Paul’s Christ myth has been the single most influential myth in history. It is primarily responsible for perpetuating the primitive myth of apocalyptic in Western consciousness. And yes, there is an “anti-Christ” in Christianity but its not who you think it is. Its someone dear and familiar.
What’s at stake in challenging the Christ myth? History’s single most profound insight- i.e. that God is a stunning “no conditions” reality. That insight has been buried for two millennia under Paul’s highly conditional Christ myth.
The Christ myth- separating diamonds from dung (revised) Wendell Krossa
The fundamental problem with Paul’s Christ myth was outlined by Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy. They stated that the Christ of Paul “buried the diamonds/pearls” of Historical Jesus (“Historical Jesus” is the title used to distinguish the actual historical person from the Christian version- known commonly as “Jesus Christ”). The message of Jesus emphasized the themes of unlimited forgiveness and inclusion of all (sun and rain given to both good and bad), unconditional love (no payment or sacrifice demanded before forgiving- e.g. the Prodigal Father), and non-retaliatory justice (no “eye for eye” retaliation).
Paul’s Christ buried these diamond themes of unconditional love in the “dung” (Jefferson’s term) of highly conditional salvation mythology. The main features of conditional salvation include (1) the appeasement of angry deity with the condition of a blood sacrifice as required payment (see Romans, Hebrews); (2) the tribal exclusion of unbelievers (Paul taught in Romans and elsewhere the condition of faith in his Christ myth as necessary for inclusion in salvation); and (3) ultimate retaliation/punishment through apocalypse or hell (see the Thessalonian letters and the Revelation of John). The conditional religious mythology of Paul and other New Testament writers buried the unconditional message of Jesus.
Preface to “The Christian Contradiction” (Jesus versus Christ) Wendell Krossa
Across history people have appealed to deity, as humanity’s highest ideal and authority, to validate their behavior and their treatment of others, notably, to validate justice as the punishment of others for wrongs done. This is the ‘behavior based on similar belief’ relationship. People have long appealed to, for example, the features of retaliation and punishment in God as the ultimate validation for their exercise of punitive, payback justice toward offending others. Punitive theology undergirds punitive justice.
Historical Jesus reframed entirely the behavior based on belief model when he rejected retaliation as a divinely validated ethic. He stated that, contrary to Old Testament teaching, God did not retaliate (“no more eye for eye”). He argued that, instead, God generously forgave, included, and loved all people whether good or bad. Note the essential point of his Matthew 5 and Luke 6 statements: “Love your enemies… (because God does). Be like God who generously and freely gives sun and rain to both righteous and unrighteous”.
Conclusion? You violate the central message of Historical Jesus if you try to appeal to him or his theology to validate retaliatory, punitive justice. Paul’s Christ is another matter altogether. The mythical Christ, a reality entirely opposite to Historical Jesus, validates ultimate divine retaliation.
In the Matthew 5 and Luke 6 statements Historical Jesus overturned previous millennia of all-pervasive threat theology- i.e. myths of angry gods threatening judgment, punishment, and destruction. Unfortunately, Historical Jesus is almost entirely buried under Christ mythology in the New Testament books.
“The great Christian Contradiction” (Historical Jesus versus Paul’s Christ myth): Wendell Krossa
The argument here? The feature of ‘unconditional’ should be central to an authentically humane theology (i.e. God theory or Ultimate Reality theory). In this essay, I will appeal to elements of the Jesus tradition to establish this point. But my argument is not dependent on first establishing the actual message of the original Jesus. I do not view Jesus as an authority figure and I do not need his actual words (the “original message”) to affirm my point regarding an unconditional theology. I simply refer to varied useful comments in the Jesus material (e.g. “love your enemy”) to illustrate his central theme of unconditional love, something that stands on its own as authoritative.
Unconditional love is the best of being human and it possesses authority in itself as ultimate goodness without the need for validation by some religious authority. Unconditional love is “self-validating” as good or true. Unconditional love does not need validation from Jesus but I do not mind touching base with such a widely respected icon/symbol for illustrative purposes.
Unconditional love is not a religious insight or discovery. To the contrary, religious traditions across history have communicated the exact opposite in that they have all been essentially conditional traditions- promoting religious demands for right beliefs, correct rituals, required religious lifestyles to please religious deities, and the necessary conditions for religious salvation (i.e. sacrifices, payments). Religion, as an essentially conditional institution, has never communicated the stunning unconditional nature of deity to humanity. By its very nature as a conditional reality religion cannot represent/communicate unconditional reality.
I would establish the authority of unconditional love as supreme goodness by appealing to its discovery and practice by ordinary people all through our societies- i.e. parents, spouses, friends. It is the best behavior that we can engage and hence it should be the basis of any authentic theory of Ultimate Good or Ultimate Love. This is to say- we should do theology based on the best in humanity and then project the ‘best of being human’ out to define deity, not the other way around as religious traditions have long done. Religions begin with some holy text as authoritative ‘revealed truth’ that defines deity and is therefore the authority for human ethics/behavior.
Better, we should first establish the best of being human, and then project that out to define deity, but recognize deity as something transcendently better (Ultimate Good or Love). We should try to understand deity by first understanding the best of humanity. Another way of stating this- i.e. doing theology by noting the best of humanity and projecting that onto deity- would be to quote Alexander Pope, “Cease from God to scan… The proper study of mankind is man”.
This is all to say- I am not a Biblicist (i.e. dependent on the texts of religious holy books for authoritative validation of ideas or ethics). My location of ultimate authority is in common humanity and the best of common human goodness, whether exhibited by a non-religious person, an atheist, or by a religious person. I view all such common love as the expression of the God spirit, or god-likeness (that is to say- humaneness) that is present in ordinary people. We are all experts on basic human goodness and do not need affirmation from outside authorities, certainly not religious authorities.
And yes, I am affirming that all people are equally incarnated with the God spirit that is inseparable and indistinguishable from what we call the human spirit. There has been no “special incarnation of deity” only in religious heroes like Christian Jesus. To the contrary, I would affirm that there has been an equal incarnation of God in all people and that also offers a new metaphysical basis for human equality.
What about bad behavior? Unfortunately, we all have experience with ignoring or denying our core human spirit and freely choosing to exhibit the baser features of our inherited animal brain (and its base impulses) that still resides in all of us. The choice to engage bad behavior is the risk that comes with authentic freedom.
Concluding the above point… I do not base my understanding of ultimate reality on traditional religious sources- holy books- that claim to be “revealed truth” or “supreme authorities for thought and practice”. Those traditional sources of validation should be subject to the same evaluating criteria as all other areas of life- i.e. is the content good or bad, humane or inhumane? Modern sensibilities demand a radical overhaul and updating of such traditional sources of authority.
And yes, I get it that an unconditional theology will spell the end of all religion. If God is freely accessible to all alike- not a dominating authority, not demanding salvation conditions (sacrifice/payment), not requiring a religious lifestyle or ritual, not making tribal distinctions between believer/unbeliever, not threatening future judgment/punishment/destruction… well then, who needs religion with its endless myth-based conditions? An unconditional God means that we are all free to create our own unique life stories. And your story is a valuable or good as anyone else’s. Religious or not. You possess in your human spirit the same ability to know and define God as much as anyone else does.
The Great Christian Contradiction: A “stunning new theology” buried by Christianity
(Note: The conclusions here are based on Historical Jesus research, notably the “Q Wisdom Sayings Gospel” research of James Robinson, John Kloppenborg, among others. I accept that Q is the closest that we have gotten to the actual teaching of Jesus. The actual content of Q is much less than the material in the New Testament Gospels that is attributed to Jesus. And the single most important statement in Q is the central theme of Jesus that is reproduced in Luke 6:27-36 and Matthew 5:38-48.)
First, why go after Paul’s Christ myth, the highly revered icon of a major world religion? Because, even though the Christ represents valued ideals to the Christian community- i.e. love, forgiveness, salvation, hope- it also embodies and validates some of the worst features from an ancient past- i.e. retaliatory vengeance (see the Thessalonian letters, Revelation), tribal exclusion (true believers saved, unbelievers excluded), domination/subservience relationships (Lord Christ and his mediating priesthood dominating others- “Every knee shall bow”), and angry deity threatening to punish and destroy. John’s Revelation is an epitome statement of this divine retaliatory vengeance.
You cannot merge and mix contradicting opposites in some entity and make any sense- i.e. mixing humane ideals with primitive, subhuman ideas/practices. That promotes “cognitive dissonance” (see psychotherapist Zenon Lotufo’s “Cruel God, Kind God”). Also, the nasty elements in a merger will undermine, weaken, and distort the better features in the mix. It’s like putting new wine in old, rotten wineskins.
Further, the Christ of Paul is mainly responsible for embedding and re-enforcing the myth of apocalypse in Western consciousness and keeping that pathological myth alive now for two millennia. Apocalyptic mythology continues to wreak damage through contemporary alarmism movements like environmental alarmism. As James Tabor said, “Paul has been the most influential person in history and he has shaped practically all that we think about everything… (further) apocalyptic shaped all that Paul said and did”, (Paul and Jesus). Paul’s apocalyptic Christ myth has shaped much of the content of contemporary myth-making as well as our ethics and justice systems.
The historical lines of descent/influence are as follows: Paul’s Christ brought apocalyptic mythology to prominence in Western consciousness and worldviews. That Christian heritage then shaped much of 19th Century Declinism (see Arthur Herman’s ‘The Idea of Decline in Western History’). Declinism, in turn, has shaped contemporary environmental apocalyptic or Green religion.
My argument is that to deal fully and properly with the destructive pathology of apocalyptic we must also deal with the core reality- the Christ myth- that validates and sustains this mythology in our consciousness and societies. Apocalyptic has been rightly exposed as “the most violent and destructive idea in history” (Arthur Mendel in ‘Vision and Violence’). If you want to fully understand how bad ideas from a primitive past have descended down into modern human narratives and consciousness then recognize the centrality of Paul’s Christ myth in this process. (Note: Messiah mythology actually began earlier in the Jewish messiah tradition that was then continued in Christianity.)
More on the “Contradiction”
Over the past three centuries, the “Search For Historical Jesus” has given us the basic outline of what happened in the Christian tradition. The latest phase of this search- the “Jesus Seminar”- offers more detail on the basic issues involved, i.e. that early Christianity was a diverse movement with major differences, for example, between Jewish Christianity (Jesus acknowledged as some sort of prophet/king but not God) and Paul’s Gentile Christian movement (Jesus as God-man, cosmic Christ/Savior).
Further, there were numerous other gospels that were not accepted into the Christian cannon- e.g. the gospel of Philip, gospel of Mary, Gospel of James, gospel of Thomas, and so on. The victors of the early Christian battles, notably Paul’s version of Christianity, got to dictate what was truth and what was heresy. Emperor Constantine also stuck his nose into the truth/heresy fighting among early Christians (see, for example, ‘Constantine’s Sword’ by James Carroll).
Of the varied other gospels available when the New Testament canon was assembled, why were only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John included? Historians have noted some of the simple-minded reasoning behind the centuries-long selection process for the New Testament canon, such as Irenaeus’ affirmation that “there are four universal winds… animals have four legs…”, etc. Hence, the four gospels in the New Testament (NT). Such was ancient ‘theological’ reasoning. Though the gospels chosen had to affirm Paul’s theology and Christ myth.
The ‘Search For Historical Jesus’ has revealed that there was a real historical person and we believe that we have got close to his original message. But his actual message is much less than what the New Testament gospels have attributed to Jesus. The NT gospel writers put numerous statements/sayings in Jesus’ mouth, claiming that he had said such things. But many of those added sayings contradict the man’s core theme/message.
Note, for instance, the statement of his central theme in Matthew 5 to “love your enemy”. That is the single most profound statement of ‘no-conditions love’. But then a few chapters later (Matthew 11) Jesus apparently pivots 180 degrees and threatens “unbelievers/enemies” with the single most intense statement of hatred ever uttered- that enemies should be cast into hell. Matthew claims that Jesus threatened the villages that refused to accept him and his miracles, stating that they would be “cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”. These statements could not have come from the same person because they are statements of irreconcilable opposites.
The core teaching of Jesus has been summarized in the Q Wisdom Sayings Gospel, notably the first version- Q1. That teaching is basically Matthew 5-7 with some other comments and parables. Luke 6 is a similar summary but with a different setting- a lakeside versus Matthew’s mountaintop.
Matthew, obsessed with righteousness, tampers with the core Q Sayings Wisdom teaching in the chapter 5-7 section of his gospel. He adds his own editorial glosses, such as his condition that people’s righteousness had to exceed that of religious teachers if they wanted to get into heaven. They had to meet the impossible condition to “be perfect just as God is perfect”. That distorts entirely the main point of Jesus that it did not matter how people responded to love, because God generously included all, both good and bad. God was unconditional Love, and desired the universal, unlimited inclusion of everyone. Luke in his treatment of the very same message does a better job, summing Jesus’ point as “be unconditionally merciful just like your Father is unconditionally merciful” (Luke 6). That gets the spirit of the passage better than Matthew’s subsequent editorial changes to the original statements of Jesus.
The central statement or theme in the Q Wisdom Sayings gospel material is a statement of a behavior/belief relationship. It urges a specific behavior based on a similar validating belief. Note this in the Matthew 5:38-48 section, “Don’t engage the old eye for eye justice toward your enemy/offender. Instead, love your enemy because God does. How so? God does not retaliate against and punish enemies/offenders, but instead generously gives the good gifts of life- i.e. sun and rain for crops- inclusively to both good people and bad people alike”. Jesus based a non-retaliatory behavior on a similar validating belief in a non-retaliatory God. James Robinson calls the statement of Jesus in Matthew 5 a “stunning new theology of a non-retaliatory God”.
A critical takeaway here is that a non-retaliating God (no more eye for eye) is a non-apocalyptic God because apocalyptic is a supreme and final act of retaliation. The ultimate act of eye for eye retaliation is the great final apocalypse to destroy the world. The God of Jesus will not engage that ultimate act of retaliation in the violent punishment and destruction of all things. Include the conclusion that a God that rejects eye for eye justice would not promote the pathological belief in hell which is an expression of eternal retaliation. The God of Jesus was entirely non-punitive and non-apocalyptic.
These common-sense conclusions flow from this stunning new theology, from the core theme of a no-conditions God. The God of Jesus would not ultimately judge or condemn anyone and would not ultimately exclude anyone. Again, note the stunning new theology of a non-retaliatory and unconditional God in the statements- “no more eye for eye justice, but love your enemy because God does. God gives sun and rain to all, to both good and bad people”. The God of Jesus is best defined with the adjective “unconditional” and this summarizes the core theme or teaching in Matthew 5 and Luke 6.
A further conclusion from this core teaching would be that the God of Jesus did not demand salvation through blood sacrifice or payment for sin. The God of Jesus would not demand sacrifice or payment before forgiving, loving, and including even the worst offenders/enemies. This is evident in the accompanying statements in Luke 6 that authentic love would “give, expecting nothing in return”. There is no expectation of or demand for debt payment or similar return of any kind.
And this point scandalizes the religious or moral mind that is oriented to fairness and justice as proper retribution or punishment, justice as tit for tat, hurt for hurt, or demanded payment for wrong. No more eye for eye means that God’s love is not a tit for tat form of love that is dependent on some similar response from others.
Most of us understand and practice this same ‘no conditions’ forgiveness and love in our interactions with family, friends, and neighbors. We learn to overlook the many imperfections in those around us and just get on with life, and hope that others will be equally merciful with our imperfections. We do not demand payback or reparations for all the wrongs done to us by others. How much more would a deity that is ultimate Goodness offer such transcendent forgiveness and love.
Note also Jesus’ parables on the Vineyard workers and the Prodigal Son for illustrations of how good moral people were offended by the unconditional generosity, forgiveness, and love. The Prodigal’s Father and the vineyard owner disregarded the commonly understood norms of fair justice and that generosity offended the older brother and scandalized the all-day vineyard workers. Further, the unconditional inclusion of local “sinners” at meal tables offended righteous, moral Jews who were tribally minded and oriented to the inclusion of similarly law-abiding people, but excluded the unlawful people or “sinners” (those not practicing Jewish law). Jesus claimed that God does not view humanity as tribally divided (e.g. good people versus bad people) and does not treat some differently from others. All are the favorites of God, including our enemies. This is to say that God is a oneness God, and all people are equal members of the one human family.
There is a “thematic coherence” to the message and behavior of the Historical Jesus and that message/behavior is intensely oriented to unconditional, universal love.
The rest of the New Testament, including the gospels, contradicts this core non-retaliatory, unconditional love theme entirely. A proper setting forth of the correct chronology of the New Testament highlights this profound contradiction at the heart of Christianity.
Jesus taught first, around 27-36 CE. I would offer that the main point/statement in his core message, the Q Wisdom Sayings Gospel, would be the behavior/belief relationship noted above: “Do not engage eye for eye retaliation, but instead love your enemies because God does. God does not engage eye for eye justice against imperfect people but loves his enemies. We should be just like God who gives the good gifts of life- sun and rain for crops- to both good and bad people”. God is a non-retaliatory reality that loves all unconditionally and universally, expecting nothing in return.
James Robinson has correctly stated that Jesus presented “the stunning new theology of a non-retaliatory God”. This is the single most profound teaching/insight in all human history.
Paul wrote the next material that is in the New Testament- i.e. his Thessalonian letters written around 50 CE (I am passing over the argument re the authenticity of the second Thessalonian letter). In his very first letters Paul straightforward rejects the non-retaliatory theology of Jesus and advocates for a retaliatory Christ- “Lord Jesus will return in blazing fire to punish/destroy all who do not obey my gospel”.
His other letters were also written in the 50s CE. In his Romans letter Paul contradicts Jesus directly, notably confronting the core statement and theme of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-48. Paul employs the same behavior/belief pairing that Jesus used to state his theology. But Paul uses that same pairing (i.e. basing a behavior on a belief) to make the very opposite conclusion to the theology of Jesus. In Romans 12:17-20 he urges Christians to hold their desire for vengeance at bay because God will satisfy it eventually with ultimate eye for eye vengeance. Contrary to Jesus’ non-retaliatory God, Paul’s God is a retaliating deity.
Paul affirms his view that God is a supremely retaliatory reality by quoting an Old Testament statement, “Vengeance is mine says the Lord. I will repay”. In this, Paul re-affirms eye for eye retaliatory justice and response. There is no ultimate “love your enemy” in Paul’s God or Christ.
In the Romans material Paul is arguing with the Roman Christians- restrain your longing for vengeance, not because God also restrains a lust for vengeance (rejecting eye for eye justice as Jesus did), but to the contrary, because God will unleash ultimate vengeance soon enough and satisfy your desire for eye for eye vengeance on your enemies.
I would suggest that Paul used this behavior/belief pairing in Romans 12 to intentionally contradict the same behavior/belief pairing that Jesus used in his central message. The similarities are too obvious. Paul rejects the non-retaliatory God of Jesus to fully affirm a retaliatory, punitive God, a tribal God that favors his true believers and destroys the enemies of his followers.
And while Paul appears to embrace the non-retaliatory ethic of Jesus (“Do not repay anyone evil for evil… Do not take revenge”) note that his ethic is oriented to and motivated by the hope for ultimate retaliation from God and that makes even the apparently non-retaliatory ethic actually retaliatory in intent. Basically, Paul was arguing that the Roman believers should be nice to their offenders in order that God could be really nasty to them in the future. Their being nice now was intended to “Pour coals of fire on their heads” in the future, that is, to ensure their harsh judgment at the hands of a wrathful and retaliatory God. So the apparently non-retaliatory ethic of Paul was nothing like the ‘no eye for eye’ ethic of Jesus.
Paul also, in other places (again, in contradiction to Jesus), straightforwardly embraced an apocalyptic God/Christ. Once more, note his Thessalonian letters where he states, “Lord Jesus will return in blazing fire to punish/destroy all who do not believe my gospel”. This statement of apocalyptic vengeance is the supreme act of a retaliatory, destroying God that engages ultimate eye for eye justice.
Further, Paul rejected, and trashed in general, the wisdom tradition that Jesus belonged to. See his first Corinthian letter for his detailed comments on the wisdom tradition. Stephen Patterson’s ‘The Lost Way’ deals with this anti-wisdom strain in Paul. It was a further effort to undermine the historical Jesus that contradicted Paul’s Christ myth.
The four gospels that were later included in the New Testament all affirmed Paul’s views and his retaliatory and apocalyptic Christ myth. The NT gospels added made-up biographical material and statements that they claimed were from Jesus, material that directly contradicted his main theme and message. Mark wrote first around 70 CE. Then Matthew and Luke wrote around 80 CE, John later around 100 CE.
All four gospels affirmed Paul’s apocalyptic, destroying Christ myth and Paul’s gospel of the Christ as a great cosmic sacrifice to pay for all sin (i.e. a supremely conditional love).
Paul and his apocalyptic Christ myth- the most influential person and myth in history- has since profoundly shaped Western consciousness. His Christ myth also shaped Western justice as punitive and retaliatory- eye for eye justice, or punishment in return for harm caused (i.e. pain for pain, hurt for hurt). Paul’s Christ, and his God, are supremely retaliatory.
Fortunately, the inclusion of the original Jesus material in the New Testament (the Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6 sections) has served as a moderating force in the Christian tradition and history, countering the harsher elements with unconditional mercy. But on the other hand, the mixing and merging of opposites has resulted in the ‘cognitive dissonance’ of a “diamonds-in-dung” situation which was the conclusion of Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy. The better stuff- the core Jesus message and his stunning new unconditional theology- has been distorted and weakened by the nastier features in the mix. Much like new wine put into old, rotten wine-skins.
(See Zenon Lotufo’s ‘Cruel God, Kind God’ for a psychotherapist’s view of the cognitive dissonance of mixed-God theories, and the damaging impact of including subhuman features in the gods of religious traditions.)
Contrary to the unconditional and all-inclusive love that Jesus advocated, Christian love too often is a tribally-limited love, reserved more specially for fellow true believers in the Christ myth. Paul advocated such tribal love. Also, note his intolerant rage, in varied places, at his fellow apostles that did not submit to his Christ myth. He cursed them with eternal damnation (e.g. Galatians 1:8-9). John in the early chapters of Revelation similarly curses “lukewarm” Christians with threats of exclusion and eternal destruction. And then how about those later chapters of Revelation?
After the core Q Wisdom Sayings message of Historical Jesus there is nothing of the scandalous generosity of unconditional love in the rest of the New Testament.
The unconditional God of Jesus, and the supremely conditional God/Christ of Paul that dominates the New Testament (demand for cosmic sacrifice before forgiving), are two entirely opposite realities.
Ah, such contradictions at the very heart of Christianity.
Here is the main contradiction summarized again:
Jesus’ ethic and the theology or belief that it is based on: “Do not engage eye for eye retaliation but instead love your enemy because God does, giving the beneficial gifts of life, sun and rain for crops, to all alike, to both good and bad people”. Behave like that because God is like that. Non-retaliatory, universally inclusive, unconditionally generous and loving.
Then Paul’s ethic and the theology or belief that it is based upon: Paul copies the pattern that Jesus used of an ethic/behavior that is based upon a similar theology/belief. Again, I believe that Paul set this pattern up deliberately to directly contradict the central theme of Jesus and his stunning new theology. Paul’s argument and reasoning in Romans 12:17-20, “Be nice now to your offenders. Hold your vengeance lust at bay because my God states (he quotes an Old Testament statement to affirm his theology of a retaliatory God)- ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’”. Which is to say- God shall satisfy your longing for vengeance soon enough.
That is the profound contradiction in the New Testament between Jesus and Paul, between the non-retaliatory theology of Jesus and the entirely opposite retaliatory theology of Paul. Theology, or God theory, is the highest ideal and authority of human narratives. The reality that is God influences and shapes all else in religious belief systems.
Takeaway? The central theme/message of Historical Jesus is buried by Paul’s Christ myth. Again, the central teaching of Jesus: “You must not engage ‘eye for eye’ retaliatory justice. Instead, love your enemies/offenders because God does. How so? God does not retaliate and punish God’s enemies. Instead, God gives the good gifts of life- sun and rain for crops- universally and inclusively to both good and bad people”.
Christianity has never taken this stunning new theology of Jesus seriously. It opted instead for the retaliatory and tribally-excluding God of Paul. Unbelievers are excluded from Paul’s salvation scheme and face the threat of ultimate retaliation in apocalypse and hell. Note Paul’s repeated use in his varied letters of the threatening term “destruction” in relation to people who refuse to believe his God or Christ.
Another version of the Christian contradiction (a related post)…
History’s single greatest contradiction? My candidate: The contradiction between the central message of Historical Jesus, and the central meaning and message of Paul’s Christ myth (his Christology theory). Or, “How history’s single most profound insight was subsequently buried in a major religious tradition”.
A side consideration: Think of the liberation that could have been promoted over the last two millennia if some movement had taken Jesus seriously (i.e. liberation from the unnecessary fear, anxiety, guilt, and shame that come from harsh and threatening God theories- “Cruel God theories”, Zenon Lotufo). But no one, not even Jesus’ closest companions/disciples, took his scandalous and offensive insights seriously.
The contradiction at the core of Christianity has to do with the following profound opposites- i.e. (1) non-retaliatory behavior versus retaliation, (2) the non-punitive treatment of offenders versus a punitive approach, (3) no conditions versus a supreme condition (sacrifice, Salvationism), (4) unlimited love versus limited tribal love, (5) the universal embrace of humanity versus the restricted inclusion of only true believers, and (6) non-apocalyptic versus total apocalyptic destruction. You can’t get more contrary or contradictory than these entirely opposite themes/realities.
Psychotherapist Zenon Lotufo (Cruel God, Kind God), and others, point to the “cognitive dissonance” that arises when you try to hold opposites in some larger merger.
“Greatest contradiction?” How so? Because of the historical and current world-wide influence of the Christian religion, and notably the influence of Paul’s Christ myth. This myth has shaped the version of Christianity that has descended down into our contemporary world (compared, for instance, to the prominent Jewish Christianity of the first century CE- i.e. Ebionism- that eventually became absorbed into Islam).
And also “greatest” due to the very nature of the contradiction itself. It is hard to find a more stark contrast between entirely opposite realities than that between the main message of Jesus and the contrary Christ message of Paul. I use the term “the main message of Jesus” in reference to the Q Wisdom Sayings Gospel, specifically the Q1 version, and the most important statement in that Q gospel as now found in Matthew 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36.
Historical Jesus stated that, for him, the era of “eye for eye justice” was over. He rejected retaliatory justice and, instead, he promoted the restorative justice of “love your enemies” (Matthew 5). Why? Because that was what God did. It was what God was. The God of Jesus was love of a stunning new variety never before seen in the long history of God theories. His God did not retaliate with eye for eye justice but instead loved God’s enemies. And the evidence? Jesus illustrated his point with the main features of the natural world. God gave the good gifts of life- i.e. sun and rain for crops- to all, to both good and bad people. There was no discrimination and no exclusion of anyone.
God’s love and generosity was inclusive, universal, and unconditional. Jesus used a behavior/belief pairing to make this point. “Do this… because God does it”. He based his behavior on a similar validating belief. Do this- treat all others with unconditional love- and you will be just like God (you will be acting like the children of God) who treats all with unconditional love.
The God of Jesus was non-retaliatory, non-vengeful, non-punitive, non-excluding, non-destroying and therefore non-apocalyptic. Non-apocalyptic? Yes. A non-retaliatory God is not an apocalyptic God. Apocalyptic is the ultimate act of eye for eye retaliation, vengeance, punishment, and total destruction.
Further, such a God would not demand payment or punishment for wrong. He would not demand a sacrifice for wrong. The God of Jesus would generously give to all, including those who do not pay back or respond in a similar manner. His God would not just love those who loved him in return (limited tribal love). His God was authentically universal and no conditions love toward all, without exception.
No sacrifice? Yes, this is intimated clearly in statements such as “Lend, expecting nothing in return (i.e. no payback)”. Expect no payment of debt or reparations. Just love and give anyway. Freely. Unconditionally.
Try to get the “spirit” of the overall section and the central point of the message of the man (i.e. Matthew 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36). Too many get sidetracked in what they believe are qualifying details that undermine the core ‘no conditions’ point that Jesus was making. Remember Matthew, obsessed with righteousness, and as the editor of this material from Jesus, added his own distorting qualifications such as “Be perfect as your Father is perfect”. Luke did a better job with this very same material, getting the spirit of Jesus in stating, “Be unconditionally merciful as your Father is unconditionally merciful” (my paraphrase of Luke’s point and spirit).
Note the same unconditional generosity and forgiveness in other Jesus material such as the Prodigal parable and the Vineyard workers story, and in statements on forgiving “seventy times seven” (unlimited). Also, in his inclusion of everyone at meal tables, including local “sinners” or lawbreakers.
Paul outright rejected the central non-retaliatory, unconditional theme of Jesus and shamefully retreated to the old retaliatory, punitive theology of all past mythology and religion. His used the same behavior/belief pairing that Jesus had used, but Paul did this to straightforwardly contradict the central theme of Jesus. I think Paul did that intentionally as he knew he was confronting the central statement and theme of Jesus. So Paul similarly based his behavior on a validating belief.
Further, Paul more generally trashed and rejected the wisdom tradition that Jesus belonged to (see his first letter to the Corinthians).
At first glance, it appears that Paul embraced the behavioral standard of Jesus in stating that it was wrong to repay evil with evil, to retaliate (Romans 12:17-20). But then he contradicted the new non-retaliatory theology of Jesus and stated that, to the contrary, his God was retaliatory. Paul quoted an Old Testament statement to make his point, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”. Paul re-affirmed eye for eye justice at the center of his belief system. And His God would punish and destroy all in the epitome act of retaliatory punishment and destruction- an apocalypse. “Lord Jesus (Christ) will return in blazing fire to punish and destroy all who do not obey/believe my gospel of the Christ” (Thessalonians). See his other letters for similar statements of the punishment/destruction of unbelievers.
And a closer look at Paul’s ethic in that Romans 12 section shows that his advocacy for non-retaliatory behavior was actually retaliatory in intent. You were supposed to engage such behavior in order to ensure that God would take vengeance on your offenders/enemies. Don’t retaliate, he said, but be nice to your enemies in order to “heap coals of fire on them”- i.e. to ensure that God punishes them harshly. Both the theology and the related ethic of Paul are oriented to retaliation. The ethic is retaliatory in intent.
There is no greater contradiction in religious history than this one between the God of Jesus and Paul’s Christ. It is the contradiction between non-retaliation and retaliation in deity. Between Jesus’ inclusion of all (sun and rain on all), and Paul’s exclusion and destruction of unbelievers. This is a contradiction between Jesus’ advocacy for no conditions love and Paul’s advocacy for love based on a supreme condition- the demand for a supreme sacrifice to pay for all sin (i.e. the sacrifice of a god-man to pay for the sins of all humanity- see Paul’s letter to the Romans).
Paul’s term “Jesus Christ” is then the epitome expression of an oxymoron. You cannot mix and merge these two entire opposites. Jesus is not Christ. He was against Christology or Christ mythology (see “Rethink Paul’s Christ Myth” in sections below). Note, for example Matthew 20:25-28, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” Jesus condemned the desire to “lord over others” and told his followers that true greatness was to serve others, and that was what he was about. Paul’s Lord Christ, to the contrary, is about absolute domination over others. Jesus was against that vision of a lording ruler or Lord Christ. He is the anti-Christ at the very heart of Christianity.
Paul shaped the version of Christianity that we have today. Christianity is the religion of Paul’s Christ (“Christ-ianity”). It is not the religion of Jesus. It is not “Jesus-ianity”. Christianity does not properly represent Jesus to the world. As Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy stated so bluntly, “The diamonds/pearls of Jesus have been buried in the subhuman context of the New Testament”. I’ve paraphrased their actual statements to soften the harsh bluntness of their words.
Added notes on the Christ: Religious icons and myths still exert an outsize influence on modern human thought and behavior. Note the 85% of humanity that are still affiliated with a major world religion as per the World Religion Survey. Most of the remaining 15% also embrace diverse forms of “spiritual” beliefs.
A close examination of humanity’s highest ideal and authority- deity- reveals many residual subhuman/inhuman features still present in religious versions of God. This exposes a root problem with religious theology or God theories. Once something has been projected onto a religious God, even if it was projected back in the era of human immaturity and primitive thought, such features have become part of the “immutability of deity”- i.e. the belief that religious gods do not change over time and hence must not be tampered with. This immutability feature is protected with threats of blasphemy/heresy.
This urges the consideration that religious reformism has to move beyond peripheral tinkering at the edges (changing this custom or that ritual) to thoroughly and properly tackle the core reality- the nature of religious deity. This is a project that involves humanizing our highest ideals and authorities with our ever-developing and progressing understanding of what is truly humane.
Fortunately, developing human insight into the true nature of love as unconditional now points us toward a stunning new understanding of the true nature of Ultimate Reality or God. Parents, spouses, and friends all know, from daily relating to imperfect family/people all around them, that love at its best is unconditional. We now project this highest form of love out to define deity properly as Ultimate Love and Goodness.
The best in humanity, as we understand it in terms of our common modern sensibilities, should define what is assumed to be transcendently better in deity. Yes, this is an “audacious” new way of doing theology. But it points to a more humane understanding of deity than what we have inherited from religious traditions and their holy books, the old sources of authority that are still rooted in primitive views of right and wrong (e.g. punitive justice, exclusion of unbelievers, discrimination of minorities, domination/submission relationships, etc.).
Note on the general tone or spirit of Jesus’ teaching:
Historical Jesus repeatedly upset good, moral, righteous people who believed that justice meant fairness as in proper eye for eye payback- i.e. that good should be rewarded and the bad should be punished. Jesus overturned that view of justice, scandalizing and offending people with his teaching on unconditional, universal love. Examples: “Forgive seventy times seven… which is to say- endlessly, without limit… sun and rain on all, both good and bad”). And he argued that his new view of God embodied this ‘no conditions love’ to transcendent or infinite degree. Everyone would get the same ultimate bliss in the end.
Based on the theology of Jesus we can affirm ultimate safety for all, both good and bad, and this should shape how we treat all in this life (i.e. with restorative justice). But in this life there are natural and social consequences to behavior and we accept that as part of healthy human development. However, despite the natural consequences for behavior we can also freely choose to do the Mandela thing and generously forgive and pardon oppressors/offenders and take a restorative approach toward them. Much like the US did, generally, with Japan and Germany after the Second World War. Or as the mother of the murdered daughter did in ‘The Forgiven’. Simon Wiesenthal, also chose to avoid retaliatory vengeance and forgive while seeking to hold Nazis responsible for their crimes (“Justice, not Vengeance”).
All across history people have appealed to deities to validate their behavior and their treatment of others, notably, to validate the punishment of others for wrongs. People have long used the features of retaliation and punishment in divinity as the ultimate validation for punitive, payback justice toward others. But Historical Jesus swept away that basis of divine validation by stating that God did not retaliate (no more eye for eye) but, to the contrary, generously forgave, included, and loved all people the same, whether good or bad (sun and rain on both good and bad). You violate the central message of Historical Jesus if you try to use him or his theology to validate retaliatory, punitive justice. Christian Jesus (Paul’s “Jesus Christ”), of course, is another matter altogether. But that is something entirely opposite to Historical Jesus.