Did St. Paul corrupt the teaching of Jesus?

Paul was the … first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus. (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, 1820)

The above quote comes from a post on the blog deConversion. The blog is interesting, but sad from a Christian perspective:  it amounts to a kind of support group for people who are extricating themselves from fundamentalist Christianity. Many now reject Christianity altogether.

Unfortunately, many of the posts are badly misinformed, in my opinion. The current post is an example. Here is another in the series of quotes selected by the blogger, Thinking Ape:

Jesus taught that to escape judgment a person must keep the central teachings of the Jewish Law as he, Jesus himself, interpreted them.

Paul, interestingly enough, never mentions Jesus’ interpretation of the [Mosaic] Law, and Paul was quite insistent that keeping the Law would never bring Salvation.

The only way to be saved, for Paul, was to trust Jesus’ death and resurrection. … Paul transformed the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus.

(Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 1993)

Ehrman is a good scholar. He supports his positions with relevant data, and he is a clear, engaging communicator. But he’s also a sceptic who leaps to unwarranted conclusions (for example, that copyist errors render the Bible completely unreliable).

Returning to deConversion.com — the current post offers nothing more than gross generalizations. Thinking Ape hasn’t done his homework, which involves wrestling with the minutiae of the New Testament.

This is a real problem for blogging as a medium. I made an attempt at biblioblogging with Toward Jerusalem. In my experience it’s difficult to sustain interest in detailed textual analysis on a blog.

But sometimes detailed textual analysis is required by the subject matter. There is both continuity and discontinuity between Jesus and Paul:  the data are complex. To do the issue justice, one must consider dozens of specific verses, carefully comparing what the Gospels say to what Paul says.

Here’s a gross simplification of the data from my perspective:

Gospels Paul’s letters
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God: e.g., “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt. 12:28.) Paul proclaimed Jesus, “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25)
christology Jesus makes an implicit christological claim: “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt. 12:28.) — suggesting that Jesus’ ministry is the fulcrum upon which salvation history turns explicit claim: “Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23)
does the
Law of
apply to
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. … Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:17-19) “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4)
Does the
apply to
part 2
“‘There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him’ …. (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:15-19) “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.” (1Co. 9:20-21)
the law
of love
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. [and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt. 22:37-40) “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10)

There are serious challenges of interpretation in the texts selected above. For example, what does Paul mean, “Christ is the end of the law”? In my view, the word “end” has a dual significance. Paul is claiming both that Jesus fulfilled the law and that he revoked the law as an instrument of salvation. But Christians disagree strenuously over the correct interpretation of the verse.

How well does Paul’s message cohere with that of Jesus? There is both continuity and discontinuity. The above table merely scratches the surface of the data. I could continue making such comparisons until everyone was bored spitless. (Assuming you aren’t already!)

Traditionally, the discontinuity has been explained by reference to (1) a policy of coyness on Jesus’ part during his ministry; and (2) the shocking event of the resurrection, which caused the first Christians to evaluate Jesus from a very different perspective. Whether the explanation is adequate or not, the reader may decide.

Bottom line:  the discontinuity is real and substantial — but so is the continuity.

The deConversion post doesn’t provide the sort of detailed, nuanced analysis of actual texts that the subject requires. Gross generalizations are worthless, whether they come from Thomas Jefferson, Bart Ehrman, or Thinking Ape.


26 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Thinking Ape
    Jul 24, 2007 @ 12:10:19

    You appear to jump the gun for your own reasoning and ignore every single one of my comments at De-Conversion. Please, this is not only immature but also does nothing to further your argument. I encourage you to “listen” before you rant.


  2. Stephen
    Jul 24, 2007 @ 12:38:55

    It’s not a rant; but I seriously object to your post.


  3. Thinking Ape
    Jul 24, 2007 @ 14:48:01

    Stephen, there was nothing to object to. Period. How hard is that to understand? It was a blatant offering of food for thought. Nothing more. Nothing less. It was a collection of soundbites with similar perspectives on Paul. I repeated this over and over and you continue to think that this is some sort of argument. I encouraged you to stick around for my actual thoughts on the subject. Instead, you decided to warp and twist things for your own benefit. You can object all you want, but do it honourably. Your lack of concern for what the post was obviously about can be summed up in your conclusion:

    “The deConversion post doesn’t provide the sort of detailed, nuanced analysis of actual texts that the subject requires. Gross generalizations are worthless, whether they come from Thomas Jefferson, Bart Ehrman, or Thinking Ape.”

    What I am saying is, REALLY? I HAD NOT NOTICED! *sarcasm – in case you didn’t catch that either*

    The issue I have presented continues to be a controversial subject in historical Christianity. That was the point. I don’t know how many ways I can put this.

    As for your garbage about DeConversion. Many of the contributors were ministers and missionaries. I myself was in pastoral training in the Anabaptist tradition. It was the way that people like you treat the arguments of others that first made me question my faith. You do more harm against Christianity than we do.


  4. Stephen
    Jul 24, 2007 @ 15:17:47

    You do more harm against Christianity than we do.

    You aren’t in a position make that judgement because, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time you’ve read one of my posts. On the other hand, I’ve been reading deConversion for weeks now. I agree with many of the contributors’ objections to fundamentalism. But there isn’t enough substance to suggest that the writers are educated about the issues they are addressing. Lots of touchy-feely; but no real substance.

    I look forward to your subsequent posts in the series; I hope you will actually roll up your sleeves and dig into the relevant texts. In the meantime, I agree with your description of the introductory post, “soundbites”. But “food for thought”? — not so.


  5. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Jul 24, 2007 @ 20:48:11

    BWAHAHAHA! It almost sounds like you’re suggesting that Stephen is a Fundamentalist, Ape! Stephen makes me look like one, and I spend a great deal of my time in Christians spheres trying to figure out how true fundamentalists can even harbor such thoughts.

    If Stephen does any damage to the faith, it would only be through over-thinking and over-critiquing. His comments on your post are not ranting or defending an unsupported and absolutely convicted faith, they are a fight against “soundbites” and oversimplification…. as any regular reader of his blog could have told you.


  6. Bil
    Jul 25, 2007 @ 10:42:19

    Stephen’s critique was well put, you can’t just dump a bunch of soundbites on the table in such a way as to imply your position, you must apply a criticism and detailed analysis or your writing is worthless, which is an observation on merit not an insult. Quotations rely to heavily on the value placed on the individual espousing them, without argument they convert only those that are impressed by the authors. That said, when you characterized Stephen’s critique as “your garbage about DeConversion” that is an insult, and your defence of DeConversion on the basis that “Many of the contributors were ministers and missionaries,” is valueless, for the same reason that quotations lack value on their own. I have met many wrong Ministers and Missionaries. That said Stephen is not one of them. I suspect he is often more right than wrong. You would benefit by reading more than just one of his posts. However, I suspect you and those that write at DeConversion need to be very careful considering they are attempting to deconvert the converted and do some major deconstruction of their arguments before they post them. I am not saying you are wrong in the attempt it is your right to think as your conscience dictates. The problem is the nature of DeConversion’s aim tends to lead to an emotional and polemic stance. DeConversion has tried to walk the line of unbiased objectivity to some degree, but if your mandate is “de-converting of Former Christians,” Just how objective can you be? The mandate behind Stephen’s Blog has no such bias, he claims to defy categorization, and I think he does the job admirably. How much more unbiased can you be?


  7. Bil
    Jul 25, 2007 @ 10:53:18

    Sorry I should have noted that my comment was directed at Thinking Ape.


  8. gasdocpol
    Jul 26, 2007 @ 07:48:59

    Without St. Paul there would probably be no “Christianity” it was largely through Pauls organization skills, energy and fervor that Chrisianity was spread. The result was an amalgum of the thoughts of St. Paul and Jesus.

    St. Paul never even met Jesus, much less diologued with him.

    The only question is whether Paul corrupted Jesus for the better or the worse.


  9. Stephen
    Jul 26, 2007 @ 11:15:38


    I agree with your first paragraph in its entirety. Christianity is certainly an alloy of Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s teaching. Paul was a brilliant and creative thinker, even if we stop short of calling him inerrant.

    I wouldn’t use the word “corrupted”, but it seems to me that Paul sent Christianity on a different trajectory than it would have had without him. Even so, there are other trajectories in scripture. Christian pacifists, for example, are deeply rooted in the ideals of the sermon on the mount. Roman Catholics reject the Pauline doctrine of justification in its Protestant formulation; they off-set it by appeal to other scriptures.

    In my view, the diversity is all part of God’s purpose for the Church. Paul was of God; but so was Matthew or whoever preserved the saying, “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”

    The error we want to avoid is that of subjugating all other voices to that of Paul, thereby depriving the Church of other vantage points.


  10. Dan
    Jul 26, 2007 @ 12:48:02


    Quick note to say that if Paul never met Jesus then he would never have been able to claim the title of “Apostle.” However, given the amount of time that Paul spends defending his apostleship, and given Paul’s repeated emphasis upon his meeting with Jesus, you may want to reconsider your second paragraph.


    Quick note to say that I would rank Paul among the great Christian pacifists — the suffering he endured, and the loving way in which he responded to that suffering (while suffering against that suffering!), and the revolutionary results of his ministry, put him (in my books anyway) right up there with MLK, Gandhi and the rest.

    Grace and peace,



  11. Joules
    Aug 02, 2007 @ 04:35:10

    Praise be to Father in Heaven, Creator of the vast universe. Alone, He is worthy to be praised! Peace be upon you all.

    Paul.. hmmm.. one of the miracle of was blinding a false prophet thus converting a non-Christian to Christian? See Acts 13:6-12

    Neither such miracle was performed by Moses, Abraham, Jacob, Solom, Elijah, even Jesus. Hmm.. name me a prophet that blinds someone?

    Remember, how Paul mocked the One True Creator? If that happened in the Old Testament, such action is not tolerable thus, cursed to death, cursed to eternal hell. But since false prophets are allowed to mock, thus Paul might be allowed to be mocked the One True Creator… don’t you think?

    It is clear how Paul lied or if not lied tell differently about His experience on Jesus apperance to him with regards to the light and his obligation and his duty? Was he accurate? Is his words authentic?
    Compare Acts 9, Acts 22 and Acts 26

    Our Father in Heaven condemns lying. We should not in any manner lie. We should follow His commandments. Praise only Our Father in Heaven. The Lord of your Lord. The God of your gods. The Creator of the Universe.

    May His will be done.


  12. Stephen
    Aug 02, 2007 @ 14:39:06

    I’m not quite sure what your point is, but the gist of your comment seems to be an attempt to denigrate Paul.

    Since you seem to regard Acts as accurate in its account of history, I suppose you’re aware that God struck Ananais and Sapphira dead for their immorality, which threatened to corrupt the pure, primitive Church. What’s the difference between God striking someone dead directly, and God striking someone blind through Paul as intermediary?

    Re the three accounts of Paul’s Damascus Road experience — that’s an old quibble, with not much substance to it. The four Gospels recount the events of Jesus’ ministry with variant details. Does that make the Evangelists liars? No: it’s just what happens when the same stories are repeated in different contexts. It presents difficulties for those who want to put together an exact historical record. But (like your email) the gist of events is clear enough.

    Re for Paul cursing God — I have no idea what occasion you’re referring to. In any event, Paul is OK in my books, even though he must take second place to the Lord Jesus.

    May his will be done, even through such flawed instruments as St. Paul.


  13. gasdocpol
    Aug 02, 2007 @ 19:22:40

    Paul hallucinated that he met Jesus. Do hallucinations count?


  14. Stephen
    Aug 02, 2007 @ 21:17:36

    How does your question respond to anything I said to you in my previous comment? If you are interested in dialogue, you’ve come to the right place; but polemical questions that bear no relation to the earlier discussion do not constitute dialogue.


  15. gasdocpol
    Aug 02, 2007 @ 22:18:34

    Did Paul come face to face to face with Jesus when he was still alive or didn’t he? Was it during a waking state?

    Does it call for evoking the supernatural to understand the meeting between Jesus and Paul?


  16. Stephen
    Aug 03, 2007 @ 05:28:01

    I see that you’re actually responding to Dan’s comment, not mine. Why didn’t you say as much?

    I’m prepared to engage in a discussion of the issue with you, but first I need to know that you are interested in an actual dialogue. Are you prepared to respond to such points as I may make, or are you only interested in carrying out a polemical attack?


  17. Joules
    Aug 06, 2007 @ 10:14:59


    For biblical passage, I used New American Standard Bible…

    Paul said:
    2 Corinthians 12:12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.

    Christ said:
    Matthew 24:24
    For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.

    Paul said:
    1 Corinthians 1:17
    For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.

    Christ’s instructions:
    Matthew 28:19
    Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit

    Since Paul was sent not to baptize but rather to preach the gospel… now, who will I believe about the prophet? Paul or Jesus? I wonder…

    Compare these two statements…

    Matthew 24:23
    Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him.

    Acts 26:15
    “And I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.

    whoa!! so what now? should I believe this guy?

    Re acts 9, 22, 26: look more closely they really vary..

    Also, is he not once an enemy of the Jewish church and Christians.. could this be not his tactic so restore the power to the Roman empire? the Catholic church? hmmm…

    or or… on the way to Damascus… he prepared a nice speech to convince his prey? the roman paul…


  18. Stephen
    Aug 06, 2007 @ 19:20:22

    I can see that you study the scriptures closely. I commend you for that. However, you may be studying them for the wrong purpose: i.e., to look for proof texts to use against New Testament Christianity. For that I could not commend you.

    I also disagree with those who would slander the Roman Catholic Church. I am not Roman Catholic, but I don’t regard catholicism as the great evil that some have made it out to be.

    The thing is, I’m not sure where you’re coming from. Are you perhaps a Muslim? I ask because I know Muslims believe in the prophets (Abraham, Jesus and others, not just Muhammad).

    Otherwise, I’m having a hard time piecing your comments together. I don’t really know how to respond to you, since I don’t understand what faith you bring to the discussion.

    I will say this much: like you, St. Paul was concerned about false prophets. In one case, he gave the following test:
    Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit (1Co. 12:3).

    Paul himself venerated Jesus and did not curse him. Indeed, the objective of Paul’s ministry was to proclaim the lordship of Jesus the Christ:
    For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2Co. 4:5-6).

    You believe in the resurrection. What do you object to in Paul’s teaching, precisely?


  19. Robert
    Mar 26, 2008 @ 10:22:13

    Lucifer (the Biblical Devil) did not vanish when Jesus was born,right? So, why wouldn’t HE decide to put a deceiver in the midst to mess things up? I think he did; and it was Paul. Jesus spoke only of Love; that God is love and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in him. So, love is the way Jesus spoke about; it was his life, but Paul twisted to be an atonement death – he died for our sins, so just believe and that’s the key to the kingdom; so man went happily down the road ignoring the needs of fellow men! Corrupt!


  20. Stephen
    Mar 26, 2008 @ 16:29:03

    Jesus spoke only of love … it was his life, but Paul twisted to be an atonement death.

    Here’s the problem. How do you know that Jesus spoke only of love? In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 53 ("This is my blood, poured out for many"). Then there’s the famous “ransom” saying, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.

    Again, there’s the sermon contained in John 6 — “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. … Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”

    Paul didn’t write either the synoptic gospels or the Gospel of John. Thus it won’t do merely to assert that Jesus preached love, while Paul introduced the novel innovation of a substitutionary atonement.

    Also note that Paul could speak quite lyrically of love — notably in 1Cor. 13.

    The quest of the historical Jesus has been about this very question: what did Jesus actually say?; what did Jesus actually do? — trying to distinguish the historical facts from the words and deed ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament. Scholars have devised various criteria, and defended a wide range of different conclusions.

    Thus you need to be able to demonstrate the validity of your assertion, “Jesus spoke only of love” whereas Paul “twisted [the significance of Jesus] to be an atonement death”. On what grounds do you dismiss the ransom saying, or Paul’s exhortation that we should imitate the manner of Jesus’ life?


  21. jaz
    Oct 09, 2008 @ 23:34:50

    ok here is my problem, first you can not keep using the NT scripure as your only defense. There are many scholars out there who have proof the NT has been altered, scriptures have been added and taken out of the NT to make it imply different things. secondly if you can not prove that the scripture you are quoting is realy truth it doesn’t hold water. There is also proof that that the town of Nazareth where supposedly mary and Joseph Jesus parents lived never existed durning that time period. The census that took Joseph and Mary to Bethelhem where Jesus is then born never took place. Luke 2:1 -6. The only census close to Jesus birth was taken after King Harold was dead. Now if 2 of the most important points of Jesus life are false, how much more is false also? You can come back with all the NT scripture you want, it doesn’t change the fact that there is many untruths in it. Just like Jesus lineage is through Mary, the OT states the messiah would come through the line of David through HIS FATHER. Another thing Mary was a virgin, she did not concievce Jesus through Joseph so why is his lineage used? Matt 1:16 It gives josephs linage and than says Joseph who was married to Mary who gave birth to jesus. Joseph linage doesn’t matter.You can not by Jewish law give the throne of a King to a adopted son. Also in Luke 3:23 it gives Joseph linage and says Jesus was thought to be the son of Joseph. So my question is: if right from the birth story of Jesus it is full of untruths, and Jesus linage as the Messiah is based on Joseph not Mary, plus Joseph wasn’t Jesus father anyway, Mary was a virgin, right? Than what makes you thing that anythng else to do with Jesu is truth?


  22. Stephen
    Oct 10, 2008 @ 06:26:37

    There are many scholars out there who have proof the NT has been altered, scriptures have been added and taken out of the NT to make it imply different things.

    Jaz: I’m neither a fundamentalist nor an evangelical. I accept your general point: i.e., that there are errors in scripture. But I was responding to a specific assertion.

    Robert commented, “Jesus spoke only of Love … but Paul twisted [the Gospel] to be an atonement death.” By the way, are you Robert? I’m not sure whether I’m in dialogue with one person, or several (Joules, Robert, jaz).

    I merely pointed out that Jesus also speaks of atonement, in texts that were not written by Paul.

    The question you raise is quite complex — I’m familiar with scholarly speculation about the lengthy process that resulted in the texts that have been passed down to us in the Bible. But I can tell you, no scholar thinks Paul wrote the Gospel of John. And yet Jesus speaks of atonement in the Gospel of John. That’s the point I was making.

    In fact, there are two serious problems with Robert’s position. First, he’s making a statement that is demonstrably false. Jesus spoke of atonement in non-pauline scriptures; and Paul spoke of love. Robert’s assertion doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    Second: like me, Robert is appealing to scripture to support his point. “Paul twisted the Gospel to be an atonement death” means, “It says in the Bible, in Paul’s letters, that Jesus’ death was an atonement for sin.”

    If it isn’t valid for me to appeal to scripture, how is it valid for Robert to appeal to scripture?

    You go on to give some commonplace examples of errors in scripture. Evangelicals would argue against every point that you make.

    I don’t feel any need to defend scripture on those points. I will simply say, the Gospels provide the only record we have of Jesus’ life and death; his teachings and his deeds.

    People like you and I must respond to the Gospels, either accepting or rejecting them. There is no other record of Jesus’ life and death that we can substitute for the Gospels. (Yes, I know about the apocryphal gospels. Scholars say that they were written several decades or centuries later, and don’t supply any historical information about Jesus that can be used to debunk scripture.)

    If you reject the Gospels, that’s OK with me. That’s your right. I have a different response: I find the Gospel portrait of Jesus to be compelling and, in its broad terms, persuasive.

    I’m a believer and you’re not. There are all kinds of people in the world and, frankly, I think that’s a good thing.


  23. andy
    Mar 16, 2009 @ 04:40:30

    I just want to inform that Jesus is highly praised prophet and he is the one we must refer to if we want to be called Christian. Paul is the one foretold by Jesus that “he” mixed up Jesus goodness with badness in such a way. If we analyze the New Testament and compared with the old one, a lot of opinion and imagination of Paul was inserted. That’s why many critics or theologist cannot accept the dogma. It’s really bad. And Bernard Shaw regret of Paul existence in the world because he distorted what Jesus said. I am sorry if my explanation like this but it is not meant to hurt all of you. Please refer to the websites describing the above topics.


  24. italian history guy
    Apr 06, 2010 @ 15:05:57

    he was cathholic 2


  25. Stephen
    Apr 10, 2010 @ 14:32:39

    Uh … no. I know the Roman Catholic Church likes to trace its origins to Jesus and Peter, but it’s a rather silly position.

    It’s clear that the apostolic church did not have well-developed institutions: i.e., that those institutions evolved over time. I would suggest that Ignatius (early second Century) is the earliest indication of an arrangement that bears any resemblance to the Roman Catholic model of church government: namely, the introduction of the first “monarchical bishop.”

    More to the point: even if Paul was Roman Catholic, what does it have to do with anything? Are you trying to prove that Paul did corrupt the teaching of Jesus? (That is, do you assume that Catholicism is a corrupt version of the faith?) Or just the opposite — that Paul wouldn’t have corrupted Christianity, because Roman Catholicism is trustworthy?


  26. Isha Merdeka
    Oct 12, 2011 @ 00:18:09

    I think not only the first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus, but Paul is a false prophet who prophesied in Mark 13: 5-6, 21.
    And finally, the Kingdom of God has been taken from Jews and given to another nation. This has been prophesied by Jesus that is written in Matthew 21: 43, given to all people in the outside world (according to the prophecy of Jesus, above) by the Arabs in Islam.
    Please look at my blog about the kingdom of God in: http://ishamerdeka.blogspot.com/2011/10/kerajaan-allah.html


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