Did Christianity take an unexpected turn when Saul of Tarsus rose to a leadership position in the early first century? Did Saul of Tarsus, or Paul, as he became known, hijack Christianity with his own religious influence? Did Paul change the face of Christianity into something that would be unrecognizable to Jesus?
Critics of Christianity often answer a resounding “yes” to these questions. It is believed by many that as Paul assumed a leadership role in the early church, he began to propagate his own brand of Christianity. Some think that Paul promoted Jesus to a level that Jesus would never have approved. In particular, they hold that Paul, and not Jesus, first declared that Jesus was God.
Proponents of this view often point out that Jesus never claimed to be God. They point out that the deification of Jesus was a late modification of Christianity. They say it was first introduced by Paul, who had the most influence in the early church. Proof of this theory is that Mark, the earliest gospel writer, never recorded that Jesus was God.
So, did Paul hijack Christianity? I believe that we must first wonder why Paul would have done this. What motive would Paul have had to leave his honored status among the Jewish elite to lead an underground, persecuted movement that had no promise of political power? Not only did he remain in poverty as a church leader, but he had to work a second job to support himself (2 Thess. 3:8). Furthermore, he suffered whippings, beatings, and was stoned and left for dead on one occasion (2 Cor. 11:24-28). These are not the types of things that men endure when involved in an activity that they know to be wrong. But, some might ask, what if Paul was sincere, just misguided? Perhaps Paul really thought he was teaching the truth, and wasn’t maliciously redirecting Christianity?
This suggests that Paul was teaching something different than what the other disciples were teaching. If so, then we should find record of that disagreement. However, the actual opposite is true. Very early in Paul’s ministry, we know that he met with Peter & James for fifteen days (Gal. 1:18). Perhaps as many as fourteen years later they had another encounter (Gal. 2:1-10), at which time Paul presented to them the gospel he was preaching. He indicated that he was given the “right hand of fellowship” of the Jerusalem church. In other words, they approved his gospel message.
Another problem with the theory that Paul had hijacked Christianity and was infecting it with false teaching was that he lacked the power to execute this plan. He could not have collected the writings of the other Apostles as they were being hand copied, and altered them to include his brand of Christianity. They were being too widely read and circulated for him to have stopped them. It was simply beyond his power to control what writings the other Apostles were producing.
In summary, we can see that Paul lacked the motive to conspire against the church. Furthermore, the church in Jerusalem was aware of his teaching and had given him their approval. Finally, Paul lacked the ability to control the other Apostolic letters. The similarities between the writings of other church leaders and the writings of Paul cannot be the result of a wild conspiracy theory. Rather, it points to the fact that Paul & the Apostles all believed the same thing.
But what about the earliest Gospel? Did Mark shy away from recognizing the deity of Jesus? Is this proof that Christianity morphed into something different than from what Jesus intended?
In the opening verses of Mark’s account, we find a quote from the prophet Isaiah (Mark 1:1-3). Mark is writing about John the Baptist, who is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. He is the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” This voice (John the Baptist), has come to “prepare the way of the LORD,” which is Jesus. The word LORD is often capitalized by Bible editors to indicate to the readers that this is one of the names of God, Yahweh (YHWH). Therefore, Mark had indicated that it is Yahweh who is coming to visit His people. Mark believed that Jesus is Yahweh. Therefore, in the opening verses of his Gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus is God! But, there’s more.
In the following chapter, Mark records the account of Jesus healing a paralytic. However, before Jesus heals him He pronounced that the man’s sins were forgiven. The impact of this statement was not lost on those present. In fact, they responded by asking, “who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Indeed, forgiveness of sins is a prerogative of God. Yet, Mark recorded Jesus as forgiving the man and then proving that He had had the authority to do so by healing him (Mark 2:10-11).
Later in the same chapter, Mark wrote that Jesus claimed to be “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). Since honoring the Sabbath was one of the Ten Commandments given by God (Ex. 20:8), only God could claim to be Lord over them. A few chapters later, Mark recorded Jesus being worshiped (Mark 5:6), which is another prerogative of God. There can be no doubt that Mark believed Jesus to be God. His teaching does not differ from later church doctrine.
I believe that the evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that Paul preached the same message that the Apostles preached. This is also the same message that is found in the earliest of the Gospel accounts; namely, that Jesus is God. Therefore, there is no evidence to suggest that Paul hijacked Christianity.