No! Paul wasn’t infiltrating Christianity to destroy it

Every so often an attempt is made to place a wedge between the apostle Paul and Jesus Christ.  The standard argument is that the Gospels present us with Jesus as the founder of a Jewish apocalyptic with limited appeal beyond ethnic Jews either within Palestine or in the diaspora across the Empire. Paul innovated by taking the person of Jesus and reports of his crucifixion and resurrection then packaging a message around him that appealed to Gentile ears by drawing upon Greco Roman religious and philosophical ideas. Some go even further and suggest that the Paul of the epistles is even significantly different (no doubt a different person) to the Paul who preaches in Acts.

The latest variant of this idea comes from Brandon Robertson. In this tweet he took the theory in an interesting direction suggesting that not only was Paul offering a pagan alternative to the gospel of Jesus but that he was doing this in order to infiltrate the sect and stop it in its tracks.

Well, if his aim was to stop the spread of Christianity then he appears to have failed given that the religion spread like wildfire around the Roman Empire and continues to multiply to this day.  However, Robertson might argue that in fact Paul’s ingenious was to allow the message to spread but in such a diluted form from what Jesus and his initial disciples propagated as to be unrecognisable from its origins and indistinguishable from the common religious beliefs, philosophies and mystery cults of the time.  I think that needs some special pleading. In any case, like the other related theories, Robertson’s ideas fall flat at the first hurdle. They simply don’t meet the facts that we find presented to us in the New Testament.

Robertson has suggested that Paul was an infiltrator and specifically in opposition to James and Peter. Presumably, the basis for this is Galatians 2:11-14 where Paul writes:

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.[a] 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

It is worth noticing the following about the incident. The first thing is that this incident was in the past and that it does not appear to have knocked the long-term affection that Peter (Cephas) and Paul held for each other.  Paul would write later recognising Peter as one of the earliest witnesses to the resurrection[1] whilst Peter in his 2nd epistle describes Paul as “our dear brother Paul” and commends his epistles.[2] 

The second thing to notice is that if Paul disagrees with Peter here, it is not on the basis of an alternative gospel or theology but in a shared understanding of the Gospel which we see presented at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.  Paul’s issue with Peter therefore would be that he was both going back on what he had himself shared at the Council about how God had used him to bring good news to the Gentiles and indeed in terms of how he himself was living in regard to the Gospel. In other words, Peter was living as one not under the Law but as one justified by faith and saved by grace.

Far from offering an alternative Gospel to that known, preached and lived by Peter and James, Paul argued that they were being inconsistent in their application of a shared Gospel.  That is unsurprising when you look at the wider picture of the New Testament. You see, far from presenting an alternative religion to Peter and James’ Judaism, Paul offered a Gospel that yes was appealing to Gentiles but was firmly rooted in his own Judaism.

Paul was himself Jewish.  In Philippians 3 he describes himself in this way:

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law,[c] blameless.“[3]

Indeed, earlier he says “we are the circumcision” seeing the inner work of the Holy Spirit as the fulfilment of the Old Testament ritual of circumcision.[4] If Abraham had been justified by faith, then received circumcision as an outer sign and seal then believers were also justified by faith and sealed with the Holy Spirit as their guarantor.[5]  Paul’s Judaism works itself out in a variety of ways including the way that he consciously incorporates Christ into the Shema in Ephesians 4 v 3-6

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit –just as you were called to one hope- when you were called- one Lord, one faith –one baptism; one God and Father of all who is over all and through all.”

and also in 1 Corinthians 8:4.

“For even if there are so called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” (1 Cor 8:5-6)”

NT Wright comments:

“The real shock of the passage is of course simply the expansion of the Shema to include Jesus within it. The fact that Paul can do what he has done here in verse 6 without explanation or justification, speaks volumes for the theological revolution that has already taken place.”[6]

Whilst I have significant issues with the New Perspective on Paul which Wright is associated with, it is worth observing that one the NPP’s positives is that it has irrefutably demonstrated the deeply Jewish roots of Paul’s theology.

Further, Paul sets himself up specifically in opposition to Roman religion. He does this implicitly along with the other early Christians by talking in terms of “Gospel” a clear statement of intent in opposing the “Gospels” of the Roman emperors. He also does this when he instructs the Corintihan church to say away from pagan idolatry.

19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?[7]

This is important because the aim of people like Brandon Robertson and others before him is by attempting to drive a wedge between Paul and Jesus to undermine confidence in the New Testament by implying it is inconsistent and contradictory.  Such claims simply do not stand up to investigation. This is good news because it means we can have confidence in the whole of the New Testament and the  Gospel it presents.


[1] 1 Corinthians 15:5.

[2] 2 Peter 4:15.

[3] Philippians 3:4-6.

[4] Philippians 3:3.

[5] Cf Romans 4:10-11 and Ephesians 1:13.

[6] NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (London, SPCK, 2013), 665. See also, David Williams, Who is God? 29. who-is-god.pdf (wordpress.com)  (accessed 24/05/2021).

[7] 1 Corinthians 10:19-22