How the Apostle Transformed Christianity
By James D. Tabor
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), xxi + 291 pp. $26 (hardcover)
Reviewed by James D.G. Dunn
This is the latest version of an old story—that Paul is the real founder of Christianity—by the author of The Jesus Dynasty. Like his predecessors, Tabor maintains that “the fundamental doctrinal tenets of Christianity,” namely 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, can be traced back to Paul, not Jesus (pp. xv–xvi). “Christianity before Paul” was a Jewish version, neither worshiping Jesus nor practicing baptism into Christ (p. 25). We are told that James, its leading figure, has been systematically and deliberately suppressed from the record, though “the lost Christianity of Jesus” is still evident in Q [the supposed text behind Matthew and Luke] and still reflected in the Letter of James and the early Christian treatise called the Didache, the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles.
It was Paul’s conversion experience, his vision(s) of Christ, that was the gamechanger. Our book explains that this puts Paul alongside Moses and Elijah—hence Paul’s own journey to the Sinai desert, following their footsteps (p. 96). This gave him his gospel: “The revelation of the hidden mystery that God is creating a family of glorified Spirit-beings” (p. 97). Paul believed he had been given a special role like that of Christ (“a second ‘Christ’”— p. 100), and that the infusion of the Christ-Spirit into the elect group made them also “Christs” (p. 117). Paul invented Christian baptism “into Christ” and the Lord’s Supper as an act of eating the body and blood of Christ (ch. 6). Paul made a complete break with Judaism and replaced the Torah of Moses with the Torah of Christ (ch. 8). And his relationship with the other great apostle of Christianity, Peter, ended in bitter rivalry (ch. 9).
The thesis has the character of a historical novel—drawing on good knowledge of historical conditions and sources, but tweaking the latter to make the specific case. The problems arise with the tweaks. For example, Tabor allows only one conception of Jesus’ resurrection (that of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15) but ignores the physical character of resurrection assumed in 2 Maccabees 7:10–11 and implied in the Herodian practice of collecting the bones of the deceased in an ossuary. Tabor’s argument that Peter would have realized why the tomb of Jesus was empty (p. 80)—the initial tomb was temporary and Joseph of Arimathea had returned when the Sabbath was over to remove Jesus’ body and transfer it to a permanent tomb (pp. 76–77)— hardly explains how Peter and the first disciples came to the conclusion that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Again, Tabor makes much of the tension between Paul’s insistence that he had received his gospel directly from Christ (Galatians 1:12), and his assertion that the gospel he preached to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:3) was one he had received (from Christians before him). But he ignores the likelihood that the distinctive feature that Paul attributes specifically to Christ and that caused problems with the Jerusalem believers (Galatians 2:2) was the commission to take the gospel also to gentiles. He is deaf to Paul’s affirmation that he shared his gospel with the other apostles (1 Corinthians 15:11). And his overblown assessment of Paul’s evaluation of his commission (“surpassing anything any human being had ever received”—p. 95) likewise ignores the fact that Galatians 1:15–16 is framed precisely in the language of the prophetic call of Jeremiah 1:5. Likewise Tabor’s confidence that following his conversion Paul went to Sinai ignores the more likely scenario implied in Galatians 1:17 that “Arabia” refers to Nabatea (south of Damascus). Tabor’s further argument that Paul invented the ritual act of baptism “into Christ” ignores the evidence that Paul could assume that all believers had been baptized in the name of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:13). And his claim that Paul believed the Torah to be obsolete ignores passages like Romans 8:4 and 1 Corinthians 7:19.
So a lively and thoughtprovoking attempt to resolve some of the historical problems that Paul poses—yes. But, sadly, tendentiousness and text-selectivity renders most of the thesis increasingly implausible.
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