Some have argued that perhaps it was Paul, a later convert to the Christian faith, and his associates, who transformed Jesus from a holy man or a slightly renegade Jewish rabbi, into the Son of God who was raised from the dead.
This, therefore, will be the second hypothesis I will consider: Jesus existed, and was a Jewish teacher who was executed. However, he was transformed by Paul and his associates into the resurrected Son of God. They were the source of the Resurrection Story.
Paul is an interesting figure. His name in Hebrew was Saul, but he is better known as Paul, the Greek version of his name. Scholars see him as a real person who helped to found many Christian congregations. According to the accounts we have of him, he wasn’t a Christian to begin with, but belonged to a sect of Judaism known as the Pharisees. While he was persecuting Christians, perhaps somewhere around 36AD, he claimed to have had a revelation of the glorified Christ on the road to Damascus. Jesus told him that he would be a chosen vessel to bear Jesus’ name to the nations, to kings, and to the sons of Israel.
Now, before I examine the second hypothesis in detail, let’s first tackle an important question. How do we know Paul and his associates didn’t just make up the whole of the Jesus story? After all, if we are willing to consider the possibility that they made up the Resurrection Story, maybe they invented everything else as well.
Let’s say they did. This would at least explain how Jesus fitted the prophecies. He was a fictional character created with those prophecies in mind. The conspirators would also need to invent the mother of Jesus, to give him an apparent but fictional lineage from King David. They would need to invent the apostles, whom Jesus supposedly appointed and who became eyewitnesses of the resurrection. And they would need to invent the women who also claimed to be eyewitnesses.
In order to prove that the story of Jesus was true, I suppose Paul and his associates could have hired real men and women who were paid well enough to pretend they were devotees of the fictional Jesus, and to say, for the rest of their lives, that they completely agreed with the story invented by the conspirators. The people who acted out the part of the apostles would be mere figureheads in a clever conspiracy where Paul appeared to be a latecomer, but was really pulling the strings. The mother of Jesus would need to be a particularly good actress and be paid very well, because no doubt a lot of people would want to talk to her about what Jesus was like.
On the other hand, maybe it would just be easier to keep all of these characters as purely fictional. After all, if you hire a bunch of liars and deceivers to run your enterprise, you can’t be surprised if they later run away with the profits. Fictional characters confined to paper don’t usually deviate from the script without the permission of the author who created them.
But if all of these are fictional characters invented by Paul and his associates, and confined to the pages of their writings, what actual evidence would Paul have to support any of his claims? What would be the point of claiming he encountered the risen Jesus, when there weren’t any disciples of Jesus to impress in the first place? How could he talk about the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, if none of them existed? How could he dispute with the other apostles, if they only existed in parchments? And really, what would Paul’s purpose have been? To convince the world to believe in a savior that he and his associates had just made up?
Besides, the idea that Paul and his associates made up Jesus also contradicts the evidence I will present later in this chapter. But if Jesus wasn’t their invention, then neither were the apostles and women who had accompanied Jesus. Therefore, I will proceed on the basis that Jesus and the apostles already existed before Paul came onto the scene a few years after Jesus’ death.
If my second hypothesis is true, that Paul and his associates were the source of the Resurrection Story, let’s consider how this might have have happened. Some scholars say that two strands of Christianity developed in parallel. The first strand was primarily Jewish, and strictly adhered to the Law given to Israel through Moses, and the covenant given to Abraham for every male of his descendants to be circumcised.
The second strand was aimed at Gentiles, and saw circumcision and the Law as unnecessary. This version, which these scholars often refer to as “Pauline” Christianity, was spearheaded by Paul and his associates. The idea is, the Jewish strand eventually died out, weakened by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and then simply outnumbered or absorbed by Gentile Christians; and so the version we have of Christianity today is “Pauline.”
I suppose there is some merit to the idea. After all, in one of his earliest letters, Paul seems to argue that Christians no longer needed the tutoring of the Law, and that circumcision meant nothing in reference to Christ.1 However, he also argued that there was neither male nor female, but this didn’t mean he believed God had abolished gender.2 He simply meant that, in reference to their faith in Christ, circumcision didn’t make a difference, and neither did being male or female. But to a man’s wife, it probably still matters whether her man has male or female parts!
Besides, Paul’s ministry grew to include Gentiles, who weren’t under any obligation to become circumcised. As God told Abraham: “You are to circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it will become for a sign of the covenant between me and you. And the son who is eight days old shall be circumcised by you, every male throughout your generations, one born in your household, and those acquired by silver from any of the sons of a foreigner who is not from your offspring. One born in your house, and those acquired by silver, must certainly be circumcised, and my covenant in your flesh will be a covenant forever.” 3
Either way, our interest here isn’t with circumcision but with the Resurrection Story. Is it possible that the supposed “Pauline” version of Christianity contained the Resurrection Story, while the supposed Jewish strand didn’t? Before I can answer this, let’s examine the details given to us by the writers of the Christian story.
Compared with the original apostles, Paul was a latecomer to the Christian faith. Before Jesus’ execution somewhere around the year 30 or 33AD, we don’t know whether Paul got to hear or see Jesus personally, but Paul wasn’t a believer in Christ at the time of Jesus’ death. When the disciples started spreading their message, by his own admission Paul “intensely persecuted the church of God and devastated it.”4
What were they saying that got Paul so worked up? Was it that Jesus was a good man, who taught that perhaps we should try being nice to each other for a change? Or was it that Jesus was the Son of God? To say Jesus was a good and holy man was fairly trivial. To say he was the Son of God was blasphemy in the eyes of the religious leaders, and would explain why Paul persecuted Jesus’ disciples, which in turn meant he didn’t come up with the idea of Jesus being the Son of God.
In any case, as he was on the road to Damascus, sometime around the year 33 or 36AD, a few years after the supposed resurrection of Christ, Paul claims to have had a powerful encounter with the risen Christ that turned him into a believer. As a result, “immediately in the synagogues he preached the Christ, that this one is the Son of God.” 5 Of course, if my second hypothesis is correct, and Paul and his associates were the source of the Resurrection Story, then we must allow for the possibility that Luke, as one of Paul’s associates, fabricated or embellished the story to make Paul sound like he was accepting something Christians already believed, when Paul had actually invented the belief. I will address Luke’s reliability a little later on.
According to Luke, after preaching in Damascus, Paul went to Jerusalem and was taken to the apostles where he told them his story. Now, if Paul was proclaiming something new or different, the apostles could have simply rejected him. After all, they had been appointed by Jesus some six or seven years earlier, while Paul was a newcomer who had been hunting down the disciples only a short while before.
Besides, if the apostles didn’t already believe Jesus had been raised from the dead, why would they believe Paul, who had been an enemy not long before? How could Paul have an encounter with the risen Christ if the apostles believed Jesus had died and that was it?
Of course, if the apostles had fabricated the Resurrection Story themselves, they would know Paul was lying, so they would either reject him completely, or draft him and his associates into their conspiracy. If they drafted him in, we could class this as an extension of the Apostle Conspiracy which I intend to return to later. Paul and his associates would then simply be co-conspirators with the original apostles.
I think the simplest explanation for why Paul was accepted into the Christian community is that the original apostles already taught that Jesus had risen from the dead, and so another encounter with the risen Christ was plausible to them, or at least was compatible with their own story. If this is the case, then Paul and his associates weren’t the source of the Resurrection Story.
But instead of accepting this simple explanation, let’s ramp up the conspiracy. What if the original apostles did actually reject Paul because they didn’t believe Jesus had been raised, and so Paul, in a huff or for some other reason, decided to create his own version of Christianity which included a newly invented Resurrection Story?
This would clearly make Paul and his associates liars, since they would need to make the apostles and women out to be eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection when they weren’t, if Paul was actually the source of the story. Luke would also have to fabricate large parts of the Acts of Apostles, to make it look like Peter and the other apostles believed in Jesus’ resurrection and accepted Paul, when they didn’t.
In the book of Acts, Luke included an account of the first Christian council, held in Jerusalem, which involved a dispute over whether Gentiles were required to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses. According to Luke, after a lot of discussion, the council decided that Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised. They wrote a letter confirming their decision and sent out Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas to Antioch, Syria and Cilicia to show the disciples the letter and also confirm those things by word of mouth.6
If this account is accurate, then there wasn’t really a “Pauline” version of Christianity as such, because what Paul taught the Gentiles is what the apostles and disciples in Jerusalem had already agreed upon, at least on the matter of circumcision from Abraham and the law of Moses. But if the apostles in Jerusalem were really teaching that the Law and circumcision were necessary, as scholars who adhere to the “Pauline” idea of Christianity must be implying, then Luke’s account of the council in Jerusalem would be a lie, a rewriting of history.
Either way, if Paul was teaching the Resurrection Story and the original apostles weren’t, this would make Paul and his associates apostates and heretics in the eyes of the original apostles and the wider Christian community. If so, where are the letters from the original apostles warning against Paul’s apostasy? Where is the apostles’ story of how the early Christian community actually developed? Where are the gospels which tell the story of Jesus dying and actually staying dead, like any normal teacher, holy man or even prophet is supposed to do?
I suppose it could be argued that the later “Pauline” Church successfully eliminated them, but then we can make any claim we like if we argue the evidence for the claim has been conveniently eliminated. Maybe Jesus taught that the Moon was made of cheese, but the later Church eliminated this teaching too. We can’t successfully refute one idea with an idea that has even less supporting evidence.
Now, when preaching to Jews abroad, Paul referred them to the original disciples and eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. For example, speaking about Jesus, Paul said: “When they accomplished all the things written about him, they took him down from the wood and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and he was seen for many days by those who came up with him from Galilee into Jerusalem, who are witnesses of him to the people.” 7
If Paul was teaching something different from those witnesses from Galilee, it would be a fatal flaw in his argument. Why would anyone believe Paul, if he was relying on eyewitnesses who either didn’t exist, or if they did, viewed him as an apostate? Jews in particular would have been in a position to verify Paul’s statements, because they would go to Jerusalem for the festivals, and could therefore speak directly to some of the witnesses Paul spoke about, assuming the disciples in Jerusalem existed. If they didn’t exist or contradicted Paul, this would expose him as a liar. Of course, I am assuming the author of Acts wasn’t simply making up Paul’s speech. I will address objections like this a little later.
Paul’s own letters also provide strong evidence that he wasn’t the source of the Resurrection Story. For example, in his first letter to the Christian congregations in Corinth, Paul quotes from what is considered to be one of the earliest Christian creeds, a statement of beliefs held in common:
“For I handed to you among the first things which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried,8 and that he was raised up on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, of whom the majority remain until the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
But last of all he appeared also to me, as if to one born prematurely. For I am the least of the apostles, who is not worthy of being called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God. Yet by the grace of God, I am what I am; and his grace toward me was not for nothing, but I worked more than all of them. Yet not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether, then, I or them, so we are preaching, and so you believe.” 9
Now, while some scholars think about half of the letters of Paul found in the New Testament are fabrications, for reasons I will discuss in a moment, most accept his two letters to the Corinthians as authentic. Here, Paul was appealing to the common belief among Christians that Jesus died, was buried in a tomb, and was raised on the third day; and that many hundreds of people still living at the time of Paul’s letter were eyewitnesses of those things. What contemporary of Paul, when reading his words, would have believed him, if what he was saying was a lie?
Nevertheless, some in Paul’s day doubted a general resurrection. This is why he continued: “Yet if it is being preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how are some among you saying that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ risen. And if Christ has not risen, then our preaching is for nothing, and your faith is also for nothing. And we are also found as false witnesses of God, because we testify concerning God that he raised up the Christ, whom he did not raise up if it is that the dead are not raised up.” 10
Paul summed up the situation for Christians in this way: “If, in this life, we have only hoped in Christ, we out of all humans are the most to be pitied.” 11
These don’t sound like the words of a man who made up his belief in the resurrected Christ. They sound like the words of someone who sincerely and passionately believed in it, even arguing that they would be false witnesses of God if God hadn’t raised Christ up while they were saying he had. The penalty in the law of Moses for being a false witness to someone on trial was that “you will do to him that which he planned to do to his brother.” 12
This is where the concept of an “eye for an eye” comes from. It was the punishment due for a false witness. If Paul and his associates had made up the Resurrection Story, then they were knowingly being false witnesses, not just of men but also of God, which they knew meant heavy punishment.
Incidentally, Paul never made the argument that some Christians didn’t believe Christ himself was resurrected. Some just doubted a general resurrection, and Paul reasoned that there would be one, by appealing to their faith in and preaching of Christ’s own resurrection. The most likely reason Paul didn’t make the case for Christ’s resurrection is, this was already a common belief among Christians; which means Paul wasn’t the source of the Resurrection Story.
Also, why does Paul call the apostles “the Twelve” even though Judas Iscariot killed himself before Jesus’ own death? Paul was probably referring to the group in the same way we might refer to “the Board” when referring to a board of directors. The disciples were likely used to calling them “the Twelve,” and so it became something similar to a name for their group. This description would help to distinguish between them and later apostles, such as Paul who considered himself to be an apostle, although not one of “the Twelve.” The gospel writer John also does this, when he describes Thomas as “one of the Twelve,” even though Judas was already dead.13
This would explain why the early disciples felt the need to elect someone to replace Judas. For whatever reason – maybe to correspond with the twelve tribes of Israel – they still wanted to preserve the original number of apostles. If Paul was making up the story, the death of an apostle would be the perfect opportunity to write himself into the narrative as one of “the Twelve.” Yet Paul and his associates never took this obvious step, not even after the death of the apostle James which occurred after Paul’s conversion, suggesting that “the Twelve” weren’t made up, but were real people with authority outside of Paul’s control.
Arguably the ultimate defense of Paul is that he was simply teaching what Jewish scriptures had already said about Christ hundreds of years before. For example, as he traveled to Thessalonica, there was a Jewish synagogue. The account in the book of Acts says he went in, and “for three Sabbaths he reasoned with them from the scriptures, opening them up and putting before them that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and that ‘this Jesus whom I am announcing to you is the Christ.’” 14
If the Resurrection Story already existed, Paul didn’t need to invent anything. He simply had to show them scriptures such as the “Suffering Servant” account in Isaiah, the one who would be abhorred by Israel, who would give his cheek to the one striking it, and who would suffer and die but be raised, to be given for a light of Gentiles, and God’s salvation to the end of the earth; and then Paul could show how Jesus fulfilled all of these.
But a skeptic could still say, “Maybe Paul deluded himself into thinking he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Then he saw this risen Christ in scripture, and believed he had a mission to teach it to the world, even if it meant inventing a few extra details.”
On the surface, this might sound plausible. However, how could Paul claim that Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies concerning the Christ, if Paul had knowingly made the most critical one up? This would make him a liar. Furthermore, part of the account of the Suffering Servant is that “he was given a tomb with the wicked and with the rich in his deaths, although he did no wrong and no deceit was in his mouth.” 15
If Paul and his associates fabricated the Resurrection Story based on the Suffering Servant, they would be enormous hypocrites, for “no deceit” was in the mouth of their Lord, yet according to our hypothesis, Paul supposedly fabricated the story of Jesus being buried and raised; and Luke went along with this and incorporated it into his gospel alongside Jesus’ other sayings.
Now, as I mentioned a little earlier, some scholars argue that not all of Paul’s letters in the New Testament are authentic. They claim that some of them were forged, written by someone else using Paul’s name. They point out that the Greek in the “forged” letters are quite different. They also argue that there is a different theology being taught, contradicting the theology taught in Paul’s “authentic” letters.
If the Greek is very different, they can’t be very good forgeries, for the original recipients of the letters would have read them in Greek. But there are several possible reasons for the different style. For one, Paul wasn’t the only writer of several of the letters. For example, in the book of Romans, Tertius did the actual writing. “I, Tertius, the one writing the letter, greet you in the Lord.” 16 Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written with Sosthenes, and 2 Corinthians with Timothy. The letters to the Thessalonians were written by Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. Perhaps the so-called “forged” letters were simply written in Paul’s own hand.
Paul’s own style may also have changed over the years. Paul was a young man when he became a Christian, but his letters span a few decades. Furthermore, some letters could have been written in very different circumstances. For example, in the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, two of the supposedly forged letters, Paul says he is in prison bonds. Some of the letters may have been dictated, while others might have been written and edited by Paul and his associates.
Some letters also have a different purpose. The ones to Timothy and Titus are written to individuals, not to a whole congregation. Furthermore, in 2 Timothy, Paul indicates he is about to die. This might have had an effect on his writing style!
As to the apparent differences in theology, these are usually down to a misunderstanding by so-called scholars of what Paul is actually saying. For example, in the allegedly “forged” letter to the Ephesians, the author said that Christians were already raised up from the dead and seated in the heavenly places.17 Some scholars argue that Paul would have been against the notion of an early resurrection, and therefore he couldn’t have written those words. However, Paul makes basically the same argument in Romans, considered authentic by these same scholars: “Likewise also you, consider yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but living to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” 18 In both instances, Paul was talking about death, life and resurrection in a metaphorical sense. Before becoming Christians, they were “dead” in their sins and trespasses, but now they were “living” in Christ and had been metaphorically “raised up” in God’s eyes. This was not the same as a literal resurrection from the dead.
This is also the same argument used by Jesus, when disputing about the resurrection with the Sadducees, a sect of Judaism that didn’t believe in a general resurrection: “But as regards the resurrection of the dead, did you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” 19 Using the same metaphorical play on the concept of life and death, Jesus had earlier said, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.” 20 It seems Paul had a better grasp of metaphor and an understanding of how Jesus used words like “dead” than some scholars.
Finally, these same scholars ignore the tradition of the Church, which considered the supposedly “forged” letters of Paul to be authentic. Could it be that Christians living a few decades after the letters were written, and reading them in the original Greek, might have a better idea about who wrote them than scholars living a few thousand years later?
Now, some have accused Paul of perhaps wanting glory for himself. If so, his life ended with him being abandoned by most of his friends, despised by the religious leaders of his own people, a prisoner to Rome, and then, according to Christian tradition, executed by emperor Nero. From a human perspective, there were certainly many more career paths available to him that could have brought him much greater fame and glory. But if he actually was a chosen vessel to proclaim the risen Christ to his own people and to the nations, then both skeptics and believers alike have to admit he was incredibly successful. You can even open the New Testament right now and read his letters, contained in one of the most widely distributed books on Earth.
But let us consider the magnitude of the conspiracy a skeptic has to believe took place, if they wish to think Paul and his associates were the source of the Resurrection Story. Maybe Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ was a delusion brought about by sunstroke, as some skeptics have suggested. But after that, there would certainly need to be a conspiracy of deception.
For Paul to encounter the risen Christ, a story would need to exist about how Christ rose in the first place. It would probably need to include an empty tomb, to give the apostles and women more reason for believing their Lord had risen. Now, maybe earlier disciples had stolen Jesus’ body, in which case we can’t blame Paul for this element of the story. On the other hand, maybe Paul just made this part up, and hoped nobody would find the tomb with Jesus’ body still in it, which would prove he had been lying.
Paul’s newly conceived Resurrection Story would also need to have eyewitnesses. If there weren’t any, why would anyone think, at least without first suffering, say, a severe bout of sunstroke, that Jesus was alive? Also, random witnesses wouldn’t necessarily be able to identify Jesus. Instead, what better witnesses could there be than the apostles whom Jesus had appointed, and the women who had ministered to him and followed him from Galilee? But if they already claimed to be eyewitnesses, then Paul wasn’t the source of the Resurrection Story and my second hypothesis isn’t true. And if they weren’t eyewitnesses, Paul would have to fabricate their reports, making them and himself false witnesses of God.
Maybe the truth is a little more fuzzy. Maybe the apostles did have flashbacks of Jesus, heard voices which sounded a lot like him, and the women saw fleeting glimpses of men in shiny white outfits which they speculated might be angels. Either way, in order for my second hypothesis to be true, Paul would need to turn their incoherent stories and speculations into appearances of angels and lengthy encounters with Jesus over forty days, in order to have a chance of deluding the rest of the world into thinking Christ had risen.
In other words, the testimonies of the apostles and women, as shaped by Paul, would largely be deliberate exaggerations and lies. If they weren’t, this would make the apostles and women themselves the source of the Resurrection Story.
Paul’s associate Luke would also have to make up large parts of the early Christian story after Jesus’ resurrection. For example, Jesus teaching the apostles and disciples for forty days would be a lie, or at least a gross exaggeration, if all they had was flashbacks, voices and glimpses.
According to Luke, after the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples several weeks after Jesus’ death, Peter made a speech to the people in Jerusalem about Jesus being raised, in which 3,000 of his audience were baptized. If this story is true, likely Peter already believed some coherent form of Resurrection Story, and so once again, Paul is probably not the source.
But if Paul and his associates were really the inventors of these stories, and in particular the Resurrection Story, then they not only put false stories into the mouths of the so-called eyewitnesses of the resurrection, and then somehow managed to lock out these same people from telling the real version of events, thus making themselves apostates and heretics, but they had also handed Peter and the other apostles the keys to power!
In other words, this would have to be one of the most bizarre conspiracies in history, where sunstroke or mental illness causes Paul to passionately believe he encountered the Son of God, then he and his associates proceed to make up stuff about the same Son of God and knowingly become liars and false witnesses of God; and then they give their rivals all the actual power and authority.
And they would do all of this while claiming to be disciples of the Suffering Servant whose mouth contained no deceit, a holy man who taught that their yes should mean yes and their no should mean no, and that by their words they would be judged. In other words, they were disciples of a man who would be appalled at their deception.
A much simpler, less convoluted and far more logical explanation is that Paul persecuted the disciples of Jesus because they were already proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God who had been raised from the dead. Paul really did believe he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, and he really was accepted into the Christian community by the original apostles, because he believed what they already believed – that Christ had risen. In other words, Paul didn’t need to make up the Resurrection Story, because it was already being taught by the apostles and disciples of Jesus.
The evidence from Paul’s letters also argues strongly against the conspiratorial view of Paul, and strongly in favor of the much simpler explanation. It is clear from the letters scholars accept as authentic, Paul not only believed sincerely in the resurrection of Christ, but he also referenced the common traditions of all Christians – namely, that Jesus died, was buried, was raised on the third day, and appeared at various times to the apostles and disciples, even to hundreds of them at one time.
If this was not already a common belief among Christians, Paul’s argument is immediately defeated. How could anyone take Paul seriously, if he was saying things that were clearly untrue to his readers?
In other words, logic and reason, along with the evidence from Paul’s own letters, is strongly against the hypothesis that Paul and his associates were the source of the Resurrection Story. Of course, this doesn’t tell us whether Christ was actually raised up or not, but at least we can be fairly certain of eliminating one group of suspects as the source of the story.
1 See Galatians 3:24,25; 6:15. 2 Galatians 3:26-29. 3 Genesis 17:11-13. 4 Galatians 1:13. 5 Acts 9:20. 6 See Acts chapter 15. 7 Acts 13:29-31. 8 The Greek word used here more precisely means “he was entombed.” 9 1 Corinthians 15:3-11. 10 1 Corinthians 15:12-15. 11 1 Corinthians 15:19. 12 Deuteronomy 19:15-21. 13 John 20:24. 14 Acts 17:2,3. 15 Isaiah 53:9. 16 Romans 16:22. 17 Ephesians 2:1-7. 18 Romans 6:11. 19 Matthew 22:31,32. 20 Matthew 8:22.