Before we leave the apostle Paul, we need to take a look at his impact on the theology of the early church. Much has been written and studied about his influence on most of the major theologians throughout the ages, but what about the early Christians? What impact did Paul have on the writers of the Gospels?
His letters were in circulation some 20 to 30 years before Mark, the first Christian Gospel, was written. Was this Gospel shaped by Paul?
We need to remember that Paul was a Pharisaic Jew, learning from the most important rabbi of his generation. But he was also caught up in the Greek philosophical thought of his day. To call Paul a Platonist is to misread him, but to say that Plato had no influence on his theological thought would be wrong as well.
Paul is that strange mixture of classical Jewish teaching, Roman citizenship and Greek philosophy. As such, his theology differs a great deal from the other Jewish Christians of the first century, namely Peter, James and John.
Peter, James and John had accepted Paul into the fellowship of Christians, and he was given the mission field of the Gentiles. Partly because of his great organizational ability, the Gentile church soon surpassed the Jewish Christians in influence. The church became very Gentile by the early second century. After the destruction of the Jewish temple and most of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Jewish Christians lost their influence, and we see the authority of the church moving from Jerusalem to Ephesus and eventually to Rome.
Let us look at the doctrine of baptism. For Jesus, this was from the Jewish purification rite, which cleansed us so we could be ready to enter the kingdom when it arrived. This was the baptism offered by John the Baptist and probably Jesus as well – and thus the early church.
Paul takes this simple rite and gives it new meaning, almost making it equivalent to Jewish circumcision. It became the way we are made a Christian, joined to the body of Christ, giving us a new spiritual existence. It also became the infilling of the Holy Spirit; one was made holy to be part of this new kingdom of God. We are baptized in Christ. One only has to read the Epistle to the Romans to see how far Paul was from the simple rite of Jesus. Paul’s understanding of baptism seems to have survived through the Gospel writers as well.
The early church went to great pains to show that the resurrected body of Jesus was a dead body restored back to life. The empty tomb, the grave clothes, eating with his followers, inviting Thomas to put his hands in the wounds – all of these suggest that Jesus was restored in a flesh-and-blood body.
Paul has a somewhat different view of the resurrection. For Paul, the most basic belief that a Christian must have is the belief in the resurrection of Jesus. This is the place where we must begin our search for truth. But even here, Paul would suggest this is not the restoration of a dead corpse. Jesus’ resurrection was more like a metamorphosis, from flesh and blood into a life-giving spirit (see 1 Corinthians 15:45 or 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). Jesus becomes the first of the spiritual children of God.
One of the most significant doctrines that seems to have come from Paul is the doctrine of the Eucharist. There is no Jewish source that suggests that the followers of the messiah are sharing in the body and blood of their messiah. Yet all four Gospel writers include this thought at the last supper, when Jesus said, “Take and eat, this is my body…”
For Paul, eating bread and drinking wine was no simple memorial meal; it was quite literally a participation in the spiritual body of the glorified heavenly Christ. Those who ate and drank at this meal were connected by the spirit to the nurturing life we need as children of God
For this column, I have been reading a rather fascinating, sometimes frustrating book by James D. Tabor, Paul and Jesus. It has given me a rather different perspective on Paul and his influence on the writers of scripture. I hope you enjoy the dialogue.