Jews. The reason for this is clear. As Alan Segal, a Jewish New Testament scholar, has rightly seen, Paul was viewed as an apostate Jew, and the Jesus movement was seen as beyond the boundaries of true Judaism (see his book on Paul the Convert, Yale U. Press, 1992). The upshot of all this is rather clear. There was already a parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity, at least outside the Holy Land by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians. In Galatians we can still see the transition period, just barely. So it is indeed right to see Paul as the midwife who helped give birth to a new form of religion centered on the worship of Jesus Christ.

This does not mean that Paul invented the idea that Jesus was divine, or the idea of the Trinity, or the idea of the atoning death of Jesus, and certainly he could not be accused of inventing the idea of the virginal conception since he never mentions it in any of his letters. Paul shared in common with all other true Christians that Jesus was the risen Lord, and that He was the Son of God come in the flesh. His Christology he shared with his fellow followers of Jesus, though doubtless he explained and explored and applied these truths in fresh ways in his churches. Where Paul takes a different tack than James for example is in how he thinks Jewish Christians can and should live in manifesting their discipleship to Jesus. He is more consistent on insisting on salvation and Christian living by grace through faith than others were. He is also more consistent in affirming that the guide for Christian living is the “law of Christ” which is not just Christ’s interpretation of the Mosaic law. It is rather Jesus’ unique teachings, plus those portions of the Old Testament which Jesus affirmed and reappropriated (e.g. part of the Ten Commandments) plus the moral example of Christ, plus also some early Christian teachings originated after Jesus’ time (on all this see Witherington, Grace in Galatia, Eerdmans, 1995 and Witherington and D. Hyatt The Letter to the Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

In the end, one can say that Paul was a shepherd leading God’s people in new directions and through uncharted waters to a new promised land where Jew and Gentile would be united in Christ on the very same basis and with the very same discipleship requirements. Though Paul did not call this end result Christianity, he more than any other of the original apostles was responsible for the birthing of the form of community which was to become the early church. Though he did not invent its doctrines or even its ethics, he most consistently applied its truths until a community that comported with these truths emerged (see Witherington, The Paul Quest, InterVarsity Press, 1998.)


Published March 30, 2016