Is the New Testament about Jesus or Paul? That may seem a dumb question, but many great minds have asked it. Consider:
A casual inspection of the page count of the 27 New Testament (NT) books is instructive: In sheer volume of text, one-third of the NT is written either by Paul (17 percent), about Paul (7 percent), or in the name of Paul (10 percent, if Hebrews is included). In page count the four canonical gospels account for almost half of the NT, with the remaining 20 percent of the NT taken up by stories about the young church, and materials from the Johannine community and other groups writing in the names of Jesus’s or Paul’s associates.
If one takes into account the influence that Paul’s writings had on the Synoptic Gospels and, by extension, the later writings based on those gospels, his dominance of the NT becomes even greater than the one-third cited above.
And Paul’s teaching is decidedly different than that of Jesus.
Many would object to this notion, saying the NT focuses on Jesus’s teaching rather than Paul. However, it should be noted that most of Jesus’s teaching comes down to us through parables that he told, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, primarily in Luke and Matthew.
The Jesus Seminar, a group of more than six dozen leading biblical scholars, studied the four canonical gospels as well as the Gospel of Thomas to discern which quotes attributed to Jesus are authentic and which were the creation of later authors or copyists. The parables—and the particular versions of those parables—to which the scholars ascribe full or partial authenticity are listed below.
Seed and Harvest
—Luke 19:13, 15-24
Pharisee and Publican
These parables give lessons about faith in the Father, social justice, charity, safeguarding the community of believers, enlarging that community, and the expansive and expanding nature of the Kingdom of God.
The “gospel according to Paul,” however, as outlined in all of his writings, focuses on just three primary tenets:
1. The divine Atonement accomplished through Jesus’s death.
2. The reward of eternal life demonstrated by Jesus’s resurrection.
3. Paul’s assertion that faith in #1 and #2 above exclusively is all that is required to be right with God.
Was Paul the inventor of Christianity? After his conversion, Paul refused to speak to the other Apostles because he considered himself and his intimate relationship with the post-Easter Christ as superior to the Apostles’ familiarity with the flesh-and-blood pre-Easter Jesus. And how did that relationship come about? Contrary to the story in Acts of the Apostles about Paul’s sudden conversion on the road to Damascus and subsequent immediate return to Jerusalem to confer with Jesus’ followers, Paul swears in 1 Galatians that he went to Arabia and spent three years experiencing and contemplating his ecstatic visions before finally visiting James in Jerusalem. James D. Tabor suggests that during this three-year period, Paul traveled to Mt. Horeb, where Moses and Elijah had received their revelations directly from God. Paul considered himself Moses’s and Elijah’s equal, if not their superior, so he might reasonably have gone to the land where God had spoken to his prophets in the past. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul describes being “caught up… right into the third heaven” where he heard things directly from God that he was not allowed to share with mere humans. Coupled with his belief that God singled him out before birth to be the deity’s messenger to the world, this makes it clear that Paul considered himself the Chosen One. In 1 Corinthians 4:15 Paul says to his followers, “It was I who begot you in Christ Jesus by preaching the Good News.” (Jerusalem Bible, Reader’s Edition, emphasis mine) In Paul’s view, Jesus may have been the sacrificial lamb, but Paul was the shepherd. Jesus was sent to the Jews, but Paul was sent to bring redemption to the rest of the world. Paul preached what he openly called “my gospel” and cursed those who taught anything else. Paul instructed his followers that anyone who did not recognize his own writings as direct commands from The Lord should be banished from the community, according to scholar R.E. Brown.
Paul’s insistence that he understood Christ better than anyone who had actually lived and worked with Jesus carried over into the Gospels. Paul famously opposed the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church—James, John and Peter—and went so far as to tell his followers (in Galatians 2:6-7) that he considered the pillars’ views to be of little or no worth. After the widespread publication of Paul’s letters accusing the Apostles of not understanding Christ, the next written mention of the disciples by name came 20 years later in Mark, who portrayed the disciples as “too dense to get the picture of the kingdom Jesus painted,” to borrow the phrase of Burton L. Mack. It takes no stretch of the imagination to gather that Mark took his view of the disciples directly from Paul.
Paul even placed his stamp on the two most basic sacraments of Christendom, baptism and the Eucharist:
- Acts 18:24-26 tells of the arrival of Apollos in Ephesus and his enthusiastic reception there. But “he had only experienced the baptism of John.” When Paul goes to Ephesus in Chapter 19, he establishes the baptism “in Christ” as superior to that of John.
- In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul says he received a description of the Last Supper directly from Christ in a vision. Mark’s description of the event, written almost 20 years later, is nearly identical to Paul’s, and Luke and Matthew lift the story from Mark with only slight changes. Thus the tradition of the Eucharist, notes Tabor, “including the words of Jesus over the bread and the wine, comes to us from Paul and Paul alone!”
In the 19th century some biblical scholars argued against the concept of the “Q” source for Jesus’s teachings because it seemed to ignore the death and resurrection and instead only espouse Jesus’s teachings. Bart D. Ehrman points out that this argument lost some of its potency after the discovery of Thomas, which also showed that many early Christian communities studied Jesus’s sayings.
Instead of focusing on the resurrection and worship of the risen Christ, the communities that used Q and Thomas as their sources of information instead endeavored to learn how to realize the Kingdom of God in the present, here on Earth, notes Elaine Pagels. In a similar vein, Thomas teaches “that God’s light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone.” Jesus did not preach about belief in himself but rather about how all humans could attain God’s kingdom, according to Marcus J. Borg.
But that is not usually the message that readers remember from the New Testament. They nostalgically recall stories of virgin birth in a manger, supernatural miracles, an ultimate sacrifice for universal atonement, and a rigid belief that faith in Christ is the only path to God. In other words, readers come away with the message of Paul, not Jesus.
(Anyone interested in exploring this issue further might find the following books instructive:
Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Bart D. Ehrman
The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition, A Report of the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk, Bernard Brandon Scott and James R. Butts
Introduction to the New Testament, R.E. Brown
Jesus and Paul: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, by James D. Tabor
Who Wrote the New Testament? Burton L. Mack
Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Elaine Pagels)