Chronologically, Paul’s letters are the earliest writings of the New Testament with the Gospels being written after Paul’s main body of text were finished. Paul’s letters were written between 50 and 60 C.E.; whereas the Gospels were set down between 70 and 110 C.E. While not the most prolific author in the New Testament when looking at total word count by a single author, he was the most influential. From his writings, most of the theological thought in the early church as we know was conceived.
The author of the New Testament credited with writing the greatest number of words is Luke, a disciple of Paul. He is credited with writing both the Gospel that bears his name as well as the book of Acts. Acts, or Act of the Apostles, covers the history of the early church from shortly after the death of Jesus until shortly before Paul began his fourth missionary journey, whereupon it abruptly ends. Even though the account comprises the history of the early church and tells us what happens to some of the followers of Jesus, we can soon see that the main character in the book is Paul. In fact, one could almost say that Luke was acting as Paul’s biographer, as Paul is so central to the story related in Acts.
Luke is also the source of some of the questions that start to pop up when you look at the life of Paul. Some of the incidents described in Acts by Luke do not jive with Paul’s own descriptions in his letters. What you do have is Luke trying to show that Paul and the ‘Jerusalem Church’ eventually saw eye to eye and this gives Paul the much-needed authoritative voice and link back to the original ‘Jesus Movement’ that would be needed to show that Christianity was just an extension of what Jesus taught.
When we read the Gospel narrative, we are lead to believe that Jesus was a loggerheads with the Sanhedrin over various points of theology and this was the final reason they sought to have him put to death in the end. While traditionally, this rings true, careful examination of the Synoptic Gospels shows a possibility that this may not be true. The Pharisees seem to be tolerant of the Netzarim movement, even coming to the defense of Peter and the other apostles when they were on trial before the Sanhedrin. Gamaliel went so far as to say that the Netzarim may even be right, and encouraged a wait and see attitude (Acts 5:33-42).
The Gospels give little hint that the Pharisees would even think this way, let alone one of their greatest leaders. What we do see is the full Sanhedrin opposed to Jesus and his ideas. Could this have been done to confuse an issue that the followers of Paul wanted to hide? Throughout the teachings of Jesus we see a strong resemblance to ideas that Pharisaic Rabbis had been teaching for generations. Could this point to the fact that Jesus was a Pharisee? We can see by the statements in Acts 5 that the Pharisees did not even consider Jesus claim to be the Messiah to be an issue and that others before him had made such claims before.
Exactly what was meant by Messiah, this is a concept we need to look at before we continue. Simply put, it means anointed one. When Jesus accepted this title he was accepting the Throne of David. He believed that God was about to do a miracle and drive the Romans from the Land of Israel. Also, a new age of Peace would be upon the whole world. His disciples may have wanted him to claim his throne by force, but he rebuked them and them that God would provide the way. He continued to preach and call the people repentance saying that “the Kingdom of God is a at hand,” which he firmly believed.
It is true that one part of the Sanhedrin would have been against Jesus and the Netzarim. This was the High Priest, who owed his power to Rome who used the High Priest to keep an eye on the people and help root out any talk of rebellion in Israel. It was the duty of the High Priest to report any such activities to his Roman masters. So, when word got to the High Priest about Jesus being proclaimed the Messiah, he told them and they arrested Jesus. When Jesus was executed, above his head was nailed the summary of his crime: “King of the Jews.”
Another thing that points to Jesus’ movement being of a political nature and not a spiritual one is who took over after his execution. It was James, the brother of Jesus, that took over the Netzarim and lead the movement with the aid of Peter. The Netzarim did believe that Jesus had been resurrected and had been taken into heaven in the same way of Elijah. They also believed that he would return in Triumph over Rome in the near future. So, in the mean time, James was kind of Prince Regent until his brother returned.
Throughout the existence of the Netzarim, never once did they go against the Law of Moses or neglect attending the Temple on the prescribed days. They attended synagogues and continued to spread the word that Jesus taught them; repentance and the coming kingdom. If Jesus had set out to found a new religion, why would his followers continue to live as their fellow Jews?
In the next Article we will continue to explore how this all ties into how Paul influenced Christianity.