Christianity Paul of Tarsus

The Prob­lem of Paul

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Hyam Mac­co­by

Excerpts from The Myth­mak­er : Paul and The Inven­tion of Christianity

Chap­ter 1 : The Prob­lem of Paul 

At the begin­ning of Chris­tian­i­ty stand two fig­ures : Jesus and Paul. Jesus is regard­ed by Chris­tians as the founder of their reli­gion, in that the events of his life com­prise the foun­da­tion sto­ry of Chris­tian­i­ty ; but Paul is regard­ed as the great inter­preter of Jesus’ mis­sion, who explained, in a way that Jesus him­self nev­er did, how Jesus’ life and death fit­ted into a cos­mic scheme of sal­va­tion, stretch­ing from the cre­ation of Adam to the end of time.

How should we under­stand the rela­tion­ship between Jesus and Paul ? We shall be approach­ing this ques­tion not from the stand­point of faith, but from that of his­to­ri­ans, who regard the Gospels and the rest of the New Tes­ta­ment as an impor­tant source of evi­dence requir­ing care­ful sift­ing and crit­i­cism, since their authors were prop­a­gat­ing reli­gious beliefs rather than con­vey­ing dis­pas­sion­ate his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion. We shall also be tak­ing into account all rel­e­vant evi­dence from oth­er sources, such as Jose­phus, the Tal­mud, the Church his­to­ri­ans and the Gnos­tic writings.

What would Jesus him­self have thought of Paul ? We must remem­ber that Jesus nev­er knew Paul ; the two men nev­er once met. The dis­ci­ples who knew Jesus best, such as Peter, James and John, have left no writ­ings behind them explain­ing how Jesus seemed to them or what they con­sid­ered his mis­sion to have been. Did they agree with the inter­pre­ta­tions dis­sem­i­nat­ed by Paul in his flu­ent, artic­u­late writ­ings ? Or did they per­haps think that this new­com­er to the scene, spin­ning com­pli­cat­ed the­o­ries about the place of Jesus in the scheme of things, was get­ting every­thing wrong ? Paul claimed that his inter­pre­ta­tions were not just his own inven­tion, but had come to him by per­son­al inspi­ra­tion ; he claimed that he had per­son­al acquain­tance with the res­ur­rect­ed Jesus, even though he had nev­er met him dur­ing his life­time. Such acquain­tance, he claimed, gained through visions and trans­ports, was actu­al­ly supe­ri­or to acquain­tance with Jesus dur­ing his life­time, when Jesus was much more ret­i­cent about his purposes.

We know about Paul not only from his own let­ters but also from the book of Acts, which gives a full account of his life. Paul, in fact, is the hero of Acts, which was writ­ten by an admir­er and fol­low­er of his, name­ly, Luke, who was also the author of the Gospel of that name. From Acts, it would appear that there was some fric­tion between Paul and the lead­ers of the Jerusalem Church’, the sur­viv­ing com­pan­ions of Jesus ; but this fric­tion was resolved, and they all became the best of friends, with com­mon aims and pur­pos­es. From cer­tain of Paul’s let­ters, par­tic­u­lar­ly Gala­tians, it seems that the fric­tion was more seri­ous than in the pic­ture giv­en in Acts, which thus appears to be part­ly a pro­pa­gan­da exer­cise, intend­ed to por­tray uni­ty in the ear­ly Church. The ques­tion recurs : what would Jesus have thought of Paul, and what did the Apos­tles think of him ?

We should remem­ber that the New Tes­ta­ment, as we have it, is much more dom­i­nat­ed by Paul than appears at first sight. As we read it, we come across the Four Gospels, of which Jesus is the hero, and do not encounter Paul as a char­ac­ter until we embark on the post-Jesus nar­ra­tive of Acts. Then we final­ly come into con­tact with Paul him­self, in his let­ters. But this impres­sion is mis­lead­ing, for the ear­li­est writ­ings in the New Tes­ta­ment are actu­al­ly Paul’s let­ters, which were writ­ten about AD 50 – 60, while the Gospels were not writ­ten until the peri­od AD 70 – 110. This means that the the­o­ries of Paul were already before the writ­ers of the Gospels and coloured their inter­pre­ta­tions of Jesus’ activ­i­ties. Paul is, in a sense, present from the very first word of the New Tes­ta­ment. This is, of course, not the whole sto­ry, for the Gospels are based on tra­di­tions and even writ­ten sources which go back to a time before the impact of Paul, and these ear­ly tra­di­tions and sources are not entire­ly oblit­er­at­ed in the final ver­sion and give valu­able indi­ca­tions of what the sto­ry was like before Paulin­ist edi­tors pulled it into final shape. How­ev­er, the dom­i­nant out­look and shap­ing per­spec­tive of the Gospels is that of Paul, for the sim­ple rea­son that it was the Paulin­ist view of what Jesus’ sojourn on Earth had been about that was tri­umphant in the Church as it devel­oped in his­to­ry. Rival inter­pre­ta­tions, which at one time had been ortho­dox, opposed to Paul’s very indi­vid­ual views, now became hereti­cal and were crowd­ed out of the final ver­sion of the writ­ings adopt­ed by the Pauline Church as the inspired canon of the New Testament.

This explains the puz­zling and ambigu­ous role giv­en in the Gospels to the com­pan­ions of Jesus, the twelve dis­ci­ples. They are shad­owy fig­ures, who are allowed lit­tle per­son­al­i­ty, except of a schemat­ic kind. They are also por­trayed as stu­pid ; they nev­er quite under­stand what Jesus is up to. Their impor­tance in the ori­gins of Chris­tian­i­ty is played down in a remark­able way. For exam­ple, we find imme­di­ate­ly after Jesus’ death that the leader of the Jerusalem Church is Jesus’ broth­er James. Yet in the Gospels, this James does not appear at all as hav­ing any­thing to do with Jesus’ mis­sion and sto­ry. Instead, he is giv­en a brief men­tion as one of the broth­ers of Jesus who alleged­ly opposed Jesus dur­ing his life­time and regard­ed him as mad. How it came about that a broth­er who had been hos­tile to Jesus in his life­time sud­den­ly became the revered leader of the Church imme­di­ate­ly after Jesus’ death is not explained, though one would have thought that some expla­na­tion was called for. Lat­er Church leg­ends, of course, filled the gap with sto­ries of the mirac­u­lous con­ver­sion of James after the death of Jesus and his devel­op­ment into a saint. But the most like­ly expla­na­tion is, as will be argued lat­er, that the era­sure of Jesus’ broth­er dames (and his oth­er broth­ers) from any sig­nif­i­cant role in the Gospel sto­ry is part of the den­i­gra­tion of the ear­ly lead­ers who had been in close con­tact with Jesus and regard­ed with great sus­pi­cion and dis­may the Chris­to­log­i­cal the­o­ries of the upstart Paul, flaunt­ing his brand new visions in inter­pre­ta­tion of the Jesus whom he had nev­er met in the flesh.

Who, then, was Paul ? Here we would seem to have a good deal of infor­ma­tion ; but on clos­er exam­i­na­tion, it will turn out to be full of prob­lems. We have the infor­ma­tion giv­en by Paul about him­self in his let­ters, which are far from imper­son­al and often take an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal turn. Also we have the infor­ma­tion giv­en in Acts, in which Paul plays the chief role. But the infor­ma­tion giv­en by any per­son about him­self always has to be treat­ed with a cer­tain reserve, since every­one has strong motives for putting him­self in the best pos­si­ble light. And the infor­ma­tion giv­en about Paul in Acts also requires close scruti­ny, since this work was writ­ten by some­one com­mit­ted to the Pauline cause. Have we any oth­er sources for Paul’s biog­ra­phy ? As a mat­ter of fact, we have, though they are scat­tered in var­i­ous unex­pect­ed places, which it will be our task to explore : in a for­tu­itous­ly pre­served extract from the oth­er­wise lost writ­ings of the Ebion­ites, a sect of great impor­tance for our quest ; in a dis­guised attack on Paul includ­ed in a text of ortho­dox Chris­t­ian author­i­ty ; and in an Ara­bic man­u­script, in which a text of the ear­ly Jew­ish Chris­tians, the oppo­nents of Paul, has been pre­served by an unlike­ly chain of circumstances.

Let us first sur­vey the evi­dence found in the more obvi­ous and well-known sources. It appears from Acts that Paul was at first called Saul’, and that his birth­place was Tar­sus, a city in Asia Minor (Acts 9:11, and 21:39, and 22:3). Strange­ly enough, how­ev­er, Paul him­self, in his let­ters, nev­er men­tions that he came from Tar­sus, even when he is at his most auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Instead, he gives the fol­low­ing infor­ma­tion about his ori­gins : I am an Israelite myself, of the stock of Abra­ham, of the tribe of Ben­jamin’ (Romans 11:2); and ‘… cir­cum­cised on my eighth day, Israelite by race, of the tribe of Ben­jamin, a Hebrew born and bred ; in my atti­tude to the law, a Phar­isee.…’ (Philip­pi­ans 3:5). It seems that Paul was not anx­ious to impart to the recip­i­ents of his let­ters that he came from some­where so remote as Tar­sus from Jerusalem, the pow­er­house of Phar­i­saism. The impres­sion he wished to give, of com­ing from an unim­peach­able Phar­i­sa­ic back­ground, would have been much impaired by the admis­sion that he in fact came from Tar­sus, where there were few, if any, Phar­isee teach­ers and a Phar­isee train­ing would have been hard to come by.

We encounter, then, right at the start of our enquiry into Paul’s back­ground, the ques­tion : was Paul real­ly from a gen­uine Phar­i­sa­ic fam­i­ly, as he says to his cor­re­spon­dents, or was this just some­thing that he said to increase his sta­tus in their eyes ? The fact that this ques­tion is hard­ly ever asked shows how strong the influ­ence of tra­di­tion­al reli­gious atti­tudes still is in Pauline stud­ies. Schol­ars feel that, how­ev­er objec­tive their enquiry is sup­posed to be, they must always pre­serve an atti­tude of deep rev­er­ence towards Paul, and nev­er say any­thing to sug­gest that he may have bent the truth at times, though the evi­dence is strong enough in var­i­ous parts of his life-sto­ry that he was not above decep­tion when he felt it war­rant­ed by circumstances.

It should be not­ed (in advance of a full dis­cus­sion of the sub­ject) that mod­ern schol­ar­ship has shown that, at this time, the Phar­isees were held in high repute through­out the Roman and Parthi­an empires as a ded­i­cat­ed group who upheld reli­gious ideals in the face of tyran­ny, sup­port­ed lenien­cy and mer­cy in the appli­ca­tion of laws, and cham­pi­oned the rights of the poor against the oppres­sion of the rich. The unde­served rep­u­ta­tion for hypocrisy which is attached to the name Phar­isee’ in medieval and mod­ern times is due to the cam­paign against the Phar­isees in the Gospels — a cam­paign dic­tat­ed by politi­co-reli­gious con­sid­er­a­tions at the time when the Gospels were giv­en their final edit­ing, about forty to eighty years after the death of Jesus. Paul’s desire to be thought of as a per­son of Phar­isee upbring­ing should thus be under­stood in the light of the actu­al rep­u­ta­tion of the Phar­isees in Paul’s life­time ; Paul was claim­ing a high hon­our, which would much enhance his sta­tus in the eyes of his correspondents.

Before look­ing fur­ther into Paul’s claim to have come from a Phar­isee back­ground, let us con­tin­ue our sur­vey of what we are told about Paul’s career in the more acces­si­ble sources. The young Saul, we are told, left Tar­sus and came to the Land of Israel, where he stud­ied in the Phar­isee acad­e­my of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). We know from oth­er sources about Gamaliel, who is a high­ly respect­ed fig­ure in the rab­bini­cal writ­ings such as the Mish­nah, and was giv­en the title Rab­ban’, as the lead­ing sage of his day. That he was the leader of the whole Phar­isee par­ty is attest­ed also by the New Tes­ta­ment itself, for he plays a promi­nent role in one scene in the book of Acts (chap­ter 5) — a role that, as we shall see lat­er, is hard to rec­on­cile with the gen­er­al pic­ture of the Phar­isees giv­en in the Gospels.

Yet Paul him­self, in his let­ters, nev­er men­tions that he was a pupil of Gamaliel, even when he is most con­cerned to stress his qual­i­fi­ca­tions as a Phar­isee. Here again, then, the ques­tion has to be put : was Paul ever real­ly a pupil of Gamaliel or was this claim made by Luke as an embell­ish­ment to his nar­ra­tive ? As we shall see lat­er, there are cer­tain con­sid­er­a­tions which make it most unlike­ly, quite apart from Paul’s sig­nif­i­cant omis­sion to say any­thing about the mat­ter, that Paul was ever a pupil of Gamaliel’s.

We are also told of the young Saul that he was impli­cat­ed, to some extent, in the death of the mar­tyr Stephen. The peo­ple who gave false evi­dence against Stephen, we are told, and who also took the lead­ing part in the ston­ing of their inno­cent vic­tim, laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’. The death of Stephen is described, and it is added, And Saul was among those who approved of his mur­der’ (Acts 8:1). How much truth is there in this detail ? Is it to be regard­ed as his­tor­i­cal fact or as dra­mat­ic embell­ish­ment, empha­siz­ing the con­trast between Paul before and after con­ver­sion ? The death of Stephen is itself an episode that requires search­ing analy­sis, since it is full of prob­lems and con­tra­dic­tions. Until we have a bet­ter idea of why and by whom Stephen was killed and what were the views for which he died, we can only note the alleged impli­ca­tion of Saul in the mat­ter as a sub­ject for fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion. For the moment, we also note that the alleged impli­ca­tion of Saul height­ens the impres­sion that adher­ence to Phar­i­saism would mean vio­lent hos­til­i­ty to the fol­low­ers of Jesus.

The next thing we are told about Saul in Acts is that he was har­ry­ing the Church ; he entered house after house, seiz­ing men and women, and send­ing them to prison’ (Acts 8:3). We are not told at this point by what author­i­ty or on whose orders he was car­ry­ing out this per­se­cu­tion. It was clear­ly not a mat­ter of mere­ly indi­vid­ual action on his part, for send­ing peo­ple to prison can only be done by some kind of offi­cial. Saul must have been act­ing on behalf of some author­i­ty, and who this author­i­ty was can be gleaned from lat­er inci­dents in which Saul was act­ing on behalf of the High Priest. Any­one with knowl­edge of the reli­gious and polit­i­cal scene at this time in Judaea feels the pres­ence of an impor­tant prob­lem here : the High Priest was not a Phar­isee, but a Sad­ducee, and the Sad­ducees were bit­ter­ly opposed to the Phar­isees. How is it that Saul, alleged­ly an enthu­si­as­tic Phar­isee (‘a Phar­isee of the Phar­isees’), is act­ing hand in glove with the High Priest ? The pic­ture we are giv­en in our New Tes­ta­ment sources of Saul, in the days before his con­ver­sion to Jesus, is con­tra­dic­to­ry and suspect.

The next we hear of Saul (Acts, chap­ter 9) is that he was still breath­ing mur­der­ous threats against the dis­ci­ples of the Lord. He went to the High Priest and applied for let­ters to the syn­a­gogues at Dam­as­cus autho­riz­ing him to arrest any­one he found, men or women, who fol­lowed the new way, and bring them to Jerusalem.’ This inci­dent is full of mys­tery. If Saul had his hands so full in har­ry­ing the church’ in Judaea, why did he sud­den­ly have the idea of going off to Dam­as­cus to har­ry the Church there ? What was the spe­cial urgency of a vis­it to Dam­as­cus ? Fur­ther, what kind of juris­dic­tion did the Jew­ish High Priest have over the non-Jew­ish city of Dam­as­cus that would enable him to autho­rize arrests and extra­di­tions in that city ? There is, more­over, some­thing very puz­zling about the way in which Saul’s rela­tion to the High Priest is described : as if he is a pri­vate cit­i­zen who wish­es to make cit­i­zen’s arrests accord­ing to some plan of his own, and approach­es the High Priest for the req­ui­site author­i­ty. Sure­ly there must have been some much more def­i­nite offi­cial con­nec­tion between the High Priest and Saul, not mere­ly that the High Priest was called upon to under­write Saul’s project. It seems more like­ly that the plan was the High Priest’s and not Saul’s, and that Saul was act­ing as agent or emis­sary of the High Priest. The whole inci­dent needs to be con­sid­ered in the light of prob­a­bil­i­ties and cur­rent conditions.

The book of Acts then con­tin­ues with the account of Saul’s con­ver­sion on the road to Dam­as­cus through a vision of Jesus and the suc­ceed­ing events of his life as a fol­low­er of Jesus. The pre-Chris­t­ian peri­od of Saul’s life, how­ev­er, does receive fur­ther men­tion lat­er in the book of Acts, both in chap­ter 22 and chap­ter 26, where some inter­est­ing details are added, and also some fur­ther puzzles.

In chap­ter 22, Saul (now called Paul), is shown giv­ing his own account of his ear­ly life in a speech to the peo­ple after the Roman com­man­dant had ques­tioned him. Paul speaks as follows :

I am a true-born Jew, a native of Tar­sus in Cili­cia. I was brought up in this city, and as a pupil of Gamaliel I was thor­ough­ly trained in every point of our ances­tral law. I have always been ardent in God’s ser­vice, as you all are today. And so I began to per­se­cute this move­ment to the death, arrest­ing its fol­low­ers, men and women alike, and putting them in chains. For this I have as wit­ness­es the High Priest and the whole Coun­cil of Elders. I was giv­en let­ters from them to our fel­low-Jews at Dam­as­cus, and had start­ed out to bring the Chris­tians there to Jerusalem as pris­on­ers for pun­ish­ment ; and this is what happened.…”

Paul then goes on to describe his vision of Jesus on the road to Dam­as­cus. Pre­vi­ous­ly he had described him­self to the com­man­dant as a Jew, a Tar­sian from Cili­cia, a cit­i­zen of no mean city’.

It is from this pas­sage that we learn of Paul’s native city, Tar­sus, and of his alleged stud­ies under Gamaliel. Note that he says that, though born in Tar­sus, he was brought up in this city’ (i.e. Jerusalem) which sug­gests that he spent his child­hood in Jerusalem. Does this mean that his par­ents moved from Tar­sus to Jerusalem ? Or that the child was sent to Jerusalem on his own, which seems unlike­ly ? If Paul spent only a few child­hood years in Tar­sus, he would hard­ly describe him­self proud­ly as a cit­i­zen of no mean city’ (Tar­sus). Jews who had spent most of their lives in Jerusalem would be much more prone to describe them­selves as cit­i­zens of Jerusalem. The like­li­hood is that Paul moved to Jerusalem when he was already a grown man, and he left his par­ents behind in Tar­sus, which seems all the more prob­a­ble in that they receive no men­tion in any account of Paul’s expe­ri­ences in Jerusalem. As for Paul’s alleged peri­od of stud­ies under Gamaliel, this would have had to be in adult­hood, for Gamaliel was a teacher of advanced stud­ies, not a teacher of chil­dren. He would accept as a pupil only some­one well ground­ed and regard­ed as suit­able for the rab­binate. The ques­tion, then, is where and how Paul received this thor­ough ground­ing, if at all. As point­ed out above and argued ful­ly below, there are strong rea­sons to think that Paul nev­er was a pupil of Gamaliel.

An impor­tant ques­tion that also aris­es in this chap­ter of Acts is that of Paul’s Roman cit­i­zen­ship. This is men­tioned first in chap­ter 16. Paul claims to have been born a Roman cit­i­zen, which would mean that his father was a Roman cit­i­zen. There are many prob­lems to be dis­cussed in this con­nec­tion, and some of these ques­tions impinge on Paul’s claim to have had a Phar­i­sa­ic background.

A fur­ther account of Paul’s pre-Chris­t­ian life is found in chap­ter 26 of Acts, in a speech addressed by Paul to King Agrip­pa. Paul says :

My life from my youth up, the life I led from the begin­ning among my peo­ple and in Jerusalem, is famil­iar to all Jews. Indeed they have known me long enough and could tes­ti­fy, if they only would, that I belonged to the strictest group in our reli­gion : I lived as a Phar­isee. And it is for a hope kin­dled by God’s promise to our fore­fa­thers that I stand in the dock today. Our twelve tribes hope to see the ful­fil­ment of that promise.… I myself once thought it my duty to work active­ly against the name of Jesus of Nazareth ; and I did so in Jerusalem. It was I who impris­oned many of God’s peo­ple by author­i­ty obtained from the chief priests ; and when they were con­demned to death, my vote was cast against them. In all the syn­a­gogues I tried by repeat­ed pun­ish­ment to make them renounce their faith ; indeed my fury rose to such a pitch that I extend­ed my per­se­cu­tion to for­eign cities. On one such occa­sion I was trav­el­ling to Dam­as­cus with author­i­ty and com­mis­sion from the chief priests.…”

Again the account con­tin­ues with the vision on the road to Damascus.

This speech, of course, can­not be regard­ed as the authen­tic words addressed by Paul to King Agrip­pa, but rather as a rhetor­i­cal speech com­posed by Luke, the author of Acts, in the style of ancient his­to­ri­ans. Thus the claim made in the speech that Paul’s career as a Phar­isee of high stand­ing was known to all Jews’ can­not be tak­en at face val­ue. It is inter­est­ing that Paul is rep­re­sent­ed as say­ing that he cast his vote’ against the fol­low­ers of Jesus, thus help­ing to con­demn them to death. This can only refer to the vot­ing of the San­hedrin or Coun­cil of Elders, which was con­vened to try cap­i­tal cas­es ; so what Luke is claim­ing here for his hero Paul is that he was at one time a mem­ber of the San­hedrin. This is high­ly unlike­ly, for Paul would sure­ly have made this claim in his let­ters, when writ­ing about his cre­den­tials as a Phar­isee, if it had been true. There is, how­ev­er, some con­fu­sion both in this account and in the accounts quot­ed above about whether the San­hedrin, as well as the High Priest or chief priests’, was involved in the per­se­cu­tion of the fol­low­ers of Jesus. Some­times the High Priest alone is men­tioned, some­times the San­hedrin is cou­pled with him, as if the two are insep­a­ra­ble. But we see on two occa­sions cit­ed in Acts that the High Priest was out­vot­ed by the Phar­isees in the San­hedrin ; on both occa­sions, the Phar­isees were oppos­ing an attempt to per­se­cute the fol­low­ers of Jesus ; so the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of High Priest and San­hedrin as hav­ing iden­ti­cal aims is one of the sus­pect fea­tures of these accounts.

It will be seen from the above col­la­tion of pas­sages in the book of Acts con­cern­ing Paul’s back­ground and ear­ly life, togeth­er with Paul’s own ref­er­ences to his back­ground in his let­ters, that the same strong pic­ture emerges : that Paul was at first a high­ly trained Phar­isee rab­bi, learned in all the intri­ca­cies of the rab­bini­cal com­men­taries on scrip­ture and legal tra­di­tions (after­wards col­lect­ed in the rab­bini­cal com­pi­la­tions, the Tal­mud and Midrash). As a Phar­isee, Paul was strong­ly opposed to the new sect which fol­lowed Jesus and which believed that he had been res­ur­rect­ed after his cru­ci­fix­ion. So opposed was Paul to this sect that he took vio­lent action against it, drag­ging its adher­ents to prison. Though this strong pic­ture has emerged, some doubts have also arisen, which, so far, have only been light­ly sketched in : how is it, for exam­ple, that Paul claims to have vot­ed against Chris­tians on tri­al for their lives before the San­hedrin, when in fact, in the graph­i­cal­ly described tri­al of Peter before the San­hedrin (Acts 5), the Phar­isees, led by Gamaliel, vot­ed for the release of Peter ? What kind of Phar­isee was Paul, if he took an atti­tude towards the ear­ly Chris­tians which, on the evi­dence of the same book of Acts, was untyp­i­cal of the Phar­isees ? And how is it that this book of Acts is so incon­sis­tent with­in itself that it describes Paul as vio­lent­ly opposed to Chris­tian­i­ty because of his deep attach­ment to Phar­i­saism, and yet also describes the Phar­isees as being friend­ly towards the ear­ly Chris­tians, stand­ing up for them and sav­ing their lives ?

It has been point­ed out by many schol­ars that the book of Acts, on the whole, con­tains a sur­pris­ing amount of evi­dence favourable to the Phar­isees, show­ing them to have been tol­er­ant and mer­ci­ful. Some schol­ars have even argued that the book of Acts is a pro-Phar­isee work ; but this can hard­ly be main­tained. For, out­weigh­ing all the evi­dence favourable to the Phar­isees is the mate­r­i­al relat­ing to Paul, which is, in all its aspects, unfavourable to the Phar­isees ; not only is Paul him­self por­trayed as being a vir­u­lent per­se­cu­tor when he was a Phar­isee, but Paul declares that he him­self was pun­ished by flog­ging five times (II Corinthi­ans 11:24) by the Jews’ (usu­al­ly tak­en to mean the Phar­isees). So no one real­ly comes away from read­ing Acts with any good impres­sion of the Phar­isees, but rather with the neg­a­tive impres­sions derived from the Gospels reinforced.

Why, there­fore, is Paul always so con­cerned to stress that he came from a Phar­isee back­ground ? A great many motives can be dis­cerned, but there is one that needs to be sin­gled out here : the desire to stress the alleged con­ti­nu­ity between Judaism and Pauline Chris­tian­i­ty. Paul wish­es to say that where­as, when he was a Phar­isee, he mis­tak­en­ly regard­ed the ear­ly Chris­tians as heretics who had depart­ed from true Judaism, after his con­ver­sion he took the oppo­site view, that Chris­tian­i­ty was the true Judaism. All his train­ing as a Phar­isee, he wish­es to say — all his study of scrip­ture and tra­di­tion — real­ly leads to the accep­tance of Jesus as the Mes­si­ah proph­e­sied in the Old Tes­ta­ment. So when Paul declares his Phar­isee past, he is not mere­ly pro­claim­ing his own sins — See how I have changed, from being a Phar­isee per­se­cu­tor to being a devot­ed fol­low­er of Jesus!’ — he is also pro­claim­ing his cre­den­tials — If some­one as learned as I can believe that Jesus was the ful­fil­ment of the Torah, who is there fear­less enough to disagree?’

On the face of it, Paul’s doc­trine of Jesus is a dar­ing depar­ture from Judaism. Paul was advo­cat­ing a doc­trine that seemed to have far more in com­mon with pagan myths than with Judaism : that Jesus was a divine-human per­son who had descend­ed to Earth from the heav­ens and expe­ri­enced death for the express pur­pose of sav­ing mankind. The very fact that the Jews found this doc­trine new and shock­ing shows that it plays no role in the Jew­ish scrip­ture, at least not in any way eas­i­ly dis­cernible. Yet Paul was not con­tent to say that his doc­trine was new ; on the con­trary, he wished to say that every line of the Jew­ish scrip­ture was a fore­shad­ow­ing of the Jesus-event as he under­stood it, and that those who under­stood the scrip­ture in any oth­er way were fail­ing in com­pre­hen­sion of what Judaism had always been about. So his insis­tence on his Phar­i­sa­ic upbring­ing was part of his insis­tence on continuity.

There were those who accept­ed Paul’s doc­trine, but did regard it as a rad­i­cal new depar­ture, with noth­ing in the Jew­ish scrip­tures fore­shad­ow­ing it. The best known fig­ure of this kind was Mar­cion, who lived about a hun­dred years after Paul, and regard­ed Paul as his chief inspi­ra­tion. Yet Mar­cion refused to see any­thing Jew­ish in Paul’s doc­trine, but regard­ed it as a new rev­e­la­tion. He regard­ed the Jew­ish scrip­tures as the work of the Dev­il and he exclud­ed the Old Tes­ta­ment from his ver­sion of the Bible.

Paul him­self reject­ed this view. Though he regard­ed much of the Old Tes­ta­ment as obso­lete, super­seded by the advent of Jesus, he still regard­ed it as the Word of God, proph­esy­ing the new Chris­t­ian Church and giv­ing it author­i­ty. So his pic­ture of him­self as a Phar­isee sym­bol­izes the con­ti­nu­ity between the old dis­pen­sa­tion and the new : a fig­ure who com­prised in his own per­son the turn­ing-point at which Judaism was trans­formed into Christianity.

Through­out the Chris­t­ian cen­turies, there have been Chris­t­ian schol­ars who have seen Paul’s claim to a Phar­isee back­ground in this light. In the medieval Dis­pu­ta­tions con­vened by Chris­tians to con­vert Jews, argu­ments were put for­ward pur­port­ing to show that not only the Jew­ish scrip­tures but even the rab­bini­cal writ­ings, the Tal­mud and the Midrash, sup­port­ed the claims of Chris­tian­i­ty that Jesus was the Mes­si­ah, that he was divine and that he had to suf­fer death for mankind. Though Paul was not often men­tioned in these Dis­pu­ta­tions, the project was one of which he would have approved. In mod­ern times, schol­ars have laboured to argue that Paul’s doc­trines about the Mes­si­ah and divine suf­fer­ing are con­tin­u­ous with Judaism as it appears in the Bible, the Apoc­rypha and Pseude­pigrapha, and in the rab­bini­cal writ­ings (the best-known effort of this nature is Paul and Rab­binic Judaism, by W.D. Davies).

So Paul’s claim to expert Phar­isee learn­ing is rel­e­vant to a very impor­tant and cen­tral issue — whether Chris­tian­i­ty, in the form giv­en to it by Paul, is real­ly con­tin­u­ous with Judaism or whether it is a new doc­trine, hav­ing no roots in Judaism, but deriv­ing, in so far as it has an his­tor­i­cal back­ground, from pagan myths of dying and res­ur­rect­ed gods and Gnos­tic myths of heav­en-descend­ed redeemers. Did Paul tru­ly stand in the Jew­ish tra­di­tion, or was he a per­son of basi­cal­ly Hel­lenis­tic reli­gious type, but seek­ing to give a colour­ing of Judaism to a sal­va­tion cult that was real­ly opposed to every­thing that Judaism stood for ?

Chap­ter 2 : The Stand­point of this Book

As against the con­ven­tion­al pic­ture of Paul, out­lined in the last chap­ter, the present book has an entire­ly dif­fer­ent and unfa­mil­iar view to put for­ward. This view of Paul is not only unfa­mil­iar in itself, but it also involves many unfa­mil­iar stand­points about oth­er issues which are rel­e­vant and indeed essen­tial to a cor­rect assess­ment of Paul ; for example :

Who and what were the Phar­isees ? What were their reli­gious and polit­i­cal views as opposed to those of the Sad­ducees and oth­er reli­gious and polit­i­cal groups of the time ? What was their atti­tude to Jesus ? What was their atti­tude towards the ear­ly Jerusalem Church ?

Who and what was Jesus ? Did he real­ly see him­self as a sav­iour who had descend­ed from heav­en in order to suf­fer cru­ci­fix­ion ? Or did he have entire­ly dif­fer­ent aims, more in accor­dance with the Jew­ish thoughts and hopes of his time ? Was the his­tor­i­cal Jesus quite a dif­fer­ent per­son from the Jesus of Paul’s ide­ol­o­gy, based on Paul’s visions and trances ?

Who and what were the ear­ly Church of Jerusalem, the first fol­low­ers of Jesus ? Have their views been cor­rect­ly rep­re­sent­ed by the lat­er Church ? Did James and Peter, the lead­ers of the Jerusalem Church, agree with Paul’s views (as ortho­dox Chris­tian­i­ty claims) or did they oppose him bit­ter­ly, regard­ing him as a heretic and a betray­er of the aims of Jesus ?

Who and what were the Ebion­ites, whose opin­ions and writ­ings were sup­pressed by the ortho­dox Church ? Why did they denounce Paul ? Why did they com­bine belief in Jesus with the prac­tice of Judaism ?

Why did they believe in Jesus as Mes­si­ah, but not as God ? Were they a lat­er Judaiz­ing’ group, or were they, as they claimed to be, the rem­nants of the authen­tic fol­low­ers of Jesus, the church of James and Peter ?

The argu­ments in this book will inevitably become com­pli­cat­ed, since every issue is bound up with every oth­er. It is impos­si­ble to answer any of the above ques­tions with­out bring­ing all the oth­er ques­tions into con­sid­er­a­tion. It is, there­fore, con­ve­nient at this point to give an out­line of the stand­point to which all the argu­ments of this book con­verge. This is not an attempt to pre­judge the issue. The fol­low­ing sum­ma­ry of the find­ings of this book may seem dog­mat­ic at this stage, but it is intend­ed mere­ly as a guide to the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the ensu­ing argu­ments and a bird’s eye view of the book, and as such will stand or fall with the cogency of the argu­ments them­selves. The fol­low­ing, then, are the propo­si­tions argued in the present book :

1. Paul was nev­er a Phar­isee rab­bi, but was an adven­tur­er of undis­tin­guished back­ground. He was attached to the Sad­ducees, as a police offi­cer under the author­i­ty of the High Priest, before his con­ver­sion to belief in Jesus. His mas­tery of the kind of learn­ing asso­ci­at­ed with the Phar­isees was not great. He delib­er­ate­ly mis­rep­re­sent­ed his own biog­ra­phy in order to increase the effec­tive­ness of mis­sion­ary activities.

2. Jesus and his imme­di­ate fol­low­ers were Phar­isees. Jesus had no inten­tion of found­ing a new reli­gion. He regard­ed him­self as the Mes­si­ah in the nor­mal Jew­ish sense of the term, i.e. a human leader who would restore the Jew­ish monar­chy, dri­ve out the Roman invaders, set up an inde­pen­dent Jew­ish state, and inau­gu­rate an era of peace, jus­tice and pros­per­i­ty (known as the king­dom of God,) for the whole world. Jesus believed him­self to be the fig­ure proph­e­sied in the Hebrew Bible who would do all these things. He was not a mil­i­tarist and did not build up an army to fight the Romans, since he believed that God would per­form a great mir­a­cle to break the pow­er of Rome. This mir­a­cle would take place on the Mount of Olives, as proph­e­sied in the book of Zechari­ah. When this mir­a­cle did not occur, his mis­sion had failed. He had no inten­tion of being cru­ci­fied in order to save mankind from eter­nal damna­tion by his sac­ri­fice. He nev­er regard­ed him­self as a divine being, and would have regard­ed such an idea as pagan and idol­a­trous, an infringe­ment of the first of the Ten Commandments.

3. The first fol­low­ers of Jesus, under James and Peter, found­ed the Jerusalem Church after Jesus’s death. They were called the Nazarenes, and in all their beliefs they were indis­tin­guish­able from the Phar­isees, except that they believed in the res­ur­rec­tion of Jesus, and that Jesus was still the promised Mes­si­ah. They did not believe that Jesus was a divine per­son, but that, by a mir­a­cle from God, he had been brought back to life after his death on the cross, and would soon come back to com­plete his mis­sion of over­throw­ing the Romans and set­ting up the Mes­sian­ic king­dom. The Nazarenes did not believe that Jesus had abro­gat­ed the Jew­ish reli­gion, or Torah. Hav­ing known Jesus per­son­al­ly, they were aware that he had observed the Jew­ish reli­gious law all his life and had nev­er rebelled against it. His sab­bath cures were not against Phar­isee law. The Nazarenes were them­selves very obser­vant of Jew­ish reli­gious law. They prac­ticed cir­cum­ci­sion, did not eat the for­bid­den foods and showed great respect to the Tem­ple. The Nazarenes did not regard them­selves as belong­ing to a new reli­gion ; their reli­gion was Judaism. They set up syn­a­gogues of their own, but they also attend­ed non-Nazarene syn­a­gogues on occa­sion, and per­formed the same kind of wor­ship in their own syn­a­gogues as was prac­ticed by all obser­vant Jews. The Nazarenes became sus­pi­cious of Paul when they heard that he was preach­ing that Jesus was the founder of a new reli­gion and that he had abro­gat­ed the Torah. After an attempt to reach an under­stand­ing with Paul, the Nazarenes (i.e. the Jerusalem Church under James and Peter) broke irrev­o­ca­bly with Paul and dis­owned him.

4. Paul, not Jesus, was the founder of Chris­tian­i­ty as a new reli­gion which devel­oped away from both nor­mal Judaism and the Nazarene vari­ety of Judaism. In this new reli­gion, the Torah was abro­gat­ed as hav­ing had only tem­po­rary valid­i­ty. The cen­tral myth of the new reli­gion was that of an aton­ing death of a divine being. Belief in this sac­ri­fice, and a mys­ti­cal shar­ing of the death of the deity, formed the only path to sal­va­tion. Paul derived this reli­gion from Hel­lenis­tic sources, chiefly by a fusion of con­cepts tak­en from Gnos­ti­cism and con­cepts tak­en from the mys­tery reli­gions, par­tic­u­lar­ly from that of Attis. The com­bi­na­tion of these ele­ments with fea­tures derived from Judaism, par­tic­u­lar­ly the incor­po­ra­tion of the Jew­ish scrip­tures, rein­ter­pret­ed to pro­vide a back­ground of sacred his­to­ry for the new myth, was unique ; and Paul alone was the cre­ator of this amal­gam. Jesus him­self had no idea of it, and would have been amazed and shocked at the role assigned to him by Paul as a suf­fer­ing deity. Nor did Paul have any pre­de­ces­sors among the Nazarenes though lat­er mythog­ra­phy tried to assign this role to Stephen, and mod­ern schol­ars have dis­cov­ered equal­ly myth­i­cal pre­de­ces­sors for Paul in a group called the Hel­lenists’. Paul, as the per­son­al beget­ter of the Chris­t­ian myth, has nev­er been giv­en suf­fi­cient cred­it for his orig­i­nal­i­ty. The rev­er­ence paid through the cen­turies to the great Saint Paul has quite obscured the more colour­ful fea­tures of his per­son­al­i­ty. Like many evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers, he was a com­pound of sin­cer­i­ty and char­la­tan­ry. Evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers of his kind were com­mon at this time in the Gre­co-Roman world (e.g. Simon Magus, Apol­lo­nius of Tyana).

5. A source of infor­ma­tion about Paul that has nev­er been tak­en seri­ous­ly enough is a group called the Ebion­ites. Their writ­ings were sup­pressed by the Church, but some of their views and tra­di­tions were pre­served in the writ­ings of their oppo­nents, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the huge trea­tise on Here­sies by Epipha­nius. From this it appears that the Ebion­ites had a very dif­fer­ent account to give of Paul’s back­ground and ear­ly life from that found in the New Tes­ta­ment and fos­tered by Paul him­self. The Ebion­ites tes­ti­fied that Paul had no Phar­i­sa­ic back­ground or train­ing ; he was the son of Gen­tiles, con­vert­ed to Judaism in Tar­sus, came to Jerusalem when an adult, and attached him­self to the High Priest as a hench­man. Dis­ap­point­ed in his hopes of advance­ment, he broke with the High Priest and sought fame by found­ing a new reli­gion. This account, while not reli­able in all its details, is sub­stan­tial­ly cor­rect. It makes far more sense of all the puz­zling and con­tra­dic­to­ry fea­tures of the sto­ry of Paul than the account of the offi­cial doc­u­ments of the Church.

6. The Ebion­ites were stig­ma­tized by the Church as heretics who failed to under­stand that Jesus was a divine per­son and assert­ed instead that he was a human being who came to inau­gu­rate a new earth­ly age, as proph­e­sied by the Jew­ish prophets of the Bible. More­over, the Ebion­ites refused to accept the Church doc­trine, derived from Paul, that Jesus abol­ished or abro­gat­ed the Torah, the Jew­ish law. Instead, the Ebion­ites observed the Jew­ish law and regard­ed them­selves as Jews. The Ebion­ites were not heretics, as the Church assert­ed, nor re-Judaiz­ers’, as mod­ern schol­ars call them, but the authen­tic suc­ces­sors of the imme­di­ate dis­ci­ples and fol­low­ers of Jesus, whose views and doc­trines they faith­ful­ly trans­mit­ted, believ­ing cor­rect­ly that they were derived from Jesus him­self. They were the same group that had ear­li­er been called the Nazarenes, who were led by James and Peter, who had known Jesus dur­ing his life­time, and were in a far bet­ter posi­tion to know his aims than Paul, who met Jesus only in dreams and visions. Thus the opin­ion held by the Ebion­ites about Paul is of extra­or­di­nary inter­est and deserves respect­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, instead of dis­missal as scur­rilous’ pro­pa­gan­da — the reac­tion of Chris­t­ian schol­ars from ancient to mod­ern times.

The above con­spec­tus brings into sharp­er relief our ques­tion, was Paul a Phar­isee ? It will be seen that this is not mere­ly a mat­ter of biog­ra­phy or idle curios­i­ty. It is bound up with the whole ques­tion of the ori­gins of Chris­tian­i­ty. A tremen­dous amount depends on this ques­tion, for, if Paul was not a Phar­isee root­ed in Jew­ish learn­ing and tra­di­tion, but instead a Hel­lenis­tic adven­tur­er whose acquain­tance with Judaism was recent and shal­low, the con­struc­tion of myth and the­ol­o­gy which he elab­o­rat­ed in his let­ters becomes a very dif­fer­ent thing. Instead of search­ing through his sys­tem for signs of con­ti­nu­ity with Judaism, we shall be able to rec­og­nize it for what it is — a bril­liant con­coc­tion of Hel­lenism, super­fi­cial­ly con­nect­ing itself with the Jew­ish scrip­tures and tra­di­tion, by which it seeks to give itself a his­to­ry and an air of authority.

Chris­t­ian atti­tudes towards the Phar­isees and thus towards the pic­ture of Paul as a Phar­isee have always been strik­ing­ly ambiva­lent. In the Gospels, the Phar­isees are attacked as hyp­ocrites and would-be mur­der­ers : yet the Gospels also con­vey an impres­sion of the Phar­isees as fig­ures of immense author­i­ty and dig­ni­ty. This ambiva­lence reflects the atti­tude of Chris­tian­i­ty to Judaism itself ; on the one hand, an alleged­ly out­dat­ed rit­u­al­ism, but on the oth­er, a panora­ma of awe­some his­to­ry, a source of author­i­ty and bless­ing, so that at all costs the Church must dis­play itself as the new Israel, the true Judaism. Thus Paul, as Phar­isee, is the sub­ject of alter­nat­ing atti­tudes. In the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, when Jesus was regard­ed (by Renan, for exam­ple) as a Roman­tic lib­er­al, rebelling against the author­i­tar­i­an­ism of Phar­i­sa­ic Judaism, Paul was dep­re­cat­ed as a typ­i­cal Phar­isee, envelop­ing the sweet sim­plic­i­ty of Jesus in clouds of the­ol­o­gy and dif­fi­cult for­mu­la­tions. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, when the con­cern is more to dis­cov­er the essen­tial Jew­ish­ness of Chris­tian­i­ty, the Phar­isee aspect of Paul is used to con­nect Pauline doc­trines with the rab­bini­cal writ­ings — again Paul is regard­ed as nev­er los­ing his essen­tial Phar­i­saism, but this is now viewed as good, and as a means of res­cu­ing Chris­tian­i­ty from iso­la­tion from Judaism. To be Jew­ish and yet not to be Jew­ish, this is the essen­tial dilem­ma of Chris­tian­i­ty, and the fig­ure of Paul, abjur­ing his alleged Phar­i­saism as a hin­drance to sal­va­tion and yet some­how cling­ing to it as a guar­an­tee of author­i­ty, is symbolic.Endmark

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