Excerpted from What Saint Paul Really Said with permission of Lion Publishing and Eerdmans Publishing.
Was Paul really `the founder of Christianity'? Did he, in other words, invent Christianity as we now know it, transforming the beliefs and vocation of Jesus of Nazareth into a system and movement which Jesus himself would never have recognized? Is it to him that we owe two thousand years of Christian history, with all its puzzles and paradoxes, its glories and its shame?
...If we are to locate both Jesus and Paul within the world of first-century Judaism, within the turbulent theological and political movements and expectations of the time then we must face the fact that neither of them was teaching a timeless system of religion or ethics, or even a message about how human beings are saved. Both of them believed themselves to be actors within the drama staged by Israel's God in fulfillment of his long purposes.
Both, in other words, breathed the air of Jewish escatology.
It will not do, therefore, to line up `Jesus' key concepts' and `Paul's key
concepts' and play them off against one another. It will not do to point out that Jesus talked about repentance and the coming kingdom, while Paul talked about justification by faith. It misses the point even to show (though
this can be done quite easily) that these two, when set in context and translated into terms of one another, belong extremely closely together. The point is that Jesus believed himself to be called to a particular role in the eschatological drama; and so did Paul.
I have argued elsewhere that Jesus believed himself called to be the one through whom God's strange purposes for Israel would reach their ordained climax. He announced to Israel that the long-awaited kingdom had arrived. He celebrated it with all who would join him, welcoming them into table fellowship and assuring them that their sins were forgiven. But the kingdom
would not look like Jesus' contemporaries had imagined. It would not endorse their particular agendas. Particularly, it would not underwrite the agendas of those who were bent on forcing upon Israel an all-or-nothing stand for God, Torah, Land and Temple that would commit Israel to a war of liberation against Rome. Jesus warned that to take this route would result in huge, unmitigated disaster; and that
this disaster, if Israel brought it down upon her own head, would have to be seen as the wrath of Israel's God against his people. Those who judged would themselves be judged. Those who took the sword would perish with the sword. Those who turned the Temple into a den of brigands would only have themselves to blame when the Temple itself was torn down, so that not one stone was left upon another.
But Jesus did not remain as a spectator, commenting on this passage of events from outside. He came to the centre of the stage, not just metaphorically, but literally, in his entry to Jerusalem and his Temple-action.
His dramatic action symbolized his belief that he was called to be the Messiah, the one through whom Israel's destiny would be realized. He had authority over the Temple. The house of God might be destroyed, but he would be vindicated. Yet, as he clearly knew, by his symbolic action he was calling down upon himself the fate he had predicted for the Temple. He would suffer as so many Jewish martyrs had suffered, handed over to the pagans for slaughter. Yet, conscious of his vocation, he enacted another great symbol: the new exodus, the great liberation, encoded in a final Passover meal with his followers. He would draw on to himself the coming cataclysm, thus making a way through, whereby the encroaching evil would be defeated, Israel would be liberated, and the saving purpose of Israel's God for the whole world might at last be realized.
As he trod this road, Jesus was conscious of a deeper vocation even than that of Messiah. Israel's greatest hope was that YHWH, her God, would return to her in person. In Jesus' last great journey to Jerusalem, in his action in the Temple and the Upper Room, he dramatically symbolized that return. It looks as though he intended to enact and embody that which, in Israel's scriptures, YHWH had said he would do in person. There could be no greater claim; yet the claim, though stupendous, only made sense within the context of the first-century Jewish world that bounded all Jesus' thoughts and actions. He went to his death believing this would be the great event, the culmination of Israel's history, the redemption, the new exodus. This was how the kingdom would come.
Like any Jewish martyr of the period, Jesus believed firmly that if he died in obedience to the will of God he would be vindicated by being raised from the dead. Unlike other martyrs, he seems to have believed that, since what he was doing was special, climactic, his resurrection would come without delay. He would be raised `on the third day'. Like the other things Jesus believed, this makes perfect, though startling, sense within the worldview of a first-century Jew aware of a vocation to be the means through which God would do for his people at last that which he had always promised.
It should be clear from all this that if Paul had simply trotted out, parrot-fashion, every line of Jesus' teaching-if he had repeated the parables, if he had tried to do again what Jesus did in announcing and inaugurating the kingdom-he would not have been endorsing Jesus, as an appropriate and loyal follower should. He would have been denying him. Someone who copies exactly what a would-be Messiah does is himself trying to be a Messiah; which means denying the earlier claim. When we see the entire sequence within the context of Jewish eschatology, we are forced to realize that for Paul to be a loyal `servant of Jesus Christ', as he describes himself, could never mean that Paul would repeat Jesus' unique announcement of the kingdom to his fellow Jews. What we are looking for is not a parallelism between two abstract messages.
Jesus believed it was his vocation to bring Israel's history to its climax.
Paul believed that Jesus had succeeded in that aim. Paul believed, in
consequence of that belief and as part of his own special vocation, that he
was himself now called to announce to the whole world that Israel's history
had been brought to its climax in that way. When Paul announced `the gospel' to
the Gentile world, therefore, he was deliberately and consciously implementing the
achievement of Jesus. He was, as he himself said, building on the foundation,
not laying another one (1 Corinthians 3:11). He was not `founding a
separate religion'. He was not inventing a new ethical system. He was calling the world to
allegiance to its rightful Lord. A new mystery religion, focused on a
mythical `lord', would not have threatened anyone in the Greek or Roman
world. `Another king', the human Jesus whose claims cut directly across
those of Caesar, did.
This reminds us that neither for Jesus nor for Paul was the message, a matter merely of `religion'. The post-enlightenment box into which `religion' has been slotted has nothing to do with the worldview of a first-century Jew believing that Israel's God, the creator, was taking his power and reigning. Jesus was not announcing `a new religion'; nor was Paul. Of course the proclamation of Jesus, and the gospel announcement of Paul, addressed human beings with a challenge and a summons, which went down to the very depths of human experience, awakening parts which other messages could not reach. But they did this because the claim of Israel, the message of Jesus, and the announcement of Paul always was, that the human race was to be shown the true way of being human. If that is what you mean by `religion', so be it. Jesus and Paul thought of it as Life, as being human, as being the children of God.
When all this is said and done, it should be comparatively easy to work through the actions and message of Jesus, and the agenda and letters of Paul, and to show that there is between them, not a one-for-one correspondence, but an integration that allows for the radically different perspective of each. Jesus was bringing Israel's history to its climax; Paul was living in the light of that climax. Jesus was narrowly focused on the sharp-edged, single task; Paul was celebrating the success of that task, and discovering its fruits in a thousand different ways and settings. Jesus believed he had to go the incredibly risky route of acting and speaking in such a way as to imply that he was embodying the judging and saving action of YHWH himself; Paul wrote of Jesus in such a way as to claim that Jesus was indeed the embodiment of the one God of Jewish monotheism.
Despite the popular impression, there are in fact a good many echoes
of the actual sayings of Jesus in the letters of Paul, though here again Paul has not been a slavish repeater of tradition so much as faithful rethinker of the
rich material he has heard, using it in fresh ways for his own very different
context. What matters, far above any attempts to place Jesus and Paul one
on each side of a theological see-saw and make them balance out, is to grasp
the truth that grasped them both: that in their day, and through their agency-the one as focus, the other as pointer-the one living and true God had
acted climactically and decisively to liberate Israel and the world, the kingdom through which the world would be brought out of the long winter of sin and death and would taste at last the
fruits of the Age to Come.