Paul’s Big Idea
Detractors most commonly ascribe doctrines such as the deity of Jesus, the resurrection, sacramental meals and baptism to pagan origins. Again, if you’ll investigate the sources, you’ll see each of these doctrines or events is recorded in the first four books of the New Testament, not written by Paul. Two of the four writers were some of Jesus’ closest associates. In addition, most of these things were not alien to the Jewish thought or practice of Jesus’ day.
Resurrection was a belief strongly held by the Pharisees, and it is still affirmed daily by observant Jews who recite the Thirteen Articles of Faith. As to sacramental meals, communion (also called The Lord’s Supper) was instituted by Jesus himself at a Passover celebration. 1
John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner, practiced baptism long before Paul was on the scene. 2 Throngs of Jewish people came to be immersed in water; no doubt they were accustomed to the idea of baptism because of the Jewish ritual of mikvah.
In light of these facts, it is perplexing that scholars such as Samuel Levine claim that Paul introduced a few pagan myths into the new Christian religion so that it would appeal to the pagan Gentiles.” 3
The New Testament accounts of the early church reveal that things happened precisely the other way around. According to Acts 15, early Jewish Christian church leaders were not seeking to entice gentiles into following Jesus, but rather were prohibiting them from participating because of their pagan background. Some even demanded the new gentile Christians to be circumcised and to live as Torah observant Jews.
It was not Paul, but Peter and James who advocated for leniency concerning those gentile believers in Jesus.
Therefore I [James] judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.
This was agreeable to the other church leaders, including Paul. Nowhere is it recorded that Paul or any other Jewish Christian ever suggested for any reason that belief in Jesus should be mixed with pagan rituals.
Despite the lack of evidence, many accept claims about the non-Jewish nature of Paul’s teaching without question, seemingly out of loyalty to Judaism. Yet some scholarly works question and challenge those claims. One such writing is W. D. Davies’ ground-breaking book, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (1948).
- See Luke 22
- See Mark 1:2-5
- Samuel Levine, You Take Jesus, I’ll Take God: How to Refute Christian Missionaries (Los Angeles: Hamoroh Press, 1980), p. 39.
This article originally appeared in The Yeshua Challenge booklet.