Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995).
Many people like to make the claim that Paul was the founder of Christianity. Some admit that Jesus must have existed, but they claim that Paul corrupted His teachings. Others aren’t quite ready to admit even that Jesus existed as an historical person in the first place, and they claim that Paul actually made Jesus up.
“Now, how on earth can they make such a ridiculous claim?” you ask. Simple: Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, but they don’t contain many biographical details about Jesus’ life. Therefore, it is claimed, Paul invented Jesus—whom he understands to be more of a spiritual being than a physical one—and the Gospel writers eventually found it necessary to fabricate more details about Jesus’ life in order to smooth out the invention process.
As goofy as this thesis sounds (and it is goofy), a surprising number of people still believe it. Do a casual Google search of “Paul founded Christianity,” and you’ll get quite a whole mess of hits.
In his DVD The God Who Wasn’t There, a film which argues for the conspiracy theory that Jesus never even existed, skeptic Brian Flemming thinks that Paul didn't understand Jesus to be an actual historical human being:
Paul wrote lots of letters about Christianity. In fact, he wrote 80,000 words about the Christian religion. These documents represent almost all we have of the history of Christianity during this decades-long gap [between the alleged life of Jesus and when the first Gospels were written]. And here’s the interesting thing: If Jesus was a human who had recently lived, nobody told Paul. Paul never heard of Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, Herod, John the Baptist—he never heard about any of these miracles. He never quotes anything Jesus was supposed to have said. He never mentions Jesus having a ministry of any kind at all. He doesn’t know about any entrance into Jerusalem, he never mentions Pontius Pilate, or a Jewish mob, or any trials at all. Paul doesn’t know any of what we would call the story of Jesus except for these last three events: [the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension.] And even these Paul never places on earth. [For a clip, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6THwSYY_aU.]
Blatant inaccuracies plague the above paragraph. First of all, it is true that Paul does not say much about the life of Jesus in his letters. But we shouldn’t expect such things from him. Paul was responding directly to issues faced by the individual churches to whom he was writing. Most of them probably already knew the story. Second of all, Flemming is flat-out wrong when he says, “If Jesus was a human who had recently lived, nobody told Paul.” I can’t even begin to put into words how absolutely irresponsible and fundamentally incorrect that statement is. And Paul actually does give some rather important details about Jesus’ life—not just His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. So here are my responses to his points, one by one:
1. Did Paul hear of Mary? It sure seems like he did. If he didn’t know Mary’s name, he sure knew that Jesus was born of a woman (see Galatians 4:4). In fact, he goes a step further in his letter to the Romans, calling Jesus God’s “Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). (Some scholars think that Jesus’ genealogy in Luke could be Mary’s genealogy, since it differs from Matthew’s genealogy, which traces Jesus’ Davidic ancestry through His step-father Joseph.) Hmmm… for a guy who allegedly didn’t know that “Jesus was a human who had recently lived,” Paul sure seems to think that Jesus was actually physically born into history.
2. Did Paul hear of Joseph? Paul never talks about Joseph in the letters we have, but I don’t think that means Paul “never heard” of the guy. It simply means that Paul had no reason to mention him in any of his letters. If Joey writes Sally a letter telling her why he thinks American history is important to study, but he doesn’t mention Abraham Lincoln, do we then assume that Joey has never heard of Abraham Lincoln? No. Lincoln was an important part of American history, but one can make a point about American history without mentioning Lincoln.
3. Did Paul hear of Jesus’ birth being in Bethlehem? See #2. The same principle applies here.
4. Did Paul hear of Herod? Most likely. Josephus definitely heard of Herod (see Ant. 18.5.1), so why wouldn’t Paul have heard of the guy? Again, you don’t have to mention someone in a text in order to have heard of that someone. Is Flemming trying to argue that Herod never existed?
5. Did Paul hear of John the Baptist? Paul never does mention John the Baptist in his letters, but see Acts 13:24-25. Evidently, Luke (who wrote Acts) thought that Paul had heard of John the Baptist, since he quotes Paul as referring to John.
6. Did Paul hear about any of Jesus’ miracles? See #2. Again, the same principle applies.
7. Did Paul ever quote anything Jesus was supposed to have said? Yes! In Acts 20:35, Luke quotes Paul, who was quoting Jesus to make a point: “In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (This saying is paralleled nowhere in the Gospels, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus did not say it. See John 21:25.) Paul also directly quotes Jesus in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, referring to His famous remarks about the bread and wine representing His body and blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:17-20). Also, Romans 12 has many parallels with the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew 5. For example, compare Romans 12:14 with Matthew 5:44 (love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you). In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul alludes to Jesus’ teaching on marriage (see Matthew 5:32; 19:3-9). Also, compare 1 Timothy 5:18 with Luke 10:7 (see also Matthew 10:10). (I am aware that some scholars do not believe 1 Timothy to have been written by Paul. But I have not yet been given any compelling reason to doubt that this letter was the product of the mind of Paul.) Also, Paul may be quoting Jesus directly when he uses the intimate expression about God, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6; cf. Mark 14:36). (The Aramaic term abba [אבא] means “papa” or “daddy.” It’s the intimate form of the term ab [or av], which in most Semitic languages means “father.”) I could list many more examples.
8. Does Paul mention Jesus having a ministry of any kind at all? Paul doesn’t mention Jesus’ ministry explicitly in his epistles, but according to Luke, Paul was certainly aware of Jesus’ ministry (see Acts 13:31).
9. Does Paul know about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem? “For many days He [Jesus] appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people” (Acts 13:31).
10. Does Paul ever mention Pontius Pilate? Flemming says that Paul “never mentions Pontius Pilate.” Again, Flemming appears to have done very little homework: “Though they [the Jewish religious leaders] found no ground for putting Him [Jesus] to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed” (Acts 13:28). “I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of [Messiah] Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus [Messiah]” (1 Timothy 6:13-14).
11. Does Paul know about a Jewish mob? Yes, according to Luke, he did (Acts 13:27-28). (Important note: Some people accuse the New Testament of anti-Semitism because it speaks of a Jewish mob calling for the crucifixion of Jesus. Let me be clear: The NT makes little fuss over the fact that this mob was “Jewish”—most people in Jerusalem (including Jesus) were Jewish. The NT records intra-Jewish disputes, so it makes sense that some mobs would be Jewish. It is anachronistic to read Christian anti-Semitism of later ages back onto the pages of the NT, which is itself a very Jewish collection of documents. Also, Paul was a Jew, a fact that is getting increasing attention in both Jewish and Christian scholarly circles. I’ve been quoting a lot from Acts 13, and it’s important to point out that in the context of that passage, Luke is reporting Paul’s speech in a synagogue. Paul would still go to synagogue on Sabbaths, reasoning with his fellow Jews there, trying to convince them from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah [see Acts 17:2].)
12. Does Paul know about any trials at all? Again, see Acts 13:27.
13. Does Paul place the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension on earth? In other words, does Paul believe Jesus to have been crucified on earth as an actual human being? Of course (see 1 Corinthians 2:8). What about His resurrection? Yup (see 1 Corinthians 15). Ascension? He alludes to it, but not directly, and he doesn’t talk about the event as it took place on earth. Still, so what? I refer you, dear reader, again to my answer to #2.
So Flemming is monumentally wrong when he says that Paul did not know anything about Jesus’ historical life. I should also mention that earlier in the clip, Flemming makes the common error of saying that Paul was formerly “Saul.” “Saul” was merely Paul’s Jewish name, one which he retained long after he placed his faith in Jesus. “Paul” was his Greco-Roman name, one which he probably had as a Roman citizen. Acts 13:9 is the first place where Luke refers to him as “Paul,” and he says that this is simply what he was “also called.” Not that his name changed.
But Flemming also blows it when he says, “Just like the other savior gods of the time, Paul’s Christ Jesus died, rose, and ascended all in a mythical realm.” Then, a quote from Hebrews 8:4 appears on the screen: “If Jesus had [emphasis is Flemming’s] been on earth, he would not even have been a priest” (Hebrews 8:4; Earl Doherty’s translation). Then he says this: “Paul doesn’t believe that Jesus was ever a human being. He’s not even aware of the idea.”
1. Flemming quotes Hebrews to back up a baseless point he’s trying to make about Paul. No one knows for sure who wrote Hebrews.
2. Note that Flemming uses Earl Doherty’s translation of Hebrews 8:4. Earl Doherty is the author of The Jesus Puzzle, which also advances this crazy conspiracy theory that Jesus never existed. Earl Doherty's arguments that Jesus never existed fuels most of the material for Flemming's arguments against the historical existence of Jesus. (For a good refutation of Doherty’s argument on this passage, which Flemming is alluding to, see Mike Licona’s excellent review of Flemming’s film at the following address: http://www.answeringinfidels.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=87.)
In conclusion, Paul was a faithful follower of Jesus who truly believed that there was a man named Jesus who both lived and died and rose again in history. This is absolutely fundamental for Paul. If Jesus was not a real person, then Paul might as well have been talking about Dionysus, or Mithras, or any of the so-called “savior gods” that Flemming tries to compare Jesus to.
If you want to know more about whether Paul founded Christianity or was simply being a faithful follower of Jesus, see David Wenham’s excellent book Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? For a more recent study with a variety of scholarly contributors, see Jesus and Paul Reconnected: Fresh Pathways into an Old Debate, edited by Todd D. Still.
Paul did not believe in a Gnostic, incorporeal Jesus. He would have been aghast at such a suggestion. Paul believed in the Jesus of history—a Jesus without whom both he and those to whom he preached would be lost. Paul saw Jesus as the promised mashiach—the Messiah, Anointed One, Christ. And we should thank God for using Paul to spread the message of Jesus as he did.