Did Paul Distort the Message of Jesus?

Christianity before Paul.  In order to explore the question of Paul distorting the message of Jesus, we need to ask the question, What was Christianity like before Paul, which would be in the early decades after Jesus’ death?  Paul wrote his letters from approximately 51-62 CE (Common Era).  Therefore, in the thirties and forties CE, what was the Jesus movement like?
The original  Jesus movement would have begun sometime in the weeks and months following Jesus’ crucifixion.  It would eventually morph into the Jerusalem movement, or the Jerusalem Church, also known as the mother church.  But what was this church like?
To begin with, the leader of the movement was James, Jesus’ brother.  Hereditary succession was the norm in the ancient world.  As the blood brother of Jesus, James was the ideal person to provide leadership to the fledgling movement.  Known as James the Just, James became deeply respected for his piety, integrity, concern for the poor, and sense of Jewish identity.  Under his leadership, the movement became known for its humble and generous spirit.  Gathering in a spirit of togetherness, the church practiced a share life where, as Acts tells us, they shared all things in common (Acts 2:44).
As James, along with Peter, John, and the other disciples, considered how the new movement should move forward, they had the vivid memory of Jesus before them to guide them and inspire them along the way.  In this process of remembering and envisioning the future, the importance of the remarkable humanity of Jesus cannot be overstated.
While the resurrection of Jesus sparked the birth of a new self-awareness and new self-consciousness in the minds, hearts, and spirits of his followers, we need to remind ourselves that it was precisely the remarkable humanity of Jesus that made resurrection possible.  It was in this sense that, as the movement grew, developing a new sense of identity and purpose, they remembered Jesus’ very human compassion and love, particularly for the peasant poor.  They remembered his brilliant parables and wise teachings.  They remembered his open table commensality and timely healings. And they remembered his courageous and prophetic proclamations for a more just and egalitarian world.
All of this, together, helped define what Christianity was like before Paul.  Also, it is helpful to remember that after the death of Jesus, the earliest followers of the Jesus way didn’t just stop living.  They didn’t stop doing what they had been doing.  They didn’t, suddenly, abandon their faith, along with the practices the Jesus way had inscribed in their hearts and spirits.
The point is, those who were missionaries during Jesus’ lifetime, continued with their healings and practice of open table commensality.  Those who had been active in the synagogue continued with their synagogue participation and commitments.  Most likely, the early gatherings of Jesus’ followers, headed by Jesus’ brother James, took place in the synagogue.  Added to all of this, their ongoing practice of sharing all things in common continued to bless them as the years unfolded.
Paul’s gospel.  The core of Paul’s gospel hinges on his mystical experience of life in Christ.  When Paul met Jesus in his mystical, Damascus enlightenment experience, his life was totally transformed.  In that moment–in Christ–Paul had a Spirit transplant, an identity makeover, and a whole new life-purpose was born.
To expand on the meaning of this Spirit transplant, I quote Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan from The First Paul:

What God did in Christ and what God thereby offers to everyone is an identity change, a character replacement, a Spirit transplant.  God’s own holy Spirit, the Spirit of nonviolent distributive justice that is God’s own self, nature, and character, is offered freely and gratuitously to all people.

Paul’s gospel hinges on a faith that is in Christ, and him crucified.  To be in Christ is to be the recipient of a Spirit transplant, a new identity, a character replacement.  It involves the total transformation of the person.  This is the core of Paul’s gospel.
More still, what is extraordinary about this claim is that this God-inspired Spirit transplant is offered freely to friends and enemies alike, for indeed, as Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s gospel a couple decades later: God’s sun rises “on the evil and on the good,” and God’s rain falls “on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Paul extends the meaning of in Christ by adding to it, and him crucified:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come to you proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)

To be in Christ, and him crucified is to be liberated; it is to be free to be fully human.  To be in Christ in this sense is to be in a new creation–a creation and a community that are nurtured and guided by the suffering love of Jesus.
In reflecting on this, more than distorting Jesus’ message, Paul’s teachings–rooted in his mystical enlightenment experience–appear to complement the message of Jesus.  Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit transplant and new identity that come from being in Christ complement Jesus’ emphasis on repentance and a new turning to God.
So–again–Paul doesn’t so much distort Jesus’ message; he complements it.  He adds to, rather than detracts from.  Indeed, throughout his twenty-five plus years of missionary activity, Paul’s proclamation of life in Christ is remarkably faithful to the vision and proclamation of Jesus as well.    
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired United Church of Christ minister.  He had long term pastorates in San Diego County and in Miami Lakes, Florida.  His service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the late sixties spurred his commitment to social-justice ministries and to a spirit of ecumenism as a local church pastor.  He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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