Saturday, December 13, 2014

Paul And The Founding Of Christianity

Question: "Is there any real compelling evidence that Paul was not a Christian? I am asking because there is some literature circulating out there affirming so. Thanks in advance for your reply."

AP: You are referring to the book by Pamela Eisenbaum entitled Paul Was Not a Christian (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), which was translated into Castilian by Palabra Divino in 2014. Although the book contains some very exaggerated points from the perspective of what is called the "radical exegesis of Paul," I must confess that I agree: Paul never tried to found "Christianity." He believed what he preached was a kind of universal Judaism, for Jews and pagans converted to faith in the Messiah as their redeemer. Those who were converted "lived in the Messiah" during the very short period of time left until the return of the Messiah and the end of the present world. I actually treat this issue very carefully in a forthcoming book that's been sent over to the publisher (Edit. Trotta, Madrid). I hope it goes to print in the first quarter of 2015. The title of that book is Guía para entender a Pablo. Una interpretación del pensamiento paulino.

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TWH: Of course, it matters what someone means by the word Christian. If by Christian, someone means what most of the United States means by the term Christian, Paul definitely wasn't a Christian. Do you know what I mean by that? The number of people in the United States who identify themselves as Christians by name only, by shallow confession alone, is staggering. Paul wasn't that sort of Christian. He was a Christian in the sense that he belonged to Jesus Christ, he was owned by Jesus Christ, and his entire life was devoted to doing all that his Lord commanded him to do. Paul's self-identification as a "slave" (δοῦλος; e.g., Rom. 1:1; Phil. 1:1) of Jesus Christ reflects that type of Christian. His life wasn't his own. He viewed his mission through the lenses of the one who radically and wholly transformed his life. In that sense of the word Christian, there’s a pretty good chance that Paul’s facial expression would look like the one Rembrandt gave him in the piece above if he ever heard that people were saying he was not a Christian.

Pamela Eisenbaum's work opens with the following words: "Paul lived and died a Jew–that is the essential claim of this book" (5). Ethnically, Paul was Jewish. He was born Jewish, grew up as a Jewish male, and died a Jewish male. That's true. In the same way, I was born a white American of Scottish descent. I grew up that way. And, when I breathe my last breath, that'll still be true of me. I get it. But that's not the whole story. Something happened to Paul that totally changed his life. It caused him to shake off a great deal of what he had grown up embracing. And Paul was more willing to have his life changed by the one he encountered on the road to Damascus than some others were in the first century (e.g., with regard to Jewish dietary laws). You see, Paul understood that the covenant (i.e., the Mosaic Covenant; see e.g., Exodus 19-24; Deuteronomy 28) that had defined and shaped his people for hundreds of years came to an end with Jesus' death on the cross. God enacted a new covenant with his people (see Jeremiah 31–33; Luke 22:20), his Son being the ratification sacrifice of the covenant and, most importantly, the substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the the whole world.

Did Paul try and found Christianity? The question is a little loaded. The question seems to carry the idea that Paul was acting independently, as a sort of master-mind of his own plan to take over the world with his ideology. The plan to redeem the world is God's. Paul is but one participant in that plan. He views himself as God's ambassador (e.g., see 2 Cor. 5:20, ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ οὖν πρεσβεύομεν). And God's been at work long before Paul believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Think about what Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in John 4: "But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father is seeking to be his worshipers" (John 4:23). God the Father is seeking those who will worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus is obediently going after those individuals that the Father is seeking, the Samaritan woman being the one the Father is seeking in John 4. It's important to understand that Paul is involved in Jesus' plan: "I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18). And Paul understands that he is part of that plan. We can also turn to Eph. 2:20, where Paul says that God has built this church "on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone." Paul was just one member of the group whose lives had been changed by an encounter with Jesus and who had subsequently received a mission for their lives to proclaim him to everyone, everywhere, all the time. Together they set out to proclaim a person, a message, and a life, just as their Master instructed them to do.

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