Was Paul the Founder of Christianity?
Atheists are not known for scholarship. They are mainly reactionaries. For various personal or emotional reasons, they have rejected faith in God. Their disbelief is not the result of careful research and objective evaluation of factual data. But, being unwilling to simply wither away in their own intellectual stagnation, some of them lash out at believers—usually in the most irrational way.
An example of this superficiality is found in a recently published book, In God We Trust: But Which One? (Madison, WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1996). This unsophisticated diatribe is authored by Judith L. Hayes, a California atheist and defunct columnist for Freethought Today.
Ms. Hayes either does not know how to assess historical information, or else she deliberately perverts it. One would rather be charitable and believe that she simply is ignorant of the methods of scholarly research. I do not think she has examined any primary source of information; it is my impression that she merely parrots the baseless allegations of her infidelic predecessors. At any rate, she writes:
Just whether nor not Jesus was an actual, historical figure is the subject of much scholarly debate. St. Paul, who was the real founder of the religion known as Christianity, barely discussed Jesus as a person, and made no references to his family" (Ibid., 119; emphasis added).
Let us give brief analysis to these statements.
First, the question of whether Jesus was “an actual, historical figure” is not the subject of “much scholarly debate” today. Only a few obscure atheists are even raising the issue. The presence of Jesus of Nazareth is so firmly rooted in fact that Ernest Renan, a French critic, who was no friend of Christianity, said that “all history is incomprehensible without him” and “to tear his name from this world would be to shake it to its foundations” (1991, 26,212).
Joseph Klausner, the famous scholar of Hebrew University—who did not believe that Jesus was divine—unhesitatingly argued that Christ lived in the first century, and that he exerted a powerful influence—both then and across the centuries. His book, Jesus of Nazareth marshals a powerful array of evidence for the historicity of Christ (1989, 17-62). Even Steve Allen, who hates Christianity, confessed: “My own belief is that he [Jesus] did indeed live in the time of Augustus Caesar” (1990, 229).
Second, let us consider the ludicrous charge that “St. Paul . . . was the real founder” of the Christian system. How interesting it would be to confront Ms. Hayes face-to-face, and call for the evidence supporting that outlandish statement.
Christianity was launched on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the death of Jesus (Acts 2). On its first day it consisted of no less than three thousand people (Acts 2:41). Shortly thereafter, the number had grown to five thousand men alone (Acts 4:4). Subsequently “believers were the more added to the Lord” (5:14), because the apostles had filled Jerusalem with their teaching (5:28). Every day the message of Christ was being proclaimed (5:42), and the church experienced phenomenal growth on a daily basis (6:7). At this time, as any elementary Bible student knows, Saul of Tarsus (later designated as Paul) was still a zealous persecutor of the church. He was one of the principals at the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (8:1).
But Christianity already had spread considerably. The gospel had gone throughout Judea and Samaria (8:1). As a result of the conversion of the Ethiopian, the message took root in Africa (8:26ff).
When the student confronts Saul in Acts 9, the fiery Hebrew was making preparation to leave for Damascus (in Syria) in order to extradite Christians; the religion of Jesus had expanded beyond the northern borders of Palestine (9:2-19). The apostle later said that he had persecuted the Christian Way unto foreign cities (Acts 26:11), which is another commentary on how extensively it had flourished. It is the epitome of irresponsibility to allege that Paul was the “founder” of Christianity.
Third, Ms. Hayes’s statement, that Paul “barely discussed Jesus as a person,” simply is not true. Consider the following points.
First, the physical appearance of Christ, and matters relating to his family, etc., were of no concern to the early advocates of the gospel. Whether the Lord was short, tall, slim, or stocky had no bearing whatever upon the message of human redemption.
In fact, as we have shown elsewhere (see Jackson 1996, 17ff), the very omission of personal minutia—not only by Paul, but by all the New Testament writers—is evidence itself that these men were not writing under ordinary human impulses. They deliberately by-passed those numerous details for which our curiosity clamors. This is an indication they were guided by the Spirit of God, rather than by common instinct.
But Ms. Hayes, with typical skeptical crudeness, complains that the New Testament does not mention intimate items regarding Christ (e.g., whether or not he urinated, or if he experienced sexual arousal; Ibid., 26). And because the sacred record does not cater to her unusual interests, she faults it, and questions the historicity of Jesus. The reader can judge for himself the value of this objection.
Secondly, in spite of the fact that Paul neglected personal trivialities regarding Jesus, the apostle’s preaching was saturated with the essential data concerning the Son of God. To the saints in Corinth he wrote:
And I, brethren, when I came unto you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).
Third, it is only in light of the fact that Paul was consumed with the historical Christ that one can explain the sustained growth of the church under the influence of his teaching. He likely preached from Jerusalem in the east, to Spain in the west (cf. Romans 15:24). His known travels spanned some twelve thousand miles.
Finally, it is a gross misrepresentation to suggest that Paul only barely discussed the person of the Lord. The apostle alluded to the preincarnate state of Jesus who, though existing in the form of deity, nonetheless emptied himself of his equality with the Father, and became a human being (Philippians 2:5ff).
Paul noted that Christ was born of woman (Galatians 4:4); that he was of the lineage of Abraham (Galatians 3:16), and of the seed of David (Romans 1:3). The apostle states that Jesus was sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3), though he never committed a single personal sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).
A sampling of Paul’s epistles will allow any careful, sincere student to see what sort of emphasis the noble apostle gave to the Savior. For example, the name “Jesus” is found no fewer than 221 times in Paul’s thirteen known letters. The designation “Christ” occurs some 406 times, and the apostle refers to Jesus as God’s “Son” approximately seventeen times. He alludes to him as “Savior” about thirteen times.
It is thus a distortion of enormous magnitude to suggest that Paul was the real founder of Christianity, and that his attention to Jesus Christ was minimal.
Our skeptical friends would do well to explore the darkness of their souls to determine what sort of psychical abnormality therein exists that so frantically drives them to distort truth.
Scripture references: Acts 2; Acts 2:41; Acts 4:4; Acts 9; Acts 26:11; 1 Corinthians 2:1-2; Romans 15:24; Philippians 2:5; Galatians 4:4; Galatians 3:16; Romans 1:3; Romans 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21
- Allen, Steve. 1990. Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, & Morality. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Hayes, Judith L. 1996. In God We Trust: But Which One? Madison, WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation.
- Jackson, Wayne. 1996. The Silence of the Scriptures: An Argument for Inspiration. Reason & Revelation, March.
- Klausner, Joseph. 1989. Jesus of Nazareth. New York, NY: Bloch Publishing Co.
- Renan, Ernest. 1991 Reprint. Life of Jesus. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.