Over the span of my academic career I have taught a course simply titled "Paul," and I half-jokingly tell the students the first day that Paul is one of those people for whom a last name is not necessary, much like Elvis or Madonna. I have begun the course with what I intend to be a startling assertion: Paul is the most influential person in human history. I have in mind, of course, the West in particular. The foundations of Western civilization, from our assumptions about reality to our societal and personal ethics, rest upon the heavenly visions and apparitions of a single man -- the apostle Paul. We are all cultural heirs of Paul. In contrast, Jesus as a historical figure -- that is, a Jewish Messiah of his own time who sought to see the kingdom of God established on earth -- has been largely lost to our culture. In this holiday season, it is worth taking pause and thinking a bit about the historical origins of the Christian faith, and how much it depends on St. Paul.
Visit any church service, Roman Catholic, Protestant or Greek Orthodox, and it is the apostle Paul and his ideas that are central -- in the hymns, the creeds, the sermons, the invocation and benediction, and of course, the rituals of baptism and the Holy Communion or Mass. Whether birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage or death, it is predominantly Paul who is evoked to express meaning and significance.
The fundamental doctrinal tenets of Christianity, namely that Christ is God "born in the flesh," that his sacrificial death atones for the sins of humankind, and that his resurrection from the dead guarantees eternal life to all who believe, can be traced back to Paul -- not to Jesus. Indeed, the spiritual union with Christ through baptism, as well as the "communion" with his body and blood through the sacred meal of bread and wine, also trace back to Paul. This is the Christianity most familiar to us, with the creeds and confessions that separated it from Judaism and put it on the road to becoming a new religion.
Paul never met Jesus. The chronological facts are undisputed. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified during the reign of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor or prefect of Judea, in April, A.D. 30. As best we can determine it was not until seven years after Jesus' death, around A.D. 37, that Paul reports his initial apparition of "Christ," whom he identifies with Jesus raised from the dead. He asks his followers when challenged for his credentials: "Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" equating his visionary experience with that of those who had known Jesus face-to-face (1 Corinthians 9:1). Paul's claim to have "seen" Jesus, as well as the teachings he says he received directly from Jesus, came after Jesus' lifetime, and can be categorized as subjective clairvoyant experiences (Galatians 1:12, 18; 2:1; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10). These "revelations" were not a one-time experience of "conversion," but a phenomenon that continued over the course of Paul's life. Paul confesses that he does not comprehend the nature of these ecstatic spiritual experiences, whether they were "in the body, or out of the body" but he believed that the voice he heard, the figure he saw and the messages he received were encounters with the heavenly Christ (2 Corinthians 12:2-3).
It was a full decade after Jesus' death that Paul first met Peter in Jerusalem (whom he calls Cephas, his Aramaic name), and had a brief audience with James, the brother of Jesus, and leader of the Jesus movement (Galatians 1:18-23). Paul subsequently operated independently of the original apostles, preaching and teaching what he calls his "Gospel," in Asia Minor for another 10 years before making a return trip to Jerusalem around A.D. 50. It was only then, 20 years after Jesus' death, that he encountered James and Peter again in Jerusalem and met for the first time the rest of the original apostles of Jesus (Galatians 2:1). This rather extraordinary chronological gap is a surprise to many. It is one of the key factors in understanding Paul and his message.
What this means is that we must imagine a "Christianity before Paul" that existed independently of his influence or ideas for more than 20 years, as well as a Christianity preached by Paul, which developed independently of Jesus' original apostles and followers.
I have spent my 30-year career as a scholar of Christian Origins investigating the silence between two back-to-back statements of the Apostles' Creed, namely that Jesus was: "Conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary," and that he "Was crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day He rose again from the dead."
Is it not striking that this oldest and most foundational Christian creed jumps from Jesus' birth to his death and resurrection, entirely skipping over his life?
How did it happen that the way Jesus came into the world, and how he left -- Christmas and Easter -- came to define Christianity itself? Here Catholics, mainstream Protestants and evangelicals all agree. To be a Christian is to believe in the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, and thus to participate in the salvation Christ brought to the world as God-in-the-flesh.
In contrast, the original Christianity before Paul is somewhat difficult to find in the New Testament, since Paul's 13 letters predominate and Paul heavily influences even our four Gospels. Fortunately, in the letter of James, attributed to the brother of Jesus, as well as in a collection of the sayings of Jesus now embedded in the Gospel of Luke (the source scholars call Q), we can still get a glimpse of the original teachings of Jesus.
What we get in the letter of James is the most direct possible link to the Jewish teachings of Jesus himself. James is quite sure that the "Judge" is standing at the door, and that the kingdom of God has drawn very near (James 5:7). He warns the rich and those who oppress the weak that very soon the judgment of God will strike. James seems to be directly echoing and affirming what he had learned and passed on from his brother Jesus. It is important to note that James did not directly quote Jesus or attribute any of these teachings to Jesus by name -- even though they are teaching of Jesus.
For James the Christian message is not the person of Jesus but the message that Jesus proclaimed. James' letter lacks a single teaching that is characteristic of the apostle Paul and it draws nothing at all from the Gospel narratives. What we have preserved in this precious document is a reflection of the original apocalyptic proclamation of Jesus: the "Gospel of the kingdom of God" with its political and social implications.
This is the early 2nd century cardo maximus or main boulevard of Gerasa, today’s Jerash in Jordan, which is the best-preserved example of a polis or Greek-style city in Roman Palestine. Since the site is rather remote, some two hours north of Amman, Jerash is relatively unknown to most visitors. But as a model of a city in the Decapolis, it is without parallel. Mark reports that Jesus visited “the country of the Gerasenes” (Mark 5:1), which may suggest that Jesus dwelt in the territory of this city, or of the nearby town of Gadara.
This fifth century funerary monument of an Athenian mother saying goodbye to her daughter is a deeply moving example of Greek art at the apex of its creative power. It also underscores the fact that for people in Antiquity, death was terminal and absolute; the Greco-Roman idea of afterlife, such as the sorrowful world of Hades, was not something one looked forward to. This is one reason why early Christianity, with its promise of heavenly redemption regardless of one’s social class, race or station, resonated so strongly with gentiles in Greece, Asia Minor and throughout the Roman Empire.
In the century after the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was twice destroyed by a vengeful Roman army, in response to Jewish revolts. In 135 C.E., Emperor Hadrian decided to erase any remaining vestige of Jerusalem, and build a Roman city named Aelia Capitolina on its ashes. Consequently, it is almost impossible to determine the exact location of Jerusalem’s walls from the time of Jesus, but the walls we see today -- built by the Muslim Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1535 -- give us at least an impression of what Jesus would have seen when he walked down from Bethesda to visit the Temple.
“Footsteps” shows that notwithstanding his role as the central figure of Christianity, Jesus was a practicing Jew. “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law ... but to fulfill,” he says in Matthew 5:7, referring to the Torah, the cornerstone of Jewish faith and practice. According to tradition, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture, called the Old Testament by Christians) was handed down by God to Moses on the summit of Mount Sinai, traditionally associated with Jebel Musa in the heart of Sinai.
This painting by the Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656) perfectly captures the Christian idea of rebirth and renewal as celebrated during Christmas. Honthorst was deeply influenced by the Italian artist Caravaggio, who first developed the technique of illuminating a scene with a single light source, thus creating a deep sense of intimacy. Like the angels, we feel privileged to witness this loving scene of Mary proudly showing her newborn son.
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, is the last great masterpiece of Roman architecture. Though many visitors believe it is a mosque (an impression reinforced by the minarets added by Muslim conquerors), it was actually built as a Christian basilica by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532 C.E. But its floor plan, like Justinian himself, is ambiguous: although conceived as a basilica, the central nave is shaped as an elliptical hall anchored by four semicircular chapels, giving the church a uniquely Eastern feel. That this building is still standing after 1,500 years of earthquakes, plunder and neglect is nothing short of a miracle.
Just as I pointed my camera toward the dome of the Rotunda, which shelters the presumed location of Jesus’ tomb, a shaft of sunlight bore through the darkened interior. Most scholars now accept that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, including this Rotunda, is probably the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The church was destroyed and rebuilt several times, most recently during the Crusader era, which is why walking through its interior is a rather bewildering experience—not in the least because the site is shared by seven Christian sects, who are often at loggerheads. Nevertheless, despite the crowds, the incense, and the profusion of Eastern ornaments, it is still possible to find peace in this building, and to reflect on Jesus’ last hours on earth.
This ancient cave in Jordan served as a refuge for families fleeing the Roman army in 132 C.E., including a Jewish woman named Babatha of Maoza. Her papers, found nearly 2,000 years later, have revolutionized our idea of the role of women in Roman Palestine. The documents suggest that women may have had more autonomy and control over their lives than we previously assumed -- including the right to choose her second husband after her first husband had either died or divorced her, and the right to obtain a divorce herself. This often resulted in large households, including children from multiple fathers, which is why most ancient homes were multi-family dwellings grouped around a common courtyard.
"In the Footsteps of Jesus: A Chronicle of His Life and the Origins of Christianity"
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