Significantly, Paul does concede in one of his epistles that his Jesus was not the same Jesus that was being preached by others:
For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things. (2 Cor. 11:4-6)
Equally significant is Paul’s description of those rivals as being “super-apostles.” They would have been seen so and he would have found himself on the defensive only if these apostles had something he could not claim to himself. This is likely to be the fact that those apostles either accompanied Jesus or at least were present where Jesus lived, so they could claim credibility that Paul could not. Paul declared his faith in Jesus years after he had gone. It is telling that Paul’s writings show no interest in or knowledge of Jesus’ history, focusing only on the theological significance of the crucifixion and resurrection and making a passing mention of the Last Supper (Fatoohi, 2008a: 93).
Paul openly declared that his knowledge did not come from any scripture or followers of Jesus but rather through direct revelation: “The gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). As some of Paul’s teachings are not found anywhere else in the New Testament, making his teachings core Christian theology is nothing short of giving him at least an equal role to Jesus.
Furthermore, Paul’s credibility rests wholly on his claim that Jesus appeared to him (Acts 9:3-8, 22:6-10, 26:13-18). Yet even if Paul did indeed experience something unusual or even paranormal on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, that does not justify accepting his teachings as core Christianity, if the latter is taken to mean the religion that Jesus taught rather than accurately seen as a religion that developed well after Jesus had gone. History was never going to have much to say about Jesus’ alleged appearance to Paul, but we know that what Paul ended up teaching has nothing to do with what Jesus preached.
Paul was open about the fact that he had no contact whatsoever with the historical Jesus, claiming that his contact with the divine/spiritual Jesus told him all he needed to know about the truth of Jesus. He clearly believed that he knew Jesus more than anybody else. Paul’s letters show him as an absolutely determined, single-minded person, so it is highly unlikely that he was not influenced by others in his decision to deify Jesus.
Jesus’ Jewish followers in Palestine could not have started the move to deify him and his mother. Judaism is a strictly monotheistic religion, so even if someone wanted to promote Jesus’ divinity, he would have met very little acceptance and strong opposition.
Paul, however, was in a different position, because he focused his missionary efforts on Roman Gentiles outside Jewish Palestine. Presenting Jesus as divine would have looked completely logical and natural to pagan converts. Paul and ultimately Christianity gave the Jewish title “son of God” a strong divine connotation that was never part of its Jewish origin. Christianity used the title “son of God” as another way of saying “God.” But the concept of son of a god was well-known and accepted in the Hellenistic culture. The unique and supernatural qualities of heroes and their extraordinary lives were explained in terms of divinity, and this divinity at times came in the form of sonship of a god. Gods physically fathered such heroes. They had a divine father and a human mother, but there were exceptions where the mother was a goddess and the father a man. Ancient Greek sons of gods include the athlete Theagenes, whose father, the god Heracles, appeared to Theagenes’ mother in the form of her husband and impregnated her; the 6th century BCE philosopher Pythagoras who was fathered by Apollo; the 5th-4th century BCE philosopher Plato whose father was the god Phoebus; Alexander the Great who was fathered by a god who took the form of a snake and slept with his mother; the sage Apollonius of Tyana whose father was Zeus; and Emperor Augustus whose mother is said to have claimed that he was fathered by the god Apollo (for more details, see Miller, 2003: 133-153). Gentile converts accepted Jesus’ divine image very easily, and might have even needed it to believe in him.
Bible scholar Robert Miller thinks that Jesus, like the previous sons of gods, was considered a divine son of God in order to explain his extraordinary life. However, while the Jews at the time of Jesus were influenced by the Hellenistic culture, they were under the much bigger influence of their own cultural heritage. Specifically, their religion remained completely monotheistic. Jesus’ sonship of God cannot be explained as being the result of the influence of the Hellenistic culture on Palestinian Jewish believers in Jesus. It should be noted that both the Old and New Testaments have stories of prominent holy figures whose lives were clearly extraordinary and involved supernatural events, yet they were not called sons of God, and certainly not considered divine — for example, Abraham in the Old Testament and Zechariah in the New Testament.
Paul did not know much about Jesus’ life. He certainly did not think it was worth mentioning in his writings, if he knew anything about it. It may be argued that he might have come up with the concept that Jesus was divine because he believed in his resurrection. But this conversion, according to Paul himself, happened only after he miraculously saw Jesus, so it looks like any interpretation of the significance of the resurrection would have been a consequence rather than an initiator of faith.
Miller also believes that the story of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus was made up because it was required by the title “son of God.” This suggestion also ignores completely the Jewish influence on the authors of Matthew and Luke, in which this story appears. Luke is written from a Gentile perspective, and for this and other reasons the author is often considered to have been a heathen convert. But Matthew is written from a Jewish perspective so the author is considered to have been a Jew. Miller’s suggestion tries to explain parts of the Gospel of Matthew as if they were written in complete isolation from the author’s main culture. First, the concept of miraculous conception and birth is applied in both the Old and New Testaments to human beings who were not called sons of God, although none of these was conceived without a father. For instance, the Old Testament talks about the miraculous conception of Isaac (Gen. 18:10-11), and the New Testament has the story of John the Baptist (Luke 1:13-19). In both cases the parents were too old to have a child. But neither of the two sons was called a son of God, so the story of their miraculous conceptions could not have been inspired by this title. Second, the Old Testament contains stories of holy figures who lived extraordinary lives, and the Jewish title son of God was thus applicable to them, yet they were conceived and born naturally, without any miracle. One instance is King David who was anointed as a Messiah by prophet Samuel as instructed by God (1 Sam. 16:12-13), established a united kingdom for all Israelites, and was spoken to by God (2 Sam. 23:3). I have discussed the subject of the virginal conception in detail elsewhere (Fatoohi, 2007: 99-119).
It is interesting to note the different positions of the main Christian sources and the Qur’an about Jesus’ virginal conception and sonship of God: Matthew and Luke mention both the virginal conception and the sonship of God; Paul, Mark, and John talk only about Jesus’ sonship of God; whereas the Qur’an talks about the virginal conception but rejects the sonship of God. The Qur’an’s rejection of Jesus’ sonship of God reflects a fundamental difference between its theology and Christian theologies.
Paul was of a Jewish monotheistic background, so why would he promote the pagan concept of man-god? One obvious possibility is that he rejected his monotheistic roots and simply believed that Jesus was divine for whatever reason. Another possibility, which is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the previous one, is that he wanted to align the new religion with the expectations of the target pagan audience of his missionary work. We know, for instance, that Paul did not hesitate in dropping circumcision as a requirement from Gentile converts to the religion he was preaching (e.g. Rom. 2:25-29, 3:29-30; 1 Cor. 7:18-19). The Book of Acts and Paul’s letters recount sharp disputes that Paul had with prominent Jerusalemite Christians because of his abolishment of certain legal requirements, which he clearly did to convert as many Gentiles as possible. Around sixteen years after his conversion, Paul and his companion Barnabas travelled from Antioch to Jerusalem to meet the apostles and elders to sort out the disagreement that his teachings had created. A heated debate about the observance of Moses’ law was followed by a respected James deciding that the Gentiles could be exempted from circumcision. James also said that the Gentiles should be sent a letter telling them that they should simply “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29). If the Gentile converts avoided these four, the letter stated, they would be fine. Paul won. More details on Jesus’ attitude toward the law can be found in my book The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus (pp. 377-388).
There is a lot of say about this exchange between Paul and his opponents and the amazing reduction of the law to four prohibitions only. It shows, for instance, that Paul had taken the liberty of teaching a form of Christianity that was his own creation. But the main observation that concerns us here is that this account shows how Paul was keen on sacrificing sacred elements of the Jewish religion in order to win over pagan converts to the religion of Jesus that he was preaching.
But how could Paul’s missionary efforts in various parts of the Roman empire succeed in changing Jesus’ original message in Judea? The reason is that, contrary to the belief of most Christians which is based on the Gospel accounts, Jesus had a very small group of followers in his homeland. One major reason for this is that the Messiah he claimed to be was very different from the one that the Jews had been hoping for for centuries. The destruction of the northern state of Israel in the 7th century BCE by the Assyrians and the devastating attack on the southern state of Judea in the 6th century BCE by the Babylonians started a dark period of occupation of the Jews by foreign, heathen states. This resulted in the concept of the awaited Messiah being changed from referring to a reformist prophet to a military leader who would liberate the Jews and restore the lost glory of ancient Israel. This reformation of a distorted ethnocentric concept of the Messiah ensured that Jesus was never going to be popular and attract a sizeable following:
Jesus confirmed that he was the Christ, but he also disapproved of what the concept of the Christ had become. For him, the Christ was a spiritual prophet and teacher, not someone with a political or secular agenda. The Messiah was a reformer who would lay down again the foundations of the religion of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and all other Israelite prophets. This rather unpopular image of the Messiah is probably why only a small minority of the Jews, not many thousands as suggested by the Gospels, believed in and followed him, even though he was a miracle worker. The majority of the Jews chose to remain faithful to the prevailing Jewish concept of the Messiah. (Fatoohi, 2009: 39-40)
Jesus’ miracles helped him to attract followers and those who needed his miracles. But the change he promoted was too different from what the public wanted and they preferred the distorted dream to the truth that he preached. Jesus had therefore a small following, and this made changing the essence of his message, including turning him into a god, possible.