I want to start out by asking you for a moment how you would feel about it, if you were a judge who sentenced a man to be killed. You had him killed because he was part of a new extremist doomsday sect that denounces the local authorities and causes social disturbance.
Later on you found out this man was a good man and you began to sympathize with him. At some point in your life you have an epiphany, you begin to realize he’s right. You join his rapidly growing sect, where everyone inevitably knows you as the guy who ordered Stephen to be killed.
Now, Stephen did not found this sect. He was a mere follower himself. The founder, who died before most people joined the sect, was a mystical teacher. People ascribed great miracles to him. He could walk over water. He could seemingly hand out infinite amounts of wine and bread.
And as time went by, the things he was said to be capable of began to inflate. He could heal the sick. He could resurrect the dead. He could bring clay birds to life. And after the authorities had him killed, he came back to life himself.
You feel extremely guilty for having Stephen killed. It haunts you every day. And you want nothing more than to be forgiven. To have this stain wiped off your name, to not have to face any consequences for this misery after your own death.
And so what do you do? When you join the community, you change your name. Rather than Saul, you now call yourself Paul. And you introduce an idea, that is revolutionary in nature. All of us humans are sinful, all of us are guilty. But it is because of the mysterious founder of our movement, who was blameless, that we can all be completely forgiven of our errors.
When you read the New Testament, who do you find proposing the idea that faith in Jesus wipes us free of sin? One man: Paul of Tarsus. In fact, we witness the notion born with Paul, that faith in Christ itself is a transformative event.
And baptism becomes an important event, a onetime ceremony in which your sins are wiped away. The interesting thing is, that baptism as practiced by John the Baptist does not necessarily appear to be a one-time event. John the Baptist is only really known for baptizing Jesus in the Christian tradition, there are no teachings inherited from him, but he was an important man in his own era. Jesus himself was a follower of John the Baptist, who branched off with his own followers after John’s death.
In Iraq, another group of followers of John the Baptist survive to this day. They are called Mandaeans. They practice the ritual of baptism every Sunday. They’re an ethnoreligious minority, they have no desire to convert others.
The sect that Paul joined was one that believed the end of the world was imminent. Paul himself believed so too. Jesus would return any moment. It attracted people from the bottom of the social pyramid. As these people were murdered for their faith, the survivors began to venerate them. They were now saints, who had ascended to a better place.
And it is here, where we find the DNA needed for exponential growth. On the one hand we have Paul’s insistence that faith in Christ, the idea that Christ sacrificed himself for all of humanity (not just Jews) is enough to have our sins forgiven. And on the other hand, we have a government that will turn you into a martyr if you are killed due to your faith. People soon begin to preach to Roman soldiers, who readily kill them.
There is an inherent conflict between the family of Jesus in Palestine on the one hand and the form of Christianity promoted by Paul. The family of Jesus had little interest in the universalist new religion Paul was giving rise to, in which every man on Earth could be saved by virtue of his faith in Christ. To his family it was simple: They were Jews and Jesus was a Jewish teacher. To become a Christian, you first had to become a Jew.
For Paul, the Jewishness of Christianity, requiring gentile converts to maintain the Jewish commandments, was a threat to the concept that Paul was giving rise to, of salvation through faith in Jesus.
And Peter, who was appointed as successor by Jesus, had to figure out how to keep the community functioning, without these conflicts tearing everything apart. That was not easy. He is seen as falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between the Jewishness of Jacob brother of Jesus and the universalism of Paul. In the end, he gave in to Paul’s ideas.
Although Paul is seen today as perhaps the most important figure in Christianity after Jesus himself, in his own era he was hugely controversial within the church. But if you’ve ever been in any ideological or religious community, you’ll be well aware that conflicts are typically not discussed in writing. They’re discussed in private, behind closed doors.
This is the other thing that is important to keep in mind. The entire New Testament is a narrative we inherited from people who would have thought highly of Paul. We’re trying to understand a story, based on one party’s account of it.
The idea that faith in Jesus wipes away your sin is a unique innovation for Judaism, that found fertile ground around the world. Religions that take over the world, will tend to be the ones that give you easy answers to difficult problems.
There are not many practitioners of Chöd, a technique of Tibetan Buddhism, because the Chöd practitioners have to spend their days on charnel grounds, around decaying corpses. Christianity in contrast, especially the protestant traditions, offers a path towards salvation that is much less complex and challenging for its adherent. You need to believe in someone else, to do the nasty job for you. Someone else is tortured to death on a cross on your behalf, so that your tax fraud or extramarital affair doesn’t lead you to eternal suffering.
But Christianity is not unique in this. Just as there are many Hindu and very few Aghori, there are many Buddhists and few Chöd practitioners. The most common form of Buddhism is pure land Buddhism. It is thought that by venerating a Buddha, you can be reborn in his pure land. This means you don’t have to live out the negative consequences of your karma and don’t regress back into animal forms.
According to some texts, simply calling upon the Amitābha Buddha ten times is sufficient to allow even a layperson to be reborn in his pure land, Sukhāvatī. He created this world after accumulating good merit through countless lives, until he incarnated as a Buddhist monk named Dharmākara, who renounced his throne after learning about Buddhism and set out to create this pure land for humans. Nobody knows who Dharmākara was exactly, he is thought to have lived in a different system of worlds perhaps.
But it’s pretty clear here, that we see the same mechanisms emerge that turned Jesus from a marginal Jewish teacher into the prophet of the world’s largest religion. The Gautama Buddha never taught people that simply having faith in a Buddha would solve your problems for you. That is a tradition that became popular among laypeople, who had no ability to devote themselves to contemplation the way monks could.
And similarly, you’re not going to find any clear suggestions from Jesus that simply having faith in Jesus will somehow bail you out. We see Jesus emphasize the value of forgiveness and we see him argue that you can encounter him anywhere, in prison or hungry on the side of the street. But what we don’t see until Paul, is the idea that Jesus does the dirty job for us.
In many protestant sects, we see the religion again reduced to this bare essence. I don’t think it is conducive to spiritual growth. There is the obvious question, of what it means for people who died never hearing of Jesus. Are they condemned, through no fault of their own?
More importantly however, why should we want to transfer the consequences of our actions to Jesus? Why should he suffer on our behalf? And if he does not have to pay the actual price himself, why would anyone not consent to it? Why would you need to have faith? God never asks my consent for my death. Why would he need my consent, to have my sins forgiven?
What’s going on here, is that we witness a psychological phenomenon that appeals to people who feel guilty. If you feel guilty, if you feel like a bad person, you will be attracted to the idea that someone can wipe out your guilt for you. It began with a man who felt guilty for having one of his fellow Christians condemned to death.
You don’t need fancy theories about Paul being a Roman spy, to understand the religious innovation this man introduced into the world, how he could have come up with it. You just need to ask yourself: What does it feel like, to be responsible for an innocent man’s death?