Think you know the real Paul? Think again! This article about the life and teachings of Paul reveals a darker side of him that you didn’t know existed and paints a picture of Paul as an intrepid first century interfaith pioneer.
Introduction: Good Paul, Bad Paul – and the Neutral Paul
Unbeknown to most Christians today, the apostle Paul has a dual legacy, a split personality, if you will. To most mainstream Christians, Paul is their spiritual hero, someone whose courage and determination in spreading the new religion of Christianity was without parallel. Most Christian preachers today see Paul as their hero and role model, as the ultimate super-salesman for Christianity. Many Christians see Paul as the first real Christian, but this is just an exercise in circular reasoning, because the fact is that Paul laid the doctrinal foundations or groundwork for what is now the Christian religion. This is the Paul modern Christians all know and love, the Paul who exists within the Christian spiritual universe. But there is another Paul, one who is hidden from the eyes of most good Christian believers today, one that could be called the bad Paul – the one who basically hijacked the fledgling Jewish Jesus movement and turned it into the world religion of Christianity. This is Paul as he was known to the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, who regarded Paul as an apostate from the true faith, and a corrupter of Jesus’ original teachings and message. This is basically the same Paul that is known to present day Jews.
Caveat emptor – buyer beware! Before you buy into Paul and his teachings hook, line and sinker, wouldn’t it be better if you made an informed decision, and familiarized yourself with both sides of Paul? The heart of the matter, as I see it, is this: As far as scholars of Christian history and origins can figure out, it was Paul who first put forth the notion that Jesus was divine; this led later to the full divinization of Jesus, and his exaltation to being the second person of the Christian Trinity, fully coequal with God the Father at the Council of Nicea. By initiating the divinization of Jesus, Paul betrayed one of the core spiritual principles of Judaism, which is the absolute Unity of God, and the forbidding of raising anyone or anything besides God to divine status. Thou shalt have no other gods before me, says the first commandment. Thou shalt not make of me any graven image… says the second commandment – any likeness of anyone or anything in heaven or on earth. Judaism affirms that God is totally invisible and incorporeal, and He alone should be worshiped in Spirit and in Truth.
In short, Jews, and the original Jewish Christians, who were thoroughly Jewish in their spiritual orientation and approach, took the first two commandments strictly and literally; and, in doing so, they regarded the worship or divinization of Jesus Christ as being blasphemy and idolatry. This is the pure, pristine and absolute Monotheism of Judaism. Islam, which came later, would also reject the divinization of Jesus or anyone or anything else to divine status, claiming that “There is no god but God”, and also rejecting the teachings of Paul as corrupting the pure, absolute monotheism of the Abrahamic tradition. So – in short, Paul tends to be regarded as a bad guy and an apostate from the true faith by those who take their monotheism seriously and want to keep it in its original pure, pristine state. Into this category would fit not only Jews, but also Muslims, as well as those who want to revert back to the original teachings of Jewish Christianity – not what is now called Messianic Judaism, or “Jews for Jesus”, but the Judaism based teachings of Jesus’ original followers and disciples.
So, how you feel about Paul, and whether he was a good guy or a bad guy usually depends on which side of the Absolute Monotheism divide you are on, and into which of these two camps you fall. But there is a third way of looking at the life and work of Paul, which is more open and eclectic, and that is to see him as a first century interfaith pioneer. Sitting astride two worlds – the Judaic and the Hellenistic, like the great Colossus of Rhodes, Paul blended both of these spiritual traditions into the new religion of Christianity. Paul was not the best systematic theologian by any means, but he was the idea man, the pioneer who laid the basic groundwork for all Christian theology to come; those who came after him would further develop, refine and systematize the foundations he laid into the great theological edifice of Christianity. Paul’s goal and objective was to create a new world religion that was open to Jew and Gentile alike – and which combined and integrated the features of Judaism as well as Hellenistic philosophy and the Mystery Religions.
In contrast to the first two approaches to Paul, which see him as either a hero or a villain, the neutral third approach sees Paul merely as a human being, with strengths and virtues as well as flaws and weaknesses. Let’s face it – starting a new world religion is not an easy task, and doing so requires a lot of boldness, courage and independence of spirit not to fall in totally with either Judaism or Hellenism, but to navigate one’s own path in between the two, combining what he saw as the best features of both. Paul’s boldness and courage, his independence and determination – these were definitely Paul’s greatest strengths. Add to these Paul’s creativity, and you get a pretty good summation of Paul’s strengths and virtues. According to the author of an important book on Paul, Hyam Maccoby, Paul had “a religious imagination of the highest order” – and I would agree. The whole idea that Paul was being creative in formulating the new religion of Christianity and its core doctrines and concepts may not sit well with more conservative and dogmatic Christians, who like to feel that their religion was handed down to them directly from God, but this, I feel, is the reality, after weighing all the evidence.
Paul’s Early Life and Background
To really understand the life and work of Paul, we must go back to his hometown, which was the city of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia, in what is now southeastern Turkey. We can tell that Paul was quite proud of his hometown when he boasts in the Book of Acts that he is “a citizen of no mean city”. Tarsus is a very ancient city, having been inhabited since Neolithic times; it was also graced by the likes of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. Tarsus was also a great center of Greek philosophy, and many considered it to be second only to Athens in this respect. Before Paul was born, the great general Pompey had defeated a band of Persian pirates who used Tarsus as their base of operations, from where they terrorized the eastern Mediterranean, disrupting trade and commerce. These pirates were devotees of the Persian savior deity Mithras, who had a mystery cult that was similar in many ways to Christianity; for example, they had a Eucharistic meal in which they symbolically drank blood in the form of wine. Paul is the earliest Christian writer to mention the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 32). – 1.
And the cult of Mithras was not the only Mystery Religion around in Tarsus. When he was growing up, the young Paul would have been exposed to the mystery cults of Herakles / Hercules, Zoroastrianism, the cults of Cybele and Isis, and many more. The cult of Hercules was especially popular in Tarsus, and was associated with the figure of the dying and reviving fertility / vegetation god. Hercules was born each year in the spring and died in the fall. Scholar A. N. Wilson writes of this:
Every autumn in Tarsus the boy Paul would have seen the great funeral pyre at which the god was ritually burnt. The central mystery of the ritual was that the withering heat of the summer sun had brought the god to his death but that he would rise to life again in the spring, at about the time when the Jews were celebrating the Passover. From inscriptions in Tarsus we know that Herakles, in his dying and descent into Hades, was regarded as a divine savior. – 1.
And guess what? Like the Christian Jesus, Herakles / Hercules was also half human and half divine. It is hard to escape the obvious conclusion that Paul’s early experiences with these mystery cults while as a boy in Tarsus influenced his formulation of Christian theology and doctrine. In addition, the young Paul could have gotten a world class education in Greek philosophy right in his hometown of Tarsus, even before he set off for Palestine to study to become a Pharisee with the illustrious teacher Gamaliel. Paul, or Saul as he was then known, was the child of Jewish parents; although he touts his Jewishness and his status as a Pharisee in his epistles, Paul may have been nothing more than a Hellenized Jew, like the vast majority of diaspora Jews living outside of the Holy Land in Paul’s day. Much is made of Paul’s training and credentials as a Pharisee by Christian apologists, but the Jewish Encyclopedia refutes these claims, saying that Paul, when quoting from the Jewish Scriptures, quotes from the Greek translation only, and shows no familiarity with the original Hebrew text. – 2.
During his childhood in Tarsus, the young Paul had been exposed to all these mystery cults involving dying and rising savior deities. You can imagine Paul’s wonder and amazement when he discovered, in Palestine, a fledgling Jewish sect whose followers believed that their recently martyred and crucified founder had also risen from the dead in his resurrection. This core idea or thematic motif became the nucleus of Paul’s teaching about Jesus Christ. We know from chapters 15 and 21 of the Book of Acts that there were considerable tensions between Paul and the leadership of the Jerusalem Church, which was headed up by James the Just, whom both Paul and Luke call the brother of the Lord (Jesus Christ / Jesus of Nazareth). We know of Paul’s contempt for the Jewish Law; in chapter 21, James confronts Paul about rumors that he has been teaching Jews of the diaspora to abandon the Law and the customs, and not to circumcise their children. Paul’s mere presence in Jerusalem incites a riot and threats on his life, from which he has to be escorted by armed guard to the Roman port city of Caesarea after he reveals his Roman citizenship. And it seems that this comes from the deviant doctrines he is preaching, which deeply offend the religious sensibilities of the Jews of Jerusalem (chapters 22 – 23). At the very least, we can conclude that Paul and the Jerusalem Church leadership had very different visions of Jesus, his teachings and his message.
Paul’s Conversion Experience on the Road to Damascus
The most important milestone or turning point in Paul’s life, according to the Book of Acts, is his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, which converted him from being a Pharisee and a fanatical persecutor of the early Jesus movement into one of its strongest advocates and champions. After the stories of Jesus from the gospels, this singular event is probably the most well known and iconic event of the whole Bible; from this story we even get many common figures of speech, such as “blinded by the light” and “knocked off his high horse”. Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul after his conversion, is totally changed by his vision of the risen Christ. In the Book of Acts, the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus is considered by Luke to be such an important event that he tells the story no less than three times. And, just as there are discrepancies between the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke, so also there are discrepancies between the three different narratives of Paul’s conversion.
In the first telling, (Acts 9: 3 – 20), Saul / Paul was blinded by the light of Christ, and the men who were with him heard a voice, but saw no one. He was blinded for three days, and neither ate nor drank; he had to be healed of his blindness by the Christian disciple Ananias, and instructed in his mission by him.
In the second telling (Acts 22: 9 – 16), the men who were with Paul saw a light, but heard no voice.
By the third telling, (Acts 26: 13 – 18), Paul is retelling the story of his conversion to King Agrippa. Paul is not blinded, but sees Jesus in a vision and receives instruction directly from him, without the need for Ananias. The men who are with him on the road to Damascus also fall to the ground with him. In this retelling of his conversion story, Paul is much more impressive and dramatic; everything centers on Paul, and the glorious mission that awaits him.
If any witness were to give three different stories of the same event in a court of law, as different as these are in their details, the whole case would be thrown into serious doubt. Yet, Paul stakes his whole authority as an apostle of Christ on this vision of the risen Christ that he had on the road to Damascus. Another interesting thing is that Luke tells this story with such drama and bravado in the Book of Acts, but Paul does not have a concrete narrative of his conversion story anywhere in his epistles. The closest thing that biblical scholars can find as a reference by Paul to this singular life changing event is this passage from his epistle to the Galatians, saying that it pleased God to reveal His Son in me (Galatians 1: 15 – 16). Perhaps Paul left the telling of his conversion story to his buddy and PR man Luke because telling it himself would make him appear to be too proud and arrogant. At any rate, we may never know the full truth of the matter, nor will we have any outside objective corroboration of Paul’s conversion experience, because it doesn’t appear anywhere else but in the Book of Acts.
The preposition that Paul chooses to use when obliquely referring to his conversion experience in the passage from Galatians cited above is also very revealing and thought provoking: “God was pleased to reveal His Son in me…” This suggests that, for Paul, the presence of Christ was primarily an inner one, and not an outer one. This fits in very nicely with another passage from the Pauline epistles: Christ in you, the hope of glory – Colossians 1: 27. The only problem is that most biblical scholars do not consider Colossians to be a genuine epistle of Paul; nevertheless, it was written in the same spirit. And it was only natural that the presence of Jesus Christ be an inner, spiritual one for Paul, because the most important thing to remember about Paul was that Paul never met or studied personally with Jesus while he was alive. If an apostle is someone who is sent out personally by a spiritual master to disseminate his teachings, then, in the strictest sense of the word, Paul could not truly be called an apostle; Peter was. Nevertheless, it was Paul’s vision of Christianity that prevailed, and not that of the personal disciples of Jesus Christ.
Yet Paul insists that his vision of Christianity is the superior one, because he received it in a vision directly from God. In the first chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul painstakingly points out that his vision is not from man, but from God; this attitude of condescension and hubris, of being a religion that is “of God” rather than merely “of man” has dominated Christianity ever since. Whatever other strengths and virtues Paul may have had, it cannot be said that he was a team player; he was, however, one of the best religious politicians and polemicists who ever lived, and the fact that it was his vision of Christianity that prevailed is a testament to that fact. The standard Christian story line was that Paul was converted to Christianity while on the road to Damascus, but, when one really considers things, the real question to ask may be: Who converted who? The case that it was Paul who converted the fledgling Jesus movement over to his way of thinking and seeing things is at least as strong as the other way around.
Paul and the Pharisees: A Complex Relationship
There is a definite anti-Pharisee agenda running through much of the New Testament. Paul touts his credentials as a Pharisee, and also makes it clear that he was a zealous persecutor of the fledgling Jesus movement as well; the Christian reader naturally comes to the conclusion that Paul persecuted the Jesus movement because he was a Pharisee. The Gospel of Matthew also echoes and reinforces this anti-Pharisee sentiment when they have Jesus proclaiming his diatribes against the Pharisees. Yet, strangely enough, the New Testament is not consistent in this anti-Pharisee stance. Most notably, this anti-Pharisee stance lapses in chapter 5 of the Book of Acts, when the apostle Peter is dragged before a judge after escaping from prison. The Pharisee Gamaliel, supposedly Paul’s teacher, counsels a lenient wait and see approach in dealing with Peter and the other apostles, to see whether or not their movement is of God. If Gamaliel, the leader of the Pharisees in Paul’s day, is counseling leniency in dealing with the early followers of Jesus, could Paul really have persecuted them because he was a Pharisee?
Chapter nine of the Book of Acts opens with Paul breathing fire and hot to get his hands on some Jesus followers to bring them back to Jerusalem to justice when he asks the high priest for his marching orders. So, with the opening verses of this chapter, we find out that Paul was sent to Damascus on orders from the high priest in Jerusalem to round up and bring back these Jesus followers. And it must be remembered that the high priest was a Sadducee, and not a Pharisee; it must also be remembered that the Sadducees, or the hereditary priestly class, were the main collaborators with the Roman occupation of Judea, and were therefore very much hated by the Jewish populace. From a cursory reading of these verses, we assume that Paul’s zeal to persecute the early followers of Jesus sent him to Damascus. But what if he went to Damascus in the employ of the high priest simply because he needed the money, and was not of sufficient means to support himself independently? Then, things take on a whole different light.
One must also ask oneself why these early followers of Jesus were fleeing to Damascus, of all places. Damascus was in Syria, and therefore beyond the high priest’s jurisdiction; it was also an independent city state under the dominion of King Aretas, and was also outside of Roman jurisdiction as well. – 3. That’s the real reason why these early Jesus followers were fleeing to Damascus; it was beyond Roman jurisdiction, and, after all, it was the Romans who had crucified their spiritual master Jesus. So, Paul was being hired as an illicit thug who was going to Damascus illegally, totally outside the jurisdiction of the high priest, and even Rome itself, in violation of the territorial sovereignty of King Aretas. We can only speculate as to why exactly Paul accepted this illegal mission to Damascus, but, if Paul had indeed gone to Jerusalem with every intention of becoming a Pharisee, and for one reason or another failed to make the grade, then he would have had to accept these shady offers of employment in order to support himself. Deploring the sordid depths to which he had fallen, and overcome with tremendous psychic tension and guilt, Paul could have had his vision on the road to Damascus as a way out of going through with this illegal and dastardly deed.
So – was Paul really a Pharisee? Christian apologists are always eager to piece together whatever bits of evidence they can muster in defense of Paul’s Pharisaic credentials. The reason is obvious: They want to strengthen the apparent connection between Christianity and Judaism in whatever way they can, so that Christian believers come to the conclusion that it was the natural next step for the God of Israel to send His Son to earth to die for our sins, which is the core of Pauline doctrine. But the single greatest piece of evidence that Paul was not a Pharisee is that he held theological views that are totally contrary to Pharisaic teaching and doctrine. For example, if you read the eighth and ninth chapters of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, you will see the sheer depth of Paul’s spiritual pessimism and despair, of how he feels that he is a hopeless slave to sin, how the Jewish Law is powerless to save him, and how we are all helpless without the saving grace of Jesus Christ. The traditional Jewish / Pharisaic position on these matters is much more positive and upbeat; in Moses’ final speech at the end of Deuteronomy, he says that the Law is not far away, but close to your hearts so that you can do it. And so, if Paul was a Pharisee, he was such an atypical one that the question of whether or not he was a Pharisee becomes, for all practical purposes, totally meaningless and irrelevant.
Contrary to popular Christian belief about the Pharisees, they were not the terrible monsters of religious dogma and hypocrisy that they are usually portrayed as being in the New Testament. The Pharisees were actually wise, progressive and humane interpreters of the Jewish Scriptures and the Law for the common man, and they were trusted and looked up to with great respect by the masses of Jewish believers. The Pharisees were the direct forebears of modern day Jewish rabbis. So, why are New Testament writers such as Matthew so down on the Pharisees? I believe that the main reason was that it fit in with their broader narrative that it was the Jews, and more specifically the Pharisees, who couldn’t accept Jesus’ revolutionary teachings, who were responsible for the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The truth is that it was the Romans who crucified Jesus, and not the Jews, since crucifixion was a specifically Roman method of torture and execution. But the early Christians, having to survive in a Roman world after the Roman holocaust of Judea, had to portray the Romans in as positive a light as possible. Most Jewish scholars agree that Jesus himself, in his positions on doctrinal matters, was in line with Pharisaic thought, contrary to popular Christian belief. – 4.
Paul as a Religious Chameleon: Becoming All Things to All People
When I was in college, I had a voice teacher who was Jewish, who trained cantors at the local synagogue; he also trained singers at local Christian churches around town, and so, he liked to call himself a religious chameleon. And after he called himself a religious chameleon, he would often launch into his old joke about the Catholic priest and the Jewish rabbi. Another person who could have been even more of a religious chameleon than my voice teacher was the apostle Paul, as evidenced by the following passage from one of his epistles:
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (Being not without law to God, but under the law of Christ,) that I might gain them that are without the law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
– 1 Corinthians 9: 19 – 22
Although Paul considers himself to be a servant of Christ in doing this, the ability to become all things to all people is also a distinguishing characteristic of the deceiver or con man. Paul may have had great religious zeal and conviction in his preaching of the gospel of Christ as he envisioned it, but in his great zeal he may have succumbed to the ethical fallacy of the ends justifies the means. And this would be all the more true of course, if the gospel that Paul was preaching in Jesus’ name was not the original teachings and message of Jesus, as it was known to his personal disciples and earliest followers. And although becoming all things to all people, or mirroring them, may be an effective tactic for gaining their sympathy, if one alters one’s approach and message too much from one person to the next, one runs the risk of having a message that is too ambiguous, which essentially stands for nothing. So, it was a fine line that Paul was treading in his preaching – to alter his approach enough to make it relevant to the hearer of his message, and gain their sympathy, yet still preserve the core of his message.
This ability or inclination to become all things to all people in the spreading of his gospel, in order to win as many converts as possible, is the heart of what I see to be the dark side of Paul’s overall personality and character. If you have been with me so far in the reading of this article, you have seen that Paul, and his buddy Luke in Acts, as well as the Christian gospel writers who followed Paul, and were strongly influenced by Paul and his teachings, may have been constructing and peddling false narratives about various things, such as Paul’s own involvement with the Pharisees, and his Pharisaic credentials, as well as the nature and character of the Pharisees themselves, in order to construct a broader narrative that served their ends. Sure, founding a new world religion is no easy task, and the religious politics and polemics involved in doing so may be daunting, but the question remains for all truth seekers everywhere: Did Paul and his associates succumb to the ethical fallacy of the ends justifies the means in their efforts? In founding the new religion of Christianity, Paul had to be bold, gutsy and courageous, and fiercely independent, but I believe that he also had quite a bit of the opportunistic rogue or scoundrel in his overall personality and character.
Paul’s Enduring Influence on the New Testament, and on Christianity
Paul is our earliest New Testament writer; not only was he the first, but he was also the most prolific – roughly half of the 27 books of the New Testament, or thirteen of them, were either written by Paul, or attributed to him. Pseudepigraphy, or the writing of books in someone else’s name, was a common practice in New Testament times, and it was usually done by a relatively obscure author in order to lend clout and credibility to their message. Christians today usually go to the gospels to get the teachings of Jesus, and to the epistles of Paul to get his teachings about Jesus regarding the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection. But what these Christians fail to realize is the sheer pervasiveness of Paul’s teachings and message, even in the canonical gospels; it is always there, even in ways that they fail to fully realize and appreciate. Consider the following:
Paul hardly says anything in his epistles about the life and teachings of Jesus; for him, everything was about his crucifixion and resurrection, or his atonement for our sins on the cross – his transformative passion. This basic attitude is even reflected in the canonical gospels, which all have their great climax with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection; this is true even to the extent that everything that happens previously is seen as leading up to this fateful and climactic moment, or as a passing episode along the journey towards the cross at Calvary. Contrast this with the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are not even mentioned; this is a gospel in which Jesus’ actual teachings are truly front and center.
It was Paul who first put forth the idea that Jesus was divine, and as we have seen, this is an idea that was totally heretical to the Judaism from which the original Jesus movement sprang. Even believing in Jesus’ resurrection did not necessarily require a belief in his inherent divinity, as we can see from a careful reading of the Apostle Peter’s speech to the multitudes on the Day of Pentecost, as recorded by Luke in chapter two of the Book of Acts. The earliest canonical gospel to be written was the Gospel of Mark, followed by Matthew, Luke and John; with each successive gospel that was written, Jesus’ divine stature grows ever higher and more exalted, culminating with the Gospel of John, in which Jesus Christ is fully divine as the Word made flesh. This progressive raising of Jesus’ divine stature with each succeeding gospel mirrors the gradual estrangement that early Christianity was experiencing in its rift with Judaism, and its growing compensatory inclination to express the Hellenistic ideas introduced by Paul, such as Jesus’ divinity.
If Jesus had twelve apostles, did you ever wonder what happened to their teachings, which they received personally from the Galilean Master while sitting reverently at his feet? They are, by and large, sorely missing from the pages of the New Testament. Where they do appear, in the canonical gospels, the other apostles tend to be belittled and trivialized as those who just don’t get it, and used mainly as handy teaching tools against certain defects of personality and character – certainly they had to have had more to offer than that! This is yet another symptom of the sheer extent to which the New Testament is dominated by the teachings and message of Paul – so much other stuff had to be shoved out of the way to make room for it. Yes, you do have the two epistles of Peter, but most biblical scholars agree that probably the first one, and certainly the second one, are of dubious authenticity, and were not written by Peter. – 5. The Second Epistle of Peter is particularly sycophantic in tone, and was probably written to get later generations of Christians to believe that Peter was solidly in the Pauline camp regarding core matters of theology and doctrine when, as a personal disciple of Jesus and a leader of the early Jerusalem Church, he probably wasn’t.
The sheer pervasiveness of Paul’s teachings and message throughout the New Testament is no accident; when the canon of Christian Scripture was put together towards the end of the fourth century AD, an important requirement for inclusion was that a book’s overall teachings and message had to be congruent with those of Paul. The only exceptions to this overall rule were the epistles of James and Jude; they could not be excluded from the New Testament because the tradition that they were the brothers of Jesus was too strong; nevertheless, they were put in an inconspicuous place and shoved to the back of the book, right before the Book of Revelation. James was quite specific in countering the message of Paul when he wrote in his epistle that faith without works is dead (James 2: 20). This was meant to counter, or at least to provide a counterbalance, to the Pauline teaching that we are saved by faith alone. James and Jude complain in their epistles that boastful, deceitful men, who are obsequious to those in positions of wealth and power, had wormed their way into the church, and it is usually assumed that they were talking about the Gnostics, but perhaps they were really referring to Paul and his followers; after all, James and Jude were leaders of the Jerusalem Church of Jewish Christianity.
What we have in Christianity today is, for better or worse, the spiritual and theological system devised and set up by Paul; everything else comes to us through a Pauline lens or filter. With the original apostolic connection to Jesus of Nazareth thus broken or corrupted by Paul and his followers, we can only speculate as to what the totality of Jesus’ original teachings and message might have been. Also, we can only speculate as to what the authentic teachings and spiritual insights that the other disciples of Jesus received directly from their master were, and how the Christian spiritual tradition might have been so much richer for it. Yet, it could be argued that Paul was no spiritual lightweight, and that the system of Christian religion, devotion and spirituality that he devised was not hastily or haphazardly put together; it was the product of considerable spiritual insight and development by Paul, to devise a system with coherence, and one that actually worked. The proof of this is the example of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which could be seen as the original church of Pauline Christianity, that has preserved Paul’s teachings in as close to their original form as possible. The Eastern Orthodox Church has produced many holy and saintly individuals, and has managed to remain free of all the abuses and controversies that have plagued Western Christianity.
How Has Western Christian Civilization Taken After Paul?
Every good grade school teacher knows how important the formative years are for a person’s overall character and development; the old proverb, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree,” is very true. Paul could be seen as a religious pioneer or entrepreneur who had the golden opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the Christian spiritual enterprise, but with that unparalleled opportunity also went enormous responsibilities, as the then fledgling religion of Christianity was indelibly shaped by Paul’s overall personality and character. Another well-known proverb involving trees was given by Jesus himself regarding false prophets: “By their fruits shall ye know them” (Matthew 7: 16). It could well be argued that the overall nature and character of a civilization takes after that of its dominant religion; with Western civilization, which is now the dominant one on the planet, that religion is Christianity, whose real founder, for all practical purposes, was Paul. And it could be argued that the fruits of Western Christian civilization leave a lot to be desired. So, let’s examine the various ways in which Western civilization takes after Paul, the real founder of Christianity:
Paul was, above all, a religious innovator, who took the original Jewish Jesus movement and transformed it into something totally new and different. In the process, who knows what treasures were lost from the original Jesus movement, and Jesus’ personal disciples? And so, Western Christian civilization has been, at crucial times in its history, quite ready and willing to break with tradition and embark on a course that was radically new and different. It could be said that this has resulted in unparalleled progress and advancement in the fields of medicine, science and technology, but who knows what beneficial or redeeming aspects of the traditional way of doing things were lost in the process?
Paul, as we have seen, was the super salesman for his “new and improved” version of Christianity, and in his overriding ambition and zeal to promulgate his message, may have fallen for the ethical fallacy of the ends justifies the means. I have seen videos up on YouTube put out by certain Muslim groups that portray Paul as the carnival barker hawking his religious wares in the spiritual marketplace of downtown Ephesus; from their overall presentation and message, I could gather that these Muslims saw in Paul the genesis of all the crass materialism that has gotten the better of Western Christian civilization, and the dire consequences it has had for the health and safety of our species, and our planet.
Even though he was not a personal disciple of Jesus, Paul was convinced that his version of the Christian gospel, which he received directly from God and Christ by means of his visions, and not from any human source, was superior to the version of the gospel preached by Jesus’ personal disciples. Paul did not believe in compromising his position or principles, and was definitely not a team player. The Christian religion that Paul created duly inherited this basic attitude from Paul, an attitude of condescension and hubris that sees Christianity as being uniquely “of God”, in contrast to all other religions, which are merely “of man”. This chauvinistic attitude of Western Christian civilization is embodied in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, which could be called the unofficial creed of Western Christian missionaries as they set out to enlighten the world and bring them what they saw as the superior benefits of their brand of religion and civilization. And heaven knows what strengths and virtues of indigenous civilizations and their spiritual worldviews were lost, mutilated or trampled on in the process. We have all this, not to mention the tremendous amount of religious bigotry and intolerance foisted on the rest of the world by Christianity and Western civilization.
In founding what we now know as the religion of Christianity, Paul was creating a world religion that was founded not by Jesus, but in the name of Jesus. Paul and his followers declared Jesus to be divine, and held him up on such a high pedestal in contrast to sinful mankind; this attitude, I feel, led eventually to the words “God” and “Jesus Christ” being used as swear words by Christians. After all, no Buddhists take the name of Buddha in vain. This basic attitude of Jesus Christ as being such a paragon of spiritual purity and virtue that no mortal human could really hope to aspire to led, I believe, to the increasing polarization or schism between the religious and secular worlds in Western civilization, almost to the point of being schizoid in nature, or at least monumentally hypocritical. And so, Gandhi lamented that the Christians he saw were so unlike Christ.
These are a few of the most basic ways in which Western Christian civilization took after the personality, teachings and message of Paul, for better or worse. Perhaps you can think of others.
Conclusion: Have I Been Too Hard on Paul?
Here we are at the end of this article, and I’m virtually certain that many of my readers, especially those who fall into the conventional Christian fold, have come to the conclusion that I have been too hard on Paul, and not appreciative enough of his good and redeeming qualities. While not losing sight of Paul’s strengths and virtues, I have decided to call attention primarily to Paul’s shortcomings and shadow side in order to remedy or counterbalance all the existing Christian literature that endlessly sings his praises. After all, nothing, and no one, in this world is unmitigated sweetness and light; everything, and everyone, casts its shadow. What I would like to achieve is for you, dear reader, to temper your previous assessment of Paul with a good healthy dose of realism as well. To be absolutely frank and honest, there is a lot more negative or damning information about Paul that I could have revealed here, but I decided to limit or restrict things in this department, lest I sound too tedious or vindictive in my criticism.
If you wish to explore the negative or shadow side of Paul further, may I recommend two excellent resources: The first is a scathing expose of Paul called The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by the Jewish Talmudic scholar Hyam Maccoby. After you finish reading this book, I guarantee that you will never see Paul quite the same again. The second resource is an online one, found on a vegetarian website, of all places; this website has put up, as a public service to all who may be interested, the full text of both the Clementine Homilies as well as the Clementine Recognitions. The link is below:
The Clementine Homilies and The Clementine Recognitions are collectively known as the Pseudoclementine literature, and present the spiritual message and legacy of the original Jewish Christianity that preceded Paul. The Clementine Homilies and Recognitions date back to the second or third century AD, and purport to be the personal discourses of the Apostle Peter to his successor, Pope Clement of Rome. They contain scathing stories and diatribes by Peter against Paul and his followers in an effort to draw a clear and discerning line between the original teachings of Jesus as Peter received them at the feet of his master versus the pseudo- teachings of Paul. A good place to start would be Book 17 of the Clementine Homilies, in which Peter confronts Paul regarding the nature of true discipleship. These books have absolutely no place in the sacred literature of conventional Christianity as it has come down to us today, but probably would have been important sacred literature if the original Jewish Christianity of Jesus’ personal disciples had won out in the battle for Christianity’s future.
- Saul of Tarsus
- Aretas IV Philopatris
- The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by Hyam Maccoby, chapter 4, pp. 29 – 44. Copyright 1986 by Hyam Maccoby. Published 1998 by Barnes and Noble Books.
- Authorship of the Petrine epistles