Ehrman on Judas and Paul
In his book on the Gospel of Judas, [see Bart Ehrman on Judas and Jesus] Bart Ehrman saw fit to include a section on his hero Paul, even though Paul never mentioned Judas and had nothing to do with him. He makes the following claims about Paul:
According to the book of Acts and Paul’s own writings, he was in fact the major opponent and persecutor of Jesus’ followers soon after the crucifixion. But in probably the most significant turnaround in Christian history, Paul converted from being the enemy of Christ to being his greatest missionary and proponent. The persecutor became a preacher, and it was Paul’s efforts to spread the Christian gospel among non-Jews (Gentiles) that largely accounted for the dissemination of the religion in its early decades. (p. 122)
Professor Ehrman manages to pack a great deal of misinformation in this brief paragraph, all based on his grandiose view of Paul. To Ehrman, Paul is always a colossus.
In the first sentence, he claims that both in Acts and his own letters, Paul was the major persecutor of Jesus-followers “soon after the crucifixion.” He is wrong on both counts.
Paul the Persecutor
In Acts, the first persecution occurs in Chapter 4: “When Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them” (4.1-3). Paul had nothing to do with this. It was the Temple officials. Still, nothing much came of it. Perhaps Professor Ehrman doesn’t consider it opposition or persecution.
In Chapter 5, after the apostles were performing miracles and converting thousands, Luke tells us that “the high priest took action: he and all that were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, arrested the apostles” (5:17-18). Again, Paul had nothing to do with it. Again, it was the Temple officials. But once again, there was no serious harm done. Perhaps it doesn’t meet Professor Ehrman’s criteria for opposition or persecution.
The next opposition occurs in Chapters 6 and 7. Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew, had been performing “great wonders and signs,” and, as usual, this pissed off the Jews. They framed him for blasphemy, and then ‘the elders and the scribes … suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council” (6:12). Stephen launched into some lengthy polemics, as a result of which he was sentenced him to death by stoning – the biblically mandated punishment for blasphemy. Finally, we encounter Paul. The persecutors “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul [Paul]” (7:58). Professor Ehrman has to consider this persecution. Yet Paul’s role in this is rather trivial – he watches the coats of those stoning Stephen. Officials responsible for the stoning would NOT be looking after coats. Nor would those officials be called “a young man.” Paul was essentially an errand boy at this early point in church history. He was obviously not the major persecutor. True, Luke later says the High Priest made Paul a more senior persecutor. But that contradicts Paul’s own story.
Contrary to Professor Ehrman’s claim, Paul never said he was the chief persecutor of the Jesus-movement. He merely said, “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13). In these early days, the Jerusalem Church was not only leading the movement, but also contained most followers of Jesus. But Paul himself admitted, “I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ” (Galatians 1:22). He could hardly have been a major persecutor of Christians if no one in Judea - which includes Jerusalem - knew him by sight. He certainly could not have been the High Priest’s hit man if that were true.
The facts seem to have little impact on the fantasies of Professor Ehrman and his colleagues. One basic fact completely eludes them. Nearly all Paul’s churches accused him of lying. Thus the Galatians forced him to say, “In what I am writing you, before God, I do not lie!” (1:20, NRSV), or in normal English, “I swear to God I’m not lying!” When the Galatians discovered that no one in Jerusalem knew Paul, Paul realized his persecution claims looked highly suspicious. Yet Professor Ehrman failed to grasp it.
Neither he nor any of his colleagues, as far as I can tell, has ever attempted to explain why Paul’s churches consistently accused him of lying. It is very rare that members of any church accuse their pastor of lying – even when they are. How is it that the great and holy St. Paul was nearly always accused of lying? How is it that even when his lies are documented Pauline scholars ignore it? How is it that such people are called scholars and allowed to practice in academic institutions?
Paul the Incubator
The second part of Professor Ehrman’s claim is equally misguided: “Paul’s efforts to spread the Christian gospel among non-Jews (Gentiles) that largely accounted for the dissemination of the religion in its early decades.” I can only address it briefly here.
Part of Paul’s gospel, which he told his own churches – and Rome was not one of his churches- was that Jesus superseded the Bible. He told the Philippians that the Bible was worth dung, to use King James’ euphemism, and told others it was ‘a curse’ and ‘the ministry of death.’ Gentile Christians rejected this, and treated the Bible as sacred. Only Marcion, the heretic, espoused such sentiments, and that was nearly a century later.
Paul told his flock that when Jesus was resurrected, he appeared to a crowd of over 500 people. Neither the gospels nor any other account knew of such an event. They only claimed that the resurrected Jesus appeared before small numbers of his closest followers. Since Paul’s version is far more likely to persuade potential converts, it is safe to say that those who disseminated Christianity and its gospels were unfamiliar with Paul’s claims about the 500 witnesses.
Paul’s central message concerned the resurrected Christ. He almost never instructed his flock about Jesus’ teachings. His churches did not know all those sayings of Jesus that found their way into the gospels, and could not have written them.
In the early decades, no one really knew of Paul’s theology. Furthermore, they didn’t know that Paul wrote letters and that he almost continually collected funds “for the poor in Jerusalem.” If Christians in the early decades knew about Paul, Luke couldn’t have suppressed such basic facts in Acts of the Apostles. These facts only became known near the end of the first century, following the publication of Paul’s letters.
The facts contradict Professor Ehrman’s claim that Paul’s churches formed the basis of Christianity. But once again, he and his colleagues have little use for the facts.