Christianity Without Paul

What would the religion be like if the Apostle Paul had never lived?

BY: Bart Ehrman

 

For more than a century some scholars have claimed that Paul should be understood as the "second founder of Christianity." What they mean is that Christianity is more than just the religion that Jesus preached. It is also the religion that preaches about Jesus. And more than any other person, it was the apostle Paul who shifted the focus of the religion from the proclamation of Jesus to the proclamation about Jesus. One could in fact make a case that without Paul, Christianity as we know it today would never have been possible, and that the Western world--which continues to be, nominally, at least, Christian--would never have adopted this faith, and would have remained firmly committed to the various polytheistic religions of the Roman empire.

Paul's importance to Christianity, and hence, to world history, can be seen in three areas.

First, with respect to the book that stands at the foundation of the Christian religion, the New Testament.

Without Paul, the New Testament would be radically different, if it had come into existence at all. The New Testament contains a total of 27 books written by early Christian leaders for other Christian communities and individuals. Of these 27 books, 13 claim to be written by the apostle Paul (although scholars think that some of these 13 are pseudonymous, written by followers of Paul in his name). One other book--the epistle to the Hebrews--was accepted as part of Scripture because early church fathers thought it was written by Paul. One other book--the Acts of the Apostles--was largely written about Paul. That means that 15 of the 27 books, in one way or another, are directly tied to Paul. And that's not counting the books, such as the epistle of James, that appear to be reacting to Paul's teachings, or others such as 1 Peter or the Gospel of Mark, which appear to be influenced by his ideas. All told, it is safe to say that without Paul, there would be nothing like the New Testament as we know it today.

Second, with respect to the development of Christian beliefs and theology:

without Paul, the distinctive teachings of Christianity may never have developed. According to our most reliable ancient records, Jesus preached about the coming of God's kingdom, when God would overthrow the forces of evil and establish a utopian kingdom here on earth, to be ruled by his special representative, the messiah.



Paul, however, transformed this proclamation of Jesus to the proclamation about Jesus, teaching that what really mattered for a human's relationship with God was not repentance from sin (Jesus' own emphasis), but the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. Anyone who trusted Christ's death and accepted the fact of his resurrection would be right with God, and so would enter into God's kingdom when it arrived. And most important, this was true of all people, whether Jew or Gentile. For Paul--and this was a radical teaching at the time, even if it seems commonplace today--a person did not have to become a Jew in order to be a Christian. For in Christ, God's promises are fulfilled to all people, both Jew and Gentile, on equal terms; it is through his death that people are reconciled with God.



Third, with respect to the spread of Christianity:

without Paul, the Christian mission, which eventually overtook the entire Roman empire, may never have happened as it did. As one of the earliest, the best known, and arguably the most effective of early Christian missionaries, Paul established churches in key urban areas of the northern Mediterranean, especially in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Macedonia, and Achaia (modern Greece). These churches then grew and spread, leading to the Christianization of many of the provinces of the Roman Empire. It took several centuries, but eventually this new religion became the official religion of the Empire itself.



Continued on page 2: »

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