Owen here… a month or so ago Rex made a blog post about something that we see with a greater than 95% consistency whenever we visit a bible study class somewhere: it’s always Paul. When we speak with atheist and free thinker groups usually our audiences are able to immediately grasp why this is significant to us, but in a recent conversation with a Christian I got a confused look and a question in reply: why should that be interesting? This blog post is my attempt to answer that question.
The Christian religion holds that there is a single deity having three parts, and that one of those three parts, Jesus, actually came down to earth and lived among us for a little over thirty years as a human being, roughly two thousand years ago. During the thirty or so years that Jesus was here, Christians believe that he spent the last year or two of his life traveling, teaching, and expanding on what God’s message and hope was for humanity, and then the culminating event of Jesus’ life was to be a human sacrifice to serve as a means for God to forgive humanity for its sins. I’m giving you the nutshell version.
The Christian holy text, the Bible, and in particular the New Testament of the Bible, contains four different accounts of Jesus’s life, and we call these the four gospels. Following the four gospels there is one document calls the Acts of the Apostles, which really just tells us stories about what the Apostles did, and after that are the thirteen letters attributed to the Apostle Paul (nobody really thinks Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews and I am not counting that one – so I said there are thirteen). After Paul there are some other letters, and then the last book in the New Testament is a Revelation.
So when you’re a Christian in a bible study class you have a wide choice of things you could focus on in your study. The four different gospel accounts presumably (and I use the word presumably because scholars debate the veracity of the gospel stories) capture the words and deeds of Jesus. On the other hand, the letters of Paul (only seven of which were actually written by Paul, the others are forgeries) are documents written thirty or more years after the death of Jesus by a guy who never actually knew Jesus in life. So let’s think through that for a minute. On the one hand, if Jesus really was the incarnate god of the entire universe, if he was literally the author of the entire universe, and he were here on earth teaching us a very important message, would the message and the behavior of that incarnate god be the most important things that human beings could ever learn about? I would think so. And the more deeply you think about it the more interesting it becomes. Granted I don’t accept that the Christian concept of god actually exists, but what we’re talking about is how Christians prioritize what they study. And Christians overwhelmingly choose to study the writings of Paul and not the deeds and words of Jesus. Could this be significant? We think it is, for lots of reasons. First, consider what Paul didn’t seem to know about Jesus. Paul didn’t seem to know that Jesus had a ministry, and if Paul did know that he never mentioned it. Paul had no idea that Jesus was born of a virgin. Paul had never mentions the Sermon on the Mount. Paul never talks about any of Jesus’s miracles – feeding the five thousand for example. If you’re a Christian and you’re studying Paul instead of Jesus, why? Don’t you think the message that the creator of the universe had for us would be more important than what Paul wrote about three decades later? Why should Paul even be an authority if he didn’t really know anything about Jesus’s life? It has been said that all Paul really knew about Jesus was that he came and then died. If Paul wrote a gospel account of Jesus it would literally be a single sentence. Why wouldn’t Paul know these things if he were living and writing three decades after Jesus died? Isn’t that an interesting question? But there is still at least one more reason why the things Paul didn’t know might be significant. The second reason, then, is that Paul disagreed with the disciples of Jesus who were still living. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that he confronted Peter in Antioch because he thought Peter was wrong. Let’s consider the context: Peter would have known the living Jesus even if Paul didn’t, and Peter had a different understanding of what Christianity was supposed to be than Paul did. Paul was opposed to “Judaizers” by which he mean people who were teaching that before you could be a Christian you first had to be a Jew. As it turns out, the people who knew Jesus while he was alive thought you needed to be a Jew before you could be a Christian…and Paul thought that was wrong. See what I mean about this getting more interesting?
How do we really know that Paul’s understanding was and is the correct one and that the people who actually knew and traveled with Jesus had always gotten it wrong? Is there anything else that might be called into question? As it turns out, scholars have argued that Paul’s lack of knowledge of Jesus’s life combined with the way in which the gospel stories seems to evolve over time clearly demonstrate that much of what is recorded is likely legendary in nature and not literally true. This would be particularly true for the Gospel of John, the last one that was written. If I were a Christian, the idea that I was following Paul and not Jesus might cause me to lose sleep at night. I might also lose sleep at night wondering if there was anything reliable that I actually knew for sure about Jesus.
Every time Rex and I walk into a bible study class and see a verse from Romans or Ephesians up on the board we wonder to ourselves if the folks in the class have ever really thought this particular set of problems all the way through.
This particular religion is called Christianity, but the single most important Christian proponent in history knew virtually nothing about namesake of his own faith. And most Bible study classes that we visit prefer to study Paul rather than Jesus himself.
If you’d like to learn more about the academic scholarship on New Testament studies please take a look at our recommended reading page and look for Ehrman and Mack as a place to begin.