Who Founded Christianity, Jesus or Paul?

Reflections on the Historical Jesus and the Mythical Christ — part 3

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This article is part of a series, a discussion on Medium between myself and Benjamin Cain. The surface issue is the question of whether there was a Historical Jesus, or whether he was a mythical character. Bubbling beneath the surface are the far more important questions of the origins, meaning, and therefore the validity of Christianity. (For details of what has preceded, see footnote 1.)

We have reached the point where I’m discussing the New Testament’s portrayal of the supernatural Jesus which, according to the modern ‘scientific’ approach to history, in Cain’s words, “can be swiftly eliminated because of its implausibility”. That is what I shall be arguing against. In the previous articles I have explored the gospel writers’ portrayal of ‘Jesus’. Now I’ll turn to Paul, his supernatural Christ-figure, and how credible this is. This will need several articles, so that I won’t be discussing all that here. Instead I’ll start with some preliminary groundwork, in order to establish exactly what this supernatural figure is.

Paul is said by some to be the founder of Christianity, rather than Jesus. If that is true, then Christianity stands or falls by the life and ideas of Paul, not of Jesus. So that is the question I’ll begin to explore here. To what extent exactly was Paul responsible for the creation of Christianity?

Christians might wonder why this is a meaningful question; isn’t it obvious that Jesus founded Christianity? Well, Jesus was a Jew (at least according to the gospels — mythicists might say otherwise). The question arises, therefore, whether he was faithful to Judaism and to what extent, or whether he was some kind of revolutionary. We have, for example, Geza Vermes’ well-known trilogy: Jesus the Jew, Jesus and the World of Judaism, and The Religion of Jesus the Jew, and, more importantly, Hyam Maccoby’s The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity². That title could hardly state the case more clearly, and be more provocative. He says, for example, that in the synoptic gospels Jesus appears to be a Pharisee, “though the Gospel editors have attempted to conceal this by representing him as opposing Pharisaism even when his sayings were most in accordance with Pharisee teaching” (Px). We also know from Acts that Paul was engaged in disputes, which he won, with members of the Jerusalem Church, those who had actually known Jesus personally and who, one would think, knew his ideas better than Paul.

From this perspective Christianity is the creation of Paul. Yet he is considered by many to be trying to introduce a pagan theology into Judaism. Christianity, however, claims that it is the one true religion, and is in opposition to paganism. How can this be?

Here are some examples of those who say that Christianity is essentially paganism. I’ll begin with my debating companion, Benjamin Cain, who says that Paul’s epistles focus “on a theology of achieving personal salvation by identifying with a suffering but triumphant intermediary deity… That theology could have been taken wholesale from Mithraism, Orphism, and the other ancient Mystery cults”.

Others who agree are, surprisingly, some of the early Church Fathers, along with other significant religious figures of the time. Thus Alvin Boyd Kuhn says: “Augustine, Justin, Marcion and others openly aver, even protest, that the Christian faith was in no sense a new and unique system, a sharp departure from ancient cults, but was indeed the universal faith of all antiquity”³. Justin Martyr “insisted that the Christian dogmas and beliefs were in every way in harmony with the mythical presentments of the pagans, and that the advent of the Christos fulfilled the prophecies of the Sibyls”. Justin elsewhere concedes that “the alleged ‘true history of Christ’ was almost the same in character and content as the stories of the many mythical saviours and solar deities”, although he notoriously attributes this to the work of the devil. Kuhn also quotes Ammonias Saccas, founder of Neoplatonism, “that Christianity and Paganism differ in no essential points”, and the Greek philosopher Celsus: “the Christian religion contains nothing but what Christians hold in common with the heathen; nothing new”. (Kuhn quotes: p119, p120, p121.)

The most famous statement along these lines comes from Augustine: “The very thing which is now called the Christian religion existed among the ancients also, nor was it wanting from the inception of the human race until the coming of Christ in the flesh, at which point the true religion, which was already in existence, began to be called Christian”⁴. (It should be pointed out that Augustine does not clarify to what he is referring here. It is easy, and perhaps reasonable, to assume that it is the ‘pagan’ predecessors. However, Eusebius, when expressing the same idea of the newness of the word Christian, offers as examples the Old Testament Patriarchs as the predecessors [Kuhn, p120]. Kuhn actually mentions the two statements in the same context.)

From the Jewish perspective, Maccoby (mentioned above) says:

  • “On the face of it, Paul’s doctrine of Jesus is a daring departure from Judaism. Paul was advocating a doctrine that seemed to have far more in common with pagan myths than with Judaism: that Jesus was a divine-human person who had descended to Earth from the heavens and experienced death for the express purpose of saving mankind” (p12).
  • “The idea of ‘being in Christ’…is entirely without parallel in Jewish literature… It means a kind of unity with, or sinking of the individuality into, the divine personality of Jesus, and a sharing of his experience of crucifixion and resurrection”. This idea is alien to Judaism, but “can be paralleled without difficulty in the mystery cults” (p62–63).
  • Paul’s religion appeared to be “a salvation cult that was really opposed to everything that Judaism stood for” (p13).
  • “Paul derived this religion from Hellenistic sources, chiefly by a fusion of concepts taken from Gnosticism and… the mystery religions, particularly from that of Attis” (p16).

From the Islamic perspective, Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, a former Christian, writes that the classical Christian teachings “were the ready-made essentials of paganism (or Baalism, as it was known to the prophets of the Old Testament)”. “Pauline salvation theory must have struck faithful Jews as blasphemy, an extraordinary capitulation to Baalism”. Christianity was successful for precisely that reason because “there were plenty of ears ready to hear in the Mediterranean world, where esoteric mystery religions satisfied deep-seated spiritual tendencies in local populations”⁵.

Next we turn to the mythicist writers. We have many books on this theme. Some of the more striking titles are:

  • The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy
  • The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur
  • Pagan Christs by J. M. Robertson
  • The Christ Conspiracy, and Suns of God by Acharya S

There are two strands. Some say that Paul’s thinking is Hellenistic, thus Greek. There is undoubtedly also a strong Egyptian connection, since the life of Jesus is virtually identical to that of Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis, reasonably assumed to be mythical. There is no real contradiction, however, because the Mysteries can be seen as a single tradition with local variations, and in any case the Greeks say that their philosophy is derived from Egypt.

There is therefore a wide range of agreement that Christianity is steeped in the pagan Mystery tradition. Neither is this a new idea, for Robertson’s book was first published in 1903, and Gerald Massey’s Ancient Egypt: the Light of the World was published in 1907.

It would seem, therefore, that just about everybody agrees about this, apart from devoted Christian apologists, those whom Cain describes as “inauthentic historians”. For example, despite being obviously intelligent, well read, and scholarly, N. T. Wright believes that “all early Christianity was Jewish Christianity… Every single document in the New Testament is in some sense ‘Jewish Christianity… Paul’s theology, in which the Jewish world view he had embraced as a Pharisee is systematically rethought and remade, only makes sense if it is still seen nevertheless as Jewish theology. It is emphatically not a variant on paganism”⁶. In the light of the evidence accumulated by the mythicist writers, which is highly detailed and runs to many volumes, it is very hard to agree with this statement. We should conclude, therefore, that Paul’s Christ-figure was the latest version of the saviour-god of the Mystery traditions.

Since Christianity claims to be in opposition to paganism, something dramatic must have happened at some point to reverse this situation. It is not hard to work out what this was. As Maqsood says: “This was presumably the chief reason why the Church Fathers took such pains to destroy and burn as many pagan records as they could lay their hands on; it was deliberate policy to remove this embarrassment by obliterating the evidence of the real origins of their own mythology” (p98).

In the eyes of the Catholic Church, another strand of paganism is Gnosticism. This was condemned as heretical, its books burned, and Paul’s epistles were actually cited by the Church as evidence against it. Nevertheless, Paul has also been considered a Gnostic. I’ve already quoted Maccoby, that Paul derived his religion from “a fusion of concepts taken from Gnosticism and… the mystery religions”. In agreement is the highly respected scholar Elaine Pagels, who wrote The Gnostic Paul⁷. She says that second century Gnostics “dare to claim his letters as a primary source of gnostic theology. Instead of repudiating Paul as their most obstinate opponent, the Naassenes and Valentinians revere him as the one of the apostles who — above all others — was himself a gnostic initiate. The Valentinians, in particular, allege that their secret tradition offers direct access to Paul’s own (her italics) teaching of wisdom and gnosis”. “Paul communicated his pneumatic teaching to his disciple Theudas, and Theudas, in turn, to Valentinus; and Valentinus to his own initiated disciples. In this way the Valentinians identify Paul himself as the source of their own esoteric tradition: only those who have received initiation into this secret, oral tradition are capable of understanding the true meaning of the scriptures — which include Paul’s own letters” (p1, p5).

Also, the gnostic Marcion regarded Paul as the only true Apostle, and considered himself to be a follower of him.

Pagels has also written Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis. It is one of the great ironies of Christianity, considering it spent so much time and energy in opposing paganism, and declaring Gnosticism a heresy, trying to remove all trace of it from the face of the Earth, even murdering its advocates, that at its heart it appears to be founded on the pagan Gnosticism of Paul and the (Gnostic) Gospel of John.

One specific example of how Paul may have founded Christianity is the Last Supper (Eucharist). This question is of fundamental importance to the problem of Christian origins, for, as Maccoby says: “If the Eucharist…was indeed instituted by Jesus, we would have to say that Jesus, not Paul, was the founder of Christianity”, that “he was founding a new religion thereby”. This is because it “cannot be reconciled with any variety of Judaism”; it “implies the deification of Jesus” and “signifies the mystical incorporation of the initiate into the godhead by eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ”. The Eucharist “implies a doctrine of the sacrifice of Jesus as an atonement for mankind”. (This is obvious, since Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God, i.e. a human equivalent of the sacrificial Passover lamb.)

The Last Supper would therefore seem to be an obvious borrowing from the dying saviour-god traditions of the Mysteries. (Benjamin Cain says that the inspiration was likely to have been Mithraism.) According to Maccoby, it is the actual term “used in the mystery religions for the sacred meals dedicated to the saviour-god”. It is an expression used by Paul, and the first assertion of the notion that Jesus actually instituted the Last Supper as a regular sacrament is in Paul’s Epistles, which is also the earliest reference to “the idea that there is salvific power in the body and blood of Jesus”. Furthermore, Paul says that the Last Supper was founded on a vision or revelation to him; 1 Corinthians 11.23 says: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread…” If that is true, then it would seem that no human Jesus did what he is said to have done in the gospels, and that Paul was the later institutor of the Eucharist. Maccoby believes that this passage is conclusive proof that Paul instituted this ceremony. The only ways out of the difficulty would be if we interpreted Paul to mean that he had clairvoyantly seen in a vision what had actually happened earlier, or if he had received communication from a resurrected physical Jesus after his death. The reader can judge how credible they think those two scenarios are.

Paul, therefore, did not learn about the Last Supper from any of the Jerusalem Apostles, some of whom would have been actually present (if the gathering really did take place), and he could not have claimed it as an exclusive revelation to him, if it were already well known to them. Maccoby says that “the Eucharist was not observed by the ‘Jerusalem Church’ at all, but only by those churches that had come under the influence of Paul”. He further says that Paul’s expression (Last Supper) “was so redolent of mystery religion that the early Fathers of the Church became embarrassed by it, and they substituted for it the name ‘Eucharist’, which had Jewish, rather than pagan, associations”.

The implications are extraordinary. If the above is true, the gospel writers have included in their ‘biographies’ of Jesus a ceremony instituted by Paul, but claimed that it was instituted by Jesus. They have therefore rejected the Jewish understanding of the Messiah, and have adopted Paul’s pagan understanding. This would be significant evidence that the gospels were written by followers of Paul (as I have argued earlier in the series). Maccoby says: “We are forced to the conclusion that the source from which the Gospels derive their account of the Last Supper, in its Eucharistic aspects, is, in fact, Paul’s account of his revelation on the matter in Corinthians”. “This explains the numerous verbal correspondences between the accounts given in the Synoptic Gospels and Paul’s words in Corinthians. These cannot be a coincidence, but must mean that the Gospel authors had Paul’s words before them as they wrote (they cannot be from a common source, since Paul says explicitly that he did not have them from any source but by personal revelation)”.

If the accounts of the Last Supper were derived without acknowledgement from Paul, how much else in the gospels was directly inspired by him? If the writers had copies of his epistles, as Maccoby suggests, and if they were in general familiar with his ideas, were even his followers, it is probably quite a lot.

Highly likely candidates would be the Annunciation and virgin-birth accounts in Matthew and Luke. As far as I’m aware, Paul doesn’t mention these ideas in his epistles. However, according to Elaine Pagels: “Theodotus (who was a disciple of the Gnostic teacher Valentinus) explains that Paul, having become ‘the apostle of the resurrection’ through his experience of revelation, henceforth ‘taught in two ways at once’. On the one hand he preached the saviour ‘according to the flesh’ as one ‘who was born and suffered’… (to the outer, uninitiated followers). But to the elect he proclaimed Christ ‘according to the spirit, as one born from the spirit and a virgin’…” (p5).

Seen in this light, the gospels appear to be an attempt to combine both of Paul’s teachings in one story; as the mythicists say, the (pagan) saviour-god of the Mysteries is being presented as a historical figure. (This does not mean that there never was a historical figure, merely that the gospel portrayal would be highly distorted.) Earlier in this discussion, Benjamin Cain suggested that I was wrong to say that Matthew was written under Paul’s influence, because it was the most Jewish of the gospels. I would suggest that here is further evidence that it was indeed inspired by Paul. And if the four gospels were all written under the influence of Paul’s ‘revelation’, who should be considered to be the founder of Christianity, Jesus or Paul?

If Paul is the founder of Christianity, as he appears to be, and the gospels were written under his influence, then we should conclude that his Jesus is the saviour-god of the pagan Mystery traditions. The next significant question to address, therefore, is how meaningful that figure is. Before I come to that, it will be useful to explore some incidents in the life of Paul. That will be the subject of my next article.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, more on Christianity, psychology, science, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click and ).

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Footnotes:

1. The series began with , where he presented the mythicist case against a Historical Jesus. I am by no means convinced that there was such a figure, but in two previous articles I have made the case for possible scenarios. In I argued that Jesus could have been, as suggested by the gospels, descended from King David and therefore the legitimate heir to the throne of Israel, and was condemned to death when he tried to claim it. In I argued, in opposition to the modern scientific worldview, that Jesus could have been the Jewish equivalent of a Hindu ascended master, a god-man, therefore capable of performing ‘miracles’. Cain has made responses, to part 1. ., and he then made .

2. George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., 1986

3. A Rebirth for Christianity, The Theosophical Publishing House, 1970

4. Retractations, book 1, chapter 12 (3).

5. The Mysteries of Jesus, Sakina Books, 2000, p96, p55, p83

6. The New Testament and the People of God, SPCK, 1992, p453

7. Trinity Press International, 1992

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