Yesterday, as the Supreme Court closed out a session historical for its radical Christian lurch backwards toward an America that was, We The People got reminded (harshly) that extreme religiosity and democracy are mutually exclusive propositions. From abortion to guns to clean air, the religious extremists on the court (and how the bloody hell did that happen?) put forward a policy program designed inside the Heritage Foundation, a noble-sounding organization hell bent on white hegemony. You could cater a party for the Jewish, Black and Latino HF members with the cash in your pocket. Or the cash you used to keep there. This power grab is steeped in Christian culture. That’s Christian culture as opposed to Jesus culture. Those two things are NOT the same. Not even remotely. That’s the problem.
The overwhelming majority of people have zero interest in history. However we got here, we got here. With so many immediate problems in all our faces, who the hell has time to worry about the past? Understandable but it’s the past that helped create a lot of those immediate problems. And those problems are just history repeating itself because we refuse to learn. What if we learned from the past to give ourselves a chance at a better tomorrow? I would bet that close to 99% of all Christians think their religion fell from the sky a fully formed thing – the exact same faith they practice today is the faith Jesus invented. Actually, I know lots of Christians think those things because they’ve told me so. Just as Americans seem to know less about how civics work than anyone, so too do Christians seem to know less about their faith and its history than anyone.
Most Christians assume the Bible they read has always been thus – that Jesus burped it one day and there it was. They assume that the stories and mysteries that shape their worldview flowed via some divine highway from the mind of God onto a stretch of parchment. It might as well have been Yahweh himself holding the quill. Most Christians couldn’t tell you who “Yahweh” is even as they swear they have a personal relationship with him.
Don’t get me wrong. I honestly think the Apostle Paul was a stone cold genius. He invented something out of whole cloth that we’re still talking about today. Paul invented Christianity, not Jesus. Jesus had absolutely nothing to do with it. Had it been up to Jesus, there would never have been a non-Jewish Jesus cult. Paul’s invented mythology aside (and Paul absolutely invented the Jesus mythology), Joshua ben-Joseph was born, lived his whole life and died a Jew. He was educated in Judaism and nothing but. His entire worldview was Jewish. He taught Jewish ideas to other Jews and knew that the Roman world tolerated him (and the rest of the Jews) at best. That tolerance could always disappear.
We know Paul existed: he wrote things down. He put his name to them as he wrote them. Others reacted to the things Paul wrote. Paul exists in the historical record. It’s indisputable. Jesus, on the other hand… I am willing to agree that someone like Jesus must have existed; Paul’s the proof. The person Paul envisioned on the road to Damascus – while imaginary – was based on someone real who Paul knew was real. That doesn’t mean that what Paul knew about Josh ben Joe was accurate. It’s just a stone cold historical fact: Paul never met the man he reimagined as “Jesus Christ” in the flesh. Paul knew of Jesus but never knew Jesus.
And when Paul took his version of Jesus from the Road to Damascus back to Jerusalem, it received a poor reception. Everyone there who actually knew Jesus or heard him preach disagreed with Paul and his version of Jesus because their experience of Jesus either was first or second hand while Paul’s was completely removed from Jesus entirely. The Jerusalem movement saw a simpler, uncorrupted relationship between each individual Jew and Yahweh. One didn’t need the corrupt temple or its corrupt priests to experience Yahweh or Judaism full bore. That was Jesus’s radical idea. A purer form of Judaism. Just Jew and God.
Paul however wasn’t interested so much in what Jesus taught or thought. He was laser focused on the part of the story where Jesus rose from the dead. To Paul, that fact transcended Jesus himself and any message he may have thought or taught. Jesus’s messiah-hood (itself based on a thousand-year-old mythology) had to be undeniable. Jesus had to BE the predicted person. His bona fides had to line up starting with his connection to King David – himself a mythological figure who predated Jesus by a millennium! Judaism is ancient!
Rejected by the Jesus community in Jerusalem, Paul took his version of Jesus to the Gentiles. They were a much easier sell since none of them had any background whatsoever in either Jesus or all the Jewish mythology that had to work for Paul to claim Jesus was in fact the messiah. Working the Gentiles meant working a room without a single critic in it. Who was going to contradict Paul?
If Paul never takes his version of Jesus to the Gentiles, Christianity never happens. If Paul had folded his cards and thrown in his lot with the Jesus cult in Jerusalem, most likely “Christianity” would never have happened. It would have died out, one Jewish cult among many that failed to survive the destruction of the Second Temple in 79AD and the beginning of the Jewish diaspora.
Without Paul, there simply is no Christianity. The bulk of the New Testament is written by Paul or attributed to him. Mostly, it’s made up of Paul’s letters to the burgeoning, far flung Christian communities beginning to pop up across Asia Minor. Without Paul, those communities never pop up.
Here’s another reason the Jesus cult in Jerusalem would have eventually died out. Jews don’t proselytize. Aside from Chasids proselytizing other Jews, it’s simply not in our nature and never was. Remember, the Jewish idea of itself is as Yahweh’s “chosen people”. Yahweh gets to choose, not the chosen people. Jews therefore can’t go out and ask “Have you heard the good news?” because there’d be nothing anyone non-Jewish could do about the good news (except become anti-Semitic). Paul recognized that spreading Judaism was impossible since becoming Jewish demanded that every man get circumsized. That was as hard an ask then as now.
That’s why one of the first rules Paul tossed was the need for circumcision. That was a big part of Paul’s break with the Jewish community in Jerusalem. For Jews, circumcision wasn’t a choice, never mind any “good news”. Jesus was circumsized and I’ll bet ya he would have had every son he ever had circumsized – especially since they were going to be raised as Jews.
I don’t doubt Paul’s sincerity for two seconds. In a put up or shut up world, Paul put up. But then, the product he was selling was perfectly timed and the product itself was kinda “perfect”. That’s how it sold itself. Outside of monotheistic Jews, the rest of the Roman world was entirely polytheistic. Polytheistic gods are very different from the Jews’ Yahweh. For starters, in most polytheistic faiths, the gods don’t exist to serve people. They co-exist with people but in no way are they here to do anything in particular for humans. Yahweh was different from the get-go.
Yahweh opens his relationship with Abram (the “father” of all Abrahamic faiths) by saying “Believe in me and just me and I’ll give you a whole country!” Never mind the fact that it belongs to someone else (the Canaanites). That is Abram’s explanation for why he moves from present day Iran to the Mediterranean coast and – like Saul of Tarsus transforming into Paul the Apostle – becomes Abraham. The promise is made to Abraham’s tribe – his blood – and not to anyone who chooses to convert to this new faith. You cannot convert your blood alas.
But, Yahweh doesn’t play like any other god. Yahweh doesn’t deny that other gods exist (thou shalt have no other gods but me), he just wants you to deny their validity as gods. If you’re willing to do that for Yahweh, then Yahweh has some things he’d like to do for you. A deity like that had never been imagined before. A creator of the entire universe who gives a toss about each and every human – because they were created in Yahweh’s “image”.
Paul takes that idea of what a god can do for ordinary people and supercharges it. He gives Yahweh a son. He gives that son a divine purpose – to die for all of humanity’s sins – and gives that purpose an after effect: the possibility that if they follow the rules exactly as laid out, then just like Jesus, they, too, can rise from the dead and live forever after in a fabulous, magical place called heaven alongside everyone they ever loved or cared about. In a world where gods did nothing for people, Yahweh was a game changer – and all one had to do to get the benefits was “believe”.
I believe my many Christian friends really do want a peaceful world. Most of my Christian friends are uncomfortable with what the SCOTUS did this past week or so. They know it all flows from a strange brand of Christianity they never learned when they occasionally showed up at Sunday School. I also believe my many Christian friends when they say of Christians whose Christianity is dubious to them “They’re not real Christians”. To them, that weird Christianity isn’t “Christianity”.
From an outside perspective however? This is all splitting hairs. Ever listen to a regular, main stream Protestant go on and on about why Mormons aren’t Christians? It’s equal parts hilarious and confounding. It’s the pot calling the kettle’s beliefs strange.
Paul never got to finish what he started. He vanished from the historical record around 64-65 AD, most likely beheaded during the Neronian Persecution. For the record, the reason that the Romans left the Jews alone mostly – to practice their monotheism in peace – is that Jews didn’t try converting anyone. Rome saw Jews not so much as monotheists but as atheists because Jews didn’t believe in the Roman gods.
Rome saw Christians the exact same way they saw Jews – except Christians kept trying to spread their atheistic faith whereas Jews didn’t. That’s why the Romans were kinda “one and done” with the Jews. They wiped out the temple in Jerusalem and threw all the Jews out. The Romans didn’t care what happened to the Jews after that. They didn’t oppress Jews any further. But, because Christians kept trying to make their Christianity everyone’s faith, the Romans got angry.
When you consider what the Christian-dominated Supreme Court just did to America where we have no state religion, I can’t say I blame the Romans one teensy bit.