Was Paul or Jesus the Founder of Christianity? Interview with Dr. David Wenham

Posted by Greg Monette on January 15 2014

Interview with Dr. David Wenham

It’s wonderful to have David Wenham join us on this blog to discuss the Apostle Paul’s influence on the origins of Christianity. David is an internationally recognized expert on the Apostle Paul and the question of how much Paul knew about Jesus, and whether or not Paul or Jesus was the real founder of Christianity. Having earned his Ph.D. in New Testament under the great F. F. Bruce at the University of Manchester, Dr. Wenham has gone on to author numerous books including Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?, Paul and Jesus, and Did St. Paul Get Jesus Right? Dr. Wenham has taught at Oxford University (Wycliffe Hall), and is currently teaching and supervising doctoral students (such as myself) at Trinity College, of the University of Bristol, in the United Kingdom. This is also the first blog post Dr. Wenham has ever been a contributor to!

GJM: Many popular books in recent years have put forward the argument that Paul’s version of Christianity differed significantly from that of the other Apostles. Do you believe Paul had a different perception of the message of Jesus than say Peter, James, John and the others who followed Jesus in Galilee and to Jerusalem?

DW: Yes and no. He and they had a different perception in that they were with Jesus for a period of years, and their understanding gradually grew and deepened as they listened to him and struggled to make sense of him. He had a dramatic meeting with the Lord on the Damascus Road, and learned a huge amount just through that meeting. So they learned about the grace of God for sinners by seeing Jesus mixing with sinners and by hearing him teach a parable like that of the Prodigal Son, as well as by their own experience of Jesus’ dealings with them (e.g. Peter after his denials). He learned about the grace of God for sinners in a flash: the self-righteous student of the Pharisees found that he was a major sinner, persecuting the Messiah; and he discovered Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. He could never get over that discovery. So different perspectives, but the same conclusion.

There were, of course, people in the early church, especially in Jerusalem, who were suspicious of Paul, their old vicious enemy who was now claiming to be converted. And people did have serious questions about his championing of Gentile freedom from the Jewish law; this felt like a betrayal to those for whom the Jewish law was central to their beliefs and practice. It was a tricky and painful issue. But the church leadership, including people like Peter, James and John, concluded that Paul was right, and that the Holy Spirit was indeed leading them in the direction that Barnabas (that excellent fellow) and Paul were going. (See Galatians 2).

GJM: How much did Paul know about the historical Jesus? Do we have any evidence in Paul’s own letters that he knew of authentic Jesus tradition?

DW: He knew loads about Jesus, despite the failure of many modern scholars to recognize this. He doesn’t often quote Jesus directly, because he was writing trouble-shooting letters to churches that had already been taught about Jesus. But when the Corinthians are in trouble over the Lord’s Supper, he reminds them of what they had been taught, similarly with their issues over resurrection (see 1 Cor 11 & 15). And Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching and alludes to Jesus’ life all over the place – his teaching on divorce, on the mission of the apostles, on the second coming, etc. etc. I have argued this at length in my various books and articles on the subject.

GJM: Where did Paul get his information about Jesus?

DW: He must have picked up quite a bit when he was still the arch-enemy of the Christians, even if he refused to believe a word of it! He heard Stephen and others, and was infuriated by their claims about Jesus being alive and Lord. But then his conversion brought all of that into focus, and he realized that the Christians were right. And he will then have lapped up all he could learn through Christians he met - in Damascus (like Ananias) in the first instance. Teaching enquirers and new Christians about Jesus will have been a standard part of the church’s practice; so maybe Paul was in the enquirers’ group! But maybe this extraordinary convert will also have had private tuition. In due course he met up with Peter and James the brother of Jesus and will have learned from them.

GJM: Who really was the founder of Christianity? Was it Paul or Jesus of Nazareth? Where does the evidence point?

DW: Of course, it was Jesus! Paul saw himself as a ‘slave’ of Jesus Christ, and the idea of Paul founding Christianity makes no sense at all: it was a vibrant growing movement before he ever joined it; indeed that is why he tried to eliminate the movement. And after his conversion he was in no position to turn Christianity into a new religion, even if he had wanted to, since he was an outsider not at all involved in the Jerusalem leadership of the church. But he would not have wanted to change Jesus’ religion, because he discovered its truth on the Damascus Road and was personally overwhelmed by the love of Jesus.

All of that is not to deny Paul’s contribution to the development of early Christianity. He played a key role in translating the gospel of Jesus which was proclaimed and explained first in mainly rural and Jewish Judea and Galilee into a message that made sense in the urban Gentile and Greek-speaking world. He was key in explaining theologically how Christ’s coming and death represented the ‘end of the law’, but still the coming of God’s righteousness.

GJM: How do you think Paul would define the Gospel? What did ‘Gospel’ mean to Paul?

DW: See Romans 1:2-5. For Paul the good news has its roots in the Old Testament, its heart and focus in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and its outcome in the life and witness of the church, inspired by the Holy Spirit and looking for the Lord’s return. Its heart is about God putting sinful people and a broken world to rights, through Jesus the Lord and through his death on the cross.

GJM: Some critics point out that because Paul says very little about the Kingdom of God (which was Jesus’ central message) that he must not have had a deep knowledge (nor cared to know) about the historical Jesus and his message. How would you respond to this?

DW: Paul did teach people about the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9), but it was language that made more sense to Jews with their strong understanding of the Lord reigning as king, than to Gentiles in the Graeco-Roman world. So he more usually expresses the gospel in different ways, but it is the same message- of God intervening to save the world and bringing in a new world, through Jesus’ coming, death, resurrection and second coming.

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