Jesus and Paul

Modern critical scholarship of the Bible tends to lean heavily toward skepticism. Those who ascribe to the principles and methods of this so-called scientific approach to Scripture begin with the premise that what is written is not exactly what happened or was said. Instead, they say that the authors, writing years later, recorded what they remembered, but fallible human memory is neither perfect nor immune to ulterior motives. In this way, they conclude, the texts we read today as the Gospels and Acts are not true eyewitness accounts but individual, biased interpretations. Ultimately, they were written to advance a cause rather than give accurate accounts of the life of Christ and the early history of the Christian church.

This inherent skepticism among many modern critical scholars also extends to the epistles of the apostle Paul. Rather than being sincere letters of instruction, encouragement, and sometimes correction to real congregations experiencing the turbulence of Christian life, his epistles are considered parts of the "Pauline agenda." So Paul, rather than being what he claimed—an apostle of Jesus Christ, the Founder of the way of life that bears His name—becomes, in effect, the creator and architect of what we know as Christianity. Essentially, these scholars believe that Paul took the raw materials of the sketchy narrative of Jesus' life and His radical teaching, and through cunning rhetoric transformed a Jewish itinerant preacher of apocalypticism into the transcendent Son of God.

It is easy to see how a skeptic might conclude this. Jesus left no written record of Himself or His teaching; what has been canonized as Scripture was written a generation or two or three later, long enough that memory and the accuracy of oral transmission can be questioned. Further, to some, the early years of the Christian movement appear from the book of Acts to have been an ad hoc effort of Jesus' disciples and converts doing their level best to spread the gospel. Only when Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, is stunningly converted on the road to Damascus does the fledgling church seem to become organized and energized to compete with the established religions for the souls of the world.

Paul, along with Barnabas, arranges lengthy and arduous missionary journeys to Asia Minor and southern Europe, in which they not only preach and convert thousands, but they also establish congregations in major cities, ordain elders and evangelists, organize famine relief for Judean Christians, and challenge Jews and pagans to defend their beliefs. Paul himself, returning to Jerusalem, sways a conference of apostles and elders to his way of thinking on the subject of circumcision and keeping Jewish ritual law. In his fourteen letters, he sets out the doctrines of the church, arguing vociferously against justification through the law or any kind of work. His letters also instruct congregations in accepted practices and show individuals how to apply Christianity to their everyday lives.

To some, steeped in human nature's way of working, this sounds right. A person of Paul's intellect and abilities could, if he were of such a mind, shape and remake a new religion in his own image. A shrewd, learned huckster could speak, write, and cajole a gullible people into accepting his version over others' that were less appealing. Modern televangelists do it all the time.

But why? Why would Paul, "a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee" (Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5)—an avowed enemy and persecutor of the Way (Acts 8:1; 9:1-2; 22:4; I Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13)—want to make Jesus into the Son of God? Money? Fame? Security? If that were the case, he was tragically unsuccessful, having died a martyr's death in the AD mid-60s. Any other rationale for doing so borders on at least the egotistical and even encroaches on the maniacal. There is no sound reason for Paul's ministry of glorifying Jesus as God other than sincere belief, dedication, and zeal.

Although the modern critical scholars would deny its validity, being self-justifying, Paul's own words argue against any such ulterior motive or hidden agenda. In his earliest account of his conversion, in Galatians 1:15-17, written in the early AD 50s, he writes:

But when it pleased God, . . . to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and [after three years (verse 18)] returned again to Damascus.

The apostle's own testimony is that God converted him specifically to preach to non-Jews, and He did this by revealing the true nature of Jesus Christ as God's Son to him. In addition, he traveled to Arabia, a desert place, where he received a three-year spiritual re-education. This extended instruction in discipleship is perhaps what Paul means in I Corinthians 15:8, when he writes, "Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time." The several accounts of his conversion, in Acts 9, 22, and 26, as well as various remarks in his epistles, all make the same claim that Christ Himself chose him to preach the gospel, and further, opened Paul's eyes to the truth. In simple terms, Paul was merely a tool—albeit a significant one—that the resurrected Jesus used to help build and strengthen the church (see Ephesians 2:19-22; I Corinthians 3:6-9).

Besides, the Gospels and Acts, as well as certain Old Testament Messianic prophecies, proclaim the Son's divine nature, well before Paul came on the scene. Mark, considered by most to be the earliest of the gospel accounts, reads in its first verse, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1). Matthew, which may have been originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic earlier than the present Greek text, also claims divinity for Jesus in its first chapter by linking Him to the "Immanuel" prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, "which is translated, ‘God with us'" (Matthew 1:22-23). Earlier, Malachi had written: "'And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,' says the LORD of hosts" (Malachi 3:1). It is hard to deny that the prophet means that the God of the Old Testament would soon visit His people.

No, Paul did not "invent" Christianity or "transform" Jesus into Christ, the Son of God. God used him powerfully to write foundational texts to instruct Christians in God's way down through the centuries until Christ's return. He was, like Moses, a faithful servant in God's house, yet "this One [the Son] has been counted worthy of more glory . . ., inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house" (Hebrews 3:3-5).

Next:  At the Father's Right Hand  (17/17)

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