Christians believe they are followng the teachings of Jesus.

The New Testament indicates they are actually following the teachings of Paul.

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Here’s the thing: No one knows for sure if the words of Jesus in the gospels are his actual words. We’re fairly certain that some of them definitely aren’t. There is even a not-very-good argument to be made that Jesus never existed

Most biblical scholars accept that Jesus probably did exist. They agree that at least some of his words in the bible were probably spoken by him. But this is a particularly murky area of history. For clarity, we will follow the general consensus of bible scholars.

Did Jesus want to establish Christianity?

The standard Christian interpretation of the New Testament is that God lived among us as a man. He came back from the dead, and now we can all bask in the glow of his sacrificial act. Consequently, Jesus set up a religion more open than Judaism called Christianity.

But apart from a few scattered quotes, this view isn’t supported by the gospels. These quotes are so at odds with the general trend, they could well be verses added much later by “concerned citizens.” Bible scholars call these verses “interpolations.”

For instance, the famous line, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” is almost certainly an interpolation from an over-zealous copyist who didn’t make much of an effort to hide his work. Both gospel allusions to the Trinity are also considered interpolations (even by Christian scholars) for equally good reasons. For one, the doctrine of the Trinity was not developed until the third century. Additionally, any verses which can be reliably dated to before that time do not mention the Trinity. 

So, if the verses where Jesus looks like he’s setting up a doctrinal basis for a new church were added after that church was set up, what can the remaining original verses (if they can even be regarded as such) tell us about what Jesus was actually trying to do?

The religion of Jesus

Jesus was a Jew. He was circumcised and went to temple. He observed all the Jewish traditions and holidays and rituals from his birth until his death—although in his defense, that would slow anyone down. The twelve apostles were all Jews. They were all circumcised and went to temple. After the death of Jesus, they continued to observe all the Jewish traditions, holidays and rituals. Jesus and his apostles all saw themselves as fundamentally Jewish. Perhaps they were even more Jewish that the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In the gospels, these representatives of the established Jewish faith constantly get out-Jewed by Jesus in various hot arguments. 

The identity of Jesus cannot be understood apart from his Jewishness. Without exception, his teaching can be explained entirely through the Judaism of his time. In one gospel, Jesus unambiguously avers: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

Enter Christianity

Christianity as we know it today was invented by Paul. Jesus, for the reasons stated above, would probably be horrified at the shambling mess Paul made of Judaism in order to create the new religion. 

First, the early apostles did not call themselves Christians, at least not until they gathered in Antioch years after the death of Jesus. Until then, they were referred to, and regarded themselves, as Jews. As Alister McGrath put it in his book, Christianity, “they seemed to regard Christianity as an affirmation of every aspect of contemporary Judaism, with the addition of one extra belief – that Jesus was the Messiah.”

Second, while the New Testament is presented as the gospels being expanded on by the Pauline epistles, scholars generally accept that the letters of Paul pre-date the gospels. The purpose of the gospels may be to “fill in” Paul’s writings. Paul’s letters are notoriously thin on detail when it comes to the life of Jesus. For Paul (and all Christians), things only got interesting when Jesus died. By his own admission, Paul never spoke to Jesus or met him. He developed his understanding of Jesus entirely through “divine revelation”. This is one of the least reliable paths to truth available.

Third, and perhaps the most convincing element in understanding that Jesus may not have envisioned a “Christianity” as such, the New Testament records several serious rifts in approach and understanding between Paul and Peter (the assigned best friend of Jesus) and James (one of the brothers of Jesus).

Paul versus the Jerusalem crew

James was the brother of Jesus and Peter was a close friend of Jesus. They ran the church from Jerusalem after Jesus died. Peter, James and the Jerusalem crew strongly believed that anyone who joined them would have to be Jewish. This would meant following all the laws including the dietary prohibitions and circumcision. These laws made it difficult to convert Gentiles who were more emotionally attached to the foreskins than the Jews.

After a big argument, James decided that circumcision was not necessary for Gentile converts. However they would still have to obey all the Jewish dietary restrictions. Paul agreed. Predictably, he later unilaterally trashed the dietary restrictions too.

It’s both terrifying and urgent. We can only imagine how Paul felt.

The Jerusalem crew were so hardcore that they confronted Peter when they heard he had merely shared his religious opinions with some goyim over a non-kosher meal. His defence is hilarious. You should read it. It seems clear that everyone before Paul strongly believed that they were in a strictly Jews-only club. 

It seems very implausible that everyone who knew Jesus, his closest friends and family members, would somehow be mistaken about his intentions but a man who never met Jesus and knew nothing about him personally would get the correct information from the voices in his head. Yet almost all Christians are currently engaging with their religious beliefs along the lines outlined by Paul and not by Jesus. 

Back to Jesus

Throughout the gospels, there is a sense of impending doom (which reaches a hallucinatory crisis in the Apocalypse). The “time is fulfilled”, the “kingdom of heaven is at hand”, this generation “shall not pass” until it’s all over, some of you will still be alive when the kingdom of god rolls in. “Be alert,” this could happen any minute now. The Apocalypse will “shortly be done” and so on. 

This is why Christians from every time period believe that Jesus will come back in their lifetime. It’s difficult to take the New Testament in any way seriously without coming to that conclusion. Try it. Try reading the Apocalypse and imagine that you believe the basic thrust of Christianity. It’s both terrifying and urgent. We can only imagine how Paul felt.

What did Jesus want?

It looks like Jesus never intended to abandon the Jewish religion. He wanted to provide a more urgent, messiah-centric way of interpreting it. For many years after his death, his followers still hoped to reform Judaism. Only when that effort failed did Christianity become a new religion.

Jesus was a Jewish rabbi outside the established system who railed against it much like the prophets in Old Testament times. Fig trees aside, the only times the New Testament shows Jesus as genuinely annoyed concern the corruption, greed and hypocrisy of people who regarded themselves as “good” Jews.

When it looked like he was preaching in opposition to the Jewish law, he always made sure to explain that he was not. When asked to boil down the entire teachings of the Torah to a single sentence, he said to honour god and treat people how you would like to be treated, something which was preached in almost identical terms by the influential Rabbi Hillel fifty years before him. No one ever accused Hillel of debasing the law.

Jesus may have seen himself as the natural end-point of a long chain of prophets and rabbis. It must have seemed like a very end-pointy time to the first-century Jews of Judaea. His friends agreed that he was the Messiah and proceeded on that basis. When he died, that dream did not die with him. In fact, the dream stayed very much alive until Paul, through hard work and sheer determination, personally beat it into a whole new shape.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...