Lecture 7: Did Paul Change the Gospel?
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There is no question that Jesus and Paul sound different, but are their differences complementary or contradictory? What effect would their different contexts have on how they speak and what they write about?
a. Critical scholarship
b. Popular approach
c. Another popular approach
2. “Jesus I believe. I don’t have to believe Paul”
a. Why do you believe Jesus?
b. Who wrote the Gospels?
c. But who was Paul?
d. Who were Mark and Luke?
e. Red letter Bibles
f. Real danger in picking and choosing
3. Are Jesus and Paul incompatible?
a. Challenge: Jesus is a kind, gentle, loving person, but Paul is harsh, judgmental, and demanding
b. Misunderstands Jesus. Jesus could be:
1) Harsh (Matt 23)
2) Judgmental (Matt 5:20; 7:21–23)
3) Demanding (Luke 14:26)
c. Hard to find any characteristic in Jesus that you can’t find in Paul, and vice versa
4. Are they theologically incompatible?
b. Clean and unclean
5. Critical Scholarship
a. Challenge: Paul changed Jesus into God (circular argument)
b. Jesus thought he was more than just a human
c. Gospel writers see him as more than a man
e. Why did Paul not cite Jesus more?
Course: Why I Trust My Bible
Lecture 7: Did Paul Change the Gospel
This is the 7th lecture in the online series of lectures on Why I Trust My Bible by Dr Bill Mounce. Bill was a preaching pastor at a church in Spokane, WA, and prior to that a professor of New Testament and director of the Greek Program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also taught at Azusa Pacific University and is the author of the bestselling Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek.
In this session, I want to talk about the relationship of Paul to Jesus and ask the question, did Paul fundamentally change the message of Jesus? Did he change our understanding of who Jesus was? Did he change our understanding of what Jesus taught? There are multiple challenges on this issue. One comes from critical scholarship who says that Jesus was a simple Galilean prophet, a good man, but nothing more than that. And Paul comes along and turns him into a gentile god. Another challenge, more on the popular side of things, which says Jesus and Paul are so different that they are incompatible. Their messages are incompatible with each other. For example, Jesus is love; Jesus is excepting, kind, a friend of the down trodden, etc. But Paul is dictatorial, harsh, overly theological, full of himself, proud and arrogant, etc. Jesus was about loving people into the Kingdom of God, but Paul was about justification by faith and judgement if you don’t believe. There is another popular challenge: I believe Jesus is God and so what he says matters to me, but Paul isn’t Jesus, Paul isn’t God and so I don’t need to believe anything that Paul says. If you hold that position, basically this whole discussion is irrelevant.
2. Jesus, I believe. I don’t have to believe Paul
I would like to answer these questions but I want to answer them in reverse. So, Jesus, I believe but I don’t have to believe in Paul because he is not Jesus. I have developed a sort of sequence of questions to help us through this. The first question would be: why do you believe Jesus? Why do you believe he is God and why do you believe the things he taught about on the Kingdom of God? Why do you believe that he is in heaven preparing a place for us there? Most people would say that they read it in the Gospels and I believe it and they may add a personal element to that. The Bible teaches it and the Gospels teach it and so I believe it. So the next question would be: who wrote the Gospels and why do you think they got it right? Someone might say that they were eyewitnesses, they saw it, they heard it and in fact some of them were apostles who were part of it. My follow up question would then be, okay, but who is Paul? According to Luke, Paul was an eyewitness; he saw Jesus on the Damascus Road; he later had visions of God where he was taught things. He had visions of what it was going to be like in heaven. God showed Paul that he was going to have to suffer, at least according to Luke. Paul didn’t walk with Jesus for three and a half years but he still was an eyewitness. Paul is an apostle and as such, he had exactly the same authority that all the other apostles had. This is affirmed in Acts 15 in the debate over circumcision where Paul and Peter both recounted their experiences with the gentiles. Of all the people, James who was the head of the Jerusalem church and who was also Jesus’ brother accepted Paul and Peter’s witness and their authority as an apostle and he agrees with Paul. In fact, the whole church agreed with Paul. They accepted that Paul had the full authority as any other apostle. So, why would you believe Matthew’s account of Jesus but not accept Paul? He was an eyewitness, an apostle and was accepted by the church as a whole. What I am trying to say, it is not really consistent in not accepting what Paul says.
An even more basic question; if a person says that they believe the Gospels, then, who were Mark and Luke? Sure, Matthew and John were two of the twelve disciples, certainly apostles, but what about Mark and Luke? Mark wasn’t one of the twelve, he wasn’t an apostle. He doesn’t even occur by name in the Gospels. He is not even mentioned until Acts 12, so why would you believe Mark? What about Luke, he wasn’t an eyewitness? He wasn’t an apostle; he says this in Luke 1:1-4. He says that he wasn’t an eyewitnesses but he had researched the things that were said about Jesus in order to write them down. Yet, Luke wrote a third of the New Testament. He wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. So, why believe what Mark says, why believe what Luke says when they weren’t eyewitnesses or apostles? Just like Matthew and John, Paul was an eyewitness and he was an apostle; he carried the uppermost authority in the church as did all the other apostles. It is a little inconsistent I think to say you believe what the Gospels say about Jesus but not Paul just because he wasn’t an eyewitness.
There is a related issue in regards to Bibles; some of our Bibles are red-letter editions which are the actual words of Jesus are in the color red while everything else is in black. We sort of view this today as a spiritual kind of thing, but it actually isn’t. In fact I don’t think it is a very good thing at all. The red letters started back when people started questioning whether what we have in the Bible is really true or not. Well, they put the words of Jesus in red because those were true, but the other words may be questionable. So that is actually how red letter additions of the Bible came about and can be misused. I’m going to believe the red letters but I’m not going to believe the black. So, here is the question; if the Gospel writers couldn’t get the black letters correct, why do you think they could have gotten the red letters right? Well, if you were a careful historian; you were there, you studies, you are under the influence of the Holy Spirit, you are inspired; why would the red letters of Jesus be correct but the black letter be wrong? So the overall point, there is a real danger in picking and in choosing what parts of the Bible you are going to believe and what parts you are not going to believe. There is a real danger in that. There is something wrong with saying, I am going to sit in authority over the Scriptures, I am going to choose which passages I think are true and remove the ones that I think are not true and then I am going to submit myself to the authority of those passages that I believe are true. This just doesn’t make any sense! I suggest that if you believe what the Gospels say about Jesus, you have to believe all of what they say and you have to believe what the apostles say about Jesus and anything else, and that includes Paul. I think this is an issue that is worth thinking through.
3. Are Jesus and Paul Incompatible
The second challenge, going in reverse order, is the teachings of Jesus and Paul incompatible? If Jesus and Paul taught things that were mutual exclusive and contradictory, then you would have a real issue. You have to decide who you are going to believe, Jesus or Paul. I am not talking about teachings that are different but compatible; rather I’m talking about teachings that are incompatible, being mutually exclusive. Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, he taught kindness and love whereas Paul talked about justification by faith, about the law and things like that. Are these teaches incompatible? At first, they do feel somewhat incompatible, don’t they? When you read about Jesus and Paul, they are different and it doesn’t do any good to deny this. One of more interesting experiences in my own life in going to Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary to teach; I requested New Testament Survey in which they gave to me to teach. I decided to teach the first half of the class as if Paul didn’t exist. I am going to let Jesus be Jesus; I think I was trying to read justification by faith into Jesus. When I did this, I think it was the first time I really understood Jesus, as least to some degree. It is obvious that both Jesus and Paul are very different in how they express themselves and to some degree, how they think. It doesn’t do any good to deny the differences. There is a difference in feel and so I have already stated the question of whether it is incompatible or compatible? I think a lot of this conflict in some people’s mind has to do with misunderstanding both Jesus and Paul. They have seen how they have expressed themselves and it makes them look as if they are incompatible but a lot of this has to do with misunderstanding.
So, let me give you some examples. Some people feel that Paul was harsh; Jesus was never harsh, he was a loving person. But in Matthew 23, we have an entire chapter condemning the most external religious people there were, the Scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus calls them white washed defilements! Anything that they touch becomes unclean before God. He makes a whip and drives people out of the temple. No, Paul doesn’t have exclusiveness on harshness; Jesus had his moments. It was always with the superficially religious people. So, what about judgement? Paul was a judgmental person. Interestingly in Matthew 5:20, it was Jesus who said unless your righteousness surpassed that of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter into the Kingdom of God. So, Jesus just said, very judgmentally, that the most religious people of his day aren’t even in the Kingdom of God! They are not even in the door of the Kingdom of God! In Matthew 7, he says, not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord is going to enter the Kingdom of God. People are going to say that we did miracles in your name; we did exorcisms in your name, but Jesus will say, depart from me you workers of iniquity for I never knew you. Wow! Paul was a demanding kind of person. Look at Luke 14:26 where Jesus said that ‘if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’ This is demanding and with Paul, you can find an example of this very same thing. It is really difficult to find a characteristic of Paul that is not shared with Jesus and a characteristic of Jesus that is not shared with Paul. There really isn’t.
4. Are they Theologically Incompatible
Okay, what about incompatible theologies; concepts that are mutual exclusive. I want to pick two topics in regards to this: justification by faith and the whole concept of clean and unclean. There are many other topics I could have picked, for example sacrifice, law or the temple. I think the key here is to understand that Jesus and Paul are in two almost totally different contexts. When you speak to people, you have to meet them within their context, where they are. Jesus was almost in a purely Jewish context; he dealt with concepts that made sense to the people around him, like, for example, the Kingdom of God. Paul was in a totally different world; it was largely a gentile context, but he was a Jew and he was trained as a Jew. He did deal with Jewish issues even when he was in gentile cities. But his context was primarily gentile, not Jewish. Jesus was dealing with who was born Jewish and thought that if they kept some of the laws and commands, they would automatically get into heaven. So, in regards to these two concepts, the first being justification. This is the doctrine of how you and I become righteous before God. How do we move into that relationship and also how do we live in that relationship? How you enter into a relationship with God is how you live in that relationship. For Paul, this was one of his most obvious doctrines; you are justified by faith and not by works of the law. You cannot earn your way into heaven. This was the historical context that Paul was in. He had to deal with what was being taught around him and he had to use language that would make sense to the people he was talking to. Other than justification by faith, Paul also emphasized to the Galatians, for example, if you are going to start by faith but switch over to the law, this was backward as nobody was saved through the law. How you start your relationship is how you live in the relationship.
Paul is just as concerned with how you live in a right relationship with God as to how you move into a right relationship with God. And Paul had a lot to say about this. But with Jesus, he uses a different language; he talks about the Kingdom of God, yet Jesus makes the same points. This is compatible theology. In Matthew 5:20, a powerful verse on the Sermon on the Mound reads, ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ This means that by doing different external religious actions is not how you move into a relationship or live within a relationship with God. In the first beatitude, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God.’ He makes the key point in this beatitude and then Jesus unpacks this in the next seven beatitudes. Then he uses the entire Sermon on the Mount to unpack all of those beatitudes. So it all starts and is summarized in the first beatitude. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’; this is the exact opposite of the Pharisees. It means that I bring nothing in my hands but to the Cross, I cling. To be poor in spirit is to recognize your spiritual bankrupts. You need to understand that you have nothing to offer God. But, isn’t this part of what justification by faith is; understanding that we get right with God by not what we do because we are spiritual bankrupt. In verse 6, the beatitudes continue, ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.’ The beatitude is saying that when you come to a point of recognizing your spiritual brokenness in your own spiritual bankruptcy to understand the question, ‘what can someone give in exchange for their soul; nothing! So once you come to understand that you are spiritually bankrupt, you have nothing to offer in exchange for your soul; you have no righteousness of your own. So what do you do? You hunger and thirst for righteousness from the only source of righteousness; you hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness.
If you put those two beatitudes together, you have justification by faith; justification being right with God is not through what you do but believing in what Christ did on the Cross, that which we could not do for ourselves. In Jesus’ language, we enter the Kingdom of God when we understand that we have nothing to offer God. We are spiritually bankrupt and we hunger and thirst for what he can do for us, for his righteousness which he can impute to us. Those two beatitudes are Jesus’ way of saying almost exactly the same thing as Paul is saying. They are justification by faith. This is different terminology; looking at things differently but not contradicting each other.
What about clean and unclean? This idea was initially an idea involving ritual purity. A clean person is presentable to God whereas an unclean person is not acceptable to God and this concept is seen in the dietary laws. Do Paul and Jesus disagree on dietary laws? No, they are in absolute agreement. Jesus says, ‘don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them. It doesn’t go into their heart but instead the stomach and then out of the body.’ Parenthetically, in saying this, Jesus declared all food clean. Then Jesus goes on, ‘what comes out of a person is what defiles him because it comes out of the heart.’ So, all kosher laws were swept away by what Jesus had said. What is clean and unclean is now determined by our relationship to Jesus Christ and it is Jesus who makes us clean. Paul obviously agrees with this as seen in Romans 14:14 where it says, ‘I’m convinced being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.’ But the concept of clean and unclean also moved out of dietary laws to people groups. Are Jews clean in and of themselves and are gentiles clean in and of themselves? Both distinctions are now done away with. There is a fascinating story in Luke 4. Jesus had gone to Nazareth where initially they had had a very good reception of him and then typical Jesus who creates conflict where there isn’t any, talks about the many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time and yet Elijah only went to a gentile and there were many people with leprosy in the time of Elisha, but he also only went to a gentile. In other words, Jesus is saying that there is a ministry outside of Judaism and that his ministry must extend to all people, Jew and gentile alike. In verse 28, all the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up and drove him out of the town and took him to the edge of the hill in order to throw him off the cliff. They were so angry at him because he saw that there was a ministry to the gentiles, they wanted to kill him.
Jesus said, no, they are not unclean in and of themselves and thus they are equal recipients of the Gospel message. Especially in Luke, there are ten chapters or so of a very long travel ministry, most of which is outside of Israel. This is where Jesus travelled amongst the gentiles ministering to them. Jesus was clearly breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between and gentile and Paul obviously didn’t have any trouble with the gentiles. He was called to minister to the gentiles and this was validated in Acts 15 by the Jerusalem council. In Galatians 2, we have the story where Paul reprimanded Peter for drawing back from the gentiles. He understood that they were not any different from the Jews in terms of being clean or unclean. So we see that Jesus and Paul may have expressed themselves differently being and ministering in different contexts even though Jesus’ world was indeed Paul’s world. So, if you are talking to someone who feels that Paul and Jesus are incompatible in their teachings, get an example. What does Paul teach that is different than what Jesus taught? Look in the other person’s teachings and you will find that they are not incompatible at all.
5. Critical Scholarship
Okay, I want to address that first challenge from critical scholarship and I need to be a little careful because some of this discussion can get very technical, however, I want to keep it somewhat simple in addressing it here. The challenge of critical scholarship has to do with what is called Christology. This is a fancy word simply for the study of Christ and who he is. As I have already said, in critical scholarship they view Jesus as some kind of simply Galilean prophet, a good man, but nothing more than that. Paul comes along and turns Jesus into God; Jesus never said he was God and never claimed to be God and wasn’t God. It certainly is true that Paul believed that Jesus was God. We see this in Titus 2:13, but what did Jesus think of himself and is Paul making up something new or is there a trajectory in Jesus’ teaching that he did things and taught things that could only lead to the conclusion that Jesus was in fact, God. Interestingly, there is a circular argument that happens in scholarship; this is Crag Bromberg’s book, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament. The book is really worth getting and reading. He has a whole chapter on this whole question on whether Paul created the Gospel or not as this circular argument begins. So in this argument where they say that Jesus was just a man but Paul made him into God. He starts out by seemingly agreeing to this critical scholarship denial: why do we know that Paul contradicts Jesus? Well, we know because Paul’s Christology is so much loftier, but how do we explain the high Christology of the Gospels? The answer is, it’s a redactional addition, Crag’s fancy term for the changing of the Gospel by the church. The idea of Jesus’ divinity was added later by the church critical scholarship says. How do we know this; because Paul exalted and deified him later? Crag is trying to point out the implications of the Gospel passage that imply that Jesus was more than a man. Then, some say those were later added but the circular argument continues in asking by asking how do we know that they were added? Because we know that Paul changed them? And it goes on and on.
So, what did Jesus think about himself? What did the Gospel writers say that Jesus thought about himself? What you will quickly find is that Jesus understood himself to be much more than just a human being. He knew that and you can see this in the Gospels. In Mark 2, he forgives sins. The Pharisees attest to this by saying, who can forgive sins but God alone? Jesus knew that he could forgive sins. He is able to calm the sea and the weather around him. Who speaks such words that the waves and winds die down? God! Jesus claimed to have a unique relationship with God as his Father and Jesus as his son, a unique father and son relationship. While that may not sound to us that Jesus was claiming divinity but the Jews knew what he was saying through their history, culture and meanings from the Old Testament, they knew. So much so that they tried to kill him because they said he was blaspheming. By claiming that God is your father and you as his unique son, you are claiming to be divine and thus according to the law, we have to kill you. So they understood that Jesus was claiming that he was divine. Jesus said that he would judge the world. When he was before the Sanhedrin and they were judging him and in Matthew 26:64 Jesus quotes the Daniel passage about the Son of Man coming with clouds to judge them. Through this, he is saying, I am the Daniel Son of Man and I am the celestial judge before whom all of you will someday stand. He collected twelve disciples to create the true Israel. Who would do this? Then you have those wonderful I AM sayings in John where Jesus says before Abraham was, I AM quoting God’s most holy name that we get from the burning bush. The Jews understood that he was claiming to be the I AM, the Yahweh, the Jehovah and God of the burning bush and they tried to kill him which is what one is supposed to do when someone commits blaspheme in Jewish law. Then Jesus later confirmed that he and his father were one. As you look at the Gospel witness, you have to see that Jesus understood himself to be a lot more than just a human being. He was a hundred percent human but yet, he was more than human and the Gospel writers knew this.
One my favorite passages is the title of the Gospel of Mark where Mark says, ‘this is the beginning of the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.’ In other words, one of Mark’s purposes in writing the Gospel was to show that Jesus was the Son of God and in Jewish language, that makes him God. And the interesting thing in Mark, only twice do we hear the phrase, Son of God, after this. The demons said that they knew who Jesus was and the centurion said that this must have been the Son of God. But if I could ask Mark, if that is your point in writing, why don’t you say it more clearly? Mark’s answer is that there is more than one way to get this point across. John just says it but Mark shows what Jesus does and teaches. Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead, he forgives sins, and he has control over nature. So the question that you are supposed to be asking as you read through the Gospel of Mark, who else could do this, but God? So the Gospel writers clearly understood that the trajectory that Jesus started and brought to explicit conclusion in Paul by saying that he is our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. One of the arguments is that Paul did not know Jesus because if he had known Jesus, he would have quoted him. The fact that he doesn’t quote Jesus proves that Paul is making up everything. Chapter 9 in Crag’s book is replete with examples of quotations and illusions and echoes of Jesus’ teachings in Paul which shows that it is really obvious that Paul was very familiar with Jesus. On the Damascus road when Paul had this discussion saying, ‘I am Jesus the one you are persecuting.’ Paul didn’t say, ‘who is that?’ for he knew exactly who it was.
More parenthetically, when you look at Peter and James, for example; Peter was an apostle, the head disciple, one of the inner three. James was Jesus’ brother. When you look at their writings, they don’t quote Jesus either. Why? A more powerful example is John, again, one of the inner three, and an apostle and writer of the fourth Gospel and Revelations along with 1st John. You would think that someone who wrote a whole book about Jesus would quote Jesus in his Epistles. There seems to be only one citation form Jesus and that he is in 1st John. So, this assumption that if you knew Jesus, you would quote him doesn’t hold up; it is not just Paul that doesn’t quote Jesus, it is also Peter, James and John. I think the conclusion is and Crag Bromberg argues to this in some depth, the Epistles were not the genre by which the church decided to retell the story of Jesus. They left that up to oral tradition, to the story telling and to eventually the writing down of the Gospels. The Epistles were for other purposes than recounted what Jesus did and said. There should be no surprise that we don’t get Paul quoting Jesus. The other little piece to that puzzle is that Paul understood that he had the authority of an apostle that he was speaking and writing under divine inspiration. And because he was under divine inspiration, he had no reason to quote Jesus. What he said was going to be true whether he quoted Jesus or not.
This is an issue that I have run into quite a few times and I wanted to make sure that you were comfortable in seeing that Paul did not create Christianity. He did not turn Jesus into something that he wasn’t. Critical scholarship simply has a misunderstanding of who Jesus is. Jesus did claim to be way more than a mere human being. There are personalities, teachings and language between Jesus and Paul which is a little different but they are certainly compatible. And if you believe what the Gospels say about Jesus then logically I think you must believe all that is taught and said about Jesus. This includes what all the apostles also teach along with Paul. Jesus lays the bedrock, he ushers in the Kingdom of God, and he dies on the Cross for our sin. Paul goes into a different context, a gentile context in dealing with a different set of issues and starts to repeat Jesus in some cases but in other cases to extrapolate out under divine inspiration how Jesus’ teachings would have affected people in Thessalonica, Ephesus and in Colossae. So Paul and Jesus are not at odds with one another and Paul did not create Christianity; different but compatible.