Snatching Christianity from the jaws of St Paul

By the sixth decade of the first century the Apostle Paul was breaking into a cold sweat. It wasn't enough that he had been shipped off to Rome and met with a complete anti-climax, but he really sensed that he was beginning to go off the boil. He was being abandoned, confronted, and challenged. To make matters worse, the original Messiah was being quoted, and word was now out that someone had been following Jesus around with a moleskin, and had been taking notes, and now - would you Adam-and-Eve it - these notes had fallen into the hands of none other than John Mark.

Including, "Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry," in his second letter to Timothy, felt like too little too late. It was unlikely Mark had ever got over the quarter-of-a-century cold shoulder he had received from Paul, and being unceremoniously replaced by Timothy in short order after Paul's bust-up with Barnabas over whether or not to take Mark on the second missionary journey. "That deserter?" was Paul's response. "Not bloody likely."

No doubt there were several reasons why Christianity needed a boost in the second half of the first century, but I'm sure that Paul's methodology had not been helping matters one bit. The rift needed to be healed, and the gospels presented a simple message: The Christ came in the flesh, and his ministry was first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Nothing there to misconstrue.

Mark's gospel was a short sharp shock. It was a quick and thrilling read, and Jesus was immediately presented as a warm and compassionate protagonist. Not only did it make sure to highlight the Lord's choosing of the twelve apostles before the end of the third chapter, but there was even time to include a crafty hint that, contrary to being a deserter, when all others had abandoned Jesus, Mark had hung on 'til the last. How d'you like them apples?

This dagger-thrust of a gospel was a necessary blow. Things had rapidly been going south since Paul had been in the driving seat of the new religion. Apparently the Lord's memo re. the lost sheep had not reached Paul, and in no short time he had managed to force a wedge between the Jews and the Gentiles - and he just kept on hammering it home.

In every town he went to he had made enemies of the very people this good news was meant to appeal to. He had squandered an opportunity to win converts, coming as he did from a similar religious background, and instead he had used it as a means of turning people against him. To begin with he had been open-minded - when once he had suggested that if you want to get circumcised, get circumcised, he eventually reached a point where he remonstrated against those who promoted circumcision, and likened the act to emasculation.

Paul gleaned from this rejection by the Jewish contingent that he must instead be sent as an apostle to the nations. To the Ephesians he wrote that the wall separating Jew from Gentile had been torn down, but in a bizarre fulfilment of the prophecy, "Tear down this temple and in three days it shall be rebuilt," he had succeeded in re-erecting the wall and this time the Jews were on the outside.

Furthermore, Paul had complicated matter with his elaborate theories about Melchizedek, and high priests, and nailing the Law to the cross. He had managed to denigrate the Jew's most holy customs. Paul's pitiful attempt suggesting that fleshly Israelites were like branches of a spiritual olive tree that could be grafted back on if they were faithful was just rubbing salt on the wound.

The truth is that Paul might have been on to something with his idea of a spiritual Israel, and that parts of the nations history were allegorical. It all points to a deeper understanding of man's psyche. But he was beginning to take things too far, and people were being driven away.

Sadly, Paul was still a man struggling with his ego. He gave in to his anger. He did not want to be challenged, and when he was he resorted to sarcasm and name-calling. Not only that, but he had bitten off more than he could chew with his Messianic parallels. He was well aware of this inner turmoil, lamenting as he did in his letter to the Romans, "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing."

It had got so far out of hand that something needed to be done to redress the balance.

The gospel attributed to Matthew was even more devastating than Mark's. Not only was it addressed exclusively to the Hebrew people - twice he has Jesus declaring "I was not sent forth to any but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" - but it also promoted Peter as the original troubled and struggling apostle-with-a-heart.

Luke, ever the healer, seeks to unite the two camps, and he does so by publishing two volumes of early Christian history. In volume one he tells the story of the Messiah, and in volume two he continues the saga by starting with the sterling work initiated by the early apostles, but half way through he turns the work over to Paul and demonstrates the extent of Paul's missionary accomplishments. Yes, Peter and co. started it, but Paul took it further than it had ever been taken before.

Peter, as ever, vacillates - faith/doubt, all or nothing. Though not a gospel writer per se, there is some suggestion that he was something of a contributing editor. He does mention Paul, though. His second letter is a study in vacillation. If it wasn't written by him, he had passed on a spirit of vacillation to his disciples. 2 Peter wants to chastise false prophets while still preserving the scripture's prophetic leanings. In this way he mildly disciplines the prophecy-prone Paul. At the same time, despite being publicly humiliated by Paul on one unforgettable occasion, he offers his support at the close of the letter, calling Paul, "Our dear brother." Of his writings he adds, "His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort." Some might call this "damning with faint praise."

In the end, whether it was because of Paul or not, none of this commotion would matter. The bloody carcass of first century Christianity would eventually be cast out into the wilderness for the scavengers to do with as they wished. They wouldn't even pick it clean, and the rest would just be left to go dry.