This is a good question & and one put to my New Testament lecturer some time ago. His reply was more in line with this being a “conspiracy theory” rather than sound history. Of course he hadn’t the time to explain his reasons. Yet, did Paul really invent Christianity as we know it? Did he hijack Jesus’ teachings? We’ll try and answer some of these questions.
1. Paul was late on the scene.
The first obvious point is that Paul only converted to Christianity (around the early to mid-30’s AD) after Jesus’ death. He also came to know Jesus’ brother James & his most intimate disciple Peter (Galatians 1) & he would also have learned much from their experiences with the risen Jesus. The book of Acts also records the movements of the very early church mere months to years after Jesus’ resurrection with early sermons by Peter and co. on Jesus’ deity & teachings (Acts 2:14-40, 3:12-18, 5:42). This all predates Paul’s conversion. Even further, it was around this time that Paul, prior to his conversion, consented to the stoning of Stephen of the early church (Acts 7:54-60). In other words, Jesus’ teachings, as described in our gospels, existed prior to Paul’s conversion – so he couldn’t have invented Christianity. As scholar David Wenham, an expert on Pauline theology, comments:
“Paul saw himself as a ‘slave’ of Jesus Christ, and the idea of Paul founding Christianity makes no sense at all: it was a vibrant growing movement before he ever joined it; indeed that is why he tried to eliminate the movement.”
2. Paul knew about Jesus’ teachings before his conversion.
Paul already knew about Jesus’ teachings so it couldn’t be the case that he invented Christianity. Paul would have picked up quite a bit of knowledge about Jesus & his teachings when he was still the arch-enemy of the Christians prior to his conversion. After all, the message of a risen Messiah proclaimed by these very early Christians would have been extremely blasphemous to Paul’s ears, especially since Paul, a devout Pharisee, believed that being crucified was a curse (Gal 3:13) & Jesus happened to be crucified. So, Paul must have known what this early movement was proclaiming for him to want to eradicate it.
3. It’s unlikely Paul would’ve wanted to intentionally change or invent Christianity.
Since Christianity was already in existence before Paul’s conversion his supernatural encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus had convinced him of its truth. In other words, he submitted to Jesus and wouldn’t have wanted to intentionally invent doctrine or teachings from nothing. Paul is also very clear in his use of the words “received” and “passed on” (rabbinical terms) for the handing down of teachings as indicated in the early creed that he picked up (1 Cor. 15:3-8). In other words, he received already existing teachings & did not invent them.
4. Paul uses Jesus’ teachings after his conversion.
Again, Paul could note have invented Christianity if he used teachings that already existed, such as the teachings of Jesus. It is true that Paul seldom quotes Jesus directly & this is because he was writing epistles to early churches that had already been taught & knew much about Jesus. All the epistles assumed that these early churches knew about Jesus, but he does remind them again at times when a situation demanded it. For instance, when the Corinthians are in trouble over the Lord’s Supper, he reminds them of what they had been taught, similarly with their issues over resurrection (see 1 Cor 11 & 15). Paul also talks about Jesus’ teaching on divorce, on the mission of the apostles, on the second coming etc. In fact, Paul alludes to 27 facts on Jesus’ life.
No-one need deny that Paul had an enormous impact in the development of early Christianity. He played a significant role in translating the gospel message of Jesus & explaining it to his audience. However, this does not mean that he invented Christianity & the above reasons show why. So, the answer to the question is no. Paul did not invent Christianity.