In the nineteenth century, some scholars began to say the Christian Church established by Jesus Christ was contrived by Saul of Tarsus, and is not what Jesus had intended or wanted; which would be a betrayal of Jesus’ original intention, and merely created an apparatus of power and oppression. Is this true?
These same scholars posit that Jesus never wanted to create a new church, which was instead establish by Saul of Tarsus (the apostle Paul), who fabricated and perpetuated the deception what Jesus was a God. According to these scholars, the corrupted and distorted doctrine spread by the Pauline church is the one that appears within the Gospels, which describe a Jesus whom in no way at all resemble the historical Jesus, not even in a small way. Therefore, the very existence of any Christian Church (or of the current churches in general) perpetuates thew apostle Paul’s betrayal of the original intention of Jesus and mere instruments of power and oppression. Jesus’ only intention had been to reform Judaism by repudiating the norms, the temples and their hierarchies, so that the faithful could worship God “in spirit,” with no help other than that of their own heart. Today surprisingly, there are still people who believe and continue to defend these scholars theories and ideas. Let us probe further into the claims made by the scholars and see if they can survive closer scrutiny.
Jesus was just a simple philosopher who taught
The assumption that Jesus did not want to found a Church is defended above all by scholars belonging to the so-called modernist historical revisionism, a movement that spread throughout the 19th century and also well into the 20th century, although to a large extent it was later losing force displaced by more serious and less fanciful exegetical studies. Those revisionist scholars, who argued that the historical Jesus has little to do with the Jesus of the Christians, largely ignore the Gospels as later inventions, except when they find a passage that they believe supports his ideas. They deny any divine or supernatural element in Jesus, and therefore need to reinterpret or simply reject as lies much of what we Christians consider to be true. In the end they treat the figure of Jesus as that of a simple 1st century Palestinian craftsman with no other pretensions than to preach his vision of Judaism like so many other preachers of the time, beginning with John. They consider him the same as other philosophers or great teachers like Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha or Confucius, all good and wise people who simply attempted to explain “their” understanding of the truth about him. Its no wonder therefore that many believe that anything that came afterwards was something that Jesus could never have foreseen nor have wished for.
Yet the first observations that must be addressed to them is ‘how is it possible that twenty centuries later you modernist claim to better understand the Christian tradition and the Scriptures than those who were willing to die for Jesus’ cause in the first centuries of the church? It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that the author of the New Testament manage to compose so many pages with fabricated stories in just a few years, then perpetuating and embellishing them to the point where individuals were willing to sacrifice their lives for these beliefs. In those first years there were still many people whom would have witnessed the events that unfolded first hand, then there are the children of the witnesses whom would either have witnessed or heard their parents discuss what had happened. Just as families today would do. Confronted by a gospels that was invented or different from what they had actually witnessed, surely they would have spoken up. Is it not far more logical to conclude that the same early Church which recorded the historical events as they unfolded and which then became the Gospels we now know so well, are a true reflection of what these early writers witnessed and that they honestly believed what they were saying was the truth. A truth so great and so important that Jesus had no other choice but to give His life for this truth.
The real founder of Christianity was Saint Paul
Some say that the Church was not in fact founded by Jesus, but by Paul of Tarsus. I’ve been unable to establish what sources and evidence these modernist scholars have relied on as they made no mention of them; perhaps it was something that originated within the scholar’s own imagination. Saint Paul recorded the facts of the events which precipitated the founding of the Church, of Jesus Christ the man, and of Jesus’ resurrection. If these had not been in accordance with what had historically happened, Paul himself tells us:
“If it is for just this life that we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable of all men. But Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:19-20)
It would be extremely difficult to accept that Paul, a mature man who has made a living in leather crafting or tent-making and enjoyed both power and prestige within his community, with a relevant role in Jewish society, to abandon absolutely everything, leaving it all behind to travel the world as a beggar, living off the charity of others, suffering assault, ridicule, beatings and even the persecution of his previous companions, and all to end up imprisoned and finally sentenced to be executed in Rome for founding a new religious movement which he himself knew to be false.
It takes a very strong conviction and a very solid faith in something higher to be able to leave behind everything that one has. Paul, with his considerable intellectual training, contributed a great deal to the Church, he unquestionably formulated many concepts, but nothing he wrote was made up. It is also true that his role in the formation of the early Church is greatly magnified because the book of the Práxeis Apostólōn or Acts of the Apostles, where we see how that Church proliferated and blossomed, is written by Luke the Evangelist, whom accompanied Paul, and from whom we know so much about Paul’s missionary work, he tells us something of the apostle Simon Peter one of the first leaders of the early Church, and little or nothing at all about what the other apostles did. This tends to give us the false impression that almost all of the evangelisation was undertaken by Paul alone and that the other apostles did nothing at all, but it was not like that at all.
In any case, his enormous capacity for sacrifice and his great enthusiasm can only be explained because he had truly met the risen Jesus and believed that he was the Lord. Paul, like us, truly believed that Christ is the Son of God and that he sent his followers (and himself) into history to fulfil a mission that broadens and completes the mission of Judaism and that was not merely a separation from it through a schism.
If Paul were preaching a different faith than the one preached by the apostles, both beliefs would have at some point come into conflict with itself and these conflicts simply never occurred. Nor would the apostles have allowed a newcomer to convince them that Jesus’ message was actually very different from what they had initially been taught and believed. Fact shows us, both in the Bible and in the writings of the early Church, that both Peter and Paul preached in harmony, and at the end of the first century, the Christianity dispersed throughout all nations was identical (except for the spread of the Gnostic heresy which had emerged out of Persia), we do not have beliefs from Paul that were eventually enforced upon the beliefs of the other nations that were evangelised by the other apostles. Rome itself, where both Peter and Paul preached, displayed doctrinal cohesion.
Jesus was opposed to temples
Another of the themes that is sometimes commonly used against the intention of founding a church is that of the Samaritan woman:
The woman said to him, “ The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain [Gerizim], but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus told her, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. “But the hour is coming, indeed it is already here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth. Indeed it is worshipers like these that the Father seeks. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth” (John 4:19-24), where the Spirit denotes the Holy Spirit and the truth which is Jesus. For he is the true Son of God.
According to the modernists this passage means that Jesus rejected the temples and that God will be worshiped in the heart of each one, without stone temples or ecclesiastical organisations that tell you what to believe or how to believe it. But actually get all these conclusions from this text can be anything but a serious work of exegesis.
To begin with, Jesus says that the time will soon come when neither Gerizim (a mountain of Palestine) nor Jerusalem will worship God. True, several decades later Jerusalem and the temple were razed to the ground and the Jews deported, worship at both sites was no longer possible. Jesus also says that believers “will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” True, that is what all Christians do, regardless of our denomination. Christians believe that through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, all sacrifices were put to an end. From that moment onward we no longer need a temple to worship God, we worship him “in spirit and in truth” anywhere at all, in the field, in our bedroom, on an airplane, or inside a church, accompanied by our assembly of believers. In fact, a church is usually a specially adapted place in which to enter into prayer. You can worship God and pray at a rave if you wanted to, but I think that would prove to be somewhat more complicated.
What’s more, it makes absolutely no sense at all to state that Jesus was opposed or antagonistic toward the temples, quite the opposite is actually true. Jesus felt the deepest respect for the Temple in Jerusalem. At the age of twelve he decided to stay in the Temple instead of going with his parents because he truly felt at home in his Father’s house and felt that this was the place he needed to be. As Luke 2:41 tells us, Jesus’ family, like many others, made pilgrimages to the Temple every year during the feast of Pesach or Passover. During his years of teaching he made a pilgrimage to the Temple on the occasion of the main Jewish holidays. Jesus prayed to His Father anywhere and everywhere, but it is evident that he considered the Temple to be a privileged place in which one met with God. For him the Temple was his Father’s place of residence, a house of prayer, which is why Jesus became so offended and angry when He saw the outer court of the Temple (outside, not even within the Temple’s holy ground) turned into a marketplace. This is the only occasion where we note that Jesus distraught. The Temple was also one of his most favourite places to preach when he was in Jerusalem. So where exactly do these modernist scholars succumb to the idea that Jesus did not like temples? The apostles often went to the temple to pray (after they had already received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost) as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Perhaps they simply forgot that Jesus hated temples and that He did not want them to go to the temple? If this revelation of Jesus is purely and exclusively personal, why then would Jesus ask the disciples to stay united and not move away from Jerusalem?
Jesus was opposed to religious conventionality
Another argument posited by the scholars is that Jesus intended to free his people from the weight of religion and all of its precepts, and therefore he never intended to substitute the fetters of one form of bondage only to replace them with another. It is true that Jesus was against many of the rules that the Pharisees had added to the precepts of the Jews in addition to the established Law, yet it would not follow that he was in favour of there being no rule at all. In fact, Jesus criticised corrupt leadership, and not the religious system and institutions established by Moses and the Hebrew Prophets. On the contrary, he reaffirms and reinvigorate the spirit of that law, what Jesus actually criticised was the hypocrisy of Jewish fundamentalism which transformed the Mosaic Law into an instrument of oppression for the people and which eventually estrange the people from God and love thy neighbour. When Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites he did not state “do not listen to what the Pharisees tell you” but “be careful to do whatever they tell you, but do not follow their example, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:3).
Jesus criticises, for example, the corban* [corban: is an Aramaic word meaning “offered to God.”] (Mark 7:11), not for being bad, but because that tradition was frequently used as a way to defraud one’s parents and therefore was contrary to the 5th commandment [honour your father and your mother]; or an excessively restrictive and radical interpretation of the norms such as remembering the Sabbath and to keep it holy. Jesus attends the Temple and the synagogue and fulfils his Mosaic obligations. Even in those times when the interpretation of Jesus seemed to modify the law of Moses, sometimes toughening (for divorce) and sometimes softening the interpretation of the law (in matters of sabbatical rest or the stoning of adulterers), there are invariably new spiritual dimensions of the commandments within revelation which are explained.
[* A son has an obligation to care of his elderly parents and to give them everything they need. The corban (קָרְבָּן) or qorbān was an oath made by giving something of yours to God as an offering, but without the need to put a date on when it was to take place. Many Jews declared all of their goods corban, without ever executing it. As what had been offered to God belonged to God and could no longer be given to someone else, leaving their parents without the protection they had promised and using the excuse that everything they possessed was actually corban and that they would one day have to give it all up, although this day never actually occurred.
Jesus stated “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17), and Jesus adds: “Therefore, whoever breaks even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever observes these commandments and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). This to me does not sound like someone who is opposed the rules and precepts at all, rather it seems to be someone who is against those who abuse them, against those who defend the letter of the Law over the spirit of it.
Another thing that Jesus would have said is “Do you think that Moses wanted to found a religion?” or perhaps Jesus would state “The Law of Moses is a law of the heart and therefore there is no need to go to the Temple” or any other such objection to the authority of the law or its historical integrity in order to undermine its importance or truthfulness. It is from the very moment of Jesus’ death and his resurrection that the New Covenant is instituted and therefore the old law is superseded. Now the covenant that God established is with humanity in its entirety and as more and more Gentiles became unified, the apostles realised that it made no sense at all to require them to also comply with the ancient Mosaic laws. As the new Church finds itself in a totally different situation, it had to establish its own operating procedures and rules and implement its own codes and canons based upon the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Jesus had no intention of founding a new faith
The modernist scholars also stated that Jesus did not want to create a new religion, His aim was to reform Judaism. The problem with this argument is that Christians (shock and surprise) also believe that Jesus did not come to create a new religion, but that he simply wanted reform Judaism, to perfect it, and to fulfil its purpose. Jesus himself was completely transparent when he states during His Sermon on the Mount, as we have read before:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)
If Jesus had intended to break away from Judaism and create an altogether new religion, then Christians would have no use whatsoever of the Old Testament as a holy book and the Word of God. We regard ourselves as being the same People of God as those who started out with the covenant made between God and Abraham. The Christian religion did simply come into being the moment Jesus began preaching, it began with Abraham, and here the long history of salvation began; first of all it worked its way through the people of Israel, all the Old Testament covenants began to become tangible when Jesus was born. The Jews had been and still are waiting for the Messiah, the prophets had announced the arrival of the times when the Messiah would be born, and when all of the nations would be called to him, a time when God would be called Lord by all races and nations. That day came. The Messiah arrived, and just as the prophets had heralded, no one at all was excluded. Both the Jews and Gentiles were invited to take part in the Kingdom God that Jesus had preached and promised. The church that Jesus had founded had room enough for Jews and Gentiles to part in His Kingdom.
Some Jews would not accept that Jesus was the Messiah they had all been waiting for, and unfortunately they were left behind, sealed within their old covenant promise yet not being able to see that what they had been waiting for had actually been fulfilled in Jesus; the Jews who recognized Jesus as the awaited Messiah, along with those Gentiles who also joined Him, continued to advance into a new chapter of their religion, the juncture in which the promises of the Old Covenant were fulfilled and a new phase dawned, with a New Covenant in which new promises were made.
It had taken several years after Jesus’ death that the assemblies of the Sanhedrin declared that the followers of Jesus were heretics, thus preventing them from entering into the temple and synagogues, and then began to persecute them. This is the point in time when the Jewish followers of Jesus finally (and perhaps reluctantly) begin to see themselves as an entirely separate and distinct community from the judaism. Years later, the Jewish followers of Jesus Christ were nicknamed “Christians,” initially as a derogatory form of insult; which later they adopted for their use and by which we are known today.
So to make this absolutely clear to those who think that Christians think differently: we do not believe that Jesus came to found a new religion, we believe that he came to fulfil Judaism. Although we may now call ourselves “Christians,” we are in reality the direct spiritual descendants of the tribe of Judah, the Yehudim the “Jewish people” we are the one’s who accepted the Jesus as the long awaited Messiah and the new covenant He present. We Christians are the children Canaan, of the biblical Israel, the People of God.
Understanding the word ἐκκλησία ekklesia in context to the New Testament
That Jesus wanted to found a Church is not only something that tradition reveals to us, it is he himself who tells us in the Gospels:
“And I say to you: You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church: the Aramaic word for “rock” (kepa) is transliterated into Greek as Cephas, the name used for Peter in the Pauline letters (1 Corinthians 1:12; Galatians 1:18), and is translated as “Peter” in John 1:42. Church: a word that occurs only here and in Matthew 18:17 (twice) in the New Testament. The Church will have Peter as her foundation stone. But of course her real foundation is faith in Jesus, the Son of God. Peter will have the primacy among all the apostles and be the visible head of the Church, as will his successors, the Popes. The gates of the netherworld designate the powers of death. The Church will resist all the vicissitudes of time because of her foundation on a rock.
The Greek word that we pronounce as Ecclesia “ἐκκλησία — ekklēsia” in Greek means “an assembly or convoked [group].” Pagan Greeks often used it to refer to an assembly or gathering of citizens gathered by public convocation to discuss matters of importance, often political. In this sense it is sometimes used in the book of Acts:
“Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another, for the assembly was in an uproar, and most of the people had no idea why they had all come together.” (Acts 19:32)
But the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), which was used by Christians, uses the term “ekklesia” to translate the Hebrew word קהל “qahal,” which refers to the Congregation of Israel, the People of God:
“I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters [or kindred]; in the midst of the congregation [qahal]I will praise you.” (Psalm 22:22)
When Jesus states “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my ekklesia [church]” (Matthew 16:18), it would not make sense to interpret it as a specific meeting to deal with a specific topic. Jesus is giving instructions for the formation of an assembly of believers who will continue His work after He has left, He is not calling for a meeting. The Aramaic/Hebrew term used by Jesus, which the evangelist translates in Greek as “ekklesia” is thus “qahal,” which is the word that Jesus used. Therefore Jesus uses “qahal” to refer to His church in the same manner that in the Old Testament “qahal” was used to refer to the People of God. The Church that Jesus is founding is, then, the new People of God, of the new Covenant, which is no longer comprised by those who are born of Jewish women, but by the baptised who follow Jesus.
The Church as an invisible spiritual community
Nor can we say, as some do, that Jesus did not intend to create an organisation, but simply a community of believers, an “ekklesia” in the mystical sense. The church as a simple community of believers already existed, all the followers of Jesus formed his church, his community, and already in the life of Jesus, small communities of followers had been founded in Judea, Galilee and Samaria. What Jesus is founding here is something new (He says “I will build”, expressing the future tense) and that new thing is the organisation itself, the structure, with Peter at its head.
Therefore, Jesus not only knows that He is leaving behind an assembly of believers, but in this founding act he announces the creation of an entity which is capable of structuring, coordinating and directing all the work to be carried out by that assembly of followers that He is leaving behind, and those that are still to come. It is true that Saint Paul also uses the word “ekklesia” in the mystical sense of the community of all the baptised, “the mystical body of Christ,” yet this same Saint Paul speaks to the Church of Christ referring to a real, organised community and structured (or rather, in the process of being organised and structured). Christianity is not a religion where you can just go off on your own, it is based upon the concepts of community and brotherhood. “For where two or three [or 500] are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20)
Jesus was opposed to religious hierarchies
Another aspect in favour of Jesus trying to create an organisation of His own and to spread his message is the fact that He himself laid the foundations of that organisation before actually founding the church itself. Jesus did not limit himself, as John the Baptist had, to preaching his message to the people so that they would leave and change their lives. Jesus was not simply looking for personal conversions and leaving the rest as it was. Jesus wanted to create a movement, and an organised movement that would spread his message and keep it alive, an organisation that would fight to establish the Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” and for that, organisation and coordination are needed. And it wasn’t an idea that evolved over time, it was a premeditated plan.
The first thing Jesus did when he considered starting to preach was to choose twelve disciples. Those would be his main helpers and depositaries of his doctrine. His goal was not simply to convert them, but to prepare them thoroughly to help him convert others, and also thinking that they would be the pillars of his church when he was gone. He then appointed seventy disciples as helpers and preachers (second level of the hierarchy), and when his movement was large enough he appointed a third level of five hundred preachers and sent them to all the towns to spread the message of he. This is called organisation.
And at the top was he. That is why after his death, before ascending to heaven, he needs to leave in the hands of men what until then had ultimately been in his hands: the direction of that organisation. He passes the witness to Pedro and on it he founded his church. Before he himself had organised his followers, he himself was the organisation. Now that he was leaving, he needed to found an organisation and put it entirely in human hands, trusting that his message and encouragement would help them get on the right track, but knowing perfectly, as God knows, that this journey would be plagued with stumbling blocks, mistakes, abuse, fighting, etc., because that’s how human organisations always work, especially if you give them enough time. What Jesus did promise was not to let his doctrine get corrupted and to send the Holy Spirit to help them understand the truth. In everything else, he well knew that the church he was founding would not come close to the perfection he desired, but this is how he has to learn humanity, fighting his own mistakes and overcoming himself. The day would come when he himself would return and by his own hand would establish the Kingdom in its perfection.