Paul vs. the Evangelists

The Gospels seek to correct some of Paul's overly personal, vision-based ideas about immortality and Jesus' resurrection body.

Who founded Christianity? If you answered "Jesus," then you get half credit. Certainly Christianity is impossible without the inspiration, life, teaching, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. But Jesus wrote down nothing and gave minimal instructions for how to carry on after him. So who is responsible for the resurrection-focused faith, and who organized the church?

For many Jews and Christians, the answer has been Paul. Frederick Nietzsche called Paul "The First Christian;" George Bernard Shaw evaluated his contribution as "a monstrous imposition," and Adolf von Harnack, the great 19th century church historian, called him, simply, "The Founder of Christian Civilization."

That opinion extends to popular imagination. A line heard frequently in my youth went, "Jesus was a nice Jewish boy; Paul was an apostate who organized Christianity into a religion in opposition to Judaism." Since becoming an historian of the period, I have learned different.


It's probably more correct to say that the second founder of Christianity was not Paul, but rather the apostles who saw the earthly Jesus. Paul, writing in the mid-decades of the first century C.E. before the Gospels were set down, rarely gives us any of Jesus' words or any information about the man Jesus. Instead, he gives us a record of his own spiritual life and his faith in the crucified Messiah. He gives primacy to his personal relation to Christ through revelations and visions.

The Gospel writers, influenced by those who knew Jesus, differed with Paul's ideas about resurrected bodies and Jesus' Second Coming. We might even say that the Gospels were redacted in part to "flesh out" Paul's writings. Within the Gospels we see the themes of immortality and resurrection that Paul provides, but also a struggle to keep any extraneous notions of immortality out of the story of the Christ. In the end, the Gospel writers won. Paul's more mystical view of Christianity did not predominate.

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