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Paul and Christianity

I think the question about who founded Christianity is a little bit anachronistic. It kind of presumes a model of someone actually sitting down and thinking about organizing a community, the kind of thing that you get, perhaps, in the origins of the Mormon church in this country or the Christian Scientists, that we can actually trace a single individual and his or her impact on a movement overall.

I think what we have in early Christianity is a movement that resulted from the prophetic ministry of Jesus and that expected him to return as God’s anointed eschatological agent, the Messiah, that rapidly became a movement that incorporated Gentiles. So a Jewish tradition and a Jewish messianic movement took an odd turn; and that odd turn of incorporating Gentiles is often associated with the apostle Paul, who did understand his own mission to be devoted to Gentiles, to be sure; but I think it’s fairly clear that Gentiles were coming into this movement before he came along. Gentiles who had been, as they’re termed in the Book of Acts, “God-fearers,” people who are attracted to the Jewish tradition and its ethical norms and its social cohesion.

Paul had a vision, I think, that the prophesies of Isaiah, of Gentiles coming in and joining with Jews and worshipping God in the temple of Jerusalem, was the way the messianic kingdom was going to be. So he threw himself into that mission, but he didn’t create it.

  • Harold W. Attridge

    Harold W. Attridge is the Sterling Professor of Divinity at Yale Divinity School. A graduate of Boston College, Cambridge University, and Harvard University, he served on the faculties of Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, the University of Notre Dame, and Yale Divinity School, where he was dean from 2002 to 2012. Among his publications are Essays on John and Hebrews (Mohr-Siebeck, 2010; repr., Baker, 2012).