How do we explain Paul?
Think about it. Why is it we don’t have anything the 12 apostles wrote—or had written for them? (They were probably illiterate.) Why did Jesus spend three years of his life painstakingly teaching those 12 guys what his mission was, only to have Paul, who never even met Jesus in the flesh, be the one who set the agenda for that mission?
How do you explain that? Seems like a screwy way to kick off a worldwide religion.
Here’s what I think happened. Something may indeed have transpired on the Damascus Road. However, I don’t think it’s what is described in Acts. We all know God doesn’t work like that. He doesn’t speak from the clouds and then blind a guy to make a point. (Anyone who has had God teach him/her a lesson in this manner is welcome to correct me in the Comments.) What I think is more likely is that Paul’s revelation, if he had one, was gradual and ephemeral. At a certain point, the revelation was firmly gelled in place enough that Paul holed up—perhaps for three years as he says—and fashioned what he calls “my gospel,” to distinguish it from the pro-Torah gospel preached by the apostles back in the Mother Church in Jerusalem.
Paul pieced it together
You see, Paul had a hunch. No one—none of the apostles, for certain—had been able to build a convincing case for why Jesus died, why his mission seemed to have failed. Paul pieced it together. I think Paul painstakingly went over the Hebrew scriptures and built his case for a Messiah who dies for our sins, surgically pulling out proof texts. The way Paul saw it, the Jews couldn’t see the real meaning in the Hebrew scriptures. (“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts,” he says in 2 Corinthians.)
The way I see it, Paul tends to play fast and loose with the Hebrew scriptures. For example, the part from Isaiah 53 about “he was wounded for our transgressions”—that wasn’t about Jesus. How could it be? Whoever wrote Isaiah didn’t know anything about Jesus. God doesn’t circumvent people’s free will and get them to write things they don’t know they are actually writing.
The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 is Israel itself. Check it out. Read the chapter without fiddling with your Christian decoder ring. Look at the context. Nobody, I mean nobody, had pointed to that verse as speaking about the Messiah until Paul came along. That’s because no one—no one—had thought of a divine Messiah who dies for our sins before Paul. (It’s hard to come up with a single messianic narrative from the Old Testament except that the one thing that all the prophecies agreed on was that the Messiah would be a human.)
Paul, not God, created the New Covenant. (Now when I say Paul created the New Covenant, he may have not have been the only or the first. He just gets the credit, in the same way that others had pieced together the nuts and bolts of evolution before Darwin wrote The Origin of Species.)
Which is to say, Paul created Christianity.
His step-by-step argument—the Romans Road, as it’s called—has been repeated so often that we’ve lost sight of how radical it was (particularly to Jews) when Paul began preaching it: Satan temps Eve to bite the apple, and Eve in turn temps Adam to bite the apple. As a result, they incur divine wrath. In fact, this “original sin” causes all humanity to “fall” into a state of being incapable of pleasing God. We need saving. Ergo the cross.
It seems so obvious to Christians.
The law equals death
The problem is, no Jew ever read Genesis that way until Paul came along. Jews have never spoken of the Fall of Man. That’s a purely Christian term. Paul cooked it up to explain the obvious fact that humans are often jerks—think of that guy in the sports car who parks across two parking spaces—and to give his story credibility by tying it to the Jews’ narrative.
The Apostle Paul turned the common Jewish understanding of the Torah on its head. Paul is essentially saying, “Now that God has done what He has done through Jesus, we can see that the Torah was never God’s long-term solution.”
Whoa! That would have shocked any first-century Jew who knew his scriptures. The Old Testament is crystal clear that the Torah was front and center in God’s plan—and always would be. There was no hint in the Hebrew scriptures that the sacrificial system was ineffective or temporary or merely a “type” of a better sacrifice to come later.
Not so, says Paul. Stick with the law, and you’ll die a sorry death.
Jesus loved the Torah
This would have scandalized Jesus. Being a devout, conservative Jew, he didn’t have in mind creating a New Covenant or a new religion. The existing covenant was in great shape and would work for God’s people if they would obey all of it. That is, go ahead and tithe your dill and cumin, but don’t forget to also to care for the widows and orphans and those otherwise marginalized. The most Jesus wanted to do was “restate” the Torah covenant or “reemphasize” it. He never would have called the Torah the “ministry of death,” as Paul did. Never.
Why would God let the Jews get an entrenched idea of what their scripture said only to switch the meaning at the end—like a M. Night Shyamalan bait-and-switch script. (Wow. I didn’t see that coming.) Is that how you would have set up Christianity if you were God? No, right? Well, you’re not as smart as God, so why do we think He did things in such a ham-handed way?
What we call the gospel was obviously developed by someone who was steeped in Judaism and cosmopolitan Hellenistic culture—someone like Paul, not Jesus.
You’re probably mad right about now. I understand that.
Let me back up. Even if you don’t believe, like I do, that Paul invented what we now call Christianity, you must agree that God effectively launched his master plan through him. Christian theology comes from Paul. It doesn’t come from the 12 guys who walked around with Jesus for three years.
It’s clear that Jesus didn’t preach salvation by grace through faith. The 12 apostles didn’t preach it. If Jesus really believed he was going to die for our sins, He would have told the apostles, wouldn’t he? If they had, why don’t we have any writings from the 12 apostles to that effect? Why is it only Paul, who never met Jesus, who talks about that kind of stuff?
How do we explain Paul?
No, Paul was an adaption, to use the word from natural selection. Paul was saying, “The adaption of Judaism worked for a while, but no more. God is doing something new,” something more fit for survival.
We find ourselves in a similar situation today. Paul’s gospel worked, more or less, give or take, for 2,000-plus years. Not so much anymore. We need a new Paul and a new revelation—a third covenant.
Photo: Damascus Maryland exit by m01229 CC BY 2.0