Did Paul Invent Christianity? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Recently I’ve run across people who believe that the apostle Paul effectively hijacked Jesus’ teachings and invented most of what we today call Christianity.  Even though this seems to be a view with few advocates, it is still an important charge that is being made.  How do we answer this question?

Southern Evangelical Seminary President Alex McFarland wrote about this very topic in a December 2009 newsletter.  I will quote heavily from his article, as he did an excellent job of analyzing this issue.  McFarland’s approach is to show that the essential truths of Christianity were established before Paul began to write his epistles.  McFarland begins:

Saul of Tarsus–a passionate persecutor of the church–became Paul the believer about AD 35.  The book of Acts (written by Luke) records Paul’s salvation experience in chapters 9, 22, and 26.  In his own writings, Paul also explains his conversion to faith (I Corinthians 9:1, 15:3-8, and Galatians 1:11-18).  From about AD 48 until his death around AD 68, Paul wrote at least 13 of the New Testament’s books.

The fact that Paul had originally opposed and persecuted the church proves that he could not have “invented” Christianity.  Paul’s use of the words “received” and “passed on”–rabbinical terms for the handing down of teachings–is significant in I Corinthians 15:3-8.   In relating these facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul is saying that what it presents is existing truth that he himself had received.  Scholars recognize that this passage contains an early church creed (or statement of belief) that was recited by believers in the days before the New Testament had been written down.  Other Scriptures that preserve the early, verbal Christian creeds include I John 4:2, Philippians 2:6, II Timothy 2:8, and Romans 1:3-4.  Another notable passage is I Timothy 3:16.  Not only is this a confession of belief, it may have actually been part of a hymn that was sung by early believers.

In part 2 of this post, we will conclude McFarland’s argument and look at some additional evidence that he does not cover.  See you next time!


3 thoughts on “Did Paul Invent Christianity? Part 1”

  1. I believe the Paul-isolating position is an old and established one, at least in some Jewish circles. In point of fact, the Acts of the Apostles itself (ch. 21ff) shows how Paul had even then become a lightning rod despite an apparent understanding between the pillars of the Messianic community in Jerusalem and the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Recall how marked was the response to Peter’s visit with Cornelius (ch. 11).

    It is not that Paul was the first or only Christian to evangelize and accept Gentiles. That had happened previously in Antioch, for example, sparking an investigation by the Jerusalem leadership. Later, the Jerusalem Council of AD 49 (Acts 15) placed the Jerusalem Christians squarely with Paul on the fundamental matters it considered. And arguably Jesus himself provided the groundwork for Paul’s conclusions about the role of the law among Christian gentiles.

    But in practice, Paul was a leader in evangelizing and teaching largely gentile converts in the cosmopolitan world beyond Palestine. Although he was not the father of many of the congregations he influenced in his own day, yet he was perhaps THE leader in intellect and influence regarding the stunning divorce between various Jewish religious practices and church ones. Such, Paul argued, flowed from the gospel itself.

    Even a relatively casual reader of the New Testament will recognize Paul’s enormous contribution; absent his letters and the canon is rather poorer in various ways. But neither can Paul’s letters necessarily be positioned as contrary to the remainder.

    The accusation of Paul as inventor of Christianity ignores his consistency with the the rest of the New Testament and agreement with the other apostles and Jerusalem church pillars.

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