It is useless to attempt to reason a man out
what he was never reasoned into.
How did Paul pull it off? How did he manage to pull the Jesus movement from its Jewish roots? Before we get into the specifics, it helps to understand his method of biblical interpretation and the political-religious climate in which he lived. This is the first of a four part series on Paul's mythology.
The uninformed take it for granted that there was a smooth transition from Judaism to Christianity, when in fact they never found common ground. The irony is that Christian Bibles include Hebrew Scripture in order to support the New Testament, though they are completely at odds with each other.
How this came about was by a method of interpretation called Midrash. The idea is to look for meanings in the Bible, other than literal. The problem with this technique is that it invites a lot of self-serving rationalizing and abuse, even if it is done with good intentions. Our highest ideal should be truth. Truth deems that we try to be objective by aiming to interpret what the speaker is trying to communicate.
A modern example would be the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has piled on so many layers of interpretation that much of contemporary law conflicts with original constitutional limits. In practice, Midrash requires that the interpreter strip the language of its context and invent new definitions and connections. Some relevant examples help to explain.
1. Aside from being obviously a folk tale, Genesis does not even hint that Adam's curse went beyond sentencing man to a life of hard labor. We really have to stretch our imagination to infer that this was the infectious curse for which Jesus died. Genesis is also clear that man was created as a mortal being. By rationalizing, we could infer that if he wasn't cursed, he would have eaten from the tree of life.
2. After Genesis, Hebrew Scripture defines sin in terms of Torah law. It was endowed to Jews as a commitment to their covenant with Yahweh. To link to the idea of inherited sin, the Torah had to be relegated to a standard that inferior humans can't live up to. Technically this is correct, as evidenced by their fall from grace when they were exiled. From this it was offered as proof that righteous behavior is futile; everybody is a sinner.
3. Late Hebrew Scripture abounds in prophecies about the coming of a day when there will be a Kingdom of Israel on earth, a place free of sin and suffering. It would be a new Eden formed out of a new Creation. On that day mankind would be judged by Yahweh or his consecrated Messiah from the family of David. After much destruction, those judged righteous would be entitled to live in the new Kingdom. There are mutations, but this is the general picture.
Watch how terms shift meaning: The parochial fantasies of the Kingdom of Israel changed to the Kingdom of God to the Kingdom of Heaven to the more universal sounding, Heaven. The Messiah went from a human Davidic son of God to a incarnate divine Son of God. The harsh sounding word, Judgment, was replaced with a more positive sounding Salvation. Once the Torah was relegated as a stopgap measure until the apocalypse, it was no longer necessary to be Jewish as long as one had faith.
This is just a sampling of how Midrash works, but it shows that whenever reality disappoints, the best alternative is to alter the semantics with subtle shifts. It also gives a lie to the claim that the Bible came into print by revelation from God. Could a so-called perfect deity be so fickle every time his plan got frustrated?
Next, it helps to get a flavor for the environment Paul lived in. As much as apologists insist that Christianity came into its own independent of outside influence, that defense is not credible. Aside from its Jewish influence, there are too many similarities with pagan mythology to be ignored.
According to historians, in the years following the Jewish exile 586 BCE, Jews migrated throughout Asia Minor. Under Hellenistic rule, a large number settled in Alexandria, Egypt. After the Roman-Jewish war in 70 CE, many Jewish prisoners were brought to Rome. Within those years and after, without central rule in Israel and Judah, a variety of messianic cults sprang from different speculations of how the messiah would restore the Kingdom of Israel. The Jesus sect embodied one of those speculations.
Now let it be said that the death and resurrection of savior gods who had the power to bring immortal life was typical of pagan religions in Paul's day. This introduction presents a sampling of the many religions, sects and cults that swirled around the Mesopotamia area. Syncretism was a common process by which polytheistic religions were not only tolerant of each other; they borrowed ideas from each other. It explains why Greek speaking gentiles were able to accept Paul's mythology of a personal resurrection.
Egypt had Osiris who was said to be slain by the powers of darkness embodied by his brother Set. He rose from the dead and was enthroned in the world of souls to judge every Egyptian according to his works. There is no more obvious testimony to the Egyptian belief in resurrection than their pyramids and mummies.
The Phoenician fertility god known to the Greeks as Adonis was slain by a boar when he was in the prime of life. His death was annually mourned in the spring, chiefly by women to symbolize the goddess Aphrodite's loss. His yearly death and resurrection was timed to the death and resurrection of vegetation. He was the counterpart to the Babylonian god, Tammuz, which Ezekiel describes below.
In Phrygia, now known as Turkey, the death and resurrection of the god Attis, symbolized the end of winter and arrival of spring. When he was unfaithful to the goddess Cybele, she had him castrated, which caused his death.
Zoroastrianism was popular in ancient Persia (Iran). Zoroastrians saw history as a cosmic struggle between the power of light and goodness and that of darkness and evil. Mankind was perceived as a mere pawn in this cosmic struggle. Upon death each person's soul will be judged at the Bridge of Discrimination. The follower of Truth will cross and be led to paradise, and the adherents of Lie will fall into hell. All evil will eventually be eliminated on earth in an ordeal of fire and molten metal.
The Mithra cult began as an ancient Persian god of light and wisdom. Mithra was supposed to have slain the divine bull from whose dying body sprang all plants and animals beneficial to humanity. Paul's home town of Tarsus was also a center of Mithraic worship, the religion that bears closest resemblance to Christianity.
It's most distinctive feature was the practice of drinking the blood of the sacred bull or a chalice of wine in place of wine. There are other similarities with Christianity: the ideals of humility and brotherly love, baptism, the rite of communion, the use of holy water, the adoration of Shepherds at Mithra's birth, the adoption of Sundays and December 25 as holy days, and the belief in the immortality of the soul, the last judgment, and the resurrection.
In the mid-4th century BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and the eastern Mediterranean region. It had the effect of inaugurating the Hellenistic Age, in which Greek language, philosophy and culture spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean. When the Romans conquered the area in the first century BCE, they eagerly absorbed Hellenism.
From the Greeks, comes Dionysus, a son of Zeus who was said to die each winter and be reborn each spring. Hercules was another son of Zeus, said to be born of a human mother. The Greeks helped spread the cult of Mithraism by identifying Mithra with Helios, the Greek god of the sun. When the Romans absorbed Greek culture, they absorbed Mithraism as well. Christianity did not emerge from this babble because of some truth. It was a legacy of Roman imperialism.
Although we are used to associating Darwin's theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest with biology, the process applies as well to religious movements and other categories of social evolution. It was standard practice for kingdoms to have their gods. As Jeremiah tells us, there was as many gods as there were cities.
More or less, they had the same themes but encapsulated in different languages. As the smaller kingdoms were swallowed by the larger ones, the religions of the smaller kingdoms usually merged into the larger ones or fell into obsolescence.
From the days of the Babylonian exile 586 BCE to the Fall of Jerusalem 70 CE, the hope of a restored kingdom of Israel was rooted deep in Jewish beliefs. Palestine went from Babylonian rule to Persian rule, then to the Greeks, then to the Romans. There can be no doubt that the Jews absorbed a great deal from their captors. Greek culture especially was absorbed into the region in the same way American culture has spread throughout the world. In the third century BCE, Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, the Septuagint.
By the first century BCE, Yahweh was transformed from a local tribal god, the God of Israel, to a Supreme Being, the God of the universe. Instead of the Kingdom of Israel, the fantasy grew to the Kingdom of God. Instead of a flesh and blood king, the next king would be a supernatural intermediary. This cosmic messiah was going to terminate the old world and inaugurate a new one inhabited by Yahweh's chosen people.
The Book of Daniel was the last to be incorporated into Jewish Scripture. In the next passage, we can see the seeds of reward and punishment when the messiah comes at the end of history.
23 13 (Dan. 12:2-3, 13)
At the end, the anointed one will put an end to sin and will restore and build Jerusalem. First, there will be a flood, and at the end there will be a war causing desolation. He shall make a strong covenant and shall cause sacrifice and offering to cease.
2425 26 27 (Dan. 9:24-25)
This apocalyptic vision was so ingrained that the Synoptic Gospel writers have Jesus announcing the good news (gospel) at the beginning of his mission. Yes, dear Christians, Jesus was out to save Jewish sinners before the world came to end. His mission was contingent on a one time event.
17"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt. 4:17)
15"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."(Mark 1:15)
43"I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose." (Luke 4:43)
Jesus sent out, charging them, "Go nowhere
among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,
6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
7And preach as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' (Matt. 10:5-7)
The Book of Revelation predicted that Rome (personified as Babylon) would be completely destroyed into oblivion. Of course it is still standing.
21Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, "So shall Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and shall be found no more; (Rev. 18:21)
It also predicted that a tenth of Jerusalem would be destroyed and seven thousand people would be killed in the earthquake. Of course Jerusalem was completely destroyed and there was no earthquake.
13And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. (Rev. 11:13)
The Roman-Jewish War of 66-70 in which the Romans razed Jerusalem and built a new city on top of the ruins, killed off the sects that were pushing for a restoration of an earthly kingdom of Israel. There was no chance of defeating the Romans. The prophecies were worthless; but to the religious mind, time stands still. So the Kingdom of God would have to move upstairs to heaven and wait for the messiah's return.
I've presented this introduction as a way of showing that Christianity did not erupt suddenly because of Jesus' dramatic influence. It evolved slowly in Darwinian fashion where a large variety of religions, sects and cults where pared down to a few remaining survivors. The origins of religion evolved out of a felt need to make sense out of a natural world poorly understood. There was a lot of hubris involved here too.
This is where Paul comes in. By authoritative accounts, he was a Jew whose mission began no earlier than 33 CE. His surviving letters are dated between the years 50-60. He came from the city of Tarsus in southern Turkey. Tarsus was located on a major highway and was an important market for trade between Syria, Egypt and central Asia Minor. In his early life, he could not fail to be impressed by the currents of different religions flowing through Tarsus. This would explain why his ideas contain a mix of Judaic and pagan mythologies.
That his sect survived among the messianic movements has more to do with a lucky chain of events. He did not survive long enough to see the Roman-Jewish war, but it gave his followers credibility. His Kingdom of God was not on earth; it was in heaven. He had no quarrel with the Romans. In fact he taught that they were anointed by God. Such flattery might have been a factor when the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire in the 4th century. From that time, the word went out to eradicate the pagan religions. You might say Christianity owes its success to Darwinism.
When reading Paul it is essential to keep in mind that his actions were governed by his belief that the world was going to end soon. He saw himself as the only man who was graced by God to spread the word about the coming of Judgment Day. On that fateful day there would much destruction. When the dust settles, the unrighteous and the demonic powers will have been annihilated. There will be a new creation, a new Eden inhabited by the righteous. Of course, he expected to be among the righteous.
This is important enough to repeat: He foresaw a one time opportunity to live forever (as a spirit) that was to occur on the day of the apocalypse. As the centuries rolled by, the Catholic Church had to devise new schemes to keep its authority alive. So as explained above, it was by a series of semantic shifts that Judgment Day was divorced from the Apocalypse and tacked onto the time of an individual's death.
I give Paul credit for his interpretation of the Bible out of convenience, though I'm convinced that he drew heavily from his Jewish contemporaries. On his overall mythology, we can't know what is original to him, but it is not important. What is important is his unchallenged reputation as the ideological founder of Christianity.
From the time of the Babylonian exile 586 BCE to the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, the Jews did their best to resist any authority that interfered with their tradition. Paul did not foresee the destruction of Jerusalem. So it seems likely that his previous allegiance to Roman authority fit with his quest to break off from Jewish tradition. When the war was over, it made him appear prophetic.
Arguably, if it were not for the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of Rome by Emperor Constantine in 313, the fledgling Christian movement would not have survived. Officially, Constantine claims that he had a vision of Christ which he credits to a major battle victory that accounted for his rise to power. But some scholars believe that he needed a new source of revenue. The pagans had the money and the Christians had the friendliness.
To Paul, all authority comes from God. Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed and will incur judgment. When you do wrong, they do not use the sword in vain. They are servants of God who execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Pay your taxes, for they are ministers of God. It didn't seem to matter to him that they were ruthless murderers. Add to the fact that they were pagans; it would imply that God was supporting the pagan religions.
person be subject to the governing authorities. For
there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been
instituted by God.
2Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
4for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.
5Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
6For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
7Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.(Rom. 13:1-7)
Jesus also preached cooperation with the Romans.
21."Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matt. 22:21)
On many occasions Paul claimed that his authority came by grace from God. Just so there is no confusion here, he treats Jesus as a separate deity from God the Father.
9For I am the
least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the
church of God.
10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. (1 Cor. 15:9-10)
on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder,
because of the grace given me by God
16to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 15:15-16)
Meanwhile, Jesus said all authority has been given to him. So we would think that Paul would say he preached on authority from Jesus.
18."All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (Matt. 28:18)
Instead he disavows any prior knowledge of Jesus until the mystery was disclosed to him through the prophetic writings. By "prophetic writings" he was referring to Hebrew Scripture. The Gospels weren't written in his time.
25Now to him
who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of
Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept
secret for long ages
26but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith (Rom. 16:25)
I don't recommend to Christians that they share Paul's confidence in the prophets. Isaiah, for example, walked around naked and barefoot for three years because he thought God told him to. If that wasn't bad enough, he believed that his actions would force the Egyptians and Ethiopians to do the same.
23 4 (Isa. 20:2-4)
When Paul claims his authority came by God's grace, all anyone has is his word for it. There is no reason to suspect he didn't believe himself, but it doesn't matter. In his time, people were not cognizant of the fact that their thoughts were self generated. This is the conceit upon which Christians are placing their faith.