2017-04-09

The Question of whether Paul was the founder of Christianity: Responding to Bart Ehrman

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by Neil Godfrey

A welcome visitor to the blog has raised a question along with an answer by Bart Ehrman and I have promised to respond with my own thoughts. My first impression is that Ehrman’s response talks down to lay readers and protects them from the reality of the complexity of arguments and the debates among scholars. Ehrman’s responses also fail to acknowledge the arguments expressed in works he has strongly declared he has indeed read. This is a pity since those arguments actually address and rebut the same points Ehrman repeats with such confidence and authority. I have learned a lot from Erhman’s earlier works and I have often cited his works positively in my posts. But in responding to Ehrman’s post on Paul’s role in Christian origins I think it is necessary to be somewhat critical.

My original hope to address his entire comment in this one post has had to fall by the wayside and I have only time to comment on his opening remarks here. The rest will soon follow.

Bart Ehrman writes:

A lot of people (at least in my experience) think that Paul is the one who should be considered the “founder” of Christianity – that he is the one who took Jesus’ simple preaching about the coming kingdom of God and altered and expanded it into a complicated doctrine of sin and redemption, being the first of Jesus’ followers to maintain that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus that brought about salvation.   This can’t be the case, because Paul was persecuting Christians already before he had converted, and these were certainly people who believed in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Can’t be the case? Bart Ehrman infers that the opinion is the preserve of ill-informed amateurs. I do not understand why he does not openly explain to his lay readers that a significant (if minority) number of scholars do indeed argue that Paul was the founder of Christianity and that it is a lively topic among scholars. Just Google the words Paul – founder – Christianity and you will see many pages of links dedicated to the topic — some by amateurs, but a good number involving serious discussion by scholars, too.

Even worse, when Ehrman simplistically replies that Paul could not have been the founder of Christianity because there were “Christians” on the scene before him, it is evident that he has even forgotten the nature of the arguments involved. As will be seen from some of the following quotations from other scholars, this misleadingly simplistic argument is in fact a straw man and bypasses the points of those who do argue for Paul’s foundational role. (His answer even implies for the unwary that “Christianity” itself as a descriptor was in existence as early as the years between the crucifixion of Jesus and Paul’s conversion.)

Notice the scholarly support for the view that Paul should indeed be regarded the founder of Christianity. (I am not suggesting that the scholars who think this way are a majority. Many scholars oppose the idea of Paul as founder. But the debate is a vigorous one, nonetheless. Just try that Google search to see how vigorous.)

James D. Tabor writes in Paul the Jew as Founder of Christianity?:

Countless books have been written in the past hundred years arguing that Paul is the “founder” of Christianity, sharply distinguishing him from Jesus.

  • Joseph Klausner’s, From Jesus to Paul is one of the first and is still worth a close study, but many others come to mind,
  • Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of the Paul the Apostle,
  • Gerd Lüdemann, Paul the Founder of Christianity,
  • Hugh Schonfield, Those Incredible Christians,
  • and Barrie Wilson, How Jesus Became Christian, to name a few.
  • My own new book, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity explores these and many related questions.

Most important, I see to place Paul in the broader spectrum of the religions of the ancient Mediterranean world as systems of divinization against the background of a dualistic Hellenistic cosmology but within that world I see him decidedly as laying the foundation for a new faith distinct from Judaism in its various forms. (My formatting)

Among titles Tabor did not have space to mention is Hyam Maccoby’s book, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986). Maccoby writes: 

It was Paul who founded Christianity, and he did so by creating a new story, one sufficiently powerful and gripping to launch a new world religion. (p. 184)

Another that could be added is A. N. Wilson’s Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (1998) in which we read:

And though, as this book has shown, there were many individuals involved in the evolution of Christianity, the aspects which distinguish it from Judaism, and indeed make it incompatible with Judaism, are Paul’s unique contribution. It is for this reason that we can say that Paul, and not Jesus, was — if any one was — the ‘Founder of Christianity’. (p. 258)

A few other scholars are even loathe to suggest Christianity began as a distinct religion at all in the first century. William Arnal in a 2011 article, “The Collection and Synthesis of ‘Tradition’ and the Second-Century Invention of Christianity” (DOl: 10.1163/157006811X608359) argues

“Christianity” as a discursive entity did not exist until the second century CE. As a result, the first-century writings that constitute the field of inquiry for “Chris- tian origins” arc not usefully conceived as “Christian” at all. They were, rather, secondarily claimed as predecessors and traditions by second-century (and later) authors engaged in a process of “inventing tradition” to make sense of their own novel institutional and social circumstances.

Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin goes slightly farther in Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (2004) by arguing that Christianity became truly distinguished from Judaism as a religion (in the modern sense of the term ‘religion’) as late as the fourth century.

–o0o–

What I’d like to see from scholars, not only Bart Ehrman:

Don’t talk down to lay readers. Give us up to date information and the real state of play among scholars. Acknowledge that sometimes significant minorities present enough of a presence to keep the controversy alive. Above all, don’t express your own personal views as if they are the only game in town. Be honest and tell us who else is on the field as well. And don’t straw man their positions. Tell us truly what they argue and if you are not sure say so. We’ll respect you for your honesty and openness.

 

 

21 Comments

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  • 2017-04-09 13:44:06 UTC - 13:44 | Permalink

    I also find Ehrman rather irritating and condescending, and yes he has simplified the argument here. However, I think I agree with the substance of his comment. It is a very significant data point that Paul was persecuting Christianity in the 30s AD. And it does undercut the idea that Christianity only separated from Judaism much later. The Jewish nature of early Christianity has become a cliche among academics but is completely divorced from the considerable evidence of conflict between the two groups. The main motivation, I think, for reducing the differences between Judaism and the Jesus movement, is post-Holocaust guilt for anti-Semitism. The desire to bring Jews and Christians together is admirable, but it has created a mythical past. The virulent anti-Jewish feelings we find in the earliest sources must be a response to a virulent anti-Jesus feeling among the Jewish mainstream. The Jesus movement were heretics from the beginning, and this heresy has nothing to do with Paul.

    splaurie.com

    • Matt Cavanaugh
      2017-04-12 03:04:48 UTC - 03:04 | Permalink

      If I were you, I’d be wary of relying on Acts for “data points”.

      • 2017-04-12 12:48:01 UTC - 12:48 | Permalink

        I am not talking about Acts of course but Paul’s own account in Galatians.

  • 2017-04-09 14:39:09 UTC - 14:39 | Permalink

    Revelation 2:9 : “I know how you are slandered by those who claim to be Jews but are not — they are Satan’s synagogue.” This passage suggests the theme one sees in the Gospel of Matthew, namely that of competing Jewish sects, the idea of what we call Christianity as a sect of Judaism claiming greater legitimacy than (Sadducees, Pharisees). So when we talk about “founders” and “origins,” we have to begin by defining terms. Arnal may be right that Christianity was not a “discursive entity” until the 2d C, but that does not mean that Paul is not a “founder” of Christianity, unless you limit the definition of “founder” to mean the conscious originator of a “discursive entity” from Judaism. I suspect Ehrman, on the other hand, is coming from the point of view that he has of emphasizing the importance of the actual existence of Jesus (Jesus as the “founder” of Christianity), a view which, if accepted, relegates Paul to the status of a convert, which is the traditional story (persecutor becomes convert). This raises the question, in turn, of what is being founded, because clearly, in the Book of Acts, Paul’s influence on Peter to open up the church to non-Jews, and Peter’s conversion to that idea (he gives up the dietary laws), is a point of originary doctrine, and one of the very first that is identifiable in Scripture, i.e., Christianity is not just a sect for Jews, but a universal religion. So, without claiming knowledge of these various scholars’ points of view as to the “founder,” I could see how one could have different points of view about it. The question becomes even more complex when you get into the non-canonical texts, but it seems those appeared mostly later, and yet some before the doctrinal points began to be more settled, post 325 CE.

  • Paul
    2017-04-09 14:44:00 UTC - 14:44 | Permalink

    From Galatians 1 which I think is the only reliable source we have for constructing a life of Paul, Paul persecuted Christians, yes, but they were Jewish Christians who much later were named Ebionites, Nazoraens etc The Jerusalem set, James, Cephas etc were Jewish Christians. They practised the Law and believed in Jesus. Paul’s unique contribution was to make Christianity universal by making the law obsolete entirely. This was his radical idea, his gospel, his unique revelation of Jesus. At least this is what he claims. Maybe there others like Apollos from Alexandria who came to the same conclusion or a similar conclusion independently. Certainly Paul, as he says, worked harder than any of them, to establish the new religion, which was Gentile Christianity. Jewish Christianity petered out and only survived in isolated pockets in the 4th century. The last Jewish Christian bishop of Jerusalem died in about 130. Jewish Christianity was not invented by Paul, but it seems he was the father of the more successful version which did survive in its various permutations to the present day.

  • R Pence
    2017-04-09 18:37:14 UTC - 18:37 | Permalink

    I feel dirty reading this kind of post – and not in a good way. Ehrman has always struck me as a highly disingenuous scholar when it comes to public presentation. Whether or not he’s a New York Times bestselling author is beside the point, and if anything, would speak to his success for simply being a certain kind of functionary. I would just point that that at the start of this post we have Ehrman saying: ‘A lot of people think…’ I can hardly think of an Ehrman quote at this point that doesn’t have some sort of appeal to consensus or reference to consensus. You start to wonder whether scholarship for him isn’t just a popularity contest.

    • Matt Cavanaugh
      2017-04-09 19:24:39 UTC - 19:24 | Permalink

      Ehrman has in the past avoided such traps of circular reasoning, ad hocs, special pleading, and argumentum ad populum. Now it seems that’s all he indulges in. I must concur with you that another motivation — likely wanting to be accepted among his orthodox peers — is at work.

    • Tige Gibson
      2017-04-09 21:10:00 UTC - 21:10 | Permalink

      I want to thumb up this post. It almost doesn’t matter what the subject is, dishonesty contaminates everything he says and also the people who defend him as well.

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2017-04-09 19:05:00 UTC - 19:05 | Permalink

    Ehrman sounds just like some mellifluous, patronizing CARM cleric when he writes stuff like:

    … doesn’t that mean that Paul himself would be the founder and creator of Christianity…?

    It may seem like that’s the case, but it’s not.  Not at all.

    That sure sounds like he is saying that his gospel message came straight from Jesus, not from humans, right?  Yes, right, it does sound that way.… He doesn’t mean what you might at first think he means.

    Yes, yes, naive lay person, I know it seems Paul is saying the sky is blue and the grass green, but actually it’s the other way around. [Applies pat on head.]

    For Paul to so vehemently attest to the Galatians that his apostleship and gospel came from no man rather directly from Christ, then to turn around and tell the Corinthians not only that he is 515th in succession, but that his gospel is actually the news of Christ’s appearance to the first 514 men, makes no sense.

    Remove 1 Cor 15:3-11, and Paul is succinctly and cogently reminding the Corinthians that his gospel states that Christ was raised from the dead. And so, if they do not believe in resurrection, then his preaching (gospel) was in vain.

    It is sad and bizarre that Ehrman, who’s devoted most of his life’s work to highlighting the ubiquitous and nefarious presence of interpolation, has developed a massive blind spot when regarding the orthodox church history timeline. Ehrman borders on outright mendacity when he pretends the vibrant debate over the question of the identity of Paul’s opponents and the nature of their accusations against Paul (among Bultmann, Schmithals, Lüdemann, Georgi, et al.) simply never took place.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2017-04-09 22:51:33 UTC - 22:51 | Permalink

    On the question of Paul as an erstwhile persecutor, I have some doubts. . . .

    1. Paul the persecutor?
    2. Paul the Persecutor: The Case for Interpolation
    • Darth Ballz
      2017-04-09 23:47:08 UTC - 23:47 | Permalink

      Bob Price points out that Paul’s conversion story may be borrowed more or less directly in Acts from 2 Maccabees 3’s story of Heliodorus, and the story of Pentheus in Euripides’ “The Bacchae.”

      • Neil Godfrey
        2017-04-09 23:55:03 UTC - 23:55 | Permalink

        Indeed. In fact the whole of Acts, prologue included, bears the marks of popular fiction. It is a mid to late second century composition creating a myth of proto-orthodox origins and rebutting Marcionism.

        • Darth Ballz
          2017-04-10 00:22:40 UTC - 00:22 | Permalink

          I like Vinny’s point in the interpolation post: “That the passage treats Christianity as a distinct religion seems quite telling.” That struck me as well.

    • Darth Ballz
      2017-04-10 02:05:48 UTC - 02:05 | Permalink

      I suppose the story of Paul’s conversion in the epistles could be a scribal interpolation meant to argue that faith in Christ was superior to traditional forms of Judaism and was meant to ultimately assimilate them.

      • Darth Ballz
        2017-04-10 02:40:12 UTC - 02:40 | Permalink

        I’d like to expand my previous thought. Maybe Paul’s conversion story in the epistles was an interpolation meant to argue faith in Christ was superior to traditional forms of Judaism AND other religions, and was therefore ultimately meant to assimilate them.

        Recall, Paul said:

        “20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the Law I became like one under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law), to win those under the Law. 21To those without the Law I became like one without the Law (though I am not outside the law of God but am under the law of Christ), to win those without the Law.… (1 Cor 9: 20-21).”

      • Neil Godfrey
        2017-04-10 10:12:18 UTC - 10:12 | Permalink

        Paul’s “conversion story” as I read it is very unlike any sort of Damascus Road visitation. He is saying that in some way God revealed his Son “in him”. Not “to him”.

        Was that a reference to an inner knowledge; or was it a spirit possession experience — where Paul could say people “saw Christ” in him. Paul was a bodily house for Christ?

  • Carlos Giovanardi
    2017-04-10 00:27:54 UTC - 00:27 | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Neil Godfrey,

    I have a lot of doubts and would like your help.

    From Wikipedia, we read:

    Elysium or the Elysian Fields is a conception of the afterlife that developed over time and was maintained by some Greek religious and philosophical sects and cults. Initially separate from the realm of Hades, admission was reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes. Later, it expanded to include those chosen by the gods, the righteous, and the heroic, where they would remain after death, to live a blessed and happy life, and indulging in whatever employment they had enjoyed in life.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elysium

    1.- “… maintained by some Greek religious and philosophical sects and cults.”
    Can you explain or show what religious and philosophical sects and cults were them?

    2.- Is it known how the passage from the concept of Elysium to the concept of Paradise took place?

    3.- “…admission was reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes.” It seems that it was a different concept, only few were allowed to get in. Can you expand?

    4,- “Later, it expanded to include those chosen by the gods, the righteous, and the heroic,…”. Again, same as 3. And it seems to be a different view from Mathew 5, 2-12. Can you expand?

    Another source:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_and_Hellenistic_philosophy

    5.- How Stoicism, Platonism and Epicureanism were surpassed by Christianity?
    Because, it seems that mythological concepts were mixed with philosophical concepts.

    And something happened in the way to Damascus.

    I suspect that something “hidden” or “not explained” exists between these two facts (Mathew 5, 2-12 and Acts 9, 1-9).

    Thanks,

    CG.-

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-04-10 10:35:15 UTC - 10:35 | Permalink

      Unfortunately I am not really up to speed with the particular points you are asking about. The best I can suggest for following up what is meant by the Wikipedia articles, and what sources are used, is to try to follow the links and the numbered footnotes to see where they lead. I see there are six citations linked to the first paragraph to follow up.

      One of the cults (using the word in the technical sense) would be the Eleusinian Mysteries — the worship of Demeter. You might want to follow up the Pythagorean “cult” — philosophical schools could involve worship of certain gods.

      The article says that “initially” admission to the Elysian fields was restricted — it was only in later years that entry became “democratised” — initiates into the mysteries could enter — probably from around the fifth and fourth centuries, but others may know more.

      I don’t know how the Elysian fields or Paradise relates to Matthew 5:2-12. The gospel is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven — which may be a reference to a future kingdom on earth, not in heaven.

  • db
    2017-04-10 03:04:38 UTC - 03:04 | Permalink

    Per Neil Godfrey, “Ehrman is a well-read scholar so he knows very well that there is an abundant scholarly literature discussing the influence of ancient philosophy on the thinking of Paul. […] Is Bart Ehrman so offended by the very idea of mythicism that he is quite prepared to deny the research of his own scholarly peers, and even deny what he himself has written, if he suspects any of that might become tinder for a mythicist flame?” [Godfrey, Neil (8 April 2012). “Ehrman sacrifices Paul to launch his attack on mythicism”. Vridar.] – available online @ http://vridar.org/2012/04/08/ehrman-sacrifices-paul-to-launch-his-attack-on-mythicism/

    Per Raphael Lataster, “Throughout Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman asserts that the highly questionable, fiction-filled, and relatively late Gospel accounts can generally be trusted, because of the written and oral sources underlying them that “obviously” existed, though they do not anymore (for example, see pp. 75-79). Not once does Ehrman explain the rationality and widespread endorsement of this ‘method’. Nor does he explain how his approach can provide information about the content, genre, and so forth, of these hypothetical sources.” [Lataster, Raphael (4 January 2017). “Review Essay: Bart Ehrman and the Elusive Historical Jesus”. Literature & Aesthetics. p. 182. Retrieved 10 February 2017. “Literature & Aesthetics. Vol 26 (2016). ISSN: 2200-0437”] – available online @ https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/LA/article/view/1143

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