The apostle Paul: One of the important influences on Christmas

Biblical historian James D. Tabor discusses Paul's influence on Christianity and the way that we celebrate Christmas.

'He lays the groundwork for the Christmas story,' Tabor says of the apostle Paul. 'It's not just celebrating the birth of Jesus. It's celebrating that Mary the virgin brings forth a child who has no human father.'

When the world celebrates Christmas this week and Easter next year, it will walk in the steps of the apostle Paul. While he never met Jesus, Paul played a crucial role in focusing early Christianity on Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection.

In his new book "Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity," biblical historian James D. Tabor explores how this one man – stubborn, cranky and powerful – forever influenced a fledgling faith.

In an interview, I asked Tabor, chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, about Paul's teachings, his impact, and the never-ending debate over his legacy.

Q: How was Paul important to the development of Christianity?
A: Paul packages things – "I believe this, this and this" – and puts the movement on the road to the wider non-Jewish world and out of the Jewish context.

As Judaism, it's not going to go forth and become a universal faith, particularly considering the observances of Judaism that separate people and make them Jewish, like circumcision. In Paul's day, circumcision was seen as a mutilation [among non-Jews].

This was dropped, along with the dietary laws. The idea was that you didn't have to convert to Judaism in a formal way to be a Christian: You didn't have to say "I'm Jewish" to say "I follow Jesus." You could be baptized and accept Jesus as your savior and be born again, then you would be a Christian. You wouldn't be a Jew.

This separation begins to develop, and Paul really formulates that.
Q: How does he define what Christianity is?
A: The idea that to be saved, to be in favor with God, to have eternal life and spiritual salvation, is to believe that Jesus died for your sins, to accept Him as your savior, to ask [Jesus] to come into your hearts – all of that, I think we get from Paul.

Without that, you'd have something more like a Jewish wisdom teacher, [the Jesus of] the Sermon on the Mount: Love your enemies, treat the poor justly, turn the other cheek.

If someone said,"I believe in caring for the poor and turning the other cheek and trying to treat my enemies justly and giving liberty to the oppressed," you might think that doesn't mean a new religion. That's a set of ethics.
Q: How does Paul convince people that he can speak for the faith?
A: He's going by his visions, since he's never met Jesus.

We have the 12 apostles, we have James, the brother of Jesus, and then you have Paul who comes along. He says,"I've seen the Lord, too," but he means he's seen in this visionary, clairvoyant experience.
Q: He comes across as quite stern. How would you describe his personality?
A: He was prickly, that's for sure. He was certainly fiery, and he was very dogmatic about his experiences, an absolute self-assured dogmatism that could really get in your face.

If pushed or questioned, he can start sounding nasty. And if you don't accept his authority, he can sound very arrogant and egotistical.

[In essence], he says, "Christ appeared to me last, but not least." He's saying, "I was the last of the apostles, the 13th apostle, but I worked hardest of them all. I'm not the least bit inferior."
Q: How did Paul affect Christianity's emphasis on the birth of Christ?
A: The celebration of Christmas came a couple hundred years later. But he does have a lot to do with Christmas. He comes along before the gospels are written, and he's the earliest source to say Jesus existed before his birth, and he's born of a woman, and then he's crucified and died and raised from the dead.

He lays the groundwork for the Christmas story. It's not just celebrating the birth of Jesus. It's celebrating that Mary the virgin brings forth a child who has no human father – the divine son of God, born of a virgin in Bethlehem and worshiped by wise men and angels.
Q: How does Paul influence Christianity today?
A: With few exceptions, the branches are heavily indebted to Paul because they all share the Christian creeds.

As far as looking to Paul directly, it's more the conservative, fundamentalist Protestants who really concentrate on Paul. I don't think they would ever say this, but if you watch what they teach and emphasize, if they quote Paul, it's as if you're quoting God. Paul settles the issue.
Q: What about the liberal strains of Christianity?
A: They emphasize more of the liberal teachings of Jesus.

Paul, however, sees the message as about Jesus. He says the main message of Jesus is his crucifixion, his resurrection.

It takes St. Francis to come along and say, "Maybe it's about how we live. Wouldn't it be a challenge to live [as Jesus] taught?"

Christianity lives with that kind of tension, between Christianity as a set of beliefs, a creedal statement, and Christianity as a way of life.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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