Views on the Apostle Paul

Julia Tyack

Paul was brilliant on many fronts. He merits being dubbed the most influential thinker over the last 2000 years, and certainly more influential than Jesus as Tabor suggests. I refer you to Hyam Maccoby’s assessment that Paul is the brainchild of “the most compelling myth known to mankind.”  (The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, page 197).  So you can’t appear to be dismissing this big guy with one simple point. Paul conceived not only how his Christ fulfilled all OT scripture (“That which God promised the fathers he has fulfilled in that he raised Jesus from the dead”…. Acts about 13 I think), but Paul was brought up in one of the centres of the great mystery religions, the world centre of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism as well as Heracles.  He must have been well acquainted with the almost universal myth about the dying and risings divinities – and he saw how his Christ had fulfilled all of these hopes of humanity – and so here was the secret of how to unite Jew and Greek in the one Divine Man who fulfilled the hopes and promises of all religions.  Of course he was impatient with the dullards in the Jerusalem church who included the chief apostles of the church – they wanted to confine their Messiah to their little Jewish world of circumcision, kosher food and Sabbath.  Their Messiah was far too small. Paul’s Messiah was a colossus who far transcended Judaism.  The disciples of Jesus just wanted to make him king of the Jews…. How puny was their vision re the greatness of this Man, this supernatural Christ who flung open the gates to invite into his church both Jew and Gentile, which of course meant the dismantling of the cult of circumcision, kosher food, Sabbath which theology swept away their sacred icon of Torah. The Jewish Christians including James would have kept the Jesus movement as a Jewish sect which would never have gone forth to conquer the Greco-Roman world. See what happened to the pitiful Nazoreans and Ebionites who rejected virgin birth, divinity of Jesus, blood atonement and the theology of Paul.  They petered out in the desert until their dying embers were taken up into Islam.

It has taken 2,000 years for the Christian system with its world missionary enterprise to face up to its failings and the futility of its missionary enterprise.  Its fatal flaws had to be manifested in the pages of history. In spite of its theology that led this Christian bandwagon on, it carried in those wagons the teachings of the Man who became their Icon.  We now witness the resurrection of these bones as an instrument to the entire theological edifice of Christianity into serious and radical question.

Henry Hasse – (www.infoguyhank.wordpress.com)

I think we always need to remember that Paul did not spread his atonement theology on his own – and his stations were limited over a brief time of about 5 yrs. He only laid the seed into payback mindset soil. The narrative writers fertilized that seed with lots of BS of their own over the next 60 years or more. Then there were deep controversies between church leaders over Paul’s apocalyptic message which had finally identified the apocalyptic Messiah Son of God vs. Arians who could not accept the incarnation. The James brotherhood of Jews and their Torah rituals in Jerusalem were long gone, probably before the 70 CE destruction.  A minority of mostly illiterate Jews in Galilee who were still passing around Jesus’ (“the human one”) message orally about an ever-present Goodness, here-and-now, that yearns to be imitated with love, even for enemies, long gone too – very tough to be loving during this time of rampant Roman persecution of Jewish rebels, anyone Jewish, and then Christians for burning Rome (mid 1st –  almost 5th century), and during a time when most of the Gentile Bishops had already taken Paul’s theology and the narrative accounts for granted and then ordered anything else illegal with the Emperor’s blessing. Little wonder Christianity spread after it became the only legal religion in the empire.

The interesting thing also is what did Paul come up with in terms of  basic themes that resonated so widely across the human population.  Was  it the hope of salvation that responds to the threat embodied in  atonement theology? (the Salvationism hope based on history’s greatest  fraud and lie), or did his theology simply resonate with payback  thinking so prominent across human belief systems?  Even a Psalm says that God is angry with wicked every day.  It is a wonder this God does not suffer from blood pressure or something in view of all this pent up anger as if it were like some immense subterranean seething volcano about to burst out upon the earth.

It must have been quite astonishing and scandalous to see and hear this historical Jesus talk of his benevolent Abba Father as one sends his rain and sunshine on the good and bad alike.  Or hearing him tell sinners that they were forgiven even before they even asked for forgiveness.  Here is a poor sinful wretch lying on his mat, so convinced of God’s disapproval of him as a wretched sinner who can’t keep Torah because of his circumstances, so overwhelmed by his sheer hopeless state that he can’t even get up from his mat. He lies in a kind of foetal position waiting for God’s wrath to strike what little spark of life remains in him.  Jesus simply declares that his sins are forgiven (no asking here!) and the guy’s blood races through his veins in the sheer joy and wonder of it that he even forgets he is sick and gets up and walks…he probably leaps and runs like a calf let out of a dark stall into the spring sunshine.

Here we might focus again on the stark contrast between the Christian gospel (Paul) and the historical Jesus.  Paul tells us how his second Adam endures and absorbs into himself all of this wrath against our sinfulness to effect the bridging of this infinite gulf between a holy God and a sinful race, thus reconciling us to God by the blood of his cross.

Jesus simply proclaims that all these human religions have got it wrong.  There is no gulf.  God never left. No atonement is needed. The outcasts are invited into the kingdom as they are, not needing to be washed from their dirt and fleas and rags before they can respond to this invitation.  They can join the great party of the unconditionally forgiven. It’s all thoroughly scandalous, certainly irreligious. Really exhilarating and life changing stuff!

Bob – (www.bobbrinsmead.com)

Judaism and  the Jewish Christians were inclined to work within the framework of a grand narrative focused on the Jews as the chosen people.  Paul’s message was wrapped in a grand narrative for the whole human race.  It was a narrative of the two Adams.  The first Adam was not a Jew.  He was the representative of generic humanity.  So here is a story of the human race and for the human race.  The second Adam redeems what the first Adam lost and so on.(Romans 5)  So Paul had a vision that could appeal to all of mankind.   Of course, being  Jew himself, he had a vision of this Christ also fulfilling all that was promised to the Jewish fathers (so Acts 13).  But if he was to unite Jew and Gentile in the one universal faith, he had to break down religious hostility between Jew and Gentile; a hostility grounded in the law or mid-wall of partition that divided the two.  The key to understanding Romans is chapter 14 – there were Jewish and Gentile factions at loggerheads with each other in Rome.  We know the contention was so bad that it was later reported to Caesar who used this as a pretext to drive them out of Rome.  Anyway, Paul’s gospel of JBF was to show on what basis the two factions within the Jesus movement could accept each other.  It was more about “how can I find a gracious Christian neighbour” than “how can I find a gracious God.” (see Stendahl, Paul Among Jew and Gentile).

We know from history that Paul’s efforts to unite the two factions utterly failed.  Eventually Jewish Christians rejected Paul altogether, but his work was the foundation of the great Gentile Church from which Jewish Christians were excluded as heretics.  When the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem ( the Bible says they were “from James” meaning they were sent by James) came to the Galatian Gentile Christians, they urged them to accept the Jewish Torah (which in the broad sense was the entire OT) as the rule of life by which they were to live.  So Paul’s vision for the world meant that he must have a strong rationale to reject the law as a binding rule of life in the new age of the Messiah.  He declared to the Galatians that to be under the law (nomos) or Scripture (graphe) as a rule of life was to be under a curse, or to be in jail; to live like children who have not come of age, to be in bondage.   These were hard sayings to the Jewish Christians.  When Paul returned to Jerusalem for the last time, some of them (it has been argued they were Jewish Christians and not ordinary Jews) had made a vow to kill Paul.

The gospel of Paul which became Gentile Christianity had not significant penetration into Semitic people, meaning it did not appeal to either Jews or Arabs.  Theirs was not the cultural soil suitable for such a religion.

I remember reading a statement from Rosemary Reuther saying that Christianity (meaning the Gentile religion which sprang from Paul) was suited to Greco-Roman civilization and was adaptable only to that civilization. Thus the Greco-Roman world became virtually the same thing as the Christian world.

Wendell –  (www.wendellkrossa.com)

Mary Boyce (Zoroastrians) presents a variety of reasons why the new faith of Zoroaster (this also applies to Christianity, a similar belief system) grew to appeal to many others. In her outline of Zoroaster’s new religion you see clearly the outline of Paul’s thinking and theology. There is the simple dualism between good and evil, the great battle between these and the felt obligation to choose a side.  And of course, who would not want to be on the side of good, of ultimate good, the Creator’s side. Contrasted with this…who wants to be on the wrong side and be damned to Hell? This thinking appeals to many impulses- the desire to be an insider, specially favoured and blessed.  And the blessings include eternal bliss – this answers the death fear.  And no one wants to be punished with burning fire, but we all prefer to be rewarded and enjoy bliss forever. No more sickness or death or misery. These myths appeal to the most basic human impulses and desires.  And these faiths state these beliefs in extreme terms, unheard of before. Eternal this or that to the nth degree.

So Paul’s Christ myth is summing up and heightening this previous mythology, giving it more intense expression.  As with Zoroaster, Paul does extend this out to all mankind. As Boyce notes, Zoroaster’s new faith opened opportunity for all to partake, not just elites. Everyone could choose right and enjoy eternal bliss. It also brought elites down, in that those who chose wrong would suffer hell despite their privileged lives. This was a new democratic element introduced by Zoroaster. So also with Paul.

Paul’s Reversal/Retreat

The apostle Paul makes one of the greatest ever retreats or reversals  in history in regard to retaliation.  He rejects the advance made by  Jesus on non-retaliation.   Primitive people had long engaged severe retaliatory responses toward  offenders. In primitive societies injury such as causing the loss of  an eye could result in the loss of the life of the offender. Rage at  offense, even just some minor verbal offense could result in death to  offenders. I have witnessed this in tribal society where a man’s sense  of honor and right to retaliate will lead to killing someone who just  verbally offends him. Note how such honor killing exists in large  areas of the world even today (i.e. a girl wanting to engage modern  life being put to death by relatives).   So the Jewish legal prescription of an eye for an eye was a great  advance over such paganism. You were not allowed to go beyond exactly  the offense committed toward you. This was an advance. And of course,  Historical Jesus took this much higher and further into authentically  human response of no retaliation at all. Stop the cycles of  retaliatory violence all together.   That was history’s greatest advance toward authentic humanity.

So what about Paul? He reverts backwards, not just to Jewish eye for  eye, and not even just to the pagan response of a life for an eye, or  a life for verbal offense, horrible as such response is.  No, Paul  goes much further back into pagan barbarity, even further than the  insanely disproportionate punishment for the mildest of offenses that  is seen in the myths of the pathetic gods of antiquity. Those gods  punished people with destruction/annihilation for such petty things as  being too noisy (Sumerian flood myth) or too curious (Adam). But Paul  takes all such insanity ever  further – his extremely retaliatory God will damn to torture in hell forever for all sorts of petty offenses or “sins”. This is more than  just a retreat from Jesus, or Jewish advance, or even paganism.  This  is over-the-top insanity of lust for punishment. This is reversal to  paganism, retreat from human advance, and rejection of humanity on a  scale unprecedented in history. This is a profound rejection of the  core teaching of Jesus. Shame on Paul.

Here is Stephen Mitchell’s comment on this excessive severity of  punishment in Paul: “The narrow-minded, fire-breathing,  self-tormenting Saul was still alive and kicking inside Paul. He  didn’t understand Jesus at all. He wasn’t even interested in Jesus;  just in his own idea of the Christ, ‘Even though we once knew Christ  according to the flesh, we no longer regard him in this way’.  In other  words, it isn’t relevant to know Jesus as a person of flesh and blood  or to hear, much less do, what he taught; the only thing necessary for  a Christian is to believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that he  died in atonement for our sins (the ‘ghastly pagan’ idea). Like the  writer of Revelation, Paul harbored a great deal of violence in his  mind, which he projected onto visions of cosmic warfare, and onto an  image of God as punitive father…”

Here is a powerful statement from Mitchell, “This teaching about  hell, which the church took over from a fierce, apocalyptic strand of Judaism, and which it put here into Jesus’ mouth, proceeds from a very unforgiving, unjust god whose punishments are insanely  disproportionate to the offenses” (The Gospel According to Jesus).

Tackling Paul

Now why go after Paul and possibly offend many good Christians who venerate the apostle so highly?  I do it because of Paul’s still outsize influence on how we think today, on how we shape our worldviews, our personal responses, our treatment of others, and our overall societies.  His influence has been, and still is, profound on Western consciousness and culture, and through the West to the entire world. Paul’s Christ myth has been the singularly most influential myth in all history (Bob Brinsmead). More than anything else, it is responsible for bringing the damaging apocalyptic perspective into our modern world.  Correspondingly, Paul’s religion (Christianity), with its sharply contrasting theology of supreme conditional atonement, has done more than anything else to bury the core unconditional theme of the historical Jesus. You can sum up the stunning contrast between Jesus and Paul in the following oppositional terms- non-retaliation vs. retaliation, non-punishment vs. punishment, non-destruction vs. destruction, or unconditional vs. conditional.

James Tabor (Paul and Jesus), among many others, has also affirmed the conclusion that Christianity is entirely opposite to what Jesus taught, an argument that is made thoroughly on this page. Tabor makes the following summary statements on Paul: “I maintain that there was a version of Christianity before Paul, affirmed both by Jesus and his original followers, with tenets and affirmations quite opposite to these of Paul. This is the lost and forgotten Christianity of James the brother of Jesus…In other words, the message of Paul, which created Christianity as we know it, and the message of the historical Jesus and his earliest followers, were not the same. In fact, they were sharply opposed to one another with little in common beyond the name of Jesus itself…(in) the early stages of the Jesus movement….there were rival and competing versions of emerging Christianity…each taking Jesus as their reference point but with distinct and irreconcilable differences” (p. Xvi, 29).

He also writes that Paul’s “strongly apocalyptic perspective….influenced all he said or did” (p.15). He adds that the New Testament is “largely a post-Paul and pro-Paul production…the form of Christianity that subsequently developed as a thriving religion in the late Roman Empire was heavily based upon the ecstatic and visionary experiences of Paul. Christianity, as we came to know it, is Paul and Paul is Christianity. The bulk of the New Testament is dominated by his theological vision” (p.24).

Tabor then adds this comment on Paul’s influence: “Paul is the most influential person in human history, and realize it or not, he has shaped practically all we think about everything. I have in mind, of course, the West in particular, but since Christian culture has had such a global spread, I think my somewhat extravagant language about human history can be justified… the foundations of Western civilization- from our assumptions about reality to our societal and personal ethics- rest in a singular way upon the heavenly visions and apparitions of the apostle Paul. We are all cultural heirs of Paul, with the well-established doctrines and traditions of mainstream Christianity deeply entrenched in our culture. In contrast, Jesus as a historical figure…has been largely lost to our culture” (Paul and Jesus, p. xvii).

As Tabor argues, if you want to understand the deeper roots of our culture, then you need to understand Paul’s thinking and influence. And it is not overstating anything to note the link that Paul creates from primitive thought to contemporary consciousness. That linkage extends from Zoroastrian apocalyptic through Paul to 19th Century Declinism (Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History or Richard Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience), and then to modern environmental alarmism. Contemporary secular materialists, mouthing environmental alarmist views, may be mouthing Paul’s primitive mythology more than they are aware of (what Pascal Bruckner in his book “The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse” calls the new religion of “Ecologism”).

I would add that if you want to avoid Paul’s mistake and his lingering harmful influence via apocalyptic then get a grip on Jesus’ core theme of unconditional. Most people sense the authentic humanity in that theme (the “diamonds in a dunghill” according to Thomas Jefferson) and have responded positively to it (e.g. Ghandi, Mandela, notable atheists, and many others). Unconditional gets you closest to right, truth, authentic humanity and all those things that enhance a humane consciousness. It protects you from all those inhumane things that harm consciousness and life.