James D. Tabor’s startling analysis in “Paul and Jesus” discloses that Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, transformed Christianity as we know it. His contention is that “Paul is the most influential person in human history … he has shaped practically all we think about everything.” This is a large claim. Let us see if Tabor can prove it.
Tabor is an academic historian and scholar of Christian origins. He is chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. Tabor adds his own scholarship, a life-long work of 40 years, and contextual readings of the New Testament and other ancient texts that have become available in the last 100 years, to the erudition evident in “Paul and Jesus.”
Tabor gives us the usual history, relating that Paul, who called himself a Hebrew or Israelite, was born a Jew and was once a member of the Pharisee sect. Paul persecuted the Jesus movement until he had a visionary experience of Jesus and received his call to be an apostle.
Paul, Tabor tells us, taught a much different message than Jesus, Peter and James, Jesus’ apostles, who “… continued to live as Jews, observing the Torah and worshipping in the Temple at Jerusalem, or in their local synagogues, while remembering and honoring Jesus as their martyred Teacher and Messiah.”
Instead of conforming to the original apostles’ perspective, Paul framed the central tenets of Christianity that we recognize today. Tabor says it this way, “In other words, the message of Paul … and the message of the historical Jesus and his earliest followers, were not the same. In fact, they were sharply opposed to one another with little in common beyond the name of Jesus itself.”
With all respect to Tabor, this is not the whole story. Anyone who has read Paul’s Letters to the Galatians and to the Romans is aware of the fact that the apostles and Paul had disagreements. But all were firm in their commitment to Jesus’ central message, “Love one another” and they worked to achieve it. (Tabor is familiar with this commonly accepted perspective, but he goes beyond it.)
Paul’s work as apostle to the gentiles had a number of benefits for the new religion. First, Paul would have been a tough customer for Peter to control from day to day had they worked in close proximity. Instead, Paul didn’t meet Peter for the first time in Jerusalem until a full decade after Jesus’ death.
All this while Paul operated independently, preaching what he called his “Gospel” in Asia Minor. He did so for yet another 10 years before making a return visit to Jerusalem around A.D. 50. There he encountered Peter and James again in Jerusalem.
Paul, Tabor tells us, is responsible for emphasizing the centrality of the “entrance” and “exit” points of Jesus’ time on earth that are memorialized in the Apostles’ Creed: “Conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary” and that he “Was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third He rose again from the dead.”
“Visit any church service,” our author says, “whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Greek Orthodox, and it is Paul, and Paul’s vision of Jesus, that are central – in the theological language of the hymns, the words of the creeds, the content of the sermons, the invocation and benediction, and of course, the rituals of baptism and the Holy Communion or Mass.”
Paul, who never met Jesus when he was alive, spread this message of Christianity to the gentiles, preaching that they could become Christians without becoming Jews. He disagreed with the apostles over many of the particulars of the new faith which was growing fitfully in the first 100 years after Jesus’ death, along with other religious sects that died out over time.
Paul reported his “initial apparition” of “Christ,” whom he identified as Jesus “rose from the dead” around A.D. 37. In First Corinthians Paul explains this special relationship by writing to those who challenged his credentials, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”
To emphasize this, Tabor punctuates their continuing association by making it clear that “These ‘revelations’ were not a one-time experience of ‘conversion,’ but a phenomenon that continued over the course of Paul’s life, involving verbal exchanges with Jesus as well as extraordinary revelations of a nature Paul was convinced no other human in history had received.”
Paul believed and spent much of his life preaching Jesus’ saving role in humanity’s history. By that Paul meant, through Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, that Jesus, the Son of the living God, ransomed mankind and made all prospective heirs to the Kingdom. Nothing else meant anything to him.
If Paul were around today, I think he would be in total disagreement with professor Tabor’s book title, “Paul and Jesus,” which puts him first. Paul would say that everything he said and did was about Jesus the Christ. He, Paul, despite his strong personality, knew his place. He would decline the primacy in a title shared with Jesus’ name.
Tabor concludes by saying, “I write for Christian believers as well as those of any religion, or no religion, who want to understand the roots of our culture. This is not the pious apostle of well-worn ecclesiastical tradition, Sunday school piety, or arcane theological discussions. What you will encounter here is Paul afresh, as he emerges in his own words, with his own voice, drawn exclusively from his own earliest letters.”
Is Paul the most influential person in human history, as Tabor maintains? The answer to that question goes to what the reader accepts of Tabor’s claims about how much Paul has shaped our thinking, i.e., “the parameters of Christ and his heavenly kingdom,” as our author puts it. Tabor himself says that Paul is “still waiting to be discovered.”
For people of various Christian faiths, it is seems a stretch to accept Tabor’s view, which argues that Paul “should be seen as the ‘founder’ of the Christianity that we know today, rather than Jesus and his original apostles.” Tabor’s new perspective holds that Paul “… made a decisive bitter break with those first apostles, promoting and preaching views that they found to be utterly reprehensible.”
Who knows what most believe? (Is such a quantitative element even relevant?) Belief is a matter of faith, tradition and a magisterium that carries with it 2,000 years of perspective.
At this point, it is far more likely that Christians accept instead – as Tabor took note of but with which he disagrees – the more traditional approach that recognizes Paul as the one “… who skillfully fashioned a version of Jesus’ message for the wider, non-Jewish world.”
Paul and Jesus: How The Apostle Transformed Christianity
By James D. Tabor
Simon & Schuster
291 pages. $26
Michael D. Langan was headmaster of Nardin Academy and a vice president of Canisius College.