As we celebrate our ten-year anniversary of the blog (April 18) by reposting the ten most commented-on posts, here now is #6, with 200 comments.
This one deals with one of THE most significant issues in the study of the New Testament and Early Christianity. Maybe the single most significant.
Are Paul and Jesus on the Same Page?
January 26, 2018
In response to my previous post on the importance of Paul, I have had several people ask me about the relationship between the teachings of Jesus and Paul: are they actually representing the same religion? I dealt with that question some years ago on the blog. Here is the first of two posts on the issue.
I have spent several posts explicating Paul’s understanding of his gospel, that by Christ’s death and resurrection a person is put into a restored relationship with God. He had several ways of explaining how it worked. But in all of these ways, it was Jesus’ death and resurrection that mattered. It was not keeping the Jewish law. It was not knowing or following Jesus’ teaching. It was not Jesus’ miracles. It was not … anything else. It was Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I then summarized in my previous post, the teaching of Jesus himself, about the coming Son of Man and the need to prepare by keeping the Law of God, as revealed in the Torah, as summarized in the commandments to love God above all else and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Do these represent the same religion?
I see this as one of the most fundamental and important questions in all of early Christianity. I’m not asking if Paul invented Christianity: he inherited his understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus from those who came before him, even if he understood its significance for Gentiles differently from his predecessors. But I am asking if the gospel that Paul preached is essentially the same or different from the message of Jesus. A very good case can be made, of course, that they are fundamentally different.
The way I used to try to get to this in my undergraduate class was by having my students write a short paper with the following instructions.
First, I had them read and analyze the famous story of the so-called “Rich Young Ruler” as found, for example, in Matthew 19:16-22. (I say so-called because in Matthew of the Gospels he is young – though definitely not in Mark – and in only one of the Gospels — Luke – is he said to be a ruler.) In Matthew’s version, the man comes up to Jesus and asks him “what good deed must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus answers swiftly and directly “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” The man asks which ones, and Jesus lists some of the Ten Commandments, along with the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. The man claims he has indeed kept these. Jesus then tells him that if he wants to be perfect, he needs to sell everything he owns and give the money away to the poor, “and you will have treasure in heaven. And then come, follow me.”It is important to notice what Jesus’ response is to how to have eternal life. You have to keep the laws God laid out in the Torah. And if you want to have treasures in heaven, you are to do even more than that – you are to give love *totally* to your (poor) neighbor. That’s how one earns salvation.
So, I have my students summarize and discuss that passage. And then I give them a thought experiment: suppose that twenty years later the *same* man, now in middle age, comes up to the apostle Paul, and asks him “what must I do in order to inherit eternal life?” What does Paul say in response? Does he say, “Keep the commandments”? Or “follow the Torah”? Or, “give away everything you own and you will have treasures in heaven”?
Or does he say something completely different? The answer, of course, is that Paul says something completely different. Paul does not tell the person to follow the Law of God. He tells him to “believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus and be baptized.”
Is that the same thing? My students often simply never saw the difference, which I found rather amazing. My more thoughtful students would argue two points to say that basically the messages of Jesus and Paul were the same thing, not different. First, some would point out that Jesus *did* say “come, follow me” – and that’s comparable (they argued) to Paul saying “believe in Christ.” In my view it’s not the same. Jesus indicates that the man will have treasure in heaven by giving everything away, not by following him (note: he says “follow me” only after he says the man will have treasure by doing the law and giving away his goods).
Second, some would argue that Jesus could not very well tell someone to believe in his death and resurrection before he died, so he was speaking to the situation *before* his death, whereas Paul was speaking to the situation *after* his death. That’s a clever solution, but it doesn’t work for Paul, I think. And that’s because Paul insists that if a person could be made right with God by keeping God’s laws, then there would have been no reason for Christ to have died (as he explicitly states in Gal. 2:21). And there’s a real logic in that. If Jesus really thought that a person could have eternal life by following the law and could have treasures in heaven by giving away all his property, why would *he* think it was necessary for him to die? People could just be law-abiding Jews, and that would be more than enough.
I do see some continuities between what Jesus had to say and what Paul had to say (about which I’ll say some things in my next post), but at the end of the day, it sure seems to me that they had different understandings of “salvation.” Jesus had an urgent message to deliver about the coming kingdom of God to be brought by the Son of Man for those who were obedient to God; and Paul had an urgent message to deliver about the return of Jesus for the “saved” – those who believed in Christ’s death and resurrection.