Imagine a Christianity Before Paul

Over the span of my academic career I have taught a course simply titled "Paul," and I half-jokingly tell the students the first day that Paul is one of those people for whom a last name is not necessary, much like Elvis or Madonna. I have begun the course with what I intend to be a startling assertion: Paul is the most influential person in human history. I have in mind, of course, the West in particular. The foundations of Western civilization, from our assumptions about reality to our societal and personal ethics, rest upon the heavenly visions and apparitions of a single man -- the apostle Paul. We are all cultural heirs of Paul. In contrast, Jesus as a historical figure -- that is, a Jewish Messiah of his own time who sought to see the kingdom of God established on earth -- has been largely lost to our culture. In this holiday season, it is worth taking pause and thinking a bit about the historical origins of the Christian faith, and how much it depends on St. Paul.

Visit any church service, Roman Catholic, Protestant or Greek Orthodox, and it is the apostle Paul and his ideas that are central -- in the hymns, the creeds, the sermons, the invocation and benediction, and of course, the rituals of baptism and the Holy Communion or Mass. Whether birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage or death, it is predominantly Paul who is evoked to express meaning and significance.

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