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Paul: The Founder of Christianity
Paul & Christianity
Paul: The Founder of Christianity
by Gerd Lüdemann. Published by Prometheus Books

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Where does Christianity come from? Conventional wisdom ascribes the responsibility for Christianity as a religion to Jesus Christ - after all, it is named after him. But what if conventional wisdom is wrong? More than one scholar over the years has suggested that perhaps Paul should be regarded as the true founder of Christianity. Can a case for this position really be made?

That's exactly what Gerd Lüdemann, professor of the history and literature of early Christianity at the University of Gšttingen, attempts to do in his recently published "Paul: The Founder of Christianity." According to Lüdemann, Paul may have been Christianity's most influential proselytizer, but he was also much more. According to Lüdemann:

But why was it not enough for Paul simply to be a member of the Christian movement? Why did he have to be an apostle, even the apostle to the Gentiles? The answer to this is no doubt rooted in his character. Let me put it simple: As a Jew he claimed to have surpassed his Jewish contemporaries. The same was true for him afterward. As a Christian he claimed to have worked more than all the other apostles (1 Cor. 15:10) and to have a greater gift for speaking in tongues than any of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 14:18). A person like Paul always had to be "number one."

Hellenist, Jew, Roman, Christian - Paul was many things at once, and he used this diverse background to his advantage as he spread the message of Christianity. As a Hellenist, Paul had a basic education in Greek rhetoric and language, almost certainly witnessing philosophical debates perfected by the Greeks over the course of several centuries. He may even have studied Greek classics, although that is far from certain.

As a Jew, Paul was steeped in the ancient traditions of his religion and this culture. He knew large portions of Jewish scriptures by heart (although in Greek translation) and he took being Jewish very seriously. Unlike most diaspora Jews, Paul travelled to Jerusalem to study, becoming a Pharisee under the instruction of Gamaliel.

As a Roman citizen, a status he evidently inherited from his father, Paul benefit from the ability to travel quite freely and avoid molestation from overzealous Roman authorities. Roman citizenship would have provided Paul with significant advantages over other converts to Christianity, especially Jewish non-citizens who early on made up the bulk of the Christian community.

As a Christian...but Paul wasn't a Christian, initially. Paul was always zealous in religious matters, perhaps part of an effort to secure some solid sense of personal identity and belonging in an imperial world where boundaries could be so fluid. Initially, this zealotry expressed itself in opposition to the small groups of Christians as Paul participated eagerly in their persecution. Before too long, however, he experienced a radical religious transformation which caused him to become of of the most zealous supporters of the nascent Christian movement.

Or was he? Arguably, Paul was a zealous supporter of his own nascent religious movement, one based loosely upon the Jewish Christian movement which was developing in Jerusalem. Paul never knew Jesus. His relationship with with Jesus' immediate disciples was superficial and strained at best. In reality, Paul simply wasn't in a position to know much about what Jesus might have taught - a fact made manifest in how Paul rarely referenced any of Jesus' teachings, even when they would have helped him make his case for something:

Paul's theology proper, with its theological, anthropological, and soteriological ideas, is in no way either a recapitulation of Jesus' own preaching or a further development of it. It is especially significant that he never adduces any of the sayings of Jesus on the Torah in favor of his own teaching about it.

Fortunately, Paul wasn't preaching his message to those who might have known better; conversion of the Jews was a task to be handled by Peter, James and others while Paul was allowed to spread the message to the Gentile world. They, in turn, were a fertile ground for Paul's combination of Hellenism, Judaism, and what little he had learned about Jesus. Paul was the right person at the right time and in the right place.

Lüdemann's book is not for those who have only a causal interest in the subject. It is a very scholarly book, providing detailed analyses of many passages from the New Testament (those portions of Acts he believes are historically accurate and the letters attributed to Paul which probably did stem from him). Lüdemann constructs his arguments carefully and with great deliberation; people seeking a quick and easy understanding of the subject won't find it here. It will, however, reward those who take the time and effort to read and understand what he has to say.

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