Over at his blog, scholar James Tabor directs us to a short article he wrote two years ago: “Should Christians Celebrate the Birth of Paul, Not Jesus?” I find it a curious article. It posits a radical discontinuity between the religion of Jesus and the religion of the gospel. How might a Christian who is not a biblical scholar respond to Tabor’s thesis?
One immediately notes the twist Tabor gives to the resurrection of Jesus. He acknowledges that Paul believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead, but he does not attribute belief in the resurrection to the Christians who preceded Paul: “The Romans crucified Jesus for sedition in the year 30 AD, but his apostles, led by James his brother, continued his movement, believing that Jesus would return from heaven as the triumphant Messiah.” Believing that Jesus the Messiah will triumphantly return from heaven is not quite the same thing as believing that he has been bodily raised from the dead by his Father. The former is not dependent on the latter, but the latter explains and authorizes the former. It is the latter that formed the heart of the primitive kerygma, as documented by N. T. Wright in his magisterial tome The Resurrection of the Son of God. Tabor’s thesis that St Paul is the inventor of Christianity is undermined, in other words, by the very message that the earliest Christians proclaimed to the world. Paul may have unpacked the theological significance of the resurrection in ways that the other apostles and evangelists did not; but he most certainly shared with them the belief that on the third day God had raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-9).
We may, however, acknowledge Tabor’s point that the religion of Jesus, however it is expounded by the biblical critics, was not identical to the teaching of the Church. As Rudolf Bultmann memorably put it: “He who formerly had been the bearer of the message was drawn into it and became its essential content. The proclaimer became the proclaimed” (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, p. 33). Christians not only acknowledge this fact but embrace it. We confess the apostolicity of the Church each Sunday when we speak together the Nicene Creed: “In One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” The proclamation and teaching of the Church is not mere reiteration of the teachings of the pre-Easter teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. These teachings were reinterpreted by the Apostles as they meditated upon them in light of the seismic event of Pascha and proclaimed this event to their fellow Jews and eventually even to Gentiles. They had to provide answers to questions like “Who is this Jesus who has risen from the dead?” “What did he teach and what does it all mean?” “What is the significance of his death?” “What will be the consequences of his return in glory?” “How are believers in Jesus now to live in this interim period?” The Apostles are the mediators of our knowledge of Jesus and our faith in Jesus. They provide us not just “facts” but “interpreted facts.” Jesus comes to us processed through the minds and hearts of the Apostles whose lives were converted and transformed by their encounters with the risen Christ. What they tell us about Jesus cannot be divorced from their faith in the resurrection. Thomas F. Torrance explains the difference, with specific reference to the Apostle Paul:
It is to be remembered that Jesus himself was not a Christian, for a Christian is one saved by Christ. Theology is not concerned, therefore, with Jesus’ own private religious understanding of God, but with that which he means us to have through his vicarious life and activity, i.e. the understanding which redeemed sinners have of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This is the kind of understanding of God which took shape in the apostolic mind and which became embodied in the New Testament reports. This is why, evidently, so little attempt is made by St. Paul to ground his teaching about God, mediated through Christ and in the Spirit, upon the ipsissima verba or private religion of Jesus, although he does claim to be operating within, and continuing, the authentic tradition. (Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 13, n. 18)
The Apostle Paul did not proclaim himself as the eschatological hope of the world. He proclaimed Jesus, crucified and risen. It was this Jesus whom he famously encountered on the road to Damascus.
“Should Christians celebrate the birth of Paul, not Jesus?” asks James Tabor. The question is intentionally provocative. No doubt he poses it to us with tongue in cheek. But let’s momentarily take it seriously. Our answer must be an immediate and decisive no. Paul did not rise from the dead. Paul did not pour out the Spirit at Pentecost. Paul will not return in glory to judge the quick and the dead. Paul is not our Lord and Savior.
We acclaim St Paul as Apostle to the Gentiles, we invoke him in our prayers, and we venerate his icon and relics. But each Christmas we kneel at the creche and worship Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God.