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Segment 10: No Normative Christianity
If Paul was a religious innovator who offered his own interpretation of Jesus, so, Jennings and his experts argue, was everyone else. There was no original Christianity, no original norm or standard of the Christian faith. Paul's interpretation of Jesus was very different from that of the Gospel of Thomas, for example, in which Jesus appears to be something like a Zen Master. In some ways, Pagels says, Paul's version of Christianity proved to be the most inclusive and the least demanding. He would be surprised to learn that Christians twenty centuries later would be reading his letters as if they were blueprints to be followed to the letter. He would be surprised, not only because he thought the world was going to end very soon, but also because he had written his letters to address immediate, specific crises. His theology was written on the run and was never meant to be the basis of a doctrinal system.
It is true that there were alternate varieties of belief in the first century that differed significantly from that of Paul. However, none of these alternate forms of Christianity was apostolic or had any direct connection with Christ himself. We have no evidence, for example, of writings by apostles that didn't make it into the canon and that would provide a different view of early Christian belief. The Gospel of Thomas, probably the earliest noncanonical gospel, is heterodox but is indisputably pseudonymous. Such noncanonical works were excluded because the evidence simply did not win them approval among those who valued adherence to the undisputed apostolic tradition.
Many of Paul's letters were indeed written on the run-or from prison. However, that doesn't mean that he didn't regard them as having divine authority or as relevant beyond their immediate occasion. Paul required his letters to be read in the churches and his instructions obeyed (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:14). In doing so, Paul was putting his letters on a par with the (Old Testament) Scriptures, which were read aloud in the congregational meetings of the Jews (i.e., in synagogue). From very early on, Paul's writings were regarded by Christians as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). (Even if one does not accept the apostle Peter as the author of 2 Peter, the epistle is a first-century witness to the belief that Paul's writings were Scripture.) The earliest collections of Christian writings and the earliest "canons" or lists of authoritative Christian writings had at their core the four Gospels and the writings of Paul.
That Paul's letters were "occasional," informal writings produced to address immediate situations, is often overstated in contemporary Pauline scholarship. Such an assessment is only partially correct. Most of Paul's epistles were indeed prompted by specific situations, such as questions he was asked (see 1 Cor. 7:1) or the threat of false teachings (see Gal. 1:6-9). In these contexts, though, Paul saw himself as giving answers or responses based on the authority of the Scriptures and the revelation of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah. His answers appealed either to the Old Testament, to traditions about what Jesus himself said, or (rarely) to revelations that he had received from the risen Christ. In the course of composing these responses Paul often offered carefully reasoned, deeply theological argument. His exposition of Christ's relation to the Law in Galatians 3 and his lengthy defense and explanation of the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15 are notable examples. Moreover, some of Paul's letters are not focused on specific issues of the moment but are systematic expositions of his understanding of the gospel. Romans (which all biblical scholars agree that Paul wrote) and Ephesians (which some scholars dispute) are standout examples of such systematizing.
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