The Historic Importance of Saint Paul

Transcript from a lecture by Professor Bart Ehrman, Ph.D.

Even though the Gospels occur earlier in the New Testament, they were not the first books to have been written. The letters of Saint Paul were written 15 or 20 years before our earliest Gospel, Mark. This makes his writings the earliest surviving work that we have from any Christian author…

Image of Saint Paul writing epistles
Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne

The letters of Saint Paul are, for the most part, books, epistles that Paul wrote to churches that he had established in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia, which were territories that are today known as Turkey and Greece, where Paul was most active as a missionary. In these letters of Paul, we learn not only about the difficulties that the Christian Church was facing in the early years of its existence, but we also learn about the life and teachings of Paul himself, who was arguably the most important figure in the history of Christianity, after Jesus.

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Paul’s Historical Importance

A number of years ago, maybe 20 years ago now, there a survey was taken of college professors in a variety of fields—history, political science,

Image of Saint Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna
Saint Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna

philosophy, classics—in which they asked these professors who, in their opinion, was the most important person in the history of Western civilization. Now, if I were to ask that question of my class at Chapel Hill, the answer would come back, Jesus was the most important person in the history of Western civilization; and, in fact, I think a case could be made that Jesus was the most important person. As it turns out, though, in this particular survey, Jesus came in tied for fifth. He tied with the apostle Paul for fifth place. The most important person in the survey, to the surprise of my students, was Alexander the Great. The logic was that Alexander the Great was the one who spread Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean world. Without Greek culture, our form of civilization wouldn’t exist. The Romans eventually conquered basically the same region that Alexander the Great had conquered. They continued to perpetuate Greek customs and culture and religion and language, so that this became the culture of the Mediterranean world that was inherited after the Roman Empire, down into the Middle Ages, down to today; so that on this logic, Alexander the Great was the most significant figure in the history of Western civilization because without him, Jesus would not have been able to make the impact that he did.

Paul, however, changed the religion of Jesus, so that it was no longer the religion of Jesus, but it was the religion about Jesus.

In any event, in this survey it’s interesting that Paul and Jesus tied for fifth. Why would they tie? In the opinion of the scholars who were

being surveyed, they tied because without Paul, the religion that Jesus promoted would not have become what we call Christianity. According to this opinion, Jesus was a Jewish prophet and teacher who didn’t start out to found a new religion. They said that Jesus preached about the God of the Jews, and he taught about the Hebrew Bible, and the law of Moses, and how people could best follow the law. They viewed it that Jesus was a Jew promoting a form of Judaism. Paul, however, changed the religion of Jesus, so that it was no longer the religion of Jesus, but it was the religion about Jesus.

Transforming The Work Of Jesus Into Christianity

Epistle to the Romans 1,1-16

The opinion is that the apostle Paul transformed the teachings of Jesus to the teachings about Jesus’ death and resurrection — that what mattered for Paul was that Jesus died on the cross and had been raised from the dead and that this brought salvation. It’s interesting that when you read through Paul’s letters, Paul rarely talks about Jesus’ own ministry. Paul rarely quotes any words of Jesus. Paul almost never mentions anything that Jesus did during his ministry. The only thing that really matters for Paul is that Jesus was crucified and then raised from the dead. As Paul says in his letter of First 1 Corinthians,

“All that I knew among you was Christ and him crucified.”

For Paul, it was the death and resurrection that brought salvation from sin. So, in the opinion of some scholars, Paul transformed the simple religion of Jesus into the religion about Jesus, thereby creating Christianity.

I’m not going to say that I agree with this particular opinion because, in fact, I don’t think that Paul is the one who invented the idea that Christ died for the sins of the world. He is, though, the one who popularized this view, and spread this view throughout the Mediterranean world, and was more responsible than anyone else that we know of for creating Christianity as a major world religion, as opposed to a sect within Judaism. To that extent, of course, Paul was extremely important.

From the lecture series History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon
Taught by Professor Bart Ehrman, Ph.D.