Every now and then I like to go "slumming" as I call it. Rather than read the Bible or some well written devotional or commentary, I will pick up and read one of the numerous books claiming to either debunk Christianity, or claim to provide the reader with a view of the "true historical Jesus" and the "true origins of Christianity." If you study these works carefully, you can learn a few things from them and they can be a fairly interesting read. But, mostly they are just a tedious and inane repetition of claims made against Christianity in the first two centuries but warmed over with so-called modern scholarship. There truly is nothing new under the sun.
The modern scholarship that most of these books rely on is what is known as higher criticism. The basic idea of higher criticism is that you can study the form and/or origin of an ancient writing and learn something about the people who wrote it by the way they wrote it. In general, that's not a bad idea and higher criticism does have some validity. One result of the efforts of higher critics is that we can see how Matthew and Luke sometimes quote from Mark and sometimes quote from something else. In all cases the writers of the Synoptic gospels add their own unique sections to the common story. To me, that makes a lot of sense. Each of the writers depends on an existing oral tradition, plus the writings they have available, and then adds to those sources. As a result you have a combination of earlier material and later material. The later material in the gospels seems to be in response to critics of the Christian message. That makes sense also. Even today someone will write a book, publish it, and then receive criticism of his work. In response, the author will create a new edition, or possibly a second book that responds to the criticism of his earlier work. So, I find is quite plausible that the same thing happened in the development of Christian writings of the first and second century. By studying the form of the writings you can glean an understanding of the historical development of Christianity. You also see that there is a common thread that reaches back to the very beginning.
Unfortunately, that type of form criticism has led some "scholars" (and I use that term only to be polite) to think that they now have license to cut-and-paste their own version of the New Testament. They think that since there is earlier material and later material that they can just ignore the later parts and somehow come to a valid conclusion of what original Christianity was like. Inevitably they reduce Jesus down to either a Jewish reformer or a failed Jewish Messiah with a Christianity that develops later as some invented new religion. Some also will claim that Jesus is an invented savior created through a merger of pagan and Jewish myths. Some theories are even crazier than that. But their theories are always based on an invented gospel that does not exist except in their theories. Amazingly, it seems that the parts of the gospels that fit their theory are the valid parts and the parts that would discredit their theory are the later, invented parts that can be discarded! Who woulda guessed?
To all of this I say: bunk. These types of scholars are simply assuming, a priori, that the later material is invented and without validity. It is just as valid to assume that the later material is precisely what the earlier Christians believed but didn"t write down until needed. Perhaps it was written in response to false accusations against them. On the other hand, it may have been written to help further explain the oral tradition to new Christians. You can"t just ignore the later material on the assumption that it is wrong or invented. If the later material combined with the earlier material creates a consistent, believable narrative that is consistent with the culture of the period, then you have to go with all of it as a valid and accurate representation of early Christianity.
Now, lest you think I am just making this up, read the following carefully. These are excerpts from the book The Mythmaker by Hyam Maccoby. Maccoby makes the outrageous claim that Paul was not a Pharisee, but Jesus was, and that Paul invented Christianity over the protestations of the real Christians. Since Paul"s version won out, everything we read in the gospels is adulterated and corrupted by Pauline thought. Seriously. Check it out:
"We should remember that the New Testament, as we have it, is much more dominated by Paul than appears at first sight...[F]or the earliest writings in the New Testament are actually Paul's letters, which were written about AD 50-60, while the Gospels were not written until the period AD 70-110. This means that the theories of Paul were already before the writers of the Gospels and coloured their interpretations of Jesus' activities...This is, of course, not the whole story, for the Gospels are based on traditions and even written sources which go back to a time before the impact of Paul, and these early traditions and sources are not entirely obliterated in the final version and give valuable indications of what the story was like before Paulinist editors pulled it into final shape...Rival interpretations, which at one time had been orthodox, opposed to Paul's very individual views, now became heretical and were crowded out of the final version of the writings adopted by the Pauline Church as the inspired canon of the New Testament." The Mythmaker, p 4.
See what I mean? First of all, the claim that the gospels were not written until 70-110 AD is not accepted by all scholars of the New Testament. F. F. Bruce makes a good argument that almost everything in the New Testament canon was written prior to 70 AD. But if that were true then Maccoby's entire theory would fall flat on its face. Well, at least Maccoby has the good sense to not try and claim Paul's epistles were written 40 years after Paul died. Now, note how Maccoby admits that some of what is in the gospels goes back prior to Paul. And so we might well ask, how do you tell which parts are pre-Paul and which parts are ante-Pauline influence? Like this:
"Here we hit upon an important principle of interpretation of the Gospels: when we come across a passage that goes against the grain of the narrative, we may be confident that this is part of the original, authentic narrative that has survived the operations of the censor. Since the general trend is anti-Pharisee, so that the narrative becomes more and more anti-Pharisee as it is successively re-edited, any passages friendly to the Pharisees cannot be late additions to the text...instead they must be survivals that have escaped the eye of the editor." The Mythmaker, p. 32.
Oh! Now we see. If the parts in the gospel prove the thesis, then they must be TRUE and ORIGINAL! Yeah, right. Well, all in all Maccoby is not as bad as most. He at least makes reference to how a passage might go "against the grain of the narrative." In the jargon of higher criticism that"s what is called "tendenz." What is the overall tendency of the writing? If there is a sudden shift of tendency, then the writing has probably been modified by a later editor. Make sense? For example, if in this writing you found a paragraph that wasn"t talking about higher criticism of the Bible, or Maccoby"s thesis and my response to it, you would say that it had gotten in there by mistake, or that someone inserted it later. Overall, it's a good principle but it is open to a biased, subjective interpretation of the text. You still have to interpret the text to determine what the "grain of the narrative" is.
Part of Maccoby's theory is that Jesus was a Pharisee. Because of that, he claims that the tendency (or grain of the narrative) of the original material should be pro-Pharisee. I simply ask the question, what historical writing does Maccoby use to make his claim that Jesus was a Pharisee? Would you like to venture a guess? How about THE GOSPELS. Did you catch the fact that Maccoby is removing things that go with the grain of the narrative and leaving in those things that go against it? In other words, he assumes his thesis as a means of interpreting the writing that he uses to prove his thesis. It is one big circular argument and nothing more. But it sounds good to those that want to find an excuse to dismiss Christianity while holding onto Jesus as a wise teacher. Many people who are not Christians nevertheless like the sayings of Jesus where he preaches love and generosity and are perfectly willing to accept Jesus as a "good Rabbi." Thus books like Maccoby's will always have a built-in audience.
What all this is about, really, is that there are some very real and valid criticisms of the Christian Church over the past nineteen-hundred years. The hunting down of heretics, inquisitions, crusades, Catholic-Protestant wars, etc., have all left a stench hanging over the Church. Today you have Christianity in such a divided and fractioned state that it is difficult to say what Christianity is any more. Maccoby is a Talmud scholar and appears to be mainly concerned with anti-Semitism. Through much of its existence the Church has indeed been anti-Jewish and that is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately, Maccoby blames Paul for that and thus tries to discredit Paul while also trying to rescue Jesus from the alleged anti-Jewish Paul. I feel that"s a misunderstanding of Paul and Jesus on the part of Maccoby. In any case, the errors of the Church cannot be eliminated by simply making things up no matter how convenient they may be to the author"s desires. More importantly, the things that went wrong in Christianity can indeed be understood by discerning the shift away from the earliest doctrines of the Christians. It"s just that the answer Maccoby wants to give is completely wrong. The real answer is even more shocking than Maccoby"s claim. In one sense he is right; Jesus is not as anti-Pharisee as it appears at first. Then again, neither is Paul. But, really, that"s irrelevant.
That"s about all I have to say of Maccoby"s book. It is tempting to sit down and go point by point where I think he is right and wrong. I don"t consider that constructive or very useful. You can get his book or others like it, read through and draw you own conclusions. Mainly, I don"t feel a desire to continue in that direction since to simply critique another"s argument you are in effect controlled by the points that author considers important. You don"t get to bring up the issues that you think are critical. So, I won"t do that. This writing has said what I wanted to say on that matter. Instead, I will simply state my own argument as to what Jesus and Paul are "really" all about.
Many historians and theologians look at the conflict in early Christianity as Jewish vs. anti-Jewish or Torah vs. anti-Torah. But, consider the possibility that it is simply two views of Judaism and two views of the Torah that are in conflict. In one view, exemplified by that of the Pharisees, the Law of Moses is a set of rules for human behavior. In contrast, Paul treats the Law of Moses as an allegorical depiction of man"s salvation that was played out in human history. The idea of an allegorical interpretation is not anti-Jewish at all. Philo of Alexandria did very much the same thing. This is Paul"s view:
"Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart." (2Co 3:12-15)
Paul claims the traditional Jewish interpretation of Moses is incorrect and that the Jews have had a "vail" that prevents correct interpretation of Moses. Paul is saying that the Old Testament could NOT be understood until Jesus provided the key to understanding. When Jesus lived out the allegory on the stage of human history, then and only then could the true meaning of the covenant be understood. In that light, you can understand what Paul means when he says:
"For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth." (Rom 10:4)
The common interpretation of that statement is that Paul is claiming the Law is made void. But, Paul uses a precise terminology here: telos nomon. The word telos is used by Paul to represent the completion of a thing, not its abandonment. In many places in the English Bibles telos is translated as "perfect" to indicate that very idea. Paul is saying that the purpose of the law was to describe the perfect man so that when that perfect man appeared he could be recognized. Once the drama of Christ"s life was fully played out, the Law ceased to function as a means of righteousness. Going back to 2 Cor. 3, Paul is using similar terminology. What is translated as "end of that which is abolished" is telos katargeo. The word katargeo means for something to "become idle and inoperative". Having been played out to the end, the Law as allegory is no longer operative. Most importantly, Paul makes it known that man was never made righteous by the works of keeping the law. It was ALWAYS because of faith (Rom. 4, Heb. 11).
Another conflict that Paul must deal with is the idea of Jewish preeminence before God. It was that idea, along with the strict observance of the Torah that led some to conclude that Christians must convert to Judaism in order to truly follow Jesus. Paul notes that the Israelites were to be an oracle of God for the whole world (Rom. 3:1-2) but also has to discredit the idea of Jewish exclusiveness. That is what he is writing about in Romans 9. "As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." Paul makes it known that simply being born of the seed of Abraham does not make a person chosen by God. Since the Jews had not spread the knowledge of God to all nations, the oracles of God would be taken from them and given to another. Some of the parables of Jesus speak directly to this. (Parable of the talents, Matt. 25:14-30, and parable of the unjust steward, Lk 16.) Paul expresses that idea as a branch that is cut off. Unfortunately, later Christians beginning in the second century took that to mean that God had abandoned the Jews and anti-Jewish propaganda prevailed. They should have taken note of Paul"s warning that what was cut off could be easily grafted back in and what was grafted in could be cut off (Rom. 11). There is nothing in these doctrines of Paul that is in anyway anti-Jewish.
But we have to go one step further here. Mainly what Paul means by the Law of Moses is a system of religious observance. That included many things in regard to man"s moral behavior, but in particular circumcision, Sabbath and feasts, dietary laws, etc. All of these things together can be considered a religion. What Paul is claiming has ended is not law in the sense of morality, but rather law in the sense of a religion. In other words, no religious observance ever made man righteous but only served to focus man"s attention on man"s unrighteousness. The "law of sin and death" expresses the idea that because of man"s sin, man must make an atoning sacrifice in order to gain God"s favor or avoid His wrath. That idea of atoning sacrifice was every bit as true for Pagan religion as it was in Jewish religion. Paul discards them both.
What Paul is proclaiming as the message of the Gospel is that man is now free to relate to God on a personal, one to one basis. Because Jesus removed all penalties for sin once and for all, there is no need to engage in the practice of religious ritual in order to stand in the right relationship with God. We who accept Christ and have received his Spirit are already in that relationship. And, because of that relationship, a divine power comes to assist in living a moral life that is pleasing to God. No longer is morality to be defined by a list of rules of behavior and accomplished by man"s will power. Moral behavior is now accomplished as a result of the indwelling presence of Christ. As Jesus said, "What is not possible for man is possible for God" (Mark 10:27, Matt. 19:26), and, "You can do nothing without me" (John 15:5). Jesus is not prescribing a new religious system or reforming an old one either. He is making everything totally dependent on his own person and our relationship to him.
That is the message that was able to grab the attention of not only Jews but Gentiles as well. It is the only way to explain how Christianity was able to spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. It is the only message that would cause men and women to abandon themselves to persecution without recanting their beliefs. It is also the only explanation of why the early Christians were considered atheists. They would not participate in the religions of the Jews, the Pagans, the Emperor cult, or any other religious system.
The idea that Jesus was a Jewish reformer will not work. Why would anyone outside of the Jewish community care? The idea that Jesus was a Jewish political Messiah will not work either. First, it didn"t happen. Jesus did not set up a political kingdom on this earth. Even if he had done so, it would have been of no consequence to the rest of the world. Second, Jesus explicitly denies that he intended to do so and Paul makes it clear that Christians should not revolt against the political systems they lived under (Rom. 13). Essene asceticism and poverty will not work any more than syncretistic Gnostic mysteries will work. Every culture had those ideas in one form or another and there is nothing unique about Jesus if he is proclaiming one of those religious practices. To put Jesus in any of these categories is to effectively remove Jesus from human history altogether. The only Jesus that ever had an impact on human history is the Jesus that Paul spoke of. Jesus was a religious iconoclast, one of a kind. That is the historical and real Jesus.
So, what happened? How is it that Paul"s anti-religion message becomes one of the major religions of the world? What is obvious to me, after thirty years of inquiry is that the problems of Christianity arise out of the abandonment of the message of Paul. When the Christians gave in and allowed the teachings of Jesus and Paul to be used as the new state religion of Rome under Constantine, they re-introduced the very things that Paul fought to get rid of. Once again, religious observance became the means of salvation and the Gospel of Jesus Christ was abandoned. When the Church quits "slumming" and gets back to the message that Paul preached, then and only then will the Church will return to the power that it exhibited in its origins.