20 January 2013

James D. Tabor on Christianity

[T]he Christian faith, confessed by millions each week in church services all over the world, originates from the experiences and ideas on one man - Saul of Taurus, better known as the apostle Paul- not from Jesus himself, or from Peter, John, or James, or any of the original apostles that Jesus chose in his lifetime.  And further, I maintain there was a version of "Christianity before Paul" affirmed by both Jesus and his original followers, with tenets and affirmations quite opposite to these of Paul. This is the lost and forgotten Christianity of James the brother of Jesus, leader of the movement following Jesus' death, and the Christianity of Peter and all the apostles.  In other words, the message of Paul, which created Christianity was we know it, and the message of the historical Jesus and his earliest followers, were not the same.  In fact, they were sharply opposed to one another with little in common beyond the name Jesus itself.

- James D. Tabor, "Paul and Jesus" (2012) at xv-xvi (emphasis in the original).

Tabor is a professional New Testament scholar whose research focuses on the historical context of the early Christian church and a particular focus on the life of the apostle Paul.  The book is something of a magnus opus of his 45 year career. 

Later is his preface, Tabor states (emphasis in the original) that: "Paul is the most influential person in human history, and realize it or not, he has shaped practically all we think about everything." He begins the book proper with this short sentence: "Paul never met Jesus."

What Do I Know About This Stuff?

While not quite as erudite as Tabor, this is something I know a bit about.  I've read the Biblical and extra-canonical Christian texts he is referring to, I grew up as a liturgical Christian and have the experienced first hand daily church life of Lutherans, Episcopalians, and two kinds of Presbyterians (one more evangelical than the other) as a congregant, and have more episodic first hand experience with Reformed Jewish practice, Roman Catholic practice, United Methodist practice, and Unitarian Universalist practice.

I was a history minor in college in a curriculum that focused heavily on European history, and in particular the history of Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  I have read over the last couple of decades, not infrequently, magazines and books directed at the educated Christian laity. 

As such, I have some qualifications to put Tabor's statements into a larger context.

How Accurate Is Tabor's Thesis?

I would concur with Tabor that there were indeed different movements in the early Christian church, one centered around Peter and closer to the original teachings of Jesus, sometimes called Petrine Christianity, and another centered around Paul that contained innovations and a different emphasis that sometimes seems contradictory to Petrine Christianity, sometimes called Pauline Christianity. 

I would also agree that modern Christianity, both the Western Christianity of the Roman Catholic church and its Protestant descendants, and the Eastern Christianity of the Orthodox Christian Churches draws more heavily from Pauline Christianity than Petrine Christianity, and that they are largely an outgrowth of Pauline Christianity.  Paul's church actively sought converts from the ranks of Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) and this is what allowed the church as an institution to grow phenomenally.  The Petrine church focused much more heavily on converting the Jewish community to the revelations of a Jewish Messiah who was the son of a Jewish god, and had far less success on this approach to evangelization.

I would dispute that Petrine Christianity is "lost and forgotten."  I was aware of the tensions between these two threads of Christianity at least as early as the time at which I was a young teenage Lutheran in junior high school and I was surely not all that precious in that regard; our pastor explored these tensions frequently in his sermons.  The scholarly debate of the issue and its theological implications has raged for centuries within the Christian church.

Petrine Christianity is not lost and forgotten because Petrine Christianity and Pauline Christianity, while having important differences and innovations, have a great deal in common.  An essential kernel of Petrine Christianity is embedded in Pauline Christianity.  They share much of the Gospel message.  They also share borrowings from the Jewish Hebrew Bible that are profoundly different in their shared understanding from the theological assumptions of the Greco-Roman pagan worldview that they replaced in most of the Roman Empire and in some places beyond it.  They have much more in common than the name "Jesus" even though they come to very different conclusions about the meanings of the common materials.

Lastly, while I would agree that Paul was a profoundly influential person in the early Christian church who almost certainly did exist, whether or not the historical Jesus did, I am inclined to believe that Tabor attributes too much of the character of early Western Christianity to Paul himself.  Western Christianity was a syncretic religion that borrowed heavily from Platonic philosophy, from the cult of Mithras, and from the cult of Dionysus, to name a few, and there were at least half a dozen to a dozen individuals, such as Saints Augustine and Jerome, and even Emperor Constantine, who played important roles in cobbling together the Biblical canon, the liturgy and rituals of the early church, the organizational form of the early church, and the theological framework of the early church.  Paul was one of the earliest figures in his movement and thus contributed to almost all of these things to some extent, but it was a collective effort.  He set a course into which later innovations by others would position themselves, but he did not make all of those innovations and borrowings himself. 

Moreover, the influence of Pauline Christianity on thought outside the realm of religion, and even on lay understandings of religion, is fairly limited.  For example, popular understandings of Hell, who have profound influences on how we think about religion at all, probably owe more to Dante than to Paul.

Is Tabor Right About What Is Important?

My critiques of his thesis aside, Tabor's thesis has to be understood in the essential context in which it arises, which an era in which multiple Christian denominations are facing internal schismatic theological divides on questions of how to apply the Christian message to modern ethical challenges such as the church's response to issues like the role of women in the church, gay rights, and other social issues.

The schismatic fault lines in 20th and 21st century Christianity fall squarely on opposing sides of the divides between Pauline and Petrine Christianity.  And, as Petrine Christianity is closer to Jesus, even though it is farther from historical Christian practice, it has moral authority.  An elucidation of the ways in which the modern church departs from Petrine Christianity is the foundation of a case for the internal theological reform of Christian denominations and with that reform, a restatement of their social message.  In particular, it favors the "liberal" wing of the schismatic divide in the Western Christian churches over the "conservative" wing of that divide, and provides justification for reforms sought by the "liberal" wing of Christianity on issues like gay rights and feminism.

These implications, which have long been apparent, even on the face of the New Testament texts without further elucidation, are important reasons that conservative Christians have fervently opposed the historical-critical-linguistic method of Biblical interpretation since it arose in 19th century Germany.

Indeed, one can go back further than that.  Sola scriptura, by scripture alone, was one of the slogans of the Protestant Reformation in  the 16th century, which in that context, sought reform by a similar intellectual strategy.  The Reformers held up early Church practice up as an ideal, as a means of displacing innovations and interpretations by later post-Pauline innovations by formative figures in the Roman Catholic tradition, as a means of addressing schismatic disputes over social issues of that day and age.

So, yes, there is room to criticize Tabor's main thesis, as I do above.  But, on the essential element of his claim, in the context of modern Christianity, that Petrine Christianity is closer to the earliest Christian church than Jesus, assuming the New Testament texts to be accurate at least in gross consensus details as Christians do, is closer to "true Christianity" and further from modern Christian practice, than Pauline Christianity.  Hence, his main thesis is solid on question of whether the liberals or the conservatives in the modern schismatic fights of Christian denominations hold the moral high ground.

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