Should Christians Celebrate the Birth of Paul, Not Jesus?

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.

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11 Responses to Should Christians Celebrate the Birth of Paul, Not Jesus?

  1. I am puzzled that anyone thinks they can get behind the gospels (and St. Paul) to speak of another Christ.

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  2. tsoigitli says:

    I hesitate not to say that nobody in the scholarly community takes Tabor’s scholarship on Jesus or St. Paul seriously. He is on the edge of pseudo-scholarship: his work in the 90s and prior saves him from being permanently thrust therein, but the books he has put out on these subjects have so little to redeem them it is somewhat comical they were published by anyone at all.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      If folks like Tabor didn’t write his books and articles, what would bloggers like me do with ourselves? 😉

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    • brian says:

      Yes, but he’s the sort that the fine folks at History Channel will trot out as an authority just to shake up the faithful for their pious gullibility. I mean, haven’t they seen the proof that religion is all the result of ancient alien astronauts?

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  3. Pingback: Morning coffee 2014-12-27 – Paul versus Jesus? | Mangy Dog

  4. john says:

    “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,…”
    …in other words we should settle for a rhetorical construct? In other words XC the Jew means nothing? … am I understanding this right?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, if you are interpreting the Torrance citation to mean that the historical particularities of the Incarnation, including our Lord’s Jewish identity, are irrelevant to Christian theology, then Torrance himself would violently disagree with you. I refer you especially to TFT’s The Mediation of Christ. But Torrance does believe that theology is properly grounded upon the apostolic witness, not upon the reconstructions of the historical critics. He believes this not just because these reconstructions are unstable, varying dramatically from one historian to another, but because they methodologically exclude the apostolic reinterpretation of the words and acts of Jesus in light of his resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit.

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      • john says:

        … one could argue that apostolic witness is just as subjective and indeed the same as “… unstable … reconstructions of the historical critics ” the only difference being the total DE contextualization of the former; a total double standard peppered with a dose of magical thinking … no?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          John, if you go back and re-read the citation from Torrance, you will note that he is speaking of *Christian* theology. That is the crucial point for the article. Christians, as Christians, do not ground their faith upon the reconstructions of “neutral” biblical critics, whose methodology excludes the resurrection. Hence we read the NT, including the gospels, through the lens of the resurrection. This makes total sense, don’t you think? After all, the only reason these texts exist and have been collected together as Scripture is because of the resurrection faith of the Church.

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          • John says:

            I just feel that XC doesn’t make any “real” sense outside his earthly circumstances (read 1st Century Jew) otherwise what would be the point of the Incarnation.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’ve just been rereading Charles Williams’s Descent of the Dove (1939), in which he writes of St. Paul, “The old silly view that he contradicted Jesus Christ on every important matter and that none of the other Apostles noticed it, or that their faint objections have faded from all record, has probably vanished along with other dim myths of the simple Gospel. The one practically certain thing about the early Church is that all the Churches, by whomever founded or taught, largely agreed. And they seem to have agreed with St. Paul about the explanation as much as he agreed with them about the fact.” It seems, sadly, that he overestimated the probability of variants of the “old silly view” having “vanished”, and perhaps even underestimated the agility of the clever in evading the “one practically certain thing”.

    The construction of, e.g., such a thing as “Jesus’ own private religious understanding of God”, whether for the purpose of concluding “Theology is not concerned” with it, or another, seems a very odd thing: how and when did Christology come to be so (uncritically) detached from, say, the learned care of Professor Robert Ottley in the revised edition of his Doctrine of the Incarnation (available at Internet Archive in two editions)?

    An obvious answer to “Should Christians celebrate the birth of Paul, not Jesus?” seems to me, ‘non solus, sed etiam’ – which, of course, Christians have been very properly doing for well over a millennium, not in celebrating his ‘dies natalis’ (unless 29 or 30 June be so understood), but in the distinct sense of celebrating his conversion – which I can imagine Williams (aptly!) expressing in terms of the birth of Christ in him, and him in Christ.

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