Questioning Christian Roots

So I just finished reading Barrie Wilson’s book ‘How Jesus became Christian’ and I really liked a lot of what was presented in the ‘theory’.

The idea behind the book is Jesus is Jewish and was for all intensive purposes – following Judaism. The other contention is the Pauline community won the day concerning interpretation and changed the way Christianity was to look for the future (more Hellenic in nature). The distance between Christian faith and Judaism faith was born within the pages of the very New Testament we use in Christian communities to this day (and I agree – it’s all there if we care to look).

What I learned:

(a) There is a distinct seperation between Judaism and Christianity – they are different faith systems. What began Jewish (with Jesus) ended up Hellenistic (with Paul) and the direction of the split was truly complete.

(b) Christ and Messiah are different terms and mean different things to Judaism and Christianity – and to Jesus and Paul.

(c) Paul never met Jesus – nor did he have much interaction with the actual disciples – Paul based everything on his ‘mystic experience’ with the ‘Christ’. This experience seemed to have led to differences between James/Peter/John and Paul (so much so – they actually seem to be writing against one another in certain letters).

(d) Christianity from it’s on-set (when Paul arrived on the scene) was headed in 2 directions – one remaining Jewish and one catering to the Gentiles. The law was at the heart of the contention and what was required of Gentiles (see Acts 15 for more) – but Paul rejected the Torah and this was the truest split that appeared.

(e) The original Jesus community likely never held the views we see in churches to this day. Trinity, God’s only begotten son, Christ-Saviour-Redeemer, and a virgin birth. Jesus was more about the ‘kingdom of God’ and it’s realization on ‘earth’ (which was totally a ‘doing’ thing – here and now). This view can be found in Matthew and James (as I have contended for some time) – but not in Paul.

Is Christianity wrong is the real question?

No, if we accept it is a different religion altogether than Judaism and has no connection whatsoever to Judaism – then no – it is not wrong…it has all the right in the world to develop however it chooses. If it is connected to Judaism somehow then I have to contend – Christianity made some fatal errors in interpretation along the way – and this is plainly obvious when comparing the 2 faith systems.

But what do we say then – Christianity and Judaism have no connection? May it never be (to quote Paul) – Paul and Jesus understood the faith of Judaism a lot differently is the real contention.

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14 thoughts on “Questioning Christian Roots

  1. Society,

    I haven’t read Wilson’s book, so I would be curious as to why he thinks Paul has a completely different understanding. I’m wondering if he is viewing Paul’s thinking through what much of today’s church says Paul thought, or if he’s made a thorough study of Paul’s writings themselves. There are some shifting views right now as to Paul’s theology, and some calls to go back to a more Hebraic idea of religion.

    It seems strange that one would make a claim that Paul rejected the Torah and takes a Hellenistic view of things, as he quotes it (and other parts of the Tanakh) extensively in his epistles while urging the Gentile churches to abandon their Hellenistic philosophies.

    There is also a small – but growing – number of people who speculate that Paul was the rich young ruler that encountered Christ. Anyway, interesting thoughts.

  2. “I’m wondering if he is viewing Paul’s thinking through what much of today’s church says Paul thought, or if he’s made a thorough study of Paul’s writings themselves” (SS)

    His study is mainly academic in nature and relies on a study of what Paul actually said in his epistles and how they differ with ideas from Matthew and James. I would say the study of Paul s fairly thorough in nature and quotes Paul directly from Galatians (mainly) and from other letters.

    “There are some shifting views right now as to Paul’s theology, and some calls to go back to a more Hebraic idea of religion” (SS)

    It’s a tough sell though – since Paul was comfortable enough to throw out the Torah and many of the laws related to that (ie: dietary laws and circumcision as a 2 examples) – and in Galatians he’s pretty frank about the law being usurped by his theology of the Christ (which is the most common theme in the Pauline epistles). So it is hard to believe this was Torah-inspired viewpoint. Paul seems to view the law as ‘condemnatory’ in general – and that ain’t a Jewish viewpoint of his era (nor of this era).

    “he quotes it (and other parts of the Tanakh) extensively in his epistles while urging the Gentile churches to abandon their Hellenistic philosophies.” (SS)

    But does he really? He actually usues analogies from Torah and his quotes are out of context (in Galatians) – almost as if he is re-interpreting Torah to get rid of Torah. Paul actually uses a theology closer to an idea (as proposed in the Wilson book) that Abraham was counted faithful by faith – then Torah existed as a ‘school teacher’ until the ‘Christ’. Paul see’s no need for Torah in his own theology…just faith. I find it hard to believe a Jewish person would make statements like Paul does against Torah – that’s quite unheard of.

    Wilson constructs why this likely would not have happened from basic history of the region.

    (a) No Jewish group in that time period (Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, or Zealots) rejected Torah – not one single group. Jesus himself is not seen rejecting Torah (Matt 5:17-20).

    (b) Antochious Epiphanes (Roman Emperor) had happened in about 167 BC – and this ruler wanted to get rid of Judaism completely – this is the scenario where the Maccabees appear and save the day. But many people were killed in this episode and Jewish people were well aware they were targeted by Roman authority – and might lose their religion altogther if not careful. So they clung to Torah like a life-preserver…and some 200 years later (memory of this episode still fresh in their ears) – they likely would no way abandon Torah for no-one. Heck, Maccabee’s movement even became a celebrated Jewish holiday.

    (c) The view of Torah Paul espouses is just not true – within the Jewish community – outside of it – possibly (ie: God-fearers). Paul seems to be espousing a view that may have been held by people non-Jewish but wanting to be Jewish – without all the hoopla of becoming Jewish…ie: do away with the law and we might have a deal.

    Wilson contends Paul never met Jesus – which is likely true – and had little connection to the Jerusalem Council (the actual disciples who knew Jesus). Wilson contends Paul’s version of the ‘Christ’ is a ‘mystical experience’ – not much different than many of the secular religions of the day – re-packaged with a Christ figure.

    It seems plausible because later on the stuff tacked onto Jesus (ie: virgin birth, possibly miracles, and ‘begotten son of God’, Trinity) can be found widely circulated in Hellenistic thought of the time – and was even seen as a problem for the early church (this Christ religion looks a lot like Hellenic religions or Egyptian ones). No problem for us now (those religions all died off) – but in it’s time stuff was written by contemporaries of these Christian writers that asks questions about why they are so similar. This is a point we forget in our days – no one teaches us that kind of ancient history.

    I agree Paul asked his followers to abandon Hellenistic religions – mainly a lot of their practices…but they accepted a version that also spoke to them of similar things (ie: mystical experience, drinking blood and eating flesh, a redemptive figure, allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols, etc). Paul asked his followers to abandon many of the behaviors and idolatry – but also set up a religion that was very Hellenistic in nature also – because it sure wasn’t Jewish in nature (exclude Judaism from the mix and Paul adopted ideas from his own surrounding culture – Greco-Roman influence). .

    The real problem with Paul is he is nothing like the Judaism of his day and basically admits catering to the Gentiles…so it makes logical sense he also made sense of the faith to gentiles with ideas and philosophies the Gentiles understood – and this meant ideologies that seem Hellenic (and his debates would also seem Hellenic). In Acts they really make little bones about the fact he was doing this – see the incident where he compares the statue to the unknown God to God – uses their ideas to speak about his experience with Christ.

    So the question remains – did Jesus and Paul actually teach something different? Wilson tends to think so with this ‘theory’ – and I tend to agree with Wilson on this – since Jesus could not be seen dismissing Judaism to convert Jews – that’s something that makes no sense in light of the history of the region. Most Christians even teach Jesus ‘followed Torah’ his whole life – yet one cannot find a passage from Jesus’ lips that ‘write the Torah off’.

    I personally believe Jesus was Jewish and followed that faith to a ‘tee’. I tend to think by the time Paul arrives on the scene his ‘mystical Christ’ replaces what a Jewish Messiah was (and what Peter, James, and John followed)…eventually the Hellenistic nature of Paul’s Christ wins the day..why? Society could accept that much easier and a Jewish messiah was something too contentious to hold onto (Bar Kohkba in 132+ AD kind of sealed that idea being finished).

  3. You are absolutely correct. Our (Christian) belief that it is based on and a further refinement of the other is incorrect. Christianity has become something Jesus never intended for it to become (namely a religion),

  4. yeah.. Paul is the greatest curse and blessing of Christianity… Jesus left us no systematic theology, largely was questioning and open-ended and Paul came along and gave us more structure and closed up some of the ends… many of the churches out there are actually following Paul’s teachings rather than Christ’s and i mourn that.

    the real question then is are the Messanics right? if Jesus was jewish and so where Peter, John, Jude, and James, the so called “Super-Apostles” as labeled by Paul, shouldn’t we be more observant Jews?

  5. “the real question then is are the Messanics right? if Jesus was jewish and so where Peter, John, Jude, and James, the so called “Super-Apostles” as labeled by Paul, shouldn’t we be more observant Jews?” (Luke)

    Not neccesarily – but there is nothing wrong with being an observant Jew is there?

    Paul’s mistake seems to be his unacceptance of the Noahide Laws as the norm for Gentiles…he went further than that and asked the ‘whole law’ be removed. Here are the Noahide laws (from Wiki):

    The seven laws listed by the Tosefta and the Talmud are:

    Prohibition of Idolatry: You shall not have any idols before God.
    Prohibition of Murder: You shall not murder. (Genesis 9:6)
    Prohibition of Theft: You shall not steal.
    Prohibition of Sexual Promiscuity: You shall not commit any of a series of sexual prohibitions, which include adultery, incest, bestiality and male homosexual intercourse.
    Prohibition of Blasphemy: You shall not blaspheme God’s name.
    Dietary Law: Do not eat flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive. (Genesis 9:4)
    Requirement to have just Laws: You shall set up an effective judiciary to enforce the preceding six laws fairly.

    This would of been the norm for Gentiles (God-fearers) to follow Judaism and in essence to follow Jesus (who was in Judaism as well). I admit we all come from different cultures and now we worship God – and according to Judaism God is pleased with those 7 things – including having our own ‘law’ to run our societies (that are just). It’s almost the 10 commandments really…but it’s also very simple and not problematic (this idea seems to be presented by James and Peter in Acts 15).

    The problem with Paul is he looks to be teaching different than what Jesus taught – and what James taught (or that Jerusalem council) – so it begs the question – does Paul have the authority to change what Jesus taught? This is a fundamental question posed by Wilson in his book.

    But the question about the messianics is a good one – but easily answered – if they are not Jewish and not attending authentic Jewish centres – then it;s a also a new religion or a sect of Christianity with Jewish overtones. They go too far – and sometimes not far enuff. If they want to be Jewish – convert – if not – then keep the 7 Noahide laws and enjoy life. What they have done is re-constructed Judaism – but they are still required to adhere to what is said by Judaism in general (and this they do not). The messianic movement is full of great intentions – but over-zealous theology.

    Jesus was Jewish – is it agreed he would of followed Judaism? If so, what contention do we have if this is so…and if we want to follow this ‘rabbi’? I see very little problem with following the Jesus of Matthew (and the James epistle) – who offers teachings about the ‘kingdom of God’ and how to live it on ‘earth’ (even as a God-fearer).

    If Jesus were the pinnacle figure in Christianity – the world would be a much nicer place (we’d actually have to admit we have to live our faith – not just believe correct things about God)…but as it is – Paul is actually the central figure and to be adhered to – his teachings – his way – His Christ experience.

    “Christianity has become something Jesus never intended for it to become (namely a religion)” (Don)

    I agree – Jesus was Jewish and followed Judaism – he had religion his whole life and needed not invent anything new. This new invention of religion is best practiced by Christianity (of the Pauline sort) – that splits and seperates like a tree trying to strangle itself.

  6. I’ve been thinking about this disconnect between Jesus and Paul off an on for years. I’ve gone through periods of trying to harmonize the viewpoints, followed by periods of seeing that they cannot be harmonized. (I’m in that latter frame of mind now.)

    Perhaps I shall add Wilson’s book to the pile that I’m reading currently … Yeah, I think I’ll do that. Thanks for making me a few dollars poorer. 😉

  7. Pingback: How Jesus Became Christian – Barrie Wilson : Ephemeral Thoughts

  8. wow dude.. great response! i gotta get this book because i’m not a big fan of Paul and i REALLY like and respect the Jewish faith.. but i know that since i believe in Christ as Messiah (albeit, the Global messiah and not just the jewish one, so i keep the possibility of a jewish messiah open) i’m not jewish… but Christian.

    thanks for your response! i’m just wowed at how articulate it is, vacation must have done ya good 😉 RAWK!

  9. Thanks Kay – I’ll come and check your site out – it’s a great read and very easy to follow (even has timelines and stuff in the back of the book)

    Thanks Luke, the book was a very easy read and a real passion of mine to read – since I also am a huge fan of Matthew and James – and those 2 books are cross-referenced with some Pauline works (namely Galatians)…so the book kind of picks up where my own personal studies left off…and the vacation helped also – as much rest as I get here (and sun) can only make one more bright-eyed!

  10. I bought that book last year because I was interested in the subject of the early diversity of Christianity as illustrated by the divide between Paul and Peter, but I was really disappointed in Wilson’s book and wrote a long and somewhat rambling critical review of it here. Wilson just struck me as a rather dogmatic crank. I think there is no question that Paul and Peter were divided (after all, Paul called Peter a hypocrite in one of his letters), but to assert that Paul was part of a completely different religion makes no sense. After all, Paul raised money for the Jerusalem Church. I think it makes more sense to say that early Christianity was diverse from the beginning.

  11. “but to assert that Paul was part of a completely different religion makes no sense. After all, Paul raised money for the Jerusalem Church. I think it makes more sense to say that early Christianity was diverse from the beginning” (Mystical)

    Well some of the interpretations he makes – I also have problems with – just never made much mention of it here. I tend to think Paul had some relationship with Peter, James, and John also in Jerusalem – and this may have consisted of something like the Noahide laws for the Gentiles – but also being more Jewish than Paul is actually interpreted.

    Fact is Paul does use Jewish ethics (likely Torah) as a basis for the Gentile communties as a ‘just guide’ for them…but never goes far enought to say they have to become circumcised or Jewish to remain within the movement. I tend to think the church has Paul all interpreted wrong – since those were letters to Gentiles to convince Gentiles to remain Gentiles and not become Jewish (thus his slants in all his letters). But I do think Paul taught about a ‘Christ’ versus a Jewish ‘messiah’ in some regards…and maybe even that is interpreted badly by churches theology.

    I think it is plausible that Paul may have not taught against Judaism – but his words were directed at Gentiles to not convert to Judaism if they don’t have to. They could still be a form of ‘God fearers’ in a sense. I think it was the Gentiles that took over the movement in the early centuries that changed things to something they were more used to.

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