Bible Question:

Did Paul preach the wrong Jesus? Reza Aslan claims in the Zealot that the apostles rejected Paul's teachings about Jesus Christ.

Bible Answer:

Did Paul preach the wrong Jesus?  Reza Aslan in his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth says, “Yes, Paul preached the wrong Jesus.” In his book, it becomes obvious that the author is a heretic who believes that the Jesus of history was only a man and not divine.  He was not God. Aslan wrote,

My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.[1]

His book is filled with an extraordinary number of inaccurate statements as he attempts to discredit Jesus as God and convince his readers that Jesus was just a man. He uses information that has previously been proven wrong even by liberal scholars.

Did Paul preach the wrong Jesus?

In his attempt to accomplish to convince his readers that Jesus was just a man, Aslan claims that Paul was essentially a renegade apostle who taught a different gospel and a different Jesus. Aslan claims the apostles in Jerusalem believed in the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but Paul believed Jesus was the divine Christ. Consequently. He claims the apostles had to correct Paul’s false teaching about the gospel and his belief that Jesus Christ was God.  Therefore, this article is concerned with only this issue, “Did Paul preach the wrong Jesus?

Aslan’s Claim About Paul

Before we explain why Aslan was wrong about Paul, we need to review some statements. Aslan wrote the following about the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem that is recorded in Acts 15,

“Luke, writing about this meeting some forty or fifty years later, paints a picture of perfect harmony between Paul and the council’s members, with Peter himself standing up for Paul and taking his side. According to Luke, James, in his capacity as leader of the Jerusalem assembly and head of the Apostolic Council, blessed Paul’s teachings, decreeing that thenceforth gentiles (sic) would be welcomed into the community without having to follow the Law of Moses, so long as they “abstain from things polluted by idols, from prostitution, from [eating] things that have been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:1-21). Luke’s description of the meeting is an obvious ploy to legitimate Paul’s ministry by stamping it with the approval of none other than “the brother of the Lord.” However, Paul’s own account of the Apostolic Council, written in a letter to the Galatians not long after it had taken place, paints a completely different picture of what happened in Jerusalem.

. . .

Whatever took place during the Apostolic Council, it appears that the meeting concluded with a promise by James, the leader of the Jerusalem assembly, not to compel Paul’s gentile (sic) followers to be circumcised. Yet what happened soon afterward indicates that he and James were far from reconciled: almost immediately after Paul left Jerusalem, James began sending his own missionaries to Paul’s congregations in Galatia, Corinth, Philippi, and most other places where Paul had built a following, in order to correct Paul’s unorthodox teachings about Jesus.

Paul was incensed by these delegations, which he viewed, correctly, as a threat to his authority. Almost all of Paul’s epistles in the New Testament were written after the Apostolic Council and are addressed to congregations that had been visited by these representatives from Jerusalem. (Paul’s first letter, to the Thessalonians, was written between 48 and 50 C. E .; his last letter, to the Romans, was written around 56 CE.). That is why these letters devote so much space to defending Paul’s status as an apostle, touting his direct connection to Jesus, and railing against the leaders in Jerusalem who, “disguising themselves as apostles of Christ,” are, in Paul’s view, actually servants of Satan who have bewitched Paul’s followers (Corinthians 11:13-15) (sic).”[2]

Another statement reveals his true beliefs.

The apostles may have walked and talked with the living Jesus (or, as Paul dismissively calls him, “Jesus-in-the-flesh”). But Paul walks and talks with the divine Jesus.[3]

These statements are supposed to convince the reader that Jesus was a man, and not God. But Aslan reveals his lack of scholarship and a serious misunderstanding of the Bible.

Did Paul Preach the Wrong Jesus?

What follows are replies to Aslan’s statements. The replies reveal that Aslan is seriously in error about his teaching regarding the apostle Paul.

1) Alsan Statement — “Luke, writing about this meeting some forty or fifty years later . . .”

Reply:
Luke did not write “some forty or fifty years later.” Luke wrote the book of Acts in the year A.D. 62 and the council at Jerusalem is estimated to have occurred in Acts 15. Since Christ was crucified in A.D. 33 and if we assume Aslan is correct that Luke had written about the meeting “some forty or fifty years later,” then that would mean the earliest he could have written Acts would be A.D. 73 to A.D. 83. Only liberal critics date the book that late.

James Montgomery Boice provides a discussion of the possible years in which the book of Galatians was written relative to when the council in Jerusalem occurred. He states that the council is usually dated in the year A.D. 48-49. The following links should be helpful in determining Paul’s travels relative to the council meeting recorded in Acts 15. However, it is important to know that Paul visited Jerusalem again in A.D. 21.[4]

What happened on Paul’s first missionary journey?

What happened on Paul’s second missionary journey?

What happened on Paul’s third missionary journey?

This means that Aslan’s dating is wrong.

 

2) Aslan Statement — “. . . paints a picture of perfect harmony between Paul and the council’s members, with Peter himself standing up for Paul and taking his side. Luke’s description of the meeting is an obvious ploy to legitimate Paul’s ministry by stamping it with the approval of none other than “the brother of the Lord.” However, Paul’s own account of the Apostolic Council, written in a letter to the Galatians not long after it had taken place, paints a completely different picture of what happened in Jerusalem.”

Reply:
Aslan has missed the fundamental principle in biblical interpretation that God the Holy Spirit wrote all of Scripture. 2 Peter 1:20-21 tells us that the Holy Spirit moved the writers of Scripture to write what they wrote. Therefore, since God does not lie, the Holy Spirit did not lie about the events in Jerusalem in Acts 15. Rather than saying Luke, “paints a picture of perfect harmony” the correct statement is “gives an accurate description.”  He also does not  understand that Galatians 2:1-10 states that Paul submitted himself to James and Peter. Galatians 2:9 says that they “gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me.” That is, they were all in agreement. Aslan ignores the obvious that there was “perfect harmony.”

 

3) Aslan Statement — “Whatever took place during the Apostolic Council, it appears that the meeting concluded with a promise by James, the leader of the Jerusalem assembly, not to compel Paul’s gentile (sic) followers to be circumcised.”

Reply:
Aslan states “whatever happened.” That is, the writer is guessing and does not know what actually happened. He has no biblical support for his statement. Then his statement “indicates that Paul and James were far from reconciled” is another guess because Scripture never indicates that any problem existed between Paul and the apostles in Jerusalem. The statement “almost immediately after Paul left Jerusalem” is also an assumption. Acts 15 clearly states that Paul was included in the men who were sent to Antioch to clarify the conditions for salvation. That suggests Paul approved or agreed with the decision in Jerusalem. Aslan’s statement is built on guesses. There is no factual information here.

 

4) Aslan Statement — “Yet what happened soon afterward indicates that he and James were far from reconciled: almost immediately after Paul left Jerusalem, James began sending his own missionaries to Paul’s congregations in Galatia, Corinth, Philippi, and most other places where Paul had built a following, in order to correct Paul’s unorthodox teachings about Jesus.”

Reply:
Once again Aslan guesses. He speculates when he says that “James began sending his own missionaries to Paul’s congregations.” That statement cannot be supported by any statements in the New Testament. How does he prove that dramatic claim? Again, Acts 15 clearly states that Paul was included in the men sent to Antioch to clarify the conditions for salvation. That suggests the apostles in Jerusalem approved of Paul. Had they considered Paul to be a problem, they would not have sent him to Antioch to deliver their letter (Acts 15:23-30).

 

5) Aslan Statement — ” in order to correct Paul’s unorthodox teachings about Jesus.”

Reply:
Once again Aslan makes a claim that cannot be supported by any statement in the New Testament. What was Paul’s unorthodox teachings about Jesus? Paul taught that salvation was by faith and nothing else (Romans 10:9-12; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Ephesians 2:8-9, for example). Paul taught that Jesus is God (Philippians 2:6-8; Colossians 1:15-19; 2:9; Titus 2;13). The apostle Matthew taught that Jesus was God (Matthew 1:23). The apostle John taught that Jesus was God (John 1:1, 14; 5:18, 26; 6:32-41; 8:24, 58-59; 1 John 5:20; Revelation 1:8). Peter taught that Jesus was God (2 Peter 1:1; 2:20).

 

6) Aslan Statement — “. . .that had been visited by these representatives from Jerusalem that is why these letters devote so much space to defending Paul’s stance as an apostle . . .”

Reply:
Aslan says, “why these letters devote so much space.” But there is only one epistle in which Paul defends his apostleship. That epistle is 2 Corinthians.  Aslan refers to representatives. But who are the representatives? The New Testament only mentions Judas, Silas, Paul and Barnabas as going together to Antioch from Jerusalem (Acts 15:22). However, Acts 15:32-33 states that Judas and Silas returned to Jerusalem after they visited Antioch. Judas and Silas visited only one city. Paul and Barnabas then continued on together for awhile.

 

7) Aslan Statement — ” . . .touting his direct connection to Jesus and railing against the leaders in Jerusalem who, “disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” are, in Paul’s view, actually servants of Satan who have bewitched Paul’s followers (Corinthians 11:13-15) (sic)”

Reply:
Aslan quotes 2 Corinthians 11:13-15. To say that Paul railed against someone because of this passage implies that Paul lost control of himself. Aslan has missed a foundational biblical truth. The Holy Spirit wrote this passage! So, did the Holy Spirit rail against someone? Instead, we need to understand that the Holy Spirit spoke the truth in order to teach us truth. Aslan did not correctly interpret the passage when he said Paul was “railing against” the leaders in Jerusalem. A reading of Acts 15:1-2 reveals that there was a great disagreement between Paul and Barnabas and some men who came down from Judea, who claimed that circumcision was required for salvation. But verse 2 clearly reveals that these men were not leaders in the church. Verse 2 informs us that Paul and Barnabas and these men planned to go to Jerusalem to get the opinion of the other apostles.

Also, 2 Corinthians 11 is not against the leaders in Jerusalem. If anything, it would be against the men who claimed that circumcision was required for salvation. Furthermore, Galatians 1:18-2:2 says that Paul submitted himself to Peter and James in Jerusalem for fear that he had run in vain. That shows Paul’s submission to the elders in Jerusalem, The passage goes on to state that Peter and James approved of Paul’s ministry and message

Aslan has missed the foundational biblical principle that 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 was written by the Holy Spirit. To say that the Holy Spirit railed against someone is a serious error.

Conclusion:

Aslan seeks to undermine Paul’s credibility. He seems to believe that Paul was the only apostle who taught that Jesus was divine or God. As shown in statement five above, the other apostles also taught that Jesus was God. Paul was not the only one.

Aslan is like the individuals in 2 Corinthians who slandered Paul. The unidentified individuals in 2 Corinthians were guilty of slandering an apostle. Alsan is also slandering Paul. He has missed the fact that the apostle Peter said Paul wrote Scripture in 2 Peter 3:15-16. This means that Peter endorsed Paul. That reveals there was no division. Peter did not reject Paul.

It is not true that James rejected Paul for two important reasons. First, James was Jesus’ half-brother, and second, he also wrote Scripture. James wrote the book of James. This means that all three men were endorsed by the Holy Spirit when He moved them (Peter, Paul, and James), along with other apostles to write Scripture (2 Peter 1:20-21). That is, the Holy Spirit approved of Paul, Peter, and James and of their writings. Aslan has demonstrated a willingness to speculate and violate important biblical principles in order to support his reasoning. His reasonings are faulty. It appears that he has an agenda and in the process is guilty of teaching error.

The most significant principle that was missed in his writing is the Holy Spirit, Himself, wrote everything that is now included in both the Old and New Testaments. All of scripture has two co-authors: a human author and the Holy Spirit. So, the Holy Spirit endorsed all of Paul’s, Peter’s, and James’ writings. None of Paul’s writings in Scripture should ever be rejected. The Holy Spirit used these three men to write Scripture and their teachings are not in conflict or inaccurate!

A question: if the apostles in Jerusalem approved of Paul and his teaching (see Galatians 1:18-2:10), why would James send messengers to correct Paul’s teachings? Then why would Peter endorse Paul in 2 Peter 3:15-16? No, they were not in disagreement. Aslan is like one of Paul’s critics in 2 Corinthians.

 

References:

1. Reza Aslan. Zealot, The Life And Times Of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House. 2013., p xx.
2. Ibid., p. 191-192.
3. Ibid., p. 185.
4. James Montgomery Boice. Galatians. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Regency Reference Library. 1976. p. 420.

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