Sometimes people skeptical of Christianity claim that the Apostle Paul, not Jesus, was the primary innovator of many things we think of as “Christian.” Some take it even further and claim that Paul so radically changed the teaching of Jesus that he, rather than Jesus, should be viewed as the true founder of Christianity. I’m sure that Paul would be appalled at such a suggestion. (Excuse the pun…)
Did Paul invent justification by faith (Rom 3:28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; 3:24)? No, he knew that Jesus had already spoken the following words in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:13-14).
Did Paul invent the idea of atonement, that is, that Christ died in our place (e.g., Rom 5:6-8)? No, Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Did Paul invent the idea that Jesus is God (Rom 9:5; Phil 2:6; Titus 2:13)? No, Jesus asserted that he had the right to forgive sins (Matt 9:2-6) and claimed identity with God (John 8:54-59; 10:27-30). Paul’s trinitarian benediction (“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” 2 Cor 13:14) was preceded by Jesus’s charge to his disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).
Did Paul invent the idea that Jesus’s second coming out of heaven will be accompanied by angels and the blast of a trumpet (1 Thess 4:15)? No, Jesus had already indicated that this would happen (Matt 24:30-31). Paul is emphatic that his ideas are from Jesus when he says, “we declare to you by a word from the Lord” (1 Thess 4:15). Did Paul invent the idea that Jesus would come as “a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2)? No, that’s how Jesus described his future coming (Matt 24:43-44; Luke 12:39-40). What about Paul’s use of the metaphor of a woman in labor pains to describe the end of the world (1 Thess 5:3)? Nope, Jesus used that metaphor first, too (Matt 24:37-42; Mark 13:8).
Did Paul invent the idea that we should bless those who persecuted us (Rom 12:14)? No, he got it from Jesus (Luke 6:28). What about the idea of showing care to our enemies (Rom 12:18-21)? No, Jesus taught us to love our enemies (Luke 6:27 and 35).
Did Paul invent the idea that we should give “taxes to whom taxes are owed” (Rom 13:7)? No, Jesus had already replied to a question of whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17 and parallels).
Did Paul invent the idea that we should stop judging each other (Rom 14:13)? No, Jesus famously warned, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt 7:1).
Did Paul invent the idea that “those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel”? No, Paul said that Jesus had already taught (“the Lord commanded”—1 Cor 9:14; cf. 1 Tim 5:18) that “the laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7; cf. Matt 10:10b).
Did Paul invent the idea that one who is married should not separate from his or her spouse (1 Cor 7:10)? No, Paul writes that Jesus previously taught the same about marriage (“not I, but the Lord”) as we read in Mark 10:7-9 (and parallels), “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Did Paul invent the idea that we should stop worrying, and instead pray to God about our needs (Phil 4:6)? No, Jesus had a lot to say about not being anxious (Matt 6:25ff.; Luke 12:22ff.).
Did Paul invent the idea of church discipline (1 Corinthians 5; Titus 3:10)? No, Jesus taught that we should warn a sinning brother or sister and then go on to discipline if we must (Matt 18:15-17).
Did Paul invent the idea that we should view ourselves as servants of Christ, that we have been entrusted with the knowledge of God, that we need to be faithful, that Christ will return as judge, that things hidden will come to light, and that we will one day receive praise (all of which are mentioned in 1 Cor 4:1-5)? No, Jesus communicated all these concepts in a single parable, the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30).
Did Paul invent the Lord’s Supper? We regularly quote from Paul’s description of Jesus’s words to his disciples at their final supper despite the fact that Paul wasn’t present at the meal (1 Cor 11:23-25). But these words of Paul parallel Jesus’s words as recorded in Mark 14:22-24; Matt 26:26-28; and Luke 22:19-20.
Did Paul invent the flesh and spirit dichotomy for which he is so well-known (e.g., Rom 8:4-9; Gal 5:16-17)? No, he undoubtedly knew that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus had already spoken the following words: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41; Mark 14:38; cf. John 3:6; 6:63).
Did Paul invent the idea of praying to God as “Abba” (Gal 4:6, Rom 8:15)? No, he knew that the night before he was crucified, Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
Did Paul invent the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus? No, he says he “received” what he passed on as most important: “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” (1 Cor 15:3-4).
Did Paul make up Christian doctrine and practice? No. The things Paul sought, the thoughts he thought, and the words he taught were in agreement with and sometimes directly dependent upon the teaching of Jesus. Indeed, Paul helped the churches he founded to work out the implications of the death and resurrection of Christ. But Paul was a follower of Jesus, not the founder of Christianity. Paul was a disciple, not an innovator. Did Paul invent Christianity? No, Paul most certainly did not.
 For deeper reflection on the relationship of Jesus and Paul, see especially the writings of David Wenham, and in particular Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (…or his shorter book Did St Paul Get Jesus Right?)
2 thoughts on “Did Paul Invent Christianity?”
This is so good! I love it. I wish F. C. Baur or Wilhelm Wrede could read this! 🙂 Wrede wrote in his work Paul, “the name ‘disciple of Jesus’ has little applicability to Paul…He stands much farther away from Jesus than Jesus himself stands from the noblest figures of Jewish piety.” Thank you for demonstrating otherwise Dr. Berding!
Amen. Wonderful post and much needed. Paul’s teaching reflected Christ’s.
I studied these claims in grad school and wrote on Ehrman’s textbook, and I found liberal scholars making such assertions and never the case.