Early Christianity
Paul of Tarsus

   The second important founder of Christianity is Paul of Tarsus (originally Saul of Tarsus, ~5-67 AD)who, even though he was a young contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, never even met him. In fact, he spent part of his early career rooting out Jewish Christian communities and prosecuting them. Not long after, however, he underwent a vision and converted to the new religion and brought to it an energy and creativity that soon made him the most prominent leader in the new movement. Unlike Jesus of Nazareth, Paul's role in the foundation of Christianity is absolutely clear. The standard narrative of his career was written down within a decade of his death, and many of his writings were preserved. We can be fairly confident in ascribing ideas and doctrines to Paul, whereas there is much dispute over what genuinely belongs to Jesus of Nazareth in the accounts of his career.

   Paul was a product of the Jewish diaspora and was born in the Cilician city of Tarsus in Asia Minor; unlike all the other earliest followers of Christianity, he was not a native of Palestine. As a citizen of Tarsus he was also officially a citizen of Rome. Raised in Greek culture and fluent in Greek, it was natural that he would take the side of the Hellenists in the dispute over the direction of the church. He was, however, also a member of the Pharisees, a zealous group of Jews that focussed rigorously on Jewish Law and the strict adherence to that law.

   His natural orientation towards the Greek world led to his most significant innovations in the new religion; it's not unfair to say that the religion Paul left the world was a substantially different religion than what he started with. The most salient aspect of the theology and ethics of Paul is his emphasis on Christianity as a universal religion. Whereas Jesus of Nazareth and many of his followers seemed to narrowly conceive of the religion as a religion of the Jews, Paul, in the context of the debate between the Hebrews and the Hellenists, tirelessly and creatively recast Christianity as a religion for all peoples.

   This required some significant innovations that Paul would build off of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth that were circulating around him. The centerpiece of the debate between the Hebrews and the Hellenists was the refusal of the Hellenic Christians to abide by Jewish law—it was, after all, a foreign law. The flashpoints for the dispute were Jewish rules of eating and circumcision, neither of which the non-Jewish Christians wanted to adopt. For the Jewish Christians, this made the Greek Christians unclean.

   Paul argued that the Law was utterly worthless in gaining salvation; the sacrifice of Christ was enough. In order to make this argument, he relied on the Greek and Roman legal concept of the spirit and the letter of the law. In Greek and Roman jurisprudence, one could argue that, even though a defendant has committed a crime according to the letter of the law, that defendant has not broken the law in terms of the spirit or intent of the law. There was, Paul argued, a deeper intent or spirit to the Law given the Hebrews; that intent or spirit was summed up in the teachings and the death of Jesus of Nazareth and was inscribed in every human soul. Much of this had precedents in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but the full-out rejection of the Jewish Law was an earth-shattering change for it allowed Christianity, which did not have many Jewish followers, to explosively spread throughout the Roman world.

   Paul also had to deal with cultural practices among the Greeks and Romans who were forming Christian communities. It is clear that he felt that many of these practices were not only antithetical to Jewish law, but to what he considered the spirit of Christianity as well. So while Paul was magnificently tolerant of Greek practices of eating or circumcision, he did not tolerate other aspects, such as homosexuality. In pursuit of this, he took a contradictory course to his universal stance and declared salvation off-limits to an entire set of people engaged in certain behaviors. In social and political terms, his list of excluded peoples would reverberate throughout Christian history in social tensions and, in some cases, violent oppression of excluded groups.

   The bulk of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are eschatological; he is largely concerned with individuals preparing for the end of the world. While Paul, like Jesus of Nazareth, seemed to believe that the end of the world would happen within the generation of his listeners, he nevertheless downplayed the eschatological aspects of the religion, preferring instead to focus on the personal salvation aspects of the teachings. It is Paul who is largely responsible for the individualistic and personal focus of Christianity.

   While the career of Jesus of Nazareth strongly focusses on women and the social status of women, Paul was reactionary against both Jesus's radicalism towards women and the Greek liberality that allowed women a stronger voice in the community than was allowed among the Jews. He demanded that women be silent in church and in matters of theology, thus re-establishing a gendered difference that, it seems, Jesus had in part erased. At the same time, however, there are clearly women serving in the roles of priests and he speaks them.

   While Jesus of Nazareth has absolutely nothing to say about slavery—even though it was a common practice—Paul seems to approve of it. In fact, he demands that slaves obey their masters. At the same time, however, he understands the contradiction of a Christian owning another Christian as a slave. He doesn't demand that slaveowners give over their slaves, just simply that it would be the Christian thing to do. In the history of racial slavery from the 1600's to the 1800's, the injunction by Paul that slaves should obey their masters would loom very large in the arguments for slavery.

   Above everything else, Paul was a masterful compromiser. He knew when issues mattered and when an important issue should simply be let go of in favor of the expansion of the church. This gives his extant writings a character of indecisiveness, contradiction, and sometimes opportunism. But his goal was the expansion of the central teachings of Jesus of Nazareth throughout the Roman world; as long as he felt that the core or spirit of those teachings were adhered to, he was willing to compromise other things or tolerate in one situation what he wouldn't in another.

Richard Hooker



©1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999