A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 11

Paul didn’t exist. I’m surprised it took me so long to arrive at this conclusion, but I’m hardly the first to do so—Bruno Bauer and Edwin Johnson (Antiqua Mater) knew as much in the 1800s, and Hermann Detering more recently.

Let’s reason it through, one step at a time: (1) If Jesus of Nazareth didn’t exist (as mythicists quite correctly maintain), then the over-the-top story recounted in the canonical gospels was also invented.
(2) But if the gospel storyline was invented, then the setting (time and place) of the canonical Jesus story is arbitrary.
(3) In turn, given the arbitrary nature of the setting, and the fictiveness of the story, one must conclude that the subsidiary figures who populate the gospel stories were also either invented (the twelve apostles) or were convenient props (like Pontius Pilate—probably pilfered from Josephus).
(4) Therefore, all the subsequent church writings ‘in the name of’ an (invented) apostle must be forgeries—what Bart Ehrman technically terms pseudonymous (the authorship is imputed to someone other than the writer) and pseudepigraphic (the imputation is to a noteworthy—even if invented—figure—for example, the claim that Peter, James, John, or some other apostle of Jesus wrote a gospel or an epistle).  

In literature, a made-up character does not stand alone. The make-believe figure affects the situation, the plot, and the other characters that come into contact with the invention. A real person cannot shake hands with an invented figure. (Just try it.) So, when we read that Peter, James, and John interact with Paul (Gal 2:9 etc), and that Paul operates in the same arbitrary geographic and temporal setting as the apostles (e.g. hunting down Jesus-followers not long after the crucifixion—Acts 9)—then we must conclude that (5) Paul was as much an invention as were the apostles.

By extension, the same applies to (6) Barnabas, Titus, Clement, and all the other figures in the New Testament. They are all as unreal as characters in a novel.

When and why was Paul invented?

Determining when and why Paul was invented is a little more complicated… (In much of the following I am indebted to Detering’s The Falsified Paul, translated into English by D. Doughty and uploaded by Neil Godfrey here.) We saw in preceding posts that the Jesus story—via the canonical gospels—was birthed towards the middle of the second century CE. Again, I am not the first to arrive at this conclusion, though my pathway to it may be somewhat unique: (a) Marcion’s suspicious role (as alleged) in the formation of the Lukan gospel and also in “finding” the Epistle to the Galatians; (b) the presence in the canonical gospels of second century features (e.g. synagogues, rolling stones, and Pharisees in the Galilee); (c) the disappearance of Nazareth and Jesus of Nazareth from the first century historical record; (d) the presence of dispersed, hierarchical churches already in the Pauline epistles; etc.

Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165?) knows the gospel storyline, and thus by about the year 160 CE the synoptic gospels must have been known. This, however, does not apply to Paul:

E J Goodspeed and Walter Bauer (together with Hans von Campenhausen and others) have maintained that throughout the second century we meet a crashing silence as regards the Pauline Epistles. Justin Martyr, in his voluminous writings, never mentions Paul. When he is mentioned by various writers, Paul has nothing distinctive to say, is a pale shadow and obedient lackey of the Twelve, as in Acts. When Ignatius, Polycarp, and 1 Clement (all much too blithely taken for genuine early second-century writings, in my opinion) make reference to Pauline letters, as Bauer noted, they sound almost like an ill-prepared student trying to fake his way through a discussion of a book he neglected to read. 1 Clement (47: 1) appears to have thought there was but a single Pauline letter to Corinth. Ignatius (Ephesians 12:2) somehow imagined that Paul had eulogized the Ephesians in every one of his epistles. Polycarp thought there were several letters to Philippi (Philippians 3:2) and that all Paul’s letters mentioned the excellent Philippians (11 :3). [R. M. Price, “The Evolution of the Pauline Canon,” JHC 1997 p. 50.]

Price also notes (ibid. p. 49):

Walter Bauer (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 1971:219) had long ago contended that the only Pauline epistle we have definite allusions to among the Apostolic Fathers is 1 Corinthians.

Folks, early Church history is a mess, an absolute mess—just what you’d expect when one invention follows another with no end in sight… Eventually, there were so many literary forgeries that the Christian texts couldn’t possibly agree one with another. There are forgeries and counterforgeries, contradictions in date, place, and character, and—when the Church later realized that one or another text just didn’t bear scrutiny (or, the ultimate irony, was a tad too truthful)—then the Church anathematized the text and sometimes even declared the author a heretic!

To return to our particular focus… When one considers (a) the late appearance of the canonical gospels, together with (b) the silence of the Church Fathers regarding Paul (as well as regarding the Acts of the Apostles), then the possibility immediately presents itself (and here is my main point) that the Pauline epistles as well as Acts were composed in the second half of II CE, after the appearance of the canonical gospels.

The mere possibility grows into probability when one considers the situation of the fledgling Church at the time: three (or even four, if one includes the Gospel of John) pseudo-biographies of Jesus of Nazareth had been produced towards the middle of II CE. But the Church could not simply continue producing gospels forever—nor did it need to. After all, the purpose of a gospel is to announce the “good news.” But what to do once that news is announced?

We should keep in mind that the delivery of the gospels must have precipitated immediate divisions in the already-existing Jesuine congregations (who still believed ‘Jesus’ was a spirit—the spirit of God). There would have been those who embraced the new gospel “Christ,” and there would have been those who clung to the old gnostic and spiritual Jesus. This is, in fact, precisely the situation of which we read in the epistles…

So, besides announcing the good news, it became absolutely necessary to reinforce the gospel message, the (altogether new) conception of Jesus of Nazareth as the “Christ,” the atoning and redemptive nature of the “cross,” the claim that Jesus Christ will return as eschatological judge at the end of the age, and (above all) the requirement of all ‘Christians’ to believe in all this—to believe the kerygma, “proclamation”—which is precisely the focus of the Pauline epistles.

The higher-ups in Rome (which was already the center of Church power) recognized the need for an authoritative figure whom the various congregations would respect. For this purpose, after the canonical gospels had appeared in mid-II CE, they invented ‘Paul.’

Putting all the data together—the silence of the Church Fathers, the mid-II CE dating of the gospels, and the nature of the epistles themselves as ‘mechanisms of reinforcement’ (read: propaganda)—then it is clear to me that the various epistles of the early Church (those both inside and outside the New Testament) appeared after the canonical gospels and date to the second half of II CE.

Confirmation is found in the epistles themselves. They presuppose an existing Church, one with bishops, presbyters, deacons and, indeed, “congregations.” This situation on the ground could hardly have obtained in the first generation after Jesus—yet most of the epistles have the claimed authorship of either Paul or one or another apostle (Peter the untutored fisherman writing excellent Greek, James, John, Jude…).

The second-century Church was in an impossible position—on the one hand it needed apostolic-era authorship (for upon that rested the authority of its entire message) and, on the other hand, that very apostolic-era authorship was historically unrealistic, as noted above. With its poor sense of history the Church characteristically opted for apostolic authorship—perhaps hoping that ‘nobody will notice’ historical discrepancies.

The Book of Acts

We must now go a step further. Once the Church realized that it needed a ‘Paul’ figure to reinforce the Catholic message (Christ, Cross, and belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God), it also realized that a perfect medium would be that of epistles to the various congregations. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, answered the Church’s need for a prolific, virtually limitless source of propaganda. Before this became possible, however, the Church needed first to establish Paul’s identity and authority. Hence: the book of Acts.

The Acts of the Apostles introduces Paul to the II CE Christian world and establishes his credentials as a familiar of Peter, James, John, et al. In conjunction with the various epistles, the Christians would learn all about Paul, including his receiving the mission to the Gentiles from Peter himself:

[W]hen James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. (Gal 2:9)

But, as new texts started flying between far-flung Christian congregations, contradictions multiplied and the Church in Rome quickly lost control. The epistles and Acts present contradictory versions of ‘Paul.’ The epistles are tasked with fully raising Paul to the level of apostle and assigning him the mission to the gentiles. Thus Paul stands up to Peter “to his face” (Gal 2:11) and shrilly asserts that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything” (5:6; cf. Phil 3:2). But Acts is much more moderate, papering over any conflict between Peter and Paul in a bid to present a united Catholic front. In Acts, Paul not only admits circumcision but even circumcises Timothy himself (Acts 16:3). He also takes the Nazirite vow (Acts 21:26).  

In sum, everything to do with “Paul” is bogus—his epistles, the Acts of the Apostles, the numerous later references to Paul in the Church Fathers, etc. The many epistles that populate the New Testament as well as early Christian literature appeared on the heels of the gospels and served several critical functions, as we have seen. To recap: (a) they support the new Catholic theology of the “Christ”—the only-begotten Son of God—come in the flesh, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth; (b) they spell out correct (acceptable) Catholic theology: the need for belief in the atoning and redeeming act of Christ’s death on the cross, the nature of Christ as the only-begotten messiah, and the Catholic Church as the only true and enduring representative of Jesus Christ on earth; (c) the epistles condemn those who preach “another Jesus”—laggards who cling to the old spiritual Jesus; and (d) they exhort unity, meekness, and subservience to deacon, presbyter, and bishop—thus solidifying the centrality of Rome and the almost military, hierarchical organization of the Catholic Church.

The Church achieved all these ends on the basis of a multitude of forged documents in the names of apostles, disciples—and of “Paul.”

“[Bruno] Bauer finally comes to the following conclusion: none of the letters [circulating] under the name of Paul, including the so-called major letters, stem from the pen of the apostle; on the contrary, they are written by various authors, and all are the product of Christian self-consciousness in the second century… For Bauer, [Paul] was obviously not historical, but legendary.”—H. Detering (The Falsified Paul, pp. 48–49)

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website www.NazarethMyth.info.


“Paul” — 9 Comments

  1. I don’t know if you addressed this in an earlier essay, but what would the motives be for some group to assert the need to believe in a physical Jesus? What were they up to?

    • Thanks for your question, Alan. The need for a physical Jesus is at the heart of Catholic Christianity. Jesus in the flesh (the ‘Christ,’ as opposed to the previous spiritual Jesus) includes the doctrine of the incarnation, the Christ’s mastery over nature (calming the storm, raising the dead), and the bodily resurrection. The physical Christ was required for several reasons: (a) to counter gnostic/Marcionite dualism (the flesh is evil, the creation is faulty, the Jewish god is ‘inferior’); (b) to permit the existence of the Church on earth (formerly, the realm of God was strictly spiritual); and hence, (c) to enable the amassing of power through a monopoly on the now very physical ‘Christ,’ God of both spirit and flesh. A spiritual Jesus does not allow such a monopoly, for no one can control what is invisible.

      For more on the ‘Christ,’ please see the immediately preceding post.

  2. Hi Rene, I have never thought of Paul as an historic character. If Paul REALLY wanted to know about Jesus of Nazareth, then why didn’t he go to Nazareth or Bethlehem to question his relatives, disciples and residents that knew him? I’m guessing that he had never heard of those towns or a person called “Jesus of Nazareth”. I have always thought why didn’t this persecutor of Christians ever round up the main ringleaders, Jesus and his cronies?

  3. The need of a physical Jesus emerged when YHWH was forcibly identified with the Father of Gnosis and religious philosophical cults, such as those reflected in Hermetic writings. Before that point, YWHW was considered as an evil creator or, in moderated currents, as an auxiliary deity below the Father, as best expressed in NH texts Hypostasis of the Archons and Origin of the World.

    Markus Vinzent is now going to critically study the evidence for first vs. second century origins of the epistles. This annihilates Ehrman’s claim that only JesusMythers ever raised doubts about Paul and his “authentic” letters.

  4. I can accept that “Paul” (the individual whose biography is in Acts) is invented. But do you also believe that Marcion had no letters that he attributed to a person named Paul?

    It seems more logical to me that a) a “Paul” writes some letters; b) Marcion promotes them and adds his own; c) “Luke” and associates edit and supplement these letters, and also write Acts, thus creating orthodox Paul. I see the original Paul as a local authority for Marcion’s ethnic group.

    • Thank you for you comment. I have not yet posted on that elusive and critical figure, Marcion, but expect to do so fairly soon. Here are my (abridged) thoughts for now:

      – the peripatetic “Paul” was patterned on the peripatetic Marcion
      – Marcion brought a collection of money to Rome (cf. Paul)
      – Marcion was a leading organizer/theologian of the Jesus communities in the first part of II CE (cf. Paul)
      – Marcion wrote epistles to various Jesus communities (cf. Paul. This was before the invention of “Jesus of Nazareth,” the “Christ” figure. For Marcion, Jesus was a divine spiritual entity = my “Stage 2 christology.”
      – Instead of making Marcion pope (as I suspect he wanted), the Roman church opted for the brand new “Christ” theology/the figure Jesus of Nazareth, and excommunicated Marcion. This would have been in the 140s CE.
      I hope to flesh this out in a future post. I do think Marcion is implicated right at the genesis of Christianity.

  5. This is all so fascinating. The primary issue that gives me some sort of pause is that the epistles, at least, the ones considered by most to be authentic, have no references to so many of the important details in the gospels passion narrative, let alone the absence of any real quotations to Jesus’ teachings from the gospel tradition. Shouldn’t this be seen as a rather odd blunder for the alleged proto-Catholic editors/writers/redactors of the epistles? Why not make Paul more aware of these important traditions? They would presumably have the ability to do so, and to not do so comes off as a hugely missed opportunity. Is that a mistake these proto-Catholics would have realistically made?

    • A good question, but I’ve already answered it here. Late II CE was a “watch and wait” period following the creation of the canonical gospels. Those gospels had multiplied and the Catholics weren’t sure which one(s) to use. They were chary about referencing Jesus of Nazareth or elements of his bio for several decades until codification arrived with Irenaeus (c. 180 CE) and the Muratorian Canon (c. 200). You might also check this page for multiple links.

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