Was Christianity as we know it an invention of Paul? I will leave for another discussion the extent of Paul’s knowledge of Jesus and his teachings. In my forthcoming novel “Becoming Christ,” I explore (among other things) Jesus in the context of his mission, and how elevated claims about his person were likely to have been an integral part of his mission.
Logically we start with one of the most incontrovertible facts about Jesus, his execution as King of the Jews, that is to say, he was crucified as an insurrectionist. Nothing in any tradition suggests in the final days, Jesus did anything to evade this fate. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that he was aware that something like this would happen, and well in advance. What forces led Jesus to acquiesce to such a fate?
We can safely infer from Jesus’ fate that insurgency was a problem in Judea at the time of Jesus. After the death of the Baptist, Jesus was the only prominent figure upon whom potential insurgents might pin their hopes. As Jesus contends with other groups in the diverse Judaism of his times–Pharisees, Sadducees, priests–I suggest he also contended with insurgents. His message of love of enemies and forgiveness was in sharp contrast to theirs. It may have been that they were determined to put him at the head of their army. Unable to dissuade the insurgents, he sets about to abort their movement. Jesus concentrates his entire mission into the person of himself, so that if he is eliminated the insurgency collapses. He accepts this fate to avoid the catastrophe that would inevitably ensue from a massive insurgency. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter. It is better from one man to die than that the entire country be lost.
Making elevated claims about himself also draws a line between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were literate groups while Jesus’ followers were largely illiterate. If Jesus was the embodiment of his message, then his followers had direct access to that message without the intervention of the literate elite. His group could set a separate path from the Pharisaic movement.
If elevated claims were already part of Jesus’ mission, this allows for a continuity with the message about him after his death. If Jesus’ followers built a church on Jesus and his mission, then Jesus laid down the foundation for them.