For the past 200 years, after holy writ was placed under the microscope of modern science, an alternative view has espoused Jesus as the figurehead and Paul as Christianity's true founder.
Figurehead is a tricky word, but an accurate one, for if we accept Jesus as the historical figure -- by definition -- he would have been the original man. Yet, in spite of this fact, he was not the actual founder of the religion.
George Lucas was the figurehead of Pixar Entertainment, but it was Steve Jobs who purchased it and built its success. Lucas, though the original person responsible for the company, meant almost nothing.
Jesus' ministry was primarily a message to the Jewish people in preparation for a Messianic Kingdom. But it was Paul who targeted a larger Greco-Roman (outside) community after being forced out of synagogue.
Gerd Ludemann states, "Without Paul there would be no church and no Christianity. He's the most decisive person that shaped Christianity as it developed. Without Paul we would have had reformed Judaism... but no Christianity."
While there was overlap between Paul and Jesus, there were also large divides between Pauline Christianity and Judean Christianity, which only grows -- if you trace Paul's letters in chronological order -- into a full-blown chasm by the end of his life.
In fact, Paul's new "gospel" broke with the original followers of Jesus, and ultimately got him almost killed in Jerusalem. His assassins charged, "He taught Gentiles to ignore the Mosaic Law."
On the other hand, Jesus said not a "jot or tittle" of the Law would pass away. And he would not have put aside his religion in light of a lawless Gentile mission or a new cosmic encounter with a Holy Spirit or Holy Trinity -- which would have been polytheism!
Paul transformed the Passover "common" meal into a blessed sacrament, eating the body and drinking the blood of the savior, an abhorrent idea for a kosher people. And from a common act of self-cleansing, Paul used baptism as a form of initiation to replace circumcision.
However, the central theme fusing the life of Paul in his letters with Jesus from the Gospels was the coming Kingdom of God; one tradition found in the Synoptic Gospels has -- on the supposed lips of Jesus "in red letters" -- the expectation of a sudden return in his lifetime.
This "visitation" was not the Jewish understanding of the general resurrection. When Paul confronted Jesus in his Damascus vision, he also faced a new idea of resurrection -- but there was no kingdom, no destruction of Rome, no end times. In other words, there were no signs of Jewish Messiah.
From this moment forward, the Christian movement pivots from Figurehead to Founder. Paul's interpretation of this vision of the Messiah would determine the meaning of his life, his mission and eventually the Western World.
There were no models for dying and rising Messiahs, and though passages for suffering Messiahs would be "teased out" of the Hebrew Scriptures later, Paul had to improvise why this unexpected appearance occurred, and the general resurrection for the Jews did not.
Paul's response -- not totally original -- was that a delay in the Kingdom allowed time for a Gentile Mission, in which he -- as a new Abraham -- would play the leading role; a pre-Mosaic relationship with the Gentiles. This is a plausible conclusion, but -- in light of how his peers reacted -- highly questionable.
By the mid 50s AD, late in his ministry, Paul's Christian mission had one "true" gospel --his. Those who wished to add religious law or restore the Gentile believers to a Jewish faith were, to him, "messengers of Satan" and enemies of Christ, certainly not candidates for a new religion.
His opposition included Jesus' brother James, Peter, John and the others, Jewish Christians never fully accepting of his "gospel." Jesus as Messiah was merely the completion of their Jewish faith. And, Paul's message of a new kingdom shared with the Gentiles -- in the end -- was rejected.
After the Jewish War of 66-70 AD, the Judean Church was wiped out; the Temple was razed when the Romans invaded Jerusalem; the Messiah had not returned; and the geographical home to the Jesus cult (The Way) was transplanted.
Others would later collect the letters of Paul from the diaspora, bundled as encyclicals and used to create the first canon; the core of Christian teachings were codified into the orthodox teachings of the Messiah's life, death and resurrection.
Paul's cosmic message was expanded into a historiography in Acts of the Apostles or in the Gospels and eventually -- without an apocalypse -- an institutional church became necessary, with bishops, deacons, governments and, by the 3rd century, an Empire.
Paul never intended to begin a religion himself, but as scholar Amy Jill-Levine states, "It is because of Paul that the worship of the God of Israel actually made it out to the Gentile world." A view that is emerging once again in New Testament studies.
Still a common argument against Paul as founder of Christianity was the fact that he had a movement to convert to, but again, this is not what is in question. The question is, would this original cult of Jewish Christian believers in Judea -- without Paul -- have come to found the Christian church?
History has claimed Jesus "the Christ" as the figurehead, but without Paul the Apostle, the founder, who improvised his message -- free of the Jewish religion -- and broke the resistance of his original followers there would be no church and perhaps not even a Jesus.
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