Paul and Jesus Release: Two Weeks from Today
by James Tabor
My new book, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012) will be officially released on November 13th, two weeks from today. I have mentioned it from time to time on this blog but now that the time is drawing very near I will begin a series of features on the apostle Paul, what he calls his “gospel,” and my own take on his relationship with the first followers of Jesus led by James the brother of Jesus. Millions have accepted the “peace and harmony” account of the New Testament book of Acts but I argue in my book that Paul’s letters, as well as other supporting sources, preserve quite an alternative tale. This book represents the culmination of 30 years of research on Paul going back to my Ph.D. dissertation, Thing Unutterable, at the University of Chicago. It is truly a “game changer” in terms of our understanding of earliest Christianity.
Here is a basic overview of the book from the publisher Simon & Schuster:
“Paul and Jesus is overdue, and stands as one of the few books willing to push back assumptions…Digging beneath the acceptable, scholars like Tabor…break through assumptions — even the sacred ones — and give rise to new perspectives and stories.”
In recent years, the story of Jesus and early Christianity has been a subject of intense public interest, fanned by popular books like The Da Vinci Code and real-life archaeological finds. Now, respected Biblical scholar James D. Tabor presents a stunningly unconventional and provocative account of the beginnings of the world’s largest religion in PAUL AND JESUS: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (Simon & Schuster; November 13, 2012; $26.00). Tabor contends that it was the apostle Paul who, more so than Jesus himself, shaped the religion that we know today as Christianity.
Historians know virtually nothing about the two decades following the crucifixion of Jesus, when his followers regrouped and began to spread his message. During this time, the man we know as the apostle Paul joined the movement and began to preach to the Gentiles. Drawing on four decades of his own research into early Christian documents as well as the latest historical scholarship, Tabor tells the gripping story of a fierce struggle to define Christianity. On one side were Jesus’ early followers, led by his brother James, along with the apostles Peter and John. On the other was the apostle Paul – the so-called 13th apostle and the Apostle to the Gentiles – who never met Jesus, but based his claims of authority on his visionary experiences. It was Paul’s understanding of Christianity that ultimately won out, and so decisively that the record of the first two decades of Christianity, and of the historical Jesus, has been largely obliterated. It was Paul, Tabor argues, who definitively set Christianity apart from its parent faith, Judaism, and put it on the road to becoming a new religion. And it was Paul’s Christianity – not that of Jesus and his closest followers – that helped establish the foundations of Western civilization, from our assumptions about reality to our societal and personal ethics.
As Tabor observes, the same fundamental doctrinal tenets of Christianity are shared by the world’s 2.2 billion Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox Christians. They all believe that Christ is God “born in the flesh,” that his sacrificial death atones for the sins of humankind, and that his resurrection from the dead guarantees eternal life to all who believe in him. Yet such an understanding of the Christian faith, Tabor maintains, originates from the experiences and ideas of one man – Saul of Tarsus, better known as the apostle Paul – and not from Jesus himself or any of the original apostles that Jesus chose in his lifetime. Furthermore, the notion of a spiritual union with Christ through baptism, as well as of a “communion” with his body and blood through the sacred meal of bread and wine, also traces back to Paul.
Christianity before Paul
There was a version of Christianity before Paul that was affirmed by both Jesus and his original followers, and had tenets quite different from those of Paul’s Christianity. The shocking truth, according to Tabor, is that Paul decisively broke with Jesus’ original followers midway through his career, openly labeling them as “false apostles” and “servants of Satan.” What’s more, Paul altered Jesus’ message of a messianic kingdom of justice and peace on earth, which was drawn squarely from Jewish tradition. Instead, he transformed Jesus himself into the founder of a new religion that promised otherworldly salvation in a heavenly realm. Paul’s version of Christianity continued to develop independently of the gospel message that Jesus, James, and Peter preached, leaving the latter lost and forgotten.
“In other words,” Tabor writes, “the message of Paul, which created Christianity as we know it, and the message of the historical Jesus and his earliest followers, were not the same. In fact, they were sharply opposed to one another with little in common beyond the name Jesus itself. Discovering how such a state of affairs came about has been the quest, as well as the adventure, of my life.” [p. xvi]
Paul, the author of the oldest surviving Christian scriptures and of large portions of the New Testament, has been regarded for nearly two millennia as one of the central figures of Christianity. He is seen as co-equal with Peter as the most important of the apostles, and like Peter, is revered as a martyr who died during the emperor Nero’s persecution of the Christians. Yet he has also elicited passionately divergent reactions over the centuries, both loved and hated, praised and blamed, depending on one’s views of his claims about himself and his teachings on explosive subjects like slavery, the role of women, and sexuality.
The portrait of Paul that emerges from Tabor’s account is fresh, captivating, and surprising. He reveals Paul through his own words, in his own voice, drawn exclusively from his earliest authentic letters. These are set in the context of a critical reading of the New Testament, most notably the Acts of the Apostles, and other ancient texts, some of which have come to light only in recent decades.
Among the events Tabor explores is Paul’s transformation of the Jewish concept of resurrection and the afterlife, which would have been held by Jesus and his earliest followers, into something very different. In essence, Paul proclaimed a new, rival, spiritualized version of Israel’s faith that eventually became integral to the religion we know as Christianity. Some of his more apocalyptic and grandiose visions will seem as strange to people today as they did to the earliest followers of Jesus. For instance, Paul believed that his own role as the Apostle to the Gentiles was pivotal to bringing about the imminent dissolution of the entire cosmos. He also predicted that all earthly and heavenly powers would soon be overthrown and replaced by the heavenly reign of his followers – the new spiritual family of Christ.
“Jesus will always be the center of Christianity,” Tabor writes, “but the ‘Jesus’ who most influenced history was the ‘Jesus Christ’ of Paul, not the historical figure of Jesus. There is a double irony here. Paul became the most influential defining figure for later Christianity, even beyond the historical Jesus, but he is also a man waiting to be discovered, even after nearly two thousand years…Recovering the authentic Paul, as he was in his own time, and from his own words, is my task in this book.” [p. 21]
In PAUL AND JESUS, James D. Tabor opens up the fascinating world of the life, mission, and message of the apostle Paul in a vivid, engaging narrative that makes clear what Christianity owes to him, and the importance of our understanding of him. Challenging, eye-opening, and certain to be controversial, this book will fascinate any reader who wants to better understand the deepest roots of Western civilization and Christian culture, and the way it has been shaped by the man Tabor calls “the most influential person in human history.”
About the Author
James D. Tabor is the chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He previously held positions at the University of Notre Dame and the College of William and Mary. He has a Ph.D. in Christian Origins from the University of Chicago. He is the author of several previous books, including The Jesus Dynasty and an award-winning study of the mysticism of the apostle Paul, Things Unutterable.
Tabor is often consulted by the national media, and has appeared or been quoted in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and Los Angeles Times, as well as on ABC, CBS, and PBS “Frontline,” among other outlets. He has also been featured in programs on A&E, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
About the Book
Title: PAUL AND JESUS: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity
Author: James D. Tabor
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: November 13, 2012