So much for taking Christ out of Christmas. New efforts propose the more radical agenda of taking him out of Christianity altogether.
Every year, it seems, an attempt is made, usually around the Christian holidays, to debunk some aspect of Christian belief— usually involving the Virgin birth, or Jesus’ resurrection, or his relationship with women. This year features an effort to depose Jesus as the founder of the Christian church, replacing him with the apostle Paul.
“Millions celebrate the birth of Jesus without realizing that it was the Apostle Paul, not Jesus, who was the founder of Christianity,” writes James D. Tabor in The Daily Beast.
As innovative as this proposition sounds, it is a reheated version of an old theory that has been exhaustively debated, and basically put to rest among serious scholars of Christianity.
The idea of a major rift between Saint Paul and Jesus’ apostles can be traced to a German Protestant theologians in the 19th century. Ferdinand Christian Baur, for example, wrote in 1845 that “the harmonious relation which is commonly assumed to have been between the apostle Paul and the Jewish Christians with the older apostles at their head, is unhistorical, and that the conflict of the two parties whom we have to recognize upon this field entered more deeply into the life of the early Church than has been hitherto supposed.”
So Tabor’s assertion that “Christianity came to be defined by Paul not by Jesus,” though erroneous, is certainly not new. Others, such as biographer A. N. Wilson, have similarly tried to resurrect the idea that Paul, and not Jesus, founded Christianity. Wilson wrote that the “genius of Paul and the collective genius of the ‘early church’… was to mythologize Jesus.”
Paul himself, of course, recoiled from this sort of attribution in his regard. He was appalled when certain members of the early church started using slogans such as “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Paul responded forcefully, asking: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
So although proposing Paul as the founder of Christianity might have some cachet among the semi-skilled knowledge class, for the moment, few will be wishing each other a “Merry Paulmas” on December 25th.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome