I’m re-reading Barrie Wilson’s excellent How Jesus Became Christian. Wilson makes the case that Paul’s Christianity was, and is, an entirely different religion from that of the historical Jesus. He shows how Paul’s ‘Christification’ changed the original mission of Jesus – to alert his fellow Jews to the imminence of God’s kingdom on Earth – ‘from one focused on the teachings of Jesus to one about the Christ’ (p242).
How right he is. This very the dichotomy troubled me in my own church-going days when evangelical Christianity, as it still does, consistently excluded the demanding, extreme and human Jesus of the synoptic gospels to focus instead on this illusory supernatural being. They preach sermons about him, sing hymns to him and intone creeds that skip glibly over everything Jesus said and did when he was alive. The Christ was, I came to see over time, an invention of Paul’s, the product of his strange hallucination sketchily recounted in Galatians 1.11-12 and 1 Corinthians 9.1 & 15.45. The Jesus he talks about is a sort of cosmic super-hero, a god-man of the type found in pagan religions in the first century. He has little or nothing to do with Jesus the Jew preacher and would-be Messiah, preserved – just about – in the three synoptic gospels.
So, the differences between Jesus and the Christ are profound. Here are a few of them, that I’ve drawn up, demonstrating that Christianity as we know it – essentially Paul’s ‘Christified’ version with inconvenient bits removed – bears little relation to the ‘good news’ of Jesus:
Jesus’ good news: God’s Kingdom on Earth imminent (Mark 9.1 etc)
Paul’s good news: Salvation through a dying/rising god-man (Romans 3.19-26; 4.24; 5.1-2; 5.10 etc)
Jesus presents as: Jewish Messiah claimant: ‘Son of Man’; Self-appointed judge and king in near future (Matthew 16.28; 13.41; Luke 22.30 etc)
Paul presents: Mystical saviour: The Christ, who saves those who ‘share’ in his death and resurrection; Christ as judge and ruler of mankind in near future (Romans 3.25; 6.1-11; 13.11-12; 1 Corinthians 15.20-28; Philippians 3.20)
Jesus’ qualifications: Teacher, preacher and healer; ideas rooted in Jewish prophecy; full of his own importance (Matthew 5.17; 7.12; 9.35; 25.40)
Paul’s qualifications: Builds entire religion on single hallucination; borrows heavily from pagan cults; full of his own importance (1 Corinthians 15.8; Galatians 1.15-16)
Jesus’ position: Adherent of Jewish Law; emphasises its importance (Mark 6.2; Matthew 5.19)
Paul’s position: Disregards Jewish Law; implies it is ‘dung’ (Romans 3.28; Galatians 5.6; Philippians 3.7-9)
Jesus insists on: Obedience to Jewish Law (Matthew 5.17-20)
Paul insists on: Faith in Christ and his resurrection (Romans 1.16-17; 3.22)
Jesus’ salvation requirement: Be righteous/perfect (Matthew 5.48; 13.43)
Paul’s salvation requirement: Faith (Romans 5.1; Galatians 2:15-16)
Jesus expects: Right behaviours and attitudes (Matthew 5.38-48)
Paul expects: Right belief (Romans 10.10-13)
Jesus’ teaching: Measure for measure morality (Matthew 6.38; 7.2; Luke 6.37); Forgive in order to be forgiven (Matthew 6.14); Show mercy in order to be shown it (Matthew 5.7); Give in order to receive (Matthew 6.38); Treat others as you wish to be treated (Matthew 7.12)
Paul’s teaching: Profess right belief (Romans 10.9)
Jesus’ commands: Love God (Matthew 22.37); Love your neighbour (Matthew 22.39); Love your enemy (Matthew 5.44)
Paul’s commands: Embrace Christ (Romans 8.35-38; Galatians 3.27); Be filled with the Holy Spirit (Romans 5.5; Galatians 5.16-18); Avoid those with different teaching (Romans 16.17; Galatians 6.6-9)
Jesus’ extremism: Give up everything you have (Mark 10.21; Luke 14.33); Give to all who ask (Matthew 5.42); Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5.39); cut off own hands, remove eyes (Mark 9.43-47); Consider castration (Matthew 19.12)
Paul’s extremism: No interest in anything Jesus taught when was alive; intolerance of Jesus’ original followers (Galatians 2.11-21)
Jesus’ guarantees: Resurrection/eternal life through demonstration of one’s personal righteousness once the Kingdom comes (Matthew 25.31-36)
Paul’s guarantees: Resurrection/eternal life for those with right belief and faith when Christ returns soon to judge mankind (1 Corinthians 15.20-28; 51-52)
Jesus’ outcomes: No Kingdom on Earth; no appearance of the Son of Man or a returned Jesus; disappearance of the movement that subscribed to Jesus’ ‘good news’
Paul’s outcomes: No appearance of the Christ; no rapture; no resurrection; no cosmic judgement
Jesus’ result: Failure
Paul’s result: Becomes mainstream Christianity; Paul wins!
As Wilson makes clear, the two are, despite some small overlap, very different belief systems. The Christ Christians worship is not the same as the Jesus they ignore. Nonetheless, they continue to pretend they are one and the same, unable to see that the join is, and always has been, a gaping hole.
i) Biblical references are by no means exhaustive; there are many others that support each point and difference.
ii) Details of Wilson’s book are:
Wilson, B. (2008) How Jesus Became Christian: The Early Christians and the Transformation of a Jewish Teacher into the Son of God. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.