Paul vs. the Evangelists

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

BY: Alan F. Segal


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.

To understand how the Gospels and Paul differ, we need to look at Paul's understanding of resurrection bodies--both Jesus' and that of believers. Paul's mystical faith depended on identifying his salvation with the risen Messiah. The identification was not metaphorical, but a real transformation in the same form as the risen Christ in heaven (the fancy word for this is 'symmorphosis'). For Paul, Jesus' resurrected body was a spiritual body (in the original Greek,

soma pneumatikon


Just as Christ's body is spiritual, says Paul, so our flesh and blood bodies will not enter the resurrection. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but the risen Christ is a "body of glory" (1 Cor 15:30). And so the new body which God gives His faithful in the resurrection will be a pneumatic or spiritual body augmented by the Spirit of God. This does not do away with the body but


it to a spiritual substance, no longer flesh and blood.

It's not that Paul didn't believe in Jesus' physical resurrection. It's rather that he never saw the need to be more specific about it. What he cared about was the glorified spiritual body because that was his experience, gained in revelations and visions. It is his religious experience, not philosophy, which he describes in his letters.

Continued on page 2: »

comments powered by Disqus
Related Topics: Faiths