Paul had a vision in which Jesus revealed to Paul that he had risen from the dead. Thus did Paul accept Jesus as the Messiah, sent from God to be crucified for mankind’s sins, and then resurrected to sit at God’s right hand.
“He is not here; for He is risen, as he said." - Matthew 28:2
On Easter, let us remember the man who — second only to Jesus himself — made possible the spread of Christianity. His name was Saul, later Paul, later St. Paul, and not only did he spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, but he also changed Christianity from a religion about the teachings of Jesus to a religion about the life of Jesus.
No blasphemy intended, but the historical Jesus was a first-century apocalyptic prophet, thoroughly Jewish, whose preaching mostly mirrored the teachings of the Old Testament, and whose main message was, “Repent now because the end of days is near.”
What is more, when Jesus was crucified, in his early 30s, his followers were a small group of Jewish peasants who, having observed Jesus’ fate when He preached His message (see Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” for a graphic rendering), feared that spreading their master’s teachings would result in them being persecuted.
Which many of them were. Ironically, one of their persecutors was Paul himself, a prominent Jew who was angry that Jesus’ followers believed Jesus was the Messiah. But during a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus, Paul — as he describes it — had a vision in which Jesus revealed to Paul that he had risen from the dead. Thus did Paul accept Jesus as the Messiah, sent from God to be crucified for mankind’s sins, and then resurrected to sit at God’s right hand.
This was the main message that Paul spread. The fact that Jesus was resurrected proved his divinity, which meant faith in Jesus was the key to salvation. As the German philosopher Ernest Bloch later wrote, "It wasn't the morality of the Sermon on the Mount that enabled Christianity to conquer Roman paganism, but the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead."
Paul also preached that because faith in the divine Jesus was the key to salvation, one need not strictly adhere to the Jewish laws God gave Moses on Mount Sinai — laws such as circumcision, a kosher diet, Sabbath observance and the like. This made Christianity more attractive to non-Jews who were drawn to the faith, but turned off by the need to obey strict canon law.
Like Jesus, Paul was martyred for his beliefs (around 65 AD), so he did not live to see Christianity grow from a Jewish splinter sect into a worldwide religion practiced by hundreds of millions. However, unlike Jesus, Paul’s crucial contribution to Christianity’s creation and growth is known mostly to religious historians and good Catholics.
Oh, and one amateur religious historian and (I confess) very imperfect Catholic. Happy Easter!
Bruce G. Kauffmann’s e-mail address is