Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 26, 2001
Paul's influence on the early Church
It might have escaped your notice, but about a quarter of the content of the New Testament is devoted to the writings of St. Paul. Thirteen epistles and the larger part of the Acts of the Apostles deal with the career and thoughts of the apostle who was not a member of the original group of disciples.
The fact that he was not an early follower of Jesus, but a later convert, might have created the first schism in the early Christian Church.
Paul's letters are full of bitter controversy and harsh language, describing the pernicious influence of certain opponents who meddle in the affairs of the mission communities he had established in the Roman Empire.
The conflict seems to centre around the authenticity of Paul's Jewishness and the validity of his conversion. Paul was a Hellenized Jew, a Roman citizen, born in the Cilician city of Tarsus. He was a passionate persecutor of Christians until his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus.
His independence from the Jerusalem Christians is important to him. In his letter to the Galatians he emphasizes that the Gospel he preaches did not derive from any human source, but directly through the revelation of Jesus Christ, "so that I might preach him among the Gentiles."
His insistence that the Gospel he preaches is the only reliable one takes extraordinary form when he finds it necessary to repeat: "When an angel from heaven or anyone preaches a Gospel that is different from the one we preached to you, may he be condemned to hell." In other translations the language is softened to read: "let him be anathema."
In the second epistle to the Corinthians he compares his opponents to the serpent which beguiled Eve, "for preaching a different Jesus, whom we did not preach." And again he defends himself: "I reckon I am not the least bit inferior to the very chiefest of Apostles. Though I be rude in speech, I am not in knowledge in everything we made manifest to you."
All this seems to indicate that there were two rival interpretations of the new faith that went beyond the dispute about ritual circumcision. Paul's argument is not with some unnamed heretics, but with the leaders of the Jerusalem Church, James, Peter and John.
It is not entirely clear why James had obtained pre-eminence in this triumvirate, but his blood relationship to Jesus as well as his strength of character and ability might account for the fact that Peter played a secondary role.
This original community of Christians continued to worship in the Temple as they did not regard their faith in Jesus inconsistent with Jewish orthodoxy. Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel, the champion who would free Israel from pagan subjugation.
His martyr's death at the hands of the Romans was a disillusion mitigated by the faith in the resurrection and the promise of his return to restore the kingdom of Israel.
Paul was scandalized by the idea of a crucified Messiah. To him the death of Jesus could not be just a martyr's death for Israel. A more profound and universal interpretation was necessary.
Familiar with the fears, aspirations and philosophical ideas of the contemporary Graeco-Roman world, Paul speaks of Jesus as the divine saviour of all humanity, whether Jew or Gentile.
This notion went against the cherished Jewish understanding of their spiritual superiority. It seemed unacceptable that the Messiah of Israel could be the saviour of those heathen who had put him to death and who daily oppressed God's chosen people.
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