Some readers, notably critics of the Christian religion, have contended that the Apostle Paul, an early Pharisaic convert to the Christian movement in the 30s AD who went on to plant churches and write several letters (which can be found in the Christian New Testament), invented Christianity. We shall refer to this claim as the “founder Paul hypothesis.” This article rejects this hypothesis and holds that despite Paul’s influence on the burgeoning early Christian movement being significant he did not invent the Christian religion for the religion’s core beliefs were already present before his conversion.
From Paul’s own testimony and the book of Acts, one discovers that Paul was a little later onto the scene than other early Christians. He converted to Christianity somewhere in the early to mid-30’s AD and after the crucifixion of Christ. Many of the Christian religion’s earliest teachings had been taught by Christ during his ministry and by the disciples, some of whom Paul would later meet in order to learn more about Christ and his teachings. Paul informs us of this meeting in his own words:
““After three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas (Peter) and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-20)
The book of Acts records the movements of the early church just months after Christ’s death and resurrection, and one finds early sermons by Peter and the apostles teaching central beliefs such as Christ’s deity, divinely ordained mission, miracle wonders, crucifixion, and resurrection by God from the dead. Such statements in the sermon are quite unmissable:
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. his man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (2:22-25).
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (2:32-34).
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (2:36).
Further teachings can be found in Acts 3:12-18 and 5:42. Importantly, this challenges the founder Paul hypothesis because these sermons all predate Paul’s own conversion to the Christian movement. We also know that early Christians were facing persecution before Paul’s conversion. We read of Stephen’s stoning, an event which Paul (then a Pharisee by the name Saul who wished to eradicate the Christian movement) condoned (Acts 7:54-60).
Further, Paul very likely had a knowledge of Christ’s teachings prior to his conversion. This makes sense in hindsight of his involvement in persecuting the early Christian movement which, for him, was founded upon blasphemy. To arrive at this conclusion he would have to have known or become familiar with Christ’s teachings and/or the teachings of the early apostles. He was certainly most familiar with early Christian claims of a crucified messiah, a sacrilegious belief to Jews and a driving motivator of Paul’s persecution of the early Christian movement (Galatians 3:13). This demonstrates that he could not have invented Christianity or these early central beliefs.
Paul also had knowledge of Christ’s teachings which are found in gospels. The gospels narrate Christ’s short ministry prior to Paul becoming a part of the Christian movement. These include the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s teaching on divorce, on the mission of the apostles, and on the second coming. Paul also uses phrases such as “received” and “passed on” (rabbinical terms) for the handing down of teachings (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). In other words, he received already existing teachings and did not invent them.
The founder Paul hypothesis is most fatally confronted by Paul’s own conversion encounter with the resurrected Christ. This episode is narrated by Paul’s own hand, and the details are filled in by the book of Acts which has him journeying in company on the road to Damascus. He evidently had the purpose of persecuting the Christian community there only to then have a resurrected Christ appear to him in a dramatic scene, and so he changed his allegiance. This conversion has all the evidence of submission: Paul submits to Christ despite this being contrary to his prior motives. As such, it is most unlikely, for this reason and all the others, that Paul would have invented Christianity.