I recently read a post where the author said, “the Jesus story would now be over and done with if it were not for Paul reinterpreting it into something it wasn’t; substitutionary atonement designed for Gentiles as well as Jews.” I thought that was a very confusing statement, so I left a few comments with questions that I was hoping the author would answer so I could clarify what he meant and how he came to that conclusion.
He’s probably not the only one who is saying this or believes this. If you ask the average Christian if Paul reinterpreted the Gospel message, you’ll probably get mixed answers. Some may believe that he did, while others will maintain that he didn’t. But if you push the person who says that he didn’t, most of them probably wouldn’t be able to explain why except that his writings are Scripture, and Scripture can’t be wrong. But an answer like that won’t satisfy very many, especially if they scoff at the idea of Scripture having authority.
Because Paul is arguably the most influential missionary and evangelist of all time, this is actually a very important topic to consider. Let’s face it—if Paul didn’t have the influence that he had, then he wouldn’t have spread the Gospel as well has he had. He also wouldn’t have had his collective influence on the New Testament. Without Paul, the New Testament canon would consist of Matthew, Mark, John, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, John’s epistles, Jude, and Revelation. Luke and Acts wouldn’t have been written because Luke was Paul’s associate (no Paul means no Luke). Paul’s life influenced around half of the entire New Testament, while the other half is spread among 6 authors.
So we have to ask: is this true? Did Paul really reinterpret the original Gospel message?
To find out, we need to know who Paul was, try to discern a motive for such a reinterpretation, and take a look at some other factors that might shed some light.
Paul, the Missionary Formerly Known as Saul
Paul used to be known as Saul. Why he made the switch? I don’t know. I’m sure someone else does, but I don’t. Acts 13:9 seems to suggest that he went by both: “But Saul, who was also called Paul…” However, in Christian circles, “Saul” is typically associated with the time before his conversion on the road to Damascus, and “Paul” is typically associated with the time after his conversion.
So who was Saul?
Saul was a young Jewish leader who, in modern terms, was on the top of the world in first century Palestine. He was in a position that most Jews only dreamed of, but a very few obtained. He was a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees, a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” who was educated by the respected Gamaliel (c.f. Acts 22:22, Philippians 3:5). In all respects, he was a rising star in the world of Jewish leadership, “advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] own age” (Galatians 1:14). . He was young and had influence, power, and wealth. And his trajectory showed that he had nowhere to go but up.
Furthermore, he actively persecuted the followers of Christ by hunting them down, throwing them in prison and seeking their death (Acts 8:3, 9:1)). He also witnessed and approved of the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58-8:1). All of this was supported and approved by the high priest—the greatest Jewish authority (c.f. Acts 9:1). Again, Saul was a rising star in Jewish leadership.
For the accusation that he simply reinterpreted the Gospel message, he would have to give all this up. He could no longer find approval from the high priest to persecute Christians. He would have to preach something contrary to Jewish law that had been taught and ingrained into Jewish culture for 4000 years. He would have to forfeit his lofty status in Jewish leadership and the influence, power, and wealth that came with it.
He would have to give up everything in exchange for nothing. That doesn’t really sound like a compelling motive…
But maybe he expected to trade his current influence, power and wealth in the Jewish for more influence, power, and wealth in the larger Gentile-Christian community. That’s possible.
Maybe He Expected More…
Maybe Paul saw the limitations to what he had. After all, he could only go so far in Jewish Palestine. The Jews were a small group of people in a small corner of the world. Since he wasn’t from the tribe of Levi, he wasn’t allowed to be part of the priesthood. But he may have wanted the type of power that the priesthood, especially the high priest, had.
Along came Christianity. Here was his chance, his opportunity to seize the power that he wouldn’t be able to get if he stayed inside the confines and limitations of Judaism. So he put all his eggs in one basket, jumped ship, and pushed ahead with all the zeal that he had with Judaism with one exception: he’d make the message more palatable to the masses.
Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. He has witnessed people stoned, thrown and prison, and killed for the Christian message because he was the one doing some of it! Obviously he wouldn’t want that! He wanted power. He wanted money. He wanted to be on top of the world. He claimed that he wasn’t preaching for money or power (1 Thess. 2:5-6, 9). But it’s easy to talk when there’s no actions to back it up.
And how did that go? What was his reward?
According to 2 Corinthians 11, “[I’ve received] far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
You would think, if he had actually reinterpreted the original message to obtain more power, he might have reconsidered going back to Judaism! But maybe despite all his hardships, he kept pressing on because he thought that one day it will pay off. One day, he’d be rich beyond his wildest dreams.
Instead he was imprisoned and beheaded.
I guess he backed up his words with action after all.
Other Things to Consider
Not only did Paul have absolutely no motivation to reinterpret the Gospel message, there are other factors that a skeptic needs to address if they’re choosing to go that route. I won’t spend much time on these because my goal is to point out the cumulative problem for the skeptic. Personally, I think that Paul having no good reason to reinterpret the message is convincing enough to me. But, for some, it may not be, which is why they’ll need to also address the following things as well.
Paul’s Pro-Gentile Life and Message Lines Up with Jesus’ Teachings
Though Jesus’s ministry was primarily to the Israelites, it wasn’t solely to them. Jesus didn’t preach only to the Jews and exclude everyone else. The very first person that he revealed himself as the Messiah was a Samaritan (John 4). He also healed a demon-possessed man (Mark 5), taught people from the Decapolis (also Mark 5) healed two demon-possessed men from Gadarenes (Matthew 8), healed a Canaanite (Matthew 15), healed the daughter of a Roman centurion (Matthew 8) and more.
Judaism Has Always Been Inclusive
Despite what some think, you didn’t have to be an Israelite to worship God; it wasn’t a prerequisite to being a Jew. Some prominent non-Israelite heroes are Ruth the Moabite and Rahab a Canaanite, both of whom were in Jesus’s family line. Judaism welcomed anyone who wanted to worship Jehovah (c.f. Leviticus 22:18, Deuteronomy 16:11, 16:14). Even some Old Testament prophets were commissioned to preach to Gentiles (see Jeremiah 1:5 and the book of Jonah). Jesus, or Paul for that matter, didn’t suddenly invent this concept—it’s been there from it’s inception.
Paul Received His Message from the Disciples
It’s believed that Paul’s conversion was 1.5-3 years after the cross. After his conversion, he went to Arabia and Jerusalem for 3 years before finally meeting with Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:17-19). This means that Peter and James had been preaching and establishing a church for 4.5-6 years before Paul even began his evangelistic work. That begs the question: What were they teaching before Paul, if not the message Paul went on to preach? Furthermore, Paul met with the disciples again 14 years later to confirm that his message was the right one (c.f. Galatians 1:15-2:2) and they confirmed that was the message they’ve been preaching since the beginning (Galatians 2:6).
Paul was Commissioned Differently than Peter and James
Continuing the thought on Peter and James: they were the leaders in the Jerusalem church, but that does not mean that Christianity was ever meant to be a Jews-only religion. Peter’s first sermon, on the day of Pentecost, included proselytes—Gentile converts to Judaism. But, they were preaching where the Lord wanted them to preach. Paul, however, commissioned by the Lord to preach to the Gentiles. To argue that because someone’s commission is different means that their message is different doesn’t make any sense.
Peter Confirmed Paul’s Message in Writing
Peter confirmed that Paul was teaching the original message, not an interpretation (c.f. 2 Peter 15-17). Moreover, Peter lifts Paul’s writings up to the level of sacred, God-inspired Scripture. If anyone in the world had the ability to confirm or deny Paul’s teachings, it would the rock on whom Jesus’ church would be built.
Even if legitimacy of Peter’s epistles are doubted (which they are amongst some), we can still see that Paul’s teaching was widely accepted by the early church (when the disciples were alive). Colossians 4:16 tells the church in Colossae to pass along the letter after it’s been read.
Disciples Were Martyred for “Paul’s” Preaching?
Since Paul’s preaching was so wide-spread and influential, and since they confirmed his preaching, it’s no doubt that some disciples went to their deaths because of Paul’s preaching. Yet not a single one backed out and said “Whoa bro—this is all a misunderstanding. It’s that Paul guy. He’s the one preaching the crazy stuff.” Instead, they went to their deaths with the same message as Paul on their lips. I imagine that someone like Peter, who was there from the beginning, would have only died for the right message, not a reinterpretation.
Paul Wasn’t the Only Missionary!
Shockingly enough, Paul wasn’t the only missionary to the Gentile world. He wasn’t even the first missionary to the Gentile world. As we’ve already seen, Jesus preached to Gentiles. On Pentecost, Peter preached to men from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2), and they would have taken the message to their home country (similar to Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8). Before Paul ever went to Rome, there was already a church established (which begs the question: How did it get there?) And we have good reason to believe that many of the other disciples went to the Gentiles, especially after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD (which is a mere 20-25 years after many of Paul’s epistles).*
Critical Scholars Claim that Paul is the Best Source for Christianity
Critical scholarship believes that Paul is the best source to know what early Christianity believed. This means that instead of pushing a re-interpreted message, Paul’s message is the original message. G.A. Wells, who believes Jesus never lived, grants that 1 Corinthians is a genuine Pauline epistle. Yet this is the epistle that Paul states that he received his Gospel message straight from Peter and James just a few short years from the crucifixion (1 Cor. 15). Galatians is also recognized as a genuine one of Paul’s epistles, which is the one that Paul says the disciples confirmed his message (Galatians 1-2)!
Christianity Started in Jerusalem
After all this talk about Paul taking a reinterpreted message to the Gentile world, it’s all overshadowed by one important fact: Christianity started in Jerusalem. I don’t know of anyone who doubts this little tidbit of information, but it’s relevant to Paul because Christianity, it’s teaching, and it’s following, did not start in the Gentile world. If Paul was the source of the message, then it would have started in the Gentile community, not in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the source. And Jerusalem is exactly where Paul wasn’t.
There are absolutely no justifiable grounds to make the claim that Paul re-interpreted the message into “substitutionary atonement designed for Gentiles as well as Jews.” For someone to make that claim, they would have to refute the following:
- Paul didn’t have a good motive to leave Judaism.
- Paul had every motive to return to Judaism if he had indeed reinterpreted the Christian message.
- Paul backed up his words about not preaching for money or power with his life.
- Paul’s Gentile-friendly message wasn’t anything new—that’s how it was supposed to have always been since the inception of Judaism.
- Paul received the Christian message from Peter and James, who had already been preaching for about half a decade.
- Paul confirmed his message was the same as the disciples 14 years after receiving it to make sure he hadn’t changed it.
- Peter confirms, in writing, Paul’s entire ministry.
- Paul’s teaching was widely accepted by the early church.
- Christians were dying from the message before Paul’s conversion.
- Christians were dying from the message after Paul’s conversion.
- Paul died for his message.
- The message preceded Paul in some instances.
- The message went to areas that Paul never went to.
- Converts who weren’t converted by Paul took the message to their homeland.
- Critical scholars believe Paul is the best source for early Christianity, and his very epistles say where he received his message.
- Christianity started in Jerusalem, the very place Paul was not preaching.
With all that in mind, what would have happened if Paul never existed?
Simple: the same message would have been preached and the same message would have gone to the Gentile world. So “this whole Jesus thing” would have spread with or without him. And it wouldn’t be over and done with.
Needless to say, the idea that Paul reinterpreted the Gospel message is a fanciful thought that originated in someone’s imagination. The claim just isn’t supportable. You’d have to find reasoning for (at least) 16 things to justify that Paul reinterpreted the Gospel message. I imagine that not even Bart Ehrman or the Jesus Seminar would give the idea sincere consideration. So you shouldn’t either.