Modernist Paul vs. New Testament Paul, Part 4

Published July 2, 2021

We next move on to the claim that Paul Invented Christianity

4. That the religion bearing his name was conceived by the theories and doctrines of Paul, instead of the truth Jesus lived and demonstrated.

Now in the Church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Symeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Ac 13:1–3).

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. But because of false brethren secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage—to them we did not yield submission even for a moment, that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. And from those who were reputed to be something (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who were of repute added nothing to me; but on the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for the mission to the circumcised worked through me also for the Gentiles), and when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised; only they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do. (Ga 2:1–10).

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the chalice, after supper, saying, “This chalice is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the chalice, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Co 11:23–26).

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Co 15:3–11).

Paul, while certainly making many contributions to the Church’s theology, did not invent it and was, in fact, entirely dependent on the tradition he “received” from the twelve. He spent years in Antioch after his conversion, learning that Tradition, while the Twelve were out busy preaching. He did not take apostleship upon himself, but received the sacrament of ordination at the hands (literally) of the Church in Antioch prior to being sent out by that community (that’s what’s going on in Acts 13). And he returns there after his first missionary journey, precisely because he is not some independent crank inventing Christianity but is working in tandem with a wide variety of others, many of whom precede him. That’s why he went to Jerusalem to have his preaching vetted by the original apostles and the Mother Church.

There’s a reason Peter, not Paul, is venerated as the first pope and an entire Johannine biblical tradition exists apart from Paul. Paul’s letters contain creeds, hymns and psalms he quotes, not writes, because he stands in a tradition he did not create and celebrates a liturgy not of his invention. His greatest letter–Romans–is written to a Church he neither founded, nor had met, and is a sort of audition of his preaching so that they can know he is not some crank but preaches a message that agrees with what they already heard from others.

The notion of Paul the Lone Ranger Inventor of Christianity has to die. Christianity was, from the get-go, a communal phenomenon founded on 12 apostles, not one. The notion that Paul invented Christianity is a relic of sola scriptura and the fantasy that the Church was founded on the New Testament and not (as Jesus himself says), on the Twelve with himself as the stone the builders rejected which became the chief cornerstone. It is to the Twelve, not Paul, that Jesus gives the promise that they shall sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Whatever that is, it is not a belief in Pauline supremacy. The Church was founded on the preaching, teaching and liturgies of the apostles who founded Church’s all over the ancient world, not on a book. The New Testament is called the New Testament because it was read in close proximity to the celebration of the Eucharist, the “new diatheke (testament/covenant) in my blood”. And it is the gospels, not Paul, that have always enjoyed pride of place in that celebration.

13 Responses

  1. Huh. I’d never heard the “Paul invented Christianity” thing. I suppose what’s really meant is “Paul invented the Catholic Religion”.

    1. Usually it’s Nicaea that gets blamed for inventing catholicism (or capital-C Catholicism depending on who you’re talking to).

      Nicaea has to be *the* most misunderstood Early Church council. A few years back Glenn Beck said that Nicaea was where the Bible was not only “compiled” but “bound and printed [!!]”. Of course Nicaea had nothing to do with scripture and the printing press was still a Millennium off in the future. And that’s not even close to the most fantastical thing I’ve heard about Nicaea. I wonder why that council in particular gets such a tremendous amount of flak and misinformation surrounding it? You never hear people (in the West, at least) get this worked up about any other council.

      Another favorite of mine is when postmodernists tell me that Trinitarianism only won out in Nicaea because the Trinitarians had all the political powers and numbers, which is the precise opposite of the reality on the ground in the Fourth Century. Arianism persisted for a looooong time for a very good reason! It was super popular and had a lot of political backing! Trinitarianism won out because it’s true, not because of “power” or “narratives”.

  2. It’s convenient to claim St Paul cooked up the faith when people want to dismiss inconvenient parts of it. Then they can say Jesus never said anything about…..But that annoying Paul did. Designer religion.

  3. Those two passages from Colossians completely demolish the “Paul invented Christianity!” meme, but like the “Jesus had a wife and kids!” meme, it’s a perennial. Not only from atheists and modernists in this case—I get it a lot from our Muslim friends, too, though to be fair, they often aren’t familiar with the New Testament, especially those that haven’t grown up in the West. But Western atheists really ought to know better.

    The part that talks about not only dying but being *buried* also nicely refutes the “Paul and the early Christians were really Gnostics, the incarnation was an invention of Nicaea!” meme, another perennial.

    The devil needs to be more creative about this, but I guess by his nature he can’t be.

  4. I’ve never heard that Paul invented Christianity either, in fact quite the opposite–that the writings of Paul do not carry the same weight as the gospels.

    Nevertheless, I’m not surprised. In my great, big, extended, somewhat Catholic family (both sides) at least half of them make up their own reality as they go along. It coincides with having far too much time on their hands, and no wolf at the door.

    Going to Church had become exceedingly taxing as it was, but the sex abuse crisis came along right in the nick of time. Between Memes on Reddit, and Covid, every decision about everything can be made for you, leaving more time for weightier issues like watching Tiger King on Netflix.

  5. I’ve heard this version from people who admire Jesus and what Jesus did as a human, but aren’t yet able to accept His divinity, or His resurrection and life and worship as God.

  6. I think it came from the popular idea that Jesus was a hippy and that Paul was a hyperconservative buzzkill. Actually neither of these tropes is true.

  7. @Mark Shea:

    What I’ve heard recently is that its not about Paul inventing Christianity from whole cloth, but that the branch that survived and got passed down was one that was heavily influenced by him, even to the point of being retroactively adjusted to fit his brand of theology. Apparently, there is the fact that while the Gospels precede Paul chronologically, the actual manuscripts with Paul’s writings are older than the oldest manuscripts for the Gospels. There’s also some issues with Paul being seemingly unaware of events described in the Gospels and some passages in the Gospels apparently being later additions to better fit with Paul’s ideology.

    I saw this being mentioned in passing over at Jonathan MS Pierce’s blog “A Tippling Philosopher”. If you drop him a line he could probably fill you in on all the related research and scholarship on that subject.

    But honestly? I’m guessing this is something that is well known and understood in Catholic academic circles, and that conclusions drawn from this research are well within the acceptable Catholic position on these matters. I think its very likely that the “Paul made it all up” is a cherry picked and misunderstood version of the actual research, which then spread and took a life of its own.

    Or as you call it, a “truth cancer”.

    1. All the evidence suggests that Paul’s letters precede the gospels. Paul is writing on the fly in the 50s and 60s, putting out various pastoral fires. Very few of his letters are the fruit of some long meditative theological process constituting something like what we would today call an encyclical. Ephesians comes closest to that. Most are Paul responding to some problem or crisis and appealing to a body of tradition, both Old Testament and Jesus-centered, that his audience already knows either because of his preaching or somebody else’s. The gospels come later (though something like proto-Mark may have been drafted in the 50s. But Mark makes clear that it is composed around 70 AD (because it alludes to the destruction of the Temple, which Christians saw as the fulfilment of Jesus’ warning to Jerusalem). And Matthew and Luke both have Mark (among other sources) sitting in front of them as they write.

      Paul’s purpose is not to write a gospel, but to allude to gospel traditions everybody in his audience already knows. But on the rare ocassions he does cite gospel events (notably, the Institution of the Eucharist) his language is almost identical to that of the synoptics, because he and they are drawing on that part of the Tradition that was immediately set in liturgical concrete by the Church that preceded him.

      I repeat, the New Testament is a *symphonic* witness to Jesus from the get-go. Paul is an important voice, but hardly the only voice. And the Church’s founded by other witnesses matter in the formation of the Tradition too, as the Orthodox and sundry other eastern Churches will happily remind us.

      1. @Mark Shea:

        Yeah, that makes sense and it fits in with the discussion I saw unfold. At a glance, It sounded vaguely similar to the whole Paul invented Christianity thing, so I thought the two might’ve gotten mixed up in some way, but I see that they are completely separate issues, and for Catholics, not really an issue at all.

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