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Do Paul and Jesus Represent Fundamentally Different Religions?

I’m in the middle of a thread on the class debates that I assign for my Introduction to the New Testament.   This started by my remarking on the debate I did with myself in front of the class, on whether the book of Acts is historically reliable; I haven’t yet gotten to what it is I argued (both affirmative and negative), but will do so!  First I need to set the broader context.

As I’ve indicated, every student is required to participate in one of three debates in their 20-person recitation.   The first debate will be next week, after Spring break.   This resolution strikes me as a particularly important one:

RESOLVED: Paul and Jesus Advocated Fundamentally Different Religions.

For my money, this gets to the very heart of the formation of early Christianity.  Did the religion that emerged after Jesus’ death correspond closely to the religion that he himself followed and proclaimed?  Or not?

I could obviously devote a large number of posts to just this question.  Here let me point out that as will be the case with the other debates, this one hinges to a great extent on the wording of the resolution.   In particular, what does the word “fundamentally” mean?  Clearly Paul’s views were different from Jesus’.  But were they *fundamentally* different?  It depends how you understand the word.

That they were different should …

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Were Paul’s Views of Women Oppressive?
Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: March 12, 2016



  1. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  March 14, 2016

    I’ve long hoped that you would cover this topic in a series of posts. I’d like to make a table showing contrasts and similarities between what Jesus and Paul preached based on how you view their POV’s.

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    godspell  March 14, 2016

    The first time I ever saw this question posed was in Bernard Shaw’s typically lengthy preface to his play Androcles and The Lion (it’s much much longer than the play, and much more intellectually sophisticated, and not nearly as much fun). For those who are curious–


    I was a bit shocked (I started reading Shaw in my teens), but fascinated–was Paul, as Shaw insisted (without any great technical expertise, but with highly persuasive rhetorical skills), basically a man who had appropriated Jesus for his own ends? Had he twisted the teachings of Jesus, that he probably never even heard himself? Was he the serpent in the garden, who had corrupted the ideas of a true visionary?

    Even Shaw had to acknowledge that Christianity couldn’t have survived as a religion, in practical terms, if it had remained entirely faithful to Jesus’ ideas (whatever they were). It didn’t remain entirely faithful to Paul’s either, but Paul actually left these very sophisticated and powerfully written epistles behind him, with the germs of a working theology in them, and a message that could resonate with many who were not Jews, that could work even if the great transformation both Jesus and Paul expected never came. So it may be rather beside the point–without Paul, there might not have been any such thing as Christianity, and nobody would have heard of Jesus after his early followers died out and left nothing behind them–we can’t even know if we’d have the gospels, if we hadn’t had the epistles first.

    I absolutely believe Paul changed Jesus’ teachings, and I’m inclined to think not mainly for the better. But it’s very hard to say how much, given that we have no writings of Jesus to compare those of Paul with. Both were very original thinkers, but Paul had a natural systematizer, and Jesus probably wasn’t. Jesus believed the system was already there, and he was merely perceiving it better than others. It’s as if Confucius had interpreted Lao Tzu.

    So yeah, it’s a tough question, that we can never quite answer in full. But my favorite answer is probably this–


  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 14, 2016

    Finished reading your book – it’s excellent! But I think the title is somewhat misleading, when a significant portion of it deals with the Gospels, and even apocryphal Gospels written later than the canonical ones.

    A question… We know the four Gospels that made it into the Canon were the ones most in use. But by that time (mid-2nd century), did most Christian communities know of and have copies of all four? Were there still communities that recognized how different John is (all Jesus’s claims about himself), and were insistent that it should be either accepted or rejected, not lumped with the others?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      There were certainly other Gospels in wide use in the second century

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    Stephen  March 14, 2016

    Should Mark 12:28-34 where Jesus quotes the Jewish Shema (and Deut 6:4) not be the end to any literal reading of the bible for Trinitarians and other believers in an inerrant bible?

    What reason could there be to doubt Jesus’s perfectly clear declaration and/or the scriptures he relied on?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      Not all trinitarians hold to inerrancy; and individual verses seem to have little effect on large theological views.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  March 14, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I have my own personal hypothesis on this matter (alas, I call it a hypothesis because as it stands now it’s merely conjecture and speculation), and this hypothesis is based on what I see as the two fundamentally different eschatological views of Jesus and Paul. Specifically, I think Jesus thought that he was a prophet and that he had correctly predicted the arrival of Judgment Day — that being the year 30CE, some time during the harvest festivals (passover to succoth), the “harvest” in this case not just being the literal reaping and separating of the corn from the weeds, but also the metaphorical culling of the wicked from the righteous. That’s why Jesus and his disciples went to Jerusalem for the Passover, because Jesus had convinced them that Judgment Day was arriving during the coming “harvest” (both literal and metaphorical). (And then, of course, Jesus was executed instead, so plans had to be revised.)

    Now Paul has a very different belief. Paul didn’t know when Judgment Day was coming, but as a Pharisee Paul certainly believed it was coming, as was the mass resurrection of the dead. But Paul thought that that day must be brought about. That is to say, certain conditions needed to be met for the apocalypse to happen, and one of those things was that the “righteous amongst the nations” needed to be brought into the fold. In the other words, the God-fearing Gentiles needed to be separated from the wicked, so they will be spared during the End Times culling. That’s the mission Paul was given by the Jerusalem church in the book of Acts (the Jewish Christians themselves probably came to conclude this mission to the gentiles was necessary as a result of Judgment Day stubbornly refusing to arrive). So that’s why Paul was so doggedly spreading the “good news”, even up to his dying day, so that all righteous gentiles could be brought in in order to bring about Judgment Day. I imagine it kind of like a donation drive with a monetary goal, say, one million dollars. The sooner that drive reaches the million dollar goal the sooner it can end. Paul (and likely the later Jerusalem church) probably thought that the faster they could convert the righteous amongst the nations, the sooner Jesus would return and bring about the End Times.

    And these different goals (Jesus vs Paul) were brought about, essentially, by necessity after Jesus was executed.

    • Avatar
      tcasto  April 4, 2016

      (I’m a newbie to the site but a long-time adherent of Dr. Erhman. I hope not to commit any forum faux pas).

      Mr. talmore, I think your hypothesis is well-reasoned and generally in the right direction. However, I think there was more conflict between Paul (in the hinterlands) and James and the church in Jerusalem than your post implies.


  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 14, 2016

    Another question suggested by the book… So you think it’s most likely Jesus *wasn’t* being called a miracle worker while he was still alive? I’d thought your opinion was the reverse. Have you changed your mind about it recently, one way or the other?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      Yes, I’ve changed my mind — I’m not convinced that he was, any more, as I try to explain in the book.

  7. Avatar
    MMahmud  March 14, 2016

    ( Should a person follow the Jewish Law or not? Jesus thought the answer was yes – this was the core of his teaching. Paul thought the answer was no – doing so would not allow one to be saved. )

    Paul’s Judaism is an extremely important subject-what kind of a Jew was he, and can we find any similarities between his beliefs and that of other Hellenized Jews or Jewish Apocalaptycs.

    My question is what would Paul be saying happens to those who refuse his version of salvation? When the son of man comes down and sets things right on earth, where do the bad guys go? The righteous live forever in this new kingdom but what about the unrightious?

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 14, 2016

    Here’s another question I just thought of. I know early Christians used the fish as a symbol, because in Greek, the initials for something like “Jesus Christ, Son of God, King” spelled the word for “fish.” Obviously, that didn’t come about until there were Greek-speaking Christians. But how early was it, after that? Given that the Gospels were written in Greek, could their references to fishermen – and to becoming “fishers of men” – have been inspired by that symbol? Might Peter and his brother Andrew – or brothers James and John – not have been fishermen at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      We can’t trace the fish symbol very early — I can’t think of an instance before the third century, so centuries after the NT itself. Maybe someone on the blog knows the earliest instance of it.

      • Avatar
        Leovigild  March 17, 2016

        There is the funerary stela of Licinia from the Vatican Necropolis, early 3rd century, and an instance in the catacomb of Priscilla, late 2nd/early 3rd.

      • Avatar
        john76  March 17, 2016

        “39But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a SIGN; and yet no SIGN will be given to it but the SIGN of Jonah the prophet; 40for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE BIG FISH, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:39)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 15, 2016

      The Ichthys may be a Christian adaptation of the Vesica Piscis that the Pythagoreans called the Womb of the Mother Goddess (or, in the PG13 version, the Divine Vagina). The Ichthys symbol itself is essentially a Vesica Piscis turned 90 degrees with lines extending out at one end to create the tail fin. Could just be a coincidence. Could have been intentional. Who knows.

  9. Avatar
    jhague  March 14, 2016

    Speaking of Paul, does the following verse indicate that Paul had relatives that were Christians? Is it likely that Paul became a Christian missionary due to the influence of his relatives?

    Romans 16:7 (NRSV)
    7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      “Relative” is probably a mistranslation here. The word means “compatriot” (either from the same race — Jewish — or nation)

      • Avatar
        jhague  March 15, 2016

        Ok. Same question…Is it likely that Paul became a Christian/Christian missionary due to the influence of his compatriots? To me, it seems that he must have had some kind of influence other than his claimed vision of the risen Christ.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 16, 2016

          I think he probably heard of Christianity originally from compatriots, but that doesn’t seem to be what the verse is talking about.

          • Avatar
            jhague  March 16, 2016

            Right. I was just trying to get a connection to what may have caused Paul to radically change his Jewish way of thinking. Perhaps he was influenced by compatroits/friends/relatives.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 18, 2016

            I think he had a vision of JEsus and that changed everything. What was happening psychologically is impossible to say….

  10. Avatar
    Lance  March 14, 2016

    Historically how do you think Paul converted from Judaism to a believer in Christ? I read in Paula Fredriksen’s book ” From Jesus to Christ” that Paul was most likely introduced to Christianity when early Christians were going to synagogues preaching their message. Paul was in synagogue and heard about Jesus, but was strongly opposed at first and became a persecutor (Gal 1:13 in his own words) but obviously later converted and believed in the ‘parousia’, the resurrection of Jesus and then spread the message throughout Asia Minor. Do you think this view is historically accurate in some way?

  11. Robert
    Robert  March 14, 2016

    “One way to answer the question: what did a person need to do to be saved? For Jesus, it was repenting and keeping the law as God instructed (with the love commandments). But Paul does not say much about repentance and thought that keeping the law would decidedly not bring salvation. What mattered was Jesus’ death and resurrection, something that the historical Jesus almost certainly did not talk about. So … same or different?”

    Much more similar than is oftentimes portrayed. Clearly the emphasis on teaching about Jesus as opposed to the teaching of Jesus himself cannot be denied as a major shift in focus. But, for those of us who follow some kind of subjective genitive understanding of the faithfulness of Jesus, this difference is mitigated quite a bit. It is not merely faith in Christ, but imitating the same faithfulness of Christ that is most essential.

    And Paul is very much in agreement with Jesus’ view of the law: the law is fulfilled in one command, Love your neighbor as yourself (Gal 5,14 Rom 13,9-10 cf Gal 6,2 the Law of Christ, ie, messianic law).

    And, as a good Jew, Paul certainly understood and taught the importance of repentance. See, for example:

    Romans 2,4-5:
    Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

    2 Corinthians 7-9-10:
    For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us.

    2 Corinthians 12,21:
    I fear that when I come again, my God may humble me before you, and that I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.

    Other passages that could be cited that do not use the word ‘repent’ but convey the same idea, for example:

    Romans 8:5:
    For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

    Romans 12,1-2:
    I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.

    1 Corinthians 15,34:
    Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more; for some people have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

  12. Avatar
    RapidRiver  March 14, 2016

    Your contact email isn’t working: Question – Will you have a book signing in Asheville/Waynesville NC area this year for your latest book? I enjoyed your last signing and speaking in Waynesville in 2014.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      It’s *possible*, but we haven’t set one up yet. If so, it would be in Waynesville.

      • Avatar
        RapidRiver  March 15, 2016

        Please do! And thank you for taking the time to personally answer emails.

  13. Avatar
    flshrP  March 14, 2016

    I think the key is their differing views on circumcision. Paul says circumcision is unnecessary for salvation. Jesus speaks approvingly of circumcision (it’s part of the Mosaic Law–not one jot or tittle, etc) in John 7:22-23. This alone makes be believe that they were preaching different religions.

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    screwtape  March 14, 2016

    I get your point but I don’t think either one of them were advocates of a new religion (leaving aside the “Forged” epistles of Paul).

  15. Avatar
    john76  March 14, 2016

    Gould makes an interesting comment about Acts: As Gould argues, a fascinating story from Acts is Simon Peter’s famous “tablecloth vision” from Chapter 10 [It will be recalled that “Peter” (i.e., “Rocky”) is a nickname that Simon has acquired, presumably because his support of Jesus was “solid as a rock”.] Peter is going to be invited to dinner by a centurion, Cornelius from the Italica regiment in Caesarea, who is improbably described as “fearing God”, “giving many gifts to the poor”, and “supplicating God continuously” (Acts 10:1-2). Peter has a vision in which a heavenly tablecloth descends, covered with various animals, which he is instructed by a voice to “kill and eat. ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ ” (Acts 10:13-15). Later, Peter summarizes his visit: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28). Gould argues this story is one of the most revealing and explosive in the entire New Testament. First, it demonstrates unequivocally that the whole “inclusivist message”, which is directly attributed to Jesus via innumerable Gospel stories, was in fact completely foreign to the historical Jesus. Otherwise, it would not have been necessary for Peter, one of his closest and “rockiest” supporters, to receive a vision about it well after Jesus’s death. Thus, this story, by itself, tells us that vast portions of the Gospels, in which Jesus is pictured as associating and engaging in table fellowship with all kinds of forbidden persons (tax collectors, prostitutes, etc) and dismissing Jewish dietary law in favor of a universalist, humanitarian message (“What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean.” Matt 15:10), are just invented from whole cloth. In fact, Gould thinks it is astonishing that anyone can remain a believing Christian after pondering this clumsy addendum to the Jesus Gospel stories. These are Gould’s thoughts anyway.

  16. Avatar
    joewaters  March 14, 2016

    Longtime reader, first time questioner, Bart! When you say that Paul believed that “Christ died for the sins of others” is that different saying that Jesus died as a SUBSTITUTE for our sins. The belief that Jesus was born sinless so he could bear our sins developed over time, correct? I wonder if Paul would approve! Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      Paul never says anything about Jesus being born sinless. But I would take “for your sins” to refer to some kind of substitionary atonement.

  17. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 14, 2016

    Bart do you know what ” Assembly of Demi gods ” is ? Thomas Jefferson referred to the men who drafted the Constitution as an “assembly of demigods? Just want to say it might be right In front of our faces when I comes to human history. Freemasons? Illuminati ? Secret societies? I would like to make a statement not that is accurate from my understanding knowledge now, but who’s knows it might be accurate when I say that all the way back to George Washington days, that had secret knowledge they held.? I think it’s fun and exciting to study and research and all. But human history is what I am big on. I know this is not Christantity in Antiquity but from Rod of Asclepius of side of ambulances to caduceus staff of Hermes ?

    Jefferson referred to the men who drafted the Constitution as an “assembly of demigods,” so it was hardly a surprise when Congress decided to immortalize George Washington in a similarly magisterial fashion? Zeus was here. To Statue of Liberty? And the Olympics? Temple of Asclepius first western hospital and it was turned into a church ? Or Greek theatre to honor DIONYSUS where modern day Hollywood comes from ? Warner brothers and others were Freemasons. Not that this important, but Americans need to know what knowledge their founding fathers really had? Just blogging. Again human history, I am big on it. Off subject of library of Alexandria? times of homer, Herodotus, Atlantis ? Seems every where you turn, it is some shape or form from and or inspired by Ancient times. I can go on, but my quick question was ” ASSEMBLY OF DEMI GODS “? You know why Thomas Jefferson said this Bart ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      An assembly of demi-gods would be a group of semi-divine beings.

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  March 15, 2016

        Lol right ! But why did Thomas Jefferson say this there !!?? Received the answer I was looking for !
        Thank you very much Mr! demi gods !! They must love Zeus as much as I do !! Any body with real knowledge knows Zeus is sometimes called father Zeus! When Demi gods talk to him, they some times call him father Zeus. ” my father and my god, watch us as we pray ! We pray as you watch my god and my father ! ” Giants were here earth ! Giant knowledge ! Thanks Bart ! Assembly of Demi gods is self explanatory! Assembly of Demi gods ! Thanks again Bart !

        • Bart
          Bart  March 16, 2016

          I don’t know for sure, but I think he was speaking tongue-in-cheek, indicating that the Constitution was produced by people who were so inspired they were not mere mortals.

  18. Avatar
    jrouse182  March 15, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, would you know of any books or other reliable literature on this topic of debate on the differences with Paul and Jesus’ teachings/ideologies?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      I like the book on Paul and Jesus by Victor Paul Furnish.

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    evanball  March 15, 2016

    How close do you think Paul’s beliefs in Romans 5:12+ were to later understandings of original sin?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      Not very. The passage was certainly *used* by later authors to build their theological views; but those views were rooted in philosophical traditions and developments outside of Paul’s worldview.

      • Avatar
        evanball  March 15, 2016

        Would you agree that this passage (Romans 5:12+) becomes foundational for traditional Christian theology (both Catholic and Protestant)? The connection between the Fall and the need for a savior seems well attested through the centuries.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 16, 2016

          Yup. Though the idea that there was a “fall” is a later Christian interpretation of Genesis.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  May 13, 2016

            How much later? When? By whom or through a gradual evolution?
            Seems it was mighty close to the idea of The Fall by 100CE or so when the author the the Revelation of John wrote that the serpent was Satan. But I realize that’s not quite enough.
            Do you over this in one of your books?
            Can you recommend an article or book?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 15, 2016

            I’m not sure when the idea began to appear — but it is not teh way Jewish interpreters read Genesis. It’s a great set of questions though: maybe someone on the blog knows of bibliography on the interpretation of Genesis 2-3 in Jewish and Christian sources?

  20. Avatar
    dragonfly  March 15, 2016

    Well for a start Jesus was a jew and Paul was a christian. But of course Paul was also a jew. I think most people today put the focus on salvation so the answer probably depends on whether you think the method of salvation was fundamentally the same or different. I tend to lean more toward different personally, but it’s a good topic for debate. What about the question did Paul represent fundamentally the same religion as 19 year old Bart Ehrman?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 15, 2016

      Nope. And the 19 year old Bart Ehrman didn’t represent fundamentally the same religion as the 59 year old Bart Ehrman!

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  March 16, 2016

        Interesting. What do you see as fundamentally different between your christian beliefs back then to Paul’s teachings?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 16, 2016

          I suppose Paul never taught that to be saved you have to “ask Jesus into your heart” (!)

          • Avatar
            dragonfly  March 17, 2016

            I suppose neither did Jesus (would be a bit creepy if he did!) It’s funny we still talk as though the heart is the organ responsible for emotions. It sounds better than asking Jesus into your kidneys though.

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