Who Founded Christianity - Jesus or St. Paul?

Apologetic Paper (Joseph Smith) - May 1995


  1. Introduction

  2. Maccoby: Jesus was a Pharisee, Paul was a Sadducee

  3. Response to Maccoby

  4. Jesus v. Paul

    1. Paul was not the first
    2. Seeming Contradictions Between Jesus and Paul

      1. God's Word
      2. Two Covenants
      3. Atonement? The Prodigal Son
      4. Inclusive v. Exclusive Gospel

    3. Why didn't Jesus call himself a Christian?
    4. Later changes made by Paul

  5. Conclusion

A: Introduction

An ongoing problem for Christians who argue or discuss with Muslims at Speaker's Corner is that of the authority for our beliefs. Many of the best references to support the theology which we hold to and support in our conversations are gleaned from the epistles of Paul. Yet we continually find our arguments rejected outright by Muslims because they consider Paul's letters to be untrustworthy and therefore non-authoritative.

Christianity, they go on to say, was founded by Paul and not by Jesus. Much of what we believe, they continue, was added to later on by Paul and his followers, in direct contradiction to Jesus's teachings.

Most of their criticisms on this point, interestingly, do not come from research they have undertaken, but is borrowed from recent polemical writers within the Jewish community, particularly the writings of Dr. Hyam Maccoby, who teaches here in London.

B: Maccoby: Jesus was a Pharisee, Paul was a Sadducee

According to Hyam Maccoby, Paul was not a Pharisee, nor even a Jew, but a gentile proselyte to Judaism. Maccoby's source for his material is the discredited Christian writer Epiphanius, an Ebionite who wrote 3 centuries after the fact. Paul, according to Maccoby, failed in becoming a Pharisee, and so allied himself to the Sadducees and the High Priest, two groups who enjoyed their privileged status under Roman occupation, and so were in conflict with the Pharisees, who wished to be rid of the Roman oppressors.

Maccoby believes that it was due to a near nervous breakdown that Paul split from this group and formed a new religion, taking ideas such as baptism, the eucharist, christology, the Holy Spirit, and eschatology and melded them with Jewish sacred history, Gnosticism, and the pagan mystery religions.

Jesus, on the other hand, according to Maccoby, taught beliefs which are quite common to Jewish Pharisaical teaching. He was a figure within Judaism and so would not have accepted his own divinity. This, Maccoby says, is clear from the first three Synoptic gospels, but not John, which was written much later, after the evolution of this theology by the early Christians led by Paul.

Maccoby continues by asserting that Jesus never regarded himself as a sacrifice for humanity, a belief which Maccoby contends arose after his death, as it was not part of Jewish theology.

Yet, Maccoby does admit that creating a divine character for Jesus has Jewish roots. Elijah and Enoch were both taken up to heaven, which transcended other human experiences. This well- known Biblical event, he feels, could be the stepping stone to the belief of the divinity of a person who then takes on the divine qualities of God.

There is no root in Judaism, however, for the sacrifice of the divine figure. Jews never worshipped the allegorical concept of God's divine wisdom as found in the book of Proverbs. And nowhere, Maccoby maintains, did Jesus ever make a claim of deity, calling himself instead the Messiah, a title which he maintains was political and which was quite common in those days. In fact, Maccoby believes that much of Jesus's teachings were also political in nature, and it was for this reason that he was finally put to death. Those passages which do point to Jesus' spiritual nature were added later, he says, by Paul and his disciples.

Along those same lines, Maccoby states that Jesus did not wish to abrogate Judaism, but was only in conflict with certain Jewish figures, which is normal within Jewish circles. He neither abrogated the Torah nor reformed it, but interpreted it, and in ways not unlike the Pharisees. For instance, curing sick people on the sabbath is not forbidden by the Mishnah nor the Talmud, which are both Pharisaic writings.

Maccoby believes that the ideas attributed to Jesus would have appalled him, had he known about them, therefore they could only have been attributed to him after his death. The gospels were written 40 years and later after the death of Jesus, thus Maccoby contends that there was plenty of time for these theological ideas to evolve within the Christian community.

C: Response to Maccoby

In response to the above claims by Hyam Maccoby, we need not go into great detail except to point out from the outset that much of Maccoby's material is derived from the Ebionite tradition, a tradition which was first of all proposed three hundred years later than the subject in question, and secondly, a tradition which acknowledged its hostility to Paul and his beliefs even at that time. It is inexcusable to rely on material for supposedly truthful information about a person or movement which is not only distant from the source, but also the avowed enemy of that person or movement. Would we go to Serbian generals to ascertain the facts of the Bosnia conflict today? This is what Maccoby has done in his work.

To divorce Jesus from the personal claims which he makes in the gospels puts into question his whole ministry and the amazing impact which he had on those who followed him. It also makes the book of Acts look totally worthless, as the church which evolved from the ministry of Jesus was completely dependant on the person and claims of Jesus as saviour.

Concerning the contention that Paul changed the gospels later on, it is unthinkable that an invention of Paul, who was not one of the Twelve and whose apostolic credentials were so often questioned, could succeed in becoming a part of the narratives of the Synoptic Gospels. "It staggers belief that he could have successfully foisted his innovation... on the church at large" (Hunter).

To say that it was Paul who created the view of Jesus as deity is to reject the christology of the Jerusalem church and the evidence of Jesus's deity found in the book of Acts. Of key importance is Peter's statement that Jesus has been raised to God's right hand, from which he has poured forth the Holy Spirit, and has been made both kyrios and christos (Acts 2:33-36). Numerous titles of deity were attributed to him, such as: Messiah (Acts 3:20f), Servant of God (Acts 3:13,26; 4:27), the promised Prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22; 7:37), the Prince of Life (Acts 3:15; 5:31), the Holy and Righteous One, and the "stone" of prophecy (taken from Psalm 118:22), rejected, but now made the head of the corner (Acts 4:11). These all predate the more developed delineation of Jesus as deity expounded by Paul.

Muslims who use Maccoby's material to substantiate their claim that Paul is not authoritative would do well to first understand the agenda behind Maccoby's criticism. As a Jew Maccoby concludes that "If Paul was the creator of the Christian myth, he was also the creator of the anti-Semitism which has been inseparable from that myth." It is for this reason that he tries to distant Paul from a Jewish background, and thereby instil upon him the guilt for all anti-Semitic undertakings which have been evidenced in the history of the church.

Paul was never anti-Semitic, but he was anti-Judaism (having theological disagreement with Judaism). Rather then creating a heresy out of Judaism, as Maccoby suggests, it is quite evident that Paul would never have regarded himself as having ceased to be a Jew or as having left Judaism for a new religion. He believed that his new faith was the fulfilment of the promises to the patriarchs and he accordingly would have thought of himself as believing in what properly understood was the culmination of Judaism.

This, however, is an argument for Jews to contend with, and not Muslims. They would do better to compare the material found in the Gospels with the writings of Paul, rather then race around trying to borrow polemical data from an arena which has little to concern them, and which they really don't understand. So it is to that area which we will now go.

D: Jesus v. Paul

Muslims believe that the Gospels are diametrically opposed to the material found in the letters of Paul. To support their assertions they point to many supposed "contradictions" between that which Jesus taught and what Paul wrote, maintaining that these prove the message of Jesus, a true Jewish Pharisee, was not the same as that of Paul's.

These are indeed claims which are difficult to take seriously, yet, they demand an answer, nonetheless. For without the authority and authorship of Jesus, Christianity simply would fall apart. If one could show that Jesus brought a different message then Paul, then indeed there would be room for concern.

Upon closer scrutiny of the scriptures, however, we find that Jesus and Paul are not at all in contradiction with one another, and that most of what Paul claims has already been stated before by Jesus and the other disciples, though in a different way. Indeed, what is clear is that Paul was not the founder of Christianity, but its greatest expounder.

D1: Paul was not the first

So where did he get his teaching from? Paul answers that question clearly in Galatians 1:11-12, where he states, "the gospel I preach is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ".

In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 he speaks of receiving from the Lord that which he passes on to them, the Gospel (see also 1 Corinthians 11:23). He carefully points out that these are not things which he invented.

Did Paul begin Christianity in a void? If so, his beliefs couldn't have been there beforehand. Yet, in the book of Acts, Peter, one of Jesus's closest disciples for three years, addresses the gospel, speaking and witnessing the fact of Jesus, his death and resurrection in Acts 2. He continues this witness in Acts 3 and 4, long before Paul even comes onto the scene.

In fact, Paul doesn't enter into the picture until Acts 7, where he witnesses the stoning of Stephen, and then becomes the persecutor of those who were establishing the church. He admits to putting many saints in prison, and casting the vote for their death (Acts 26:9-11); and even tried to destroy the church (Galatians 1).

How can someone become the persecutor of a religion which he is the founder of? If he founded a religion, it couldn't have been there beforehand.

D2: Seeming Contradictions Between Jesus and Paul

D2i: God's Word (Logos)

What about Paul's teachings? Is it contradictory to that of Jesus? Muslims think so. Take the case of God's word. Muslims try to show that Paul preached a religion based on faith in Jesus Christ, whereas Jesus contradicted this by preaching a religion based on following the law of Moses. "The word made flesh and dwelt among us," the idea of Jesus being divine, being God's word himself, and becoming flesh, according to Muslims, could not have come from Jesus, but was invented by Paul. Proof of this, they say, is found in John 12 where Jesus was told what to speak by God, so it could not have been God's word.

But it was John, a disciple of Jesus for three years, who heard everything that Jesus said and did, who derived this concept of Logos. The idea is not even mentioned in any of Paul's writings! How could he have invented it?

D2ii: Two Covenants

Let's take another accusation levelled against Paul. In Matthew 5:17-18 Jesus says, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets". Later, Paul says that Jesus had come to abolish the Law and Prophets (Colossians 2:14). Muslims say Paul is contradicting Jesus here. But is he?

According to the Christian scriptures there were two covenants: a) the law of Moses (made up of legal or moral laws as well as ceremonial or ritual laws), and b) the new covenant, which came through Jesus Christ. What Paul is referring to when he says the old law is abolished, are the ceremonial and ritualistic laws which were for the Jews alone (Colossians 2:13- 15). No Syrian or Arab or any other gentile was commanded to keep these laws. Only the Jews were, as it made them distinct from all other people, as the chosen of God. What was abolished were the ceremonial laws which excluded the gentiles from being the people of God. The moral law still holds. Yet, one can be forgiven, if they repent.

Paul and Jesus are not contradicting one another. Jesus was establishing the Moral law in Matthew 5:17. One needs to continue reading from verse 21 and following to see that He then goes on to delineate what those moral laws are.

D2iii: Atonement? The Prodigal Son

The real issue here is whether salvation is attained by keeping the law or by the justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone. As an example, Muslims erroneously point to Jesus's teaching on the Prodigal Son, who was forgiven because of his repentance. They correctly maintain that there is no teaching of atonement here.

Paul, however, says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by a gift. This view of the atonement, they feel, contradicts the teaching of Jesus. But does it?

Consider: all believers are children, and God is their father. No other religion in the world depicts God as father. Islam has 99 names for God, but the name of Father is not one of them. In Islam, believers can only come to God as servants ("att"), which parallels Old Testament teaching.

It is Jesus who introduces God as our father. If God is our father, someone has to be a child. This is the thrust of the Prodigal Son story. The son was not a servant but the man's son. He had status. The reason why the father accepted him was not out of kindness, but because the man was his father. In Galatians 4:4-6, God sent his son, born under the law so that we might receive the full rights of sons. Since we are sons, we can now call him Abba, Father.

Where, if not in the story of the Prodigal son, did the belief of the atonement originate? Consider the story of the last supper found in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22, all independent of Paul (Mark's source was Peter). Jesus said the bread was his body, and the wine his blood. How much more plain can you get? That is atonement. Forgiveness comes, thus, through the shedding of his blood. Yet, all Jesus was doing was to confirm something which was there from the beginning, from the story of Cain and Abel, where one sacrifice was accepted and the other rejected. Cain's sacrifice was from his own work, that which he had grown, but Abel offered the blood of the lamb as the hope of his salvation.

"Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin." This principle is found right through the Old Testament. No Jew ever believed that he could attain the forgiveness of sin just by asking for it (see Exodus and Leviticus to see the many sacrifices ordered by God for this very purpose).

Thus, Jesus was now saying that forgiveness could only come through his own blood. Matthew 20:28, John 6:51; and John 10:11 all reveal Jesus speaking of the need for a blood sacrifice, specifically, his blood sacrificed.

This is a point completely lost to Muslims, even though they continue the tradition of sacrificing a goat during the time of Id, though the meaning has been changed to that of remembrance for what Abraham had done earlier. It always puzzles me why Muslims never question the significance for Abraham's sacrifice. Is it no wonder then why they find the idea of atonement so objectionable.

In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul speaks of salvation by faith, but follows it up with the need to do good works. There is no denial here of good works.

Jesus also speaks of salvation by faith in John 3:14-15. Salvation, thus, comes through faith in Jesus Christ, so that we can receive the spirit of Christ, which then leads us to do good works. Most people want to separate the two ideas, and make them sound contradictory. Yet Paul and Jesus taught both.

D2iv: Inclusive v. Exclusive Gospel

There are other areas of contention between Jesus and Paul which the Muslims like to point to. Jesus, they maintain, says that the gospel must only go to the Jews, while Paul says that the gospel must go to all people. Yet, the last thing Jesus said before he left the earth was, "to go into the whole world and preach the gospel, making disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). The issue here comes back to the old and new covenant again. Under the old covenant only the Jews were considered. That old covenant came to an end the night Jesus broke the bread and offered the wine.

Ironically, it was Peter and not Paul who took the gospel to the gentiles first, to Cornelius, before Paul (Acts 10).

D3: Why didn't Jesus call Himself a Christian?

Muslims ask that if Jesus was the founder of Christianity, then where does he refer to himself as a Christian? The point is entirely missed here. Jesus is the Lord of the Christians, not a Christian himself. He is the Christ, acknowledged in Islam as "al-Massihu Issa" (Christ of the Messiah, Issa). The word Christian was not even around during the time of Jesus. In fact the early Christians didn't use this term. They called themselves the Followers of the "Way." It was the followers of Jesus who were called Christians for the first time at Antioch, in Acts.

D4: Later changes made by Paul

One of the finest proofs that Jesus founded Christianity comes from these similarities found between the Gospels and Paul's writings which we have just referred to. Christianity basically has two trends or sources from which it derives:

  1. the first are the writings of the disciples, and
  2. the second is Paul's writings.

The disciples are independent of Paul's writings. They use different expressions, yet they all teach the same ideas about Christ. Where, then, did the disciples get their ideas? They couldn't have borrowed it from Paul, as they preceded him. Obviously it came from Jesus himself.

Could, as Muslims claim, Paul have misled all of Jesus's disciples later on? Could he have taken their writings and changed them, so that they coincided with his own? Outside the fact that we have no evidence for earlier writings which may have differed from what is in our possession today, it is incredulous to believe that Paul would want or even dare to conspire against all the other disciples, and change that which they had given their lives to uphold.

Furthermore, John outlived Paul, and Peter lived another 30 years after Jesus. They were there during all of Paul's teaching. If Paul were the founder of Christianity, how did he influence all of Jesus's disciples, without either Peter or John or the other disciples who had been with Jesus knowing about it, or objecting to it?

In Galatians 2, we read that the disciples were suspicious of Paul because he had persecuted them. But when they heard his gospel, they told him to go and preach the same gospel to the gentiles. Why would they welcome him as one of them if he was preaching something contrary to what they were preaching?

E: Conclusion

One can always ask, "Who founded Christianity, Jesus or Paul", or who founded Islam, "Muhammad or Umar", or who founded Judaism, "Moses or Joshua", or who founded Buddhism, "Buddha or Siddharta?" Yet, why is it always Christianity which is labelled with this question?

It seems so grossly unlikely that a religion which is focused so uniquely on Jesus, could or should be founded by someone else. All adherents would contend that their religion was founded by God. Perhaps it would be more correct to assert that it was Moses who introduced Judaism, and Muhammad who introduced Islam, Confucius who introduced Confucianism, and Jesus who introduced Christianity.

What so many Muslims miss is the sheer depth of theology in Paul's writings, much of which couldn't have been made up or simply borrowed. For instance, the scriptures speak of the unity of God. Thus, we are monotheists, and we have a complex view of God's monotheism. We believe that God is a triune God; the very word tri-une implies unity. Perhaps Muslims find the doctrine hard to understand; so do most Christians. One would not expect God's essence to be easily explained. But nonetheless it is true, as we see it written all over the pages of scripture.

We need to consider, however, that if Paul was the founder of Christianity, then certainly he should have diverted from this doctrine. Yet, he doesn't, but continues to say the same thing. "A mediator" he writes in Galatians 3:20 "does not represent just one, but God is one." We find this also in Romans 3, and every Christian believes it.

Indeed, Jesus is the founder of Christianity. If the objectionable material (the personal claims of Jesus) are rejected, the teaching of Jesus that remains in the Gospels, not to mention his deeds, become exceedingly difficult to account for and nearly impossible to understand. All that Jesus founded, Paul and Peter and the others merely expounded. Jesus and Paul both taught about: the atonement, the trinity, the church, salvation by faith, the forgiveness of sins through the shedding of his blood, that Jesus was the bread of life which we had to depend on for salvation, and that Jesus was the good shepherd who laid down his life for us.

Jesus, the founder, laid down his life that you might live. Paul, the expounder, laid down his life that you might hear. Are we willing to lay down our lives that others can hear and live as well?

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