Paul’s ideas about Jesus are found in letters which he wrote to churches and which were later included in the book called the “New Testament.”
Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, lived during and after the time of Jesus but Paul never claimed to have seen or heard Jesus except in some kind of mystical “vision” after the time of Jesus. From his “vision” of Jesus, Paul became convinced that Jesus was the Jewish “messiah” (“christos” in Greek) whom Paul believed would become the ruler (“lord”) of all humanity, not just the “kingdom of Israel.”
Paul referred to Jesus by the title of “christos.” The word English word “Christ” in the New Testament is a transliteration of the Greek word “christos” (meaning “anointed one”) which, in turn, is a translation of the Hebrew word “mashiach” (messiah) which also means “anointed one.” The title “mashiach” (anointed one) refers to someone who is chosen for a special purpose, such as a king.
Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, the term “christos” is used as a title for Jesus. Jesus (the) Christ simply means Jesus “the anointed one.” Eventually the followers of Jesus became known as “Christians.”
What did Paul believe about Jesus, and how did Paul’s ideas become dominant in Christian churches?
Although Paul considered Jesus to be God’s Son, “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6), Paul believed that Jesus was subordinate to God “the Father.” Paul wrote, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one lord (ruler), Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (I Corinthians 8:6). “When all things are subjected to him (Jesus), then the Son himself will also be subjected to Him (God) who put all things under him (Jesus), that God may be everything to everyone” (I Corinthians 15:28).
Paul believed that Jesus was the means by which God “the Father” created “all things” and humankind. Paul’s belief reflects the influence of Greek philosophy. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that a “logos” (a creative intelligence, or “mind”) created the order of the world. (The unknown writer of the book of John claimed that Jesus was this “logos” in John 1:1-14.) Paul was from the city of Tarsus where Greek ideas were well known.
Paul began preaching that Jesus was the “messiah” (Christos) whom the Jews were expecting but he immediately ran into a problem. The Jews were not expecting their messiah to be crucified. According to the book of Acts, Paul “came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the (Hebrew) scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” (Acts 17:1-3).
Paul’s theory about why Jesus had to die is explained in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. Paul used the story of “Adam and Eve” in the Hebrew book of Genesis to explain the origin of sin and death. “Therefore sin came into the world through one man (Adam) and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12).
Then Paul wrote that people are saved from sin and death by Jesus’ death on the cross (his crucifixion). “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ (Jesus) died for us. Since therefore we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9). Paul’s explanation of the death of Jesus was in terms of a blood sacrifice to atone for sins.
In the days in which Jesus lived and Paul wrote, the Jews had a complicated sacrificial system in their religion. The book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible describes the kinds of sacrifices that were offered in the temple at Jerusalem to “atone” for sins, committed knowingly and unknowingly.
For sins committed knowingly against one’s neighbor, restitution was required and a “ram (male sheep) without blemish” was sacrificed in the temple as a guilt offering “to make atonement for him (the sinner) before the Lord, and he (the sinner) shall be forgiven for any of the things which one may do and thereby become guilty” (Leviticus 6:6-7).
The offering of a sacrifice was considered an act of obedience to God. Paul used this “sacrifice” analogy to interpret Jesus’ crucifixion as an act of obedience to God to atone for the the sins of humankind. Paul wrote, “For as by one man’s (Adam’s) disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s (Jesus’) obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).
According to Paul, “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (sought for), but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death of the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name (authority or status) which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord (ruler), to the glory of God the Father” (Phillipians 2:5-11).
Paul concluded that salvation from sin and death comes to individuals who accept Jesus as “lord” and believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Paul wrote, “Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
The idea that Jesus was “sinless” came from Paul. Paul wrote, “For our sake He (God) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). A later writer in the book of First Peter referred to Jesus as “a lamb without blemish or spot.” “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (First Peter 1:18-19). This is clearly a reference to the sacrifice of a “ram without blemish” described in the book of Leviticus.
Paul called his message the “gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19). Paul summarized his “gospel” in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, “Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethen at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep (died). Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (I Corinthians 15:1-8).
Paul’s “gospel” can be summarized as follows:
(1) “Christ died for our sins” — The penalty for sin is death but Jesus is God’s divine and sinless Son who died on the cross to pay the death penalty on behalf of humankind.
(2) “He (Jesus) was raised on the third day” — God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day and gave him authority as “lord” (ruler) over all humankind, and whoever “confesses that Jesus is lord” and “believes that God raised him from the dead” will be saved from sin and death.
Does all of this sound familiar to you? It should because Paul’s theology became dominant in the Christian movement. Paul preached for about 30 years after the time of Jesus. He spread his views through his missionary journeys in many countries and he wrote letters to the young churches that he established or visited. His letters were kept and circulated among the early Christians.
Paul had very little success in convincing the Jews of Asia Minor and Greece that Jesus was the Jewish messiah so Paul turned his attention to Gentiles (non-Jews) who were attracted to Paul’s idea of “eternal life” through accepting Jesus as “lord.” Paul believed that Gentiles could become Christians without converting to Judaism with its requirements of circumcision and dietary laws.
In 66 AD, the Jews revolted against the Romans in an effort to liberate the kingdom of Israel. The Christians in Jerusalem saw what was happening and fled east across the Jordan river to Pella and other places. In 70 AD, the Romans crushed the revolution by destroying Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. Throughout the years, Jerusalem had been the headquarters for the Christians who were closest to Jesus, such as Peter, James, and others. Christians in Jerusalem considered themselves within Judaism. They had serious doubts about Paul and sometimes opposed him.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, the influence of Jewish Christians began to decline. The churches in Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, and other places where Paul had spead his version of the “gospel” took over the leadership of the Christian movement. These churches were mostly in “Hellenized” areas where Greek culture and ideas had flourished since the days of Alexander the Great. The Christian movement began to establish its identity as a religion separate from its Jewish roots. But the movement carried with it the terminology which Paul used in his interpretation of the significance of Jesus.
Between 70 AD and 100 AD, four unknown writers collected whatever could be found or remembered about the life and teachings of Jesus. These writings became the books known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Testament. It is in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke that we come closest to the teachings of Jesus in his parables and discover the “gospel of Jesus” which is very different from the “gospel of Paul.”