Did Paul Distort Christianity?
BY: With Elaine Pagels & Ben Witherington III
To help make sense of the scholarly debates about Jesus and Paul, we asked two of the preeminent scholars to email each other about early Christianity (while letting us peek in). Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton, is the author of the bestselling Beyond Belief and The Gnostic Gospels. Ben Witherington III is professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and author of The Paul Quest and numerous other books.
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Reflecting on Jesus and Paul, I'm intrigued by the difference in what they taught. According to Mark, the earliest of the gospels, Jesus came to announce that "the Kingdom of God is coming-repent, and believe in the good news!" Matthew and Luke added sayings in which Jesus tells what one has to do to "enter the Kingdom"--which range from "take what you have and give to the poor" to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself."
Yet Paul's "gospel" was not about the Kingdom--it was about Jesus. Paul, instead of asking his audience to follow the teachings of Jesus, demanded belief in what he called "my gospel," which declared that "Christ died for our sins...and that he was raised." Astonishingly, although Paul had never met Jesus, he insisted that, having encountered the risen Christ in a blaze of heavenly light, he understood the gospel far better than any of those who, like Peter and James, had known Jesus well. Paul knew Christ through his own direct encounter in "visions and revelations."
And this passionate and intense apostle, who said he wanted to be "all things to all people," went a long way in succeeding! Even today, the issues he addresses in his letters--from Jewish practices to sexual ones, from his views of God, Christ, baptism, and resurrection--are often read in radically different ways.
Take, for example, Paul's bitter argument with Peter. Most Christians take Paul to mean that the Torah given to Israel has become obsolete; followers of Jesus can forget about circumcision and kosher laws. But a few scholars, including my colleague John Gager at Princeton, suggest that Paul meant that while Jews should continue following Torah, Christ opened up a new way of salvation especially for Gentiles. I wish that I thought this more ecumenical view was what Paul meant--but I suspect it wasn't: no wonder they call Paul the "founder of Christianity."
Or a second issue: George Bernard Shaw called Paul the "eternal enemy of women" because of his negative views of women and his "hatred of sex" (like many male commentators, Shaw thought of women and sex as virtually synonymous). One lone (male) scholar, Robin Scroggs, says that Paul was "the greatest spokesman for women's lib" (you can tell he was writing in the '70s!) But I think Scroggs far overstates the case, for although Paul included women among his patrons and fellow evangelists and said that "in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free," he nevertheless took for granted that husbands rule wives, and that "man is the....reflection of God, but woman is the reflection of man; and man was not created for woman, but woman for man." Slaves, too, although they may be "one in Christ" with Christian owners nevertheless remain slaves until the "age to come" arrives. Paul thought it wouldn't be a long wait, but 1,900 years later, his letters fueled the pro-slavery propaganda of the Christian American South.
In his own time and ever afterward, many Christians revered Paul for teaching--and practicing--celibacy, since he characterized marriage as a form of equal-opportunity bondage. He believed its only excuse was to legitimate sexual intercourse and only, he warned, between heterosexual married partners (during times they were not engaged in prayer) for those too "weak" to renounce sex altogether. It's amazing to me that the letters Paul wrote to various groups some 20 to 30 years after Jesus' death have been taken as if they were blueprints for "Christian" sexual and social attitudes--for 2,000 years so far.