The man who de-Judaized Jesus

The apostle Paul largely invented Christianity. Should we thank him for it?



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, March 7, 2006


Every great story needs a villain and, from a Jewish perspective, in the New Testament it's Paul. Medieval rabbis, tormented by unrelenting Christian persecution, saw Jesus as a diabolical sorcerer, the bane and corruptor of pious Jews. Modern Jewish historians, however, have spearheaded scholarship to re-historicize Jesus as a much-misunderstood Jewish preacher. Hence Paul, the first true Christian, is now often seen to deserve almost sole credit for inventing Christianity. He did so allegedly by hijacking his teacher's original message and initiating the new religion’s fateful anti-Judaism.

Paul's Damascene conversion turned the erstwhile Pharisee, in the apostle's own account, from a prosecutor of Jesus' early followers into a protector of them

Beginning with his landmark “Jesus the Jew” in 1973, Hungarian-born Oxford professor Geza Vermes, the preeminent Jewish expert on the New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls, has marshaled myriad proofs of Jesus’ quintessential Jewishness by fitting the Synoptic Gospels (the first three, deemed historically more reliable than the dogmatic Gospel of John) into the larger framework of first-century Judaism. In Vermes’s reading, Jesus, who famously wore the Pharisees’ tasseled robes, was a charismatic moralist who attracted a small following of fellow Galileans by healing the sick and embracing the pariahs of society: tax-collectors, lepers, prostitutes. Never openly claiming to be the messiah, much less divine, Jesus emphasized the Mosaic Code’s ethical spirit, rather than its word. Still, he insisted, “[It’s] easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Luke 16:17).

Pace his Christian image, Jesus was also a proud Jewish patriot (or xenophobe, if you will), scholars have argued. Labeling non-Jews “dogs” and “swine,” the Galilean declared: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). He commanded his apostles accordingly: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles... but go rather to [Jews alone]” (Matt. 10:5-6). Even after his crucifixion, the Gospels report, his disciples were averse to admitting Gentiles among their ranks. Add this all up and the Jesus you thought you knew reappears as a Jewish teacher with a distinctive Jewish agenda preaching an idiosyncratically Jewish message.

Cue Paul. A Greek-speaking Romanized Jewish tentmaker, Saul from Tarsus (now in southern Turkey) adopted the name Paul, appointed himself Jesus’ “Apostle to the Gentiles,” and declared Gentiles baptized in Christ to be the new “Israel of God.” Paul’s epochal masterstroke was to de-Judaize Jesus by refashioning him into an image accessible to Greco-Roman Gentiles. In the Gospel of Mark (the earliest “Good News”) Jesus’ resurrection is an afterthought; to Paul, it becomes the lynchpin of Jesus’ very existence. His new theology — pivoting around how Jesus’ passion and resurrection fulfilled God's eternal design for humanity’s salvation — transformed an obscure Galilean preacher of teshuvah (repentance) called Yeshu prophesizing God’s immediate earthly Kingdom into the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, reigning supreme in the otherworldly Kingdom.

Paul’s doctrine of universal redemption (Christ, the Savior and Redeemer, died for our sins), while generally scorned by Jews, would find fertile ground with the gentiles of the Roman Empire, who had been spiritually weaned on pagan mystery cults of resurrecting gods, demigods born of unions between deities and mortals, and the apotheosis of divine emperors — all of which Paul would weave into his grand tapestry of Christology. And the Apostle proved himself an indefatigable promulgator of his message: from the mid-first century onward, Pauline Christianity took roots in Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. In short: Paul, not Jesus, created Christianity.

“Notwithstanding his impetuosity and recurrent illogicality,” Vermes writes in his magisterial “The Changing Faces of Jesus” (2000), “Paul was a poetic and mystical genius [who constructed] a multifarious, impressive and exciting theological complex [even while] undoing the genuine message of Jesus.” Hyam Maccoby, the late British Talmudic scholar, is less charitable. In “The Mythmaker” (1986) Maccoby labels Paul a shameless mythologizer of “Jesus the Pharisee” (the title of Maccoby’s follow-up book, 2003) who fraudulently turned a progressive Pharisee into the Hellenized hero of a Gnostic mystery cult. In “James, the Brother of Jesus” (1993), biblical scholar Robert H. Eisenman in turn identifies Paul as the anonymous “Liar” of the Dead Sea Scrolls; a renegade sect member from among the reclusive Essene authors of the Scrolls who profaned the “Teacher of Righteousness” by corrupting his message and taking it to “the unfaithful of the New Covenant.”


Paul can therefore be seen as several things, yet “rabbi” doesn't seem to be one of them. It does now, though — to Bruce Chilton. A professor of religion at Bard College in New York and a priest, Chilton pronounces the founder of Christianity just that in “Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography.” “Intellectual,” it turns out, stands for Chilton’s attempt to reconstruct Paul’s life by compensating for the scarce existing historical evidence with educated guesswork (plenty of it).

It doesn't necessarily work. “Paul accomplished in Jerusalem,” Chilton asserts early on, “what he could never have managed in Tarsus: fervent in worship, prayer and study, he learned well and emerged as a fledgling master of the Pharisees, a rabbi.” Right there we’re on slippery ground. Disregarding the total lack of historical evidence pertaining to this, a caveat entails: Although in his epistles to gentile Christian communities Paul professes himself an erstwhile Pharisee, during his lifetime (he died years before the destruction of the Temple, which gave rise to Rabbinic Judaism) the Hebrew designation “rabbi” (literally “my master/teacher”) probably didn’t yet acquire its later denotation as an expert of halakha. The great Pharisee Gamaliel, Paul’s putative master, was simply called “Gamaliel the Elder” by his contemporaries. Chilton acknowledges this in a footnote before proceeding to argue that “rabbi,” as we understand the word today, shouldn’t prevent us from attaching it to Paul in first-century contexts. Perhaps. But isn’t it disingenuous to foist on modern readers a “rabbi” who isn’t really much of one? Intriguingly, Chilton, who drops other neologisms like calling the Roman Empire a “police state,” never once favors Gamaliel — the first prototype rabbi — with the honorific, unlike Rabbi Paul and “Rabbi Jesus,” the title of an earlier book of his (2002.)

Thanks to the New Testament accounts, the Jewish sect of the Pharisees would become a byword for obscurantism and pious hypocrisy

Such intellectual square-the-circle legerdemains underline Chilton’s thesis, which seems designed to rehabilitate this “reviled and revered visionary thinker.” By downplaying several unwholesome aspects of the personality and teachings of the apostle — by some accounts, a tubby balding irascible egotist with chronic skin disease — the professor-priest proves himself an unabashed apologist for Paul, whom he considers “the most successful religious teacher history has ever seen.” Partly for reasons of post-Holocaust political correctness and partly to lend historical legitimacy to their faith, Christian scholars have been rediscovering early Christianity’s formative Jewish roots. Yet in Chilton’s case this approach takes on predictable trajectories. His answer, for instance, to the Paul-the-Apostate question is standard-issue dogma: St. Paul was a great humanitarian handpicked by God for His brave new message of universal redemption unfettered by hoary ethnic loyalties.

Yet what’s remarkable about “Rabbi Paul” is Chilton’s great efforts to re-Judaize Paul, to show implicitly how his conversion turned Judaism’s loss into humanity’s gain. “[T]he apostle,” Chilton asserts, “would insist that he had been sent by Jesus like the other apostles in order to fulfill Israel’s purpose, not undermine it.” Would he? Deriding leaders of the Jerusalem church (Jesus’ original apostles) as “idolaters” and “hypocrites” respectively for keeping kosher and the Shabbat, Paul (who hadn’t known Jesus in the flesh and has very little to say about the Galilean in all his canonized letters) promptly canceled such hitherto obligatory preconditions for Christian initiates as circumcision and allegiance to the Torah. Insisting that Christ delivered the faithful from “the curse of the Law,” Paul launched his “apostolate of the foreskin” as against the benighted creed of “the circumcisers” (Gal. 2:7). He wouldn’t shirk from calling a Jew “the devil’s son... full of all deceit and all fraud... enemy of all righteousness” (if Acts 13:10 is to be believed).

Thus through Paul, an originally Jewish movement would become the primary source of anti-Semitism in history. Chilton documents Paul’s turncoat theology in minute detail while glossing over its historical implications entirely. By treating Paul’s views in isolation from some of their (perhaps unintended) consequences — Christianity’s anti-Jewish, anti-scientific, pro-slavery, misogynistic, homophobic and bigoted tendencies — Chilton absolves Paul of culpability. His “most successful religious teacher” in history is apparently also the least accountable.


A biography reflects as much on the biographer as it does on his subject, and “Rabbi Paul” is a case study. What we know, for instance: Initially a self-proclaimed “persecutor” of the emerging Christian sect who was “zealous for my ancestral traditions,” Paul received his famous epiphany on his way to Damascus while on a mission to harass the local Christ-devotees. Turning from poacher to gamekeeper (religiously speaking), he became the burgeoning cult's archetypal apostle. Chilton’s take: “Paul’s epiphany... had been lying in wait for him for centuries, as primordial as the story in Exodus of revelations to Israel in the wilderness.” Yes, but how do we know that for a demonstrable fact?

Several modern scholars have come to see Jesus as a quintessentially Jewish preacher whose teachings were later perverted by Paul to make early Christianity more appealing to his gentile followers

Herein lie the fallibilities of this brand of biblical scholarship. By definition scholarship presupposes objective detachment from one’s religious convictions, not predetermined conclusions in their service. Eschewing cumbersome academic jargon, “Rabbi Paul” flows fluently, like a bedside read for the indoctrinated. Yet its narratives of invented and contorted reality evoke a mythology a la Tolkien. A sample: “Ananias provided [the temporarily blinded] Paul with therapy..., signaling that Paul was an Israelite who was accepted as pure within the fellowship of Rabbi Jesus.” But precisely because it’s labeled as “scholarship,” not “fiction,” blatant conjectures of this sort can be insidious stuff. Just as zealous American evangelists view current events in Israel as End-of-Days manifestations from the “Book of Revelations,” apparently some respected Christian scholars regard Jewish history as a playground for their frolics of fancy. By implication such scholarly apologias align with dogma in portraying Jews as the stray sheep who should see the light of reason about Christianity’s inviting Jewishness at long last: Why, not only was Jesus perfectly Jewish, but so too was Paul!

Clearly, Chilton, a capable writer well-versed in antiquity and sympathetic to Jews, is no hack. Lucid observations testify to his learning, such as: “Paul converted the Torah from an ethical norm into an instrument of prophesy.” He also offers valuable psychological insight into Paul as a product of his formative milieu, the Hellenized Judaism of the Greco-Roman Diaspora. As a Jew in pagan Tarsus, Chilton explains, Paul, who had “the mind of Greece and the heart of Israel,” lived next door to regularly enacted mystery cults of resurrecting gods like Tarku (the city’s eponymous divine patron) and studied the Septuagint, whose Greek-language books — unlike those of the original Hebrew Bible — were so arranged as to culminate in the revelations of the prophets, thereby priming readers for expectations of the prophesies’ fulfillment, which Paul himself would find in Jesus.

Still, Chilton’s poetically licensed deductions require giant leaps of faith, resulting in the kind of treatment Paul gave to the story of Jesus. Rabbi Paul? Try Reverend Paul.


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