Jesus Vs. Paul — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

The Bible is a book of controversies. Sometimes it contains examples of disputes, such as Jesus’ discussions with the religious elite of his day (e.g., Mark 2:1-3:6); at other times, it generates them among modern readers. One of the more interesting conversations about Scripture regards the theological consistency between its authors. Some biblical authors explore topics others do not, while others look at the same things from various angles. Modern interpreters recognize these differences but rightly see them as unobjectionable because the inspired text does not contradict itself. However, some go as far as to claim that the Bible’s authors not only teach about different things—they do contradict one another, sometimes significantly.

One of these problematic areas of supposed disagreement concerns Jesus and the apostle Paul. Scholars and observant Bible readers alike have noticed that the two men taught about different subjects. Jesus preached on topics such as the kingdom of heaven and the importance of grace—often highlighting these teachings with parables, miracles, and other acts of ministry and benevolence. Paul spends a great deal of time discussing justification, sanctification, and resurrection. So, do the Bible’s authors truly disagree, or is this disagreement the result of a misunderstanding?

Explaining the Differences Between Jesus and Paul

The teaching ministries of Jesus and Paul often cover different subjects. However, supposed differences can be explained easily without using the word contradiction. One of the most important considerations is that theologians can read the messages of each through very different lenses. In this case, the disagreements between Jesus and Paul are not a product of reading the Bible properly but misunderstanding it, thereby creating phantom contradictions that do not exist.

To consider one example, progressive Christians often see Jesus as one of their own—affirming the poor, supposedly oppressed Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4 with no hint of judgment or condemnation (despite the implications of such in vs. 17-18) and repenting of his alleged racism in his discussion with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 (a sin found nowhere in that particular text). This reading is then contrasted with a similarly distorted reading of Paul, which portrays the apostle as a rank-and-file misogynist, denying women the privilege of serving as deacons and elders, telling them to shut up in worship (1 Cor. 14:34-35), and claiming that they could only be saved if barefoot and pregnant (see 1 Tim. 2:15). In this (mis)understanding of the text, Jesus was practically a modern-day feminist while Paul was a founding father of the oppressive patriarchy.

Another critical area of supposed contrast concerns how Jesus and Paul treated homosexuality. Jesus never condemned it and, therefore, must have affirmed everything about the relationships between same-sex attracted people. Paul referred believers to the Mosaic law—an archaic legal code by some modern opinions—imposing unfair and unchristian standards of heteronormativity on marginalized people whose only crime is the desire to love whomever they wish. Once again, thanks to a twisted reading of the text, Jesus looks right at home in the 21st century, while Paul appears primitive and backward. These gross mischaracterizations should be evident to any informed reader of Scripture.

Who Has Authority?

A vital question for any reader: who has the authority to determine the meaning of the biblical text? If Scripture is inspired and possesses internal consistency, then we must accept its authority at face value. If this is the case, then we do not have the right to say things like, “I disagree with Paul,” “I think Scripture is wrong here,” or “I’m rejecting Paul in favor of following the way of Jesus.” This issue is decided by a vital question: “Who has authority”? If readers get to pick and choose what parts of the Bible apply to them or are worthy of belief, then the Bible is not the standard of authority—human beings are.

The Bible is not a fully authoritative text for progressive believers. The process of determining meaning is not an act of accepting what Scripture says but is instead a cooperative effort that considers the reader’s wants, needs, opinions, and experiences. If this is true, the reader establishes the parameters of the Bible’s authority and holds ultimate power over what it says or means. Here the reader makes the ultimate decision on whether the teachings of Jesus and Paul can be harmonized or if the two contradict one another.

One Last Problem

Those who claim that Jesus and Paul disagree typically do so because they want to accept Jesus but dismiss the apostle’s writings.  But if a person decides to disagree with Paul, it will only be a matter of time before they disagree with Jesus.  One response to this eventuality is to reinterpret Jesus so that anything he says is retooled to fit the reader’s preestablished theological disposition.  This means that the individual does not take Jesus seriously; he only accepts a manufactured version that he or she finds amenable.

This vision of Christ typically takes a form bearing an unmistakable resemblance to the reader. He holds the same positions on social issues, adheres to the same political platform, and expresses the same opinions on any number of important subjects. He does not challenge; he merely confirms. This version of Jesus is supremely agreeable to the individual because it is nothing more than a projection of the reader’s wants.

Whenever someone says that Jesus disagrees with Paul, it is likely because that person has co-opted Jesus for their own theological agenda. Although the two men may have spoken on different subjects, it takes work to make them disagree. The inspired authors of Scripture confirmed and supplemented what Jesus taught without contradicting him.

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