Garry Wills – Everybody Loves Paul

Garry Wills believes that virtually from the start of the Jesus-movement, everybody loved Paul. Wills knows that many people, both ancient and contemporary, have contradicted him. But he is obdurate: “If Paul was such a foe and underminer of Jesus, why was he accepted so soon and so broadly by those who knew Jesus? (p. 15).”

First, Mr. Wills himself seemed to contradict this claim. On page 4 he said, “Apocryphal writings by Peter and James would charge Paul, in the second century, with being a tool of Satan.” For the leaders of the Jesus-movement to call Paul a tool of Satan suggests that “those who knew Jesus” did not accept Paul. Even if those works were apocryphal, the authors believed that Peter and James denounced Paul – and with good reason.

Similarly, on page 6 Wills notes: “the ‘Peter’ of the New Testament was calling them [Paul’s letters] difficult and potentially misleading,” citing 2 Peter 3.15-16 (“There are things in them hard to understand, which the unlettered and unsteady twist about – as with the rest of his writings – to their private and pernicious sense.”). Mr. Wills seems to believe that this biblical claim about Peter misrepresents him. He owes us an explanation.

Mr. Wills seems to believe that the earliest “Jewish-Christians” – Peter, James, and the disciples – loved Paul, but that a generation or two later, Jewish-Christians thought he was a tool of Satan. Furthermore, he believes this turnaround was immaculately conceived, that Paul never gave anyone grounds to oppose him. This is a bizarre position.

What did “those who knew Jesus” believe?

The Teaching of the Apostles, or Didache, is our best surrogate for the apostles. Parts of it, such as the initial “Two Ways” presentation of Jesus’ views, were quite ancient. Its content, if not its text, stemmed from the earliest days of the movement. Other parts of the Didache reflected the changing conditions of the movement, and were written or redacted decades later. Mr. Wills willfully ignored it.

After discussing the Two Ways (of righteousness and wickedness), the Didache stresses the importance of the Torah, especially to Gentile converts: “if you are able to support the whole yoke of the Lord, you shall be flawless. But if you are not able, do that which you are able.… By all means abstain from meat sacrificed to idols” (6.2-5).

This is similar to the Apostolic Decree as described in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. There is independent support for its historical accuracy. While the apostles emphasized the righteousness of the Torah, Paul told the Philippians that it was worth shit, and told the Galatians and Corinthians that Jesus superseded the Torah. He told the Corinthians that they could eat meat sacrificed to idols along with their friends. Mr. Wills once again suppresses all of this.

Perversely, Mr. Wills maintains that Paul and his resurrected Christ are our best surrogates for the teaching of Jesus – better even than the gospels. For example: “I shall argue that what Paul meant was not something other than or contrary to what Jesus meant, but that we can best find out the latter by studying the former. His letters stand closer to Jesus than do any other words in the New Testament” (p. 10). Again: “We should not fall into the fallacy of thinking that a saying of Jesus in one of the Gospels is ‘the original,’ which Paul only approximates in what seems to be a paraphrase of it.… that which Paul received may be closer to Jesus’ own words that are the variants in the Gospels” (p. 45). This is preposterous. The second section of Paul Revealed contains several chapters discussing contradictions between Jesus and Paul’s resurrected Christ. I know of no one who believes that Paul is the best source of Jesus’ teachings.

In Acts 21, Paul meets James, who tells him that people say “you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses [the Torah]” (21:21). Apparently they heard about Paul’s letter to the Galatians. James told Paul to take a Nazarite vow, an extreme procedure of ritual purity, “to show that you yourself observe and guard the law.” Wills suppresses this passage, but it almost certainly reflects reality. Luke would not have made up such an embarrassing story about Paul, who not only boasted of being “strong” enough to reject the Torah, but also of being at least the equal of James, and hardly one to take orders from him.

Mr. Wills believes Paul was a faultless Jew who shared the views of Jesus, James, and the apostles. He claims Paul “preaches the Jewish God, Yahweh, and the Jewish Messiah” (p. 12). In fact, the main goal of the Jewish Messiah is to rid Israel of its foreign occupier. Paul never once spoke of this. Similarly, Wills claims: “there is no more Semitic a Jew than Paul” (p.129). He cites Paul’s (absurd) claim to the Philippians that he is “faultless under the Law.”

Where did Wills get the idea that Jesus’ disciples accepted Paul?

Mr. Wills never tells us why he believes that Paul was immediately accepted by Peter, James, and others who knew and loved Jesus. This is a rather outrageous omission. Conceivably, he had Luke’s account in Acts 9 in mind. But Wills rejects the historicity of Acts, noting that Luke didn’t even know about Paul’s letters. (He ignores Luke’s misrepresenting Paul’s theology.) Wills would violate his own principles if he cited Acts 9.

Furthermore, the passage is fiction. It asserts that when Peter and the apostles heard about Paul’s miraculous encounter with Jesus, they immediately accepted him. They didn’t ask Paul what Jesus said, or make any attempt to compare his theology to theirs.

Paul’s own letters reveal a great deal of friction with James and Peter. He calls them “so-called men of repute” and “super-apostles,” and almost never has a good word to say about them. Wills actually discusses this, but  seems to believe that despite Paul’s hostility, Peter, James, and the apostles loved Paul.

My guess is that Mr. Wills was driven less by scripture, and more by fantasies from his infatuation with Paul. Mr. Wills never questions anything Paul says, and apparently believes the apostles shared his blind love for Paul. Mr. Wills suppresses anything that conflicts with this, and that covers a lot of ground.

A Closer Approximation to the Truth

There is a much better way to think about Paul’s relation to Peter, James, and the apostles. In the early days, he was just Saul of Tarsus, Barnabas’ assistant in Antioch. He hadn’t yet invented the persona of Paul. He taught the standard doctrines of the Jerusalem Church, and he was treated by those who knew Jesus as a member of the team.

Later, after Paul broke away from Barnabas and Antioch, he transformed himself. He adopted the Gentile name of Paul, invented his miraculous encounter with the resurrected Christ, and other elements of his back story. He even acquired the “marks” of Christ crucified. He introduced new doctrines to appeal to God-fearers and other Gentiles, borrowing from the mystery religions. While he trolled for God-fearers in synagogues, he transplanted them to a house church, cutting them off from the rest of the Jesus movement. He only became known to the movement from the Galatians –either from his letter or from his earlier return “mission.” When they learned of what Paul preached, those who knew Jesus rejected him. That’s why James demanded he take a Nazarite vow. When they learned of his so-called collection for the poor, they revised the Didache and added many ways to distinguish a “Christ-hustler” from a genuine apostle. Paul failed many of these tests.