This Easter Christians ponder a story that has been told over and over for the past 2000 years: that the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, made a sacrifice of his own life to make mankind right with God (variants of the story claim: Jesus obtained forgiveness of mankind’s sins through his death; Jesus achieved atonement between God and human beings by his death, on so on).
The religion of Jesus vs. the religion about Jesus
Jesus appears to have taught that his own importance lay in his teaching about the end time (see Mark 13 and passim), in his prophetic call for repentance, and the importance of keeping the central teachings of the Jewish Law as Jesus himself interpreted them. His followers were those who gave up everything to adhere to his teachings. Here are just a few examples of the religion of Jesus which he preached:
To enter into eternal life is to keep the 613 commandments of the Torah.
Next we see Jesus teaching his followers to meticulously obey the Jewish Law:
The scribes and Pharisees have a wrong-headed interpretation of the Law. They neglect important parts of the Law given to Moses. They should obey all of it:
Paul of Tarsus on the other hand (who authored nearly half the New Testament books) scarcely mentions any of these things. For him what ultimately mattered was Jesus’s sacrificial death and vindication by God at the resurrection. Those who would be saved were those who had committed themselves in faith to the Christ who died and rose again. In contradiction to the vital importance of keeping the teachings of the Jewish Law in Matthew’s gospel (teachings upheld later by Jesus’s brother James, the first ‘Pope’ of the Jerusalem Church), Paul claims Jesus “abolished the Law”!
‘The problem arises because the plain sense of the words is that Jesus affirms the abiding validity of the Torah; but this contradicts Paul. There are contradictions within the NT on penultimate matters. Matthew 5:17-20 was written ‘against the Hellenizing Christians, particularly Paul and his followers’. p.641.
Concerning verses 17, 19 and 20, it notes that these,
‘Reflect the outlook of Jewish Christianity, which, as a separate movement, was eventually defeated by Paulinism and died out, perhaps to be reborn in a different form as Islam.’ p. 641.
This last quote is a remarkable acknowledgment that Islam has much in common with the earliest Jewish Christian faith centred in Jerusalem. To explore this fascinating historical question further read the excellent book The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity by Lutheran minister and professor of world religions Rev. Jeffrey J. Bütz.
In light of these differences do Jesus and Paul represent the same religion? Should we follow the religion of Jesus or the religion about Jesus? Which world faith today most closely resembles the religion of Jesus? Further discussion here.