Did Paul Invent Christianity?
By Ben Witherington, III
The question, "Did Paul invent Christianity?", has frequently been asked. In
fact, some have been so sure that Paul was the originator of this religion that
they called him the first great corrupter of the simple religion of Jesus. We
still hear today the cry "back to Jesus" which has as its flip side "and away
with Paul". You hear this for example from various members of the Jesus
Seminar. Like so many caricatures this one deserves to be put in its
To a large extent the answer to this question depends on what one means by
"invent" and also what one means by Christianity. Certainly Nicean or
Chalcedonian Christianity did not fully exist in the first century A.D. Nor did
Catholicism or Protestantism for that matter. All the earliest followers of
Jesus were Jews, and all the books of the New Testament were written by Jews,
with one or two possible exceptions (e.g. the author of Luke and Acts).
Certainly the very earliest followers of Jesus did not see themselves as
creating a new religion. They were sectarian Jewish followers of Jesus.
However, through a process which involved a variety of factors (growth,
evangelization, and conversion of many Gentiles, Christocentric rather than
Torah-centric focus, expulsion from various synagogues in the Empire) the Jesus
movement de facto became a separate entity from early Judaism, and in
fact it appears that this was already the case during the lifetime and ministry
of Paul. One can say that Paul was a catalyst which helped lead the Jesus
movement out of Judaism and into being its own religious group. Paul was not
the inventor of Christianity, but in some senses he was its midwife, being most
responsible for there being a large number of Gentiles entering this sectarian
group and not on the basis of becoming Jews first (i.e. having to keep kosher,
be circumcised, keeping the Sabbath) which in turn changed the balance of power
in the movement everywhere in the empire except in the Holy Land.
But there is more to it than that. Consider a text like 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
Here Paul says he became the Jew to the Jew and the Gentile to the Gentile in
order that by all means he might win some to Christ. Now this is a very odd way
for a Jew, indeed a former Pharisee, to talk if he thought he was still a part
of Judaism. Or notice already in his earliest letter, Galatians, written about
49 A.D. Paul says in Galatians NIV, 1:13-14, "You have heard of my
previous way of life in Judaism, I was advancing in Judaism beyond many
Jews." Judaism is apparently a thing of the past for Paul, something he
is no longer "in" or "advancing in." It appears that Paul believes he is in
something else - namely he is "in Christ" or put more broadly "in the body of
Christ," seen as a separate entity from Judaism.
In any religious movement that endures for any length of time there are always
pioneers or trailblazers who see the way forward more clearly than others, and
certainly Paul was one of these. It is clear enough that his insistence that
salvation or the new birth must be by grace through faith in Jesus had
implications that only a few had fully worked out in Paul's day. For one thing,
in Paul's mind this meant that even Jewish Christians were no longer obligated
to keep the Mosaic covenant and its law. They could do so as a blessed option,
or as a missionary tactic (as Paul did), but it was not required even of Jewish
Christians, much less of Gentiles. The answer to the question, "Must one become
a Jew to be a follower of Jesus?" was answered in the negative by Paul. Now in
theory others such as Peter and James agreed about the basis of salvation, but
when they asked the question "How then shall Christians live?" There was
disagreement especially when the subject became "how then shall Jewish
Christians live?" James and other members of the Jerusalem community believed
that Jewish Christians should indeed be obligated to keep the law, if for no
other reason than to be a good witness to their fellow Jews, and thereby win
some of them to Christ.
Paul however understood the radical implications of salvation by grace through
faith in Jesus. He understood that this meant that if you required circumcision
and law observance of the Jewish Christians, but not the Gentile ones, you were
in effect creating two different Christian groups, two different ways of
following Jesus. The Judaizers who dogged Paul's steps in Galatia understood
this problem, which is why they more consistently argued that everyone,
including Gentiles must keep the Mosaic law.
At the end of the day, Paul's view of the Mosaic law and whether it should be
imposed on Christians most clearly reveals that Paul understood that being in
Christ meant something more and something different from being "in Judaism".
This is why in an elaborate argument in Galatians Paul compares the Mosaic law
to a child minder or a nanny, who was meant to oversee the people of God until
they came of age, but now that Jesus has come they are not under that
supervisor any more (see Gal. 4). Paul even goes so far as to say that one of
the main reasons Jesus came born under the law was to redeem those under the
law out from under its sway (see Gal. 4:5). Those under the law are seen as
being in bondage to it, until Christ came and redeemed them. Now this is
clearly enough sectarian language, the language of a split-off group from
Judaism. Paul insists in Galatians 2:21 that a person could be set right, or
kept right with God by the observance of the Mosaic law then "Christ died for
nothing." He even urges his converts "every man who lets himself be circumcised
that he is obligated to obey the whole law" (Gal. 5:3 NIV). This is also why,
in a salvation historical argument in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 he speaks of the
Mosaic law, and even the Ten Commandments, as a glorious anachronism, something
which was glorious in its day, but which is rapidly becoming obsolete.
It is this radical message, not merely about salvation through the crucified
Christ, but religious living without keeping the Mosaic law any longer being
required, that got Paul whipped, stoned, and in general run out of one
synagogue after another. 2 Corinthians 11:25-27 probably also indicates that
there was a contract out on Paul set up by some of his fellow Jews. The reason
for this is clear. As Alan Segal, a Jewish New Testament scholar, has rightly
seen, Paul was viewed as an apostate Jew, and the Jesus movement was seen as
beyond the boundaries of true Judaism (see his book on Paul the
Convert, Yale U. Press, 1992). The upshot of all this is rather clear.
There was already a parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity, at
least outside the Holy Land by the time Paul wrote his letter to the
Corinthians. In Galatians we can still see the transition period, just barely.
So it is indeed right to see Paul as the midwife who helped give birth to a new
form of religion centered on the worship of Jesus Christ.
This does not mean that Paul invented the idea that Jesus was divine, or the
idea of the Trinity, or the idea of the atoning death of Jesus, and certainly
he could not be accused of inventing the idea of the virginal conception since
he never mentions it in any of his letters. Paul shared in common with all
other true Christians that Jesus was the risen Lord, and that He was the Son of
God come in the flesh. His Christology he shared with his fellow followers of
Jesus, though doubtless he explained and explored and applied these truths in
fresh ways in his churches. Where Paul takes a different tack than James for
example is in how he thinks Jewish Christians can and should live in
manifesting their discipleship to Jesus. He is more consistent on insisting on
salvation and Christian living by grace through faith than others were. He is
also more consistent in affirming that the guide for Christian living is the
"law of Christ" which is not just Christ's interpretation of the Mosaic law. It
is rather Jesus' unique teachings, plus those portions of the Old Testament
which Jesus affirmed and reappropriated (e.g. part of the Ten Commandments)
plus the moral example of Christ, plus also some early Christian teachings
originated after Jesus' time (on all this see Witherington, Grace in
Galatia, Eerdmans, 1995 and Witherington and D. Hyatt The Letter to
the Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).
In the end, one can say that Paul was a shepherd leading God's people in new
directions and through uncharted waters to a new promised land where Jew and
Gentile would be united in Christ on the very same basis and with the very same
discipleship requirements. Though Paul did not call this end result
Christianity, he more than any other of the original apostles was responsible
for the birthing of the form of community which was to become the early church.
Though he did not invent its doctrines or even its ethics, he most consistently
applied its truths until a community that comported with these truths emerged
(see Witherington, The Paul Quest, InterVarsity Press, 1998.)