This Christmas brought more of the same old battle over whether Jesus was the founder of Christianity. It’s a spurious dispute. The fact that the Apostle Paul and not Jesus was the founder of Christianity seems incontrovertible to me. Jesus died before the religion began. Yes, he sent out his disciples to spread his teachings after his death, but those teachings on love and forgiveness had nothing to do with the doctrine of sacrificial redemption upon which Paul’s Christianity is based.
In trying to put the notion to rest that Christianity actually was founded by Paul, the author of the article linked above makes arguments that miss the point. He says, “Every year, it seems, an attempt is made, usually around the Christian holidays, to debunk some aspect of Christian belief— usually involving the Virgin birth, or Jesus’ resurrection, or his relationship with women. This year features an effort to depose Jesus as the founder of the Christian church, replacing him with the apostle Paul.” I don’t see comparing the Gospel words of Jesus with the dogmas of the religion that bears his name to be an attempt to depose anyone. Rather, it is an attempt to better understand what actually happened. The author above insists that the notion that Paul and not Jesus founded Christianity “is a reheated version of an old theory that has been exhaustively debated, and basically put to rest among serious scholars of Christianity.” But then the author makes no attempt whatsoever to support this statement.
So, what does Jesus have to say about religions? First, here is his opinion of clergymen:
“Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.” (MK 12:38-40)
And his opinion of religious traditions:
“And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?… You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’” (MT 15:3-9)
“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men… You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.” (MK 7:8-9)
He was emphatic in telling us that we should worship God as individuals:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (MT 6:5-6)
Indeed, far from trying to establish a religion, the focus of Jesus’s Gospel ministry seems to have been upon freeing us from religious dogmas and encouraging us to approach God individually:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door is opened.” (LK 11:9-10)
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (LK 6:46)
“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (JN 8:31-32)
He says, “the truth will set you free.” But, from what does learning the truth set us free? Based upon what Jesus says in the Gospels, it is hard to avoid the creeping suspicion that what he actually came to do was to free us from religions altogether so we could approach God on our own.
With all of this in mind, the debate over whether or not Jesus founded Christianity seems nonsensical to me. There is no Gospel evidence beyond a couple of remarks that are likely edits that Jesus meant to start a religion. And there is plentiful Gospel evidence that his primary purpose was to enlighten us about the nature of God and the meaning and purpose of human life, so perhaps we might move beyond needing religions and learn to relate to God directly.
Of course Jesus didn’t mean to start Christianity! Obviously Christianity is actually “Paulianity”! Anyone who disputes that fact displays a lack of understanding of the Gospels and of early church history. Christianity is based on the ideas of a man who never knew Jesus in life, and who used Hebrew prophesy and first-century Hebrew sacrificial practices to establish a set of dogmas around which he could build a religion. Nothing in the Gospels suggests that Jesus thought he was a human sacrifice. Nothing suggests that he knew a God so petty and so unforgiving that such a barbaric sacrifice was necessary. The core dogmas of Christianity were Paul’s ideas. And they made sense to people at the time, back when Jews still sacrificed animals in the Temple. But why do they make sense to anybody now?
Please let me be clear. My point here is simply that Jesus doesn’t seem to have intended to found a new religion, and the religion that now bears his name doesn’t bear much relationship to what Jesus taught. Paul’s New Testament letters set forth a doctrine of sacrificial redemption that did not originate with Jesus, and that now is the core of Christianity.
I think it’s important to add here that the doctrine of sacrificial redemption has been refuted by the afterlife evidence. Scholars have found no hint in nearly two hundred years of communications from the dead that God ever has judged anyone, and nor have we found any evidence that the death of Jesus on the cross has redeemed a single human being. Instead, the afterlife evidence abundantly indicates that Jesus in the Gospels tells us things about God, reality, death, and the afterlife that we could not have confirmed by any means until at least the twentieth century.
So Christianity is wrong, but Jesus is right!
And had Christianity been based not in Paul’s ideas, but rather in the teachings of Jesus, its dogmas today would be so different. The least that we owe Jesus now is an open-minded re-examination in an effort to better understand his actual meaning and his message.
I am grateful to Paul. If he hadn’t packaged the teachings of Jesus in first-century Hebrew religious ideas, we would not have those teachings today. Thank you, Paul! Now perhaps it’s time to open your gift.