Christianity’s Embarrassing Apostle Paul Problem

Hallucinations are not a credible foundation for any religion


The church gets away with a far, far too much because most of the laity don’t bother to read the Bible, let alone study it carefully. This failure enables the clergy to nurture an idealized version of the faith—indeed, an idealized version of Jesus—unhindered by so much of the nasty stuff in full view in the gospels and in the letters of the apostle Paul. The clergy are quite content that the folks in the pews don’t go digging about in these documents. Instead, ritual, sacred music, costuming, stained glass windows—church décor in general—allow the laity to savor a false version of the faith promoted by the ecclesiastical bureaucracy.
I have written extensively on the nasty stuff found in the gospels. Here I want to focus on the multiple embarrassments we encounter in the letters of the apostle Paul. Mainstream New Testament scholars believe that there are seven authentic letters of Paul—based on vocabulary, style, and ideas: First Thessalonians, Galatians, First & Second Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, and Philemon. These were all copied for centuries by hand, so they are spoiled by errors, omissions and interpolations, but for the most part, here we have what Paul taught. If the laity dip into the gospels from time to time, it’s probably a rarity for them to explore the Paul letters at any depth. But if they do, they encounter real puzzles—and bad theology, which is not hard to detect.  
Embarrassment One
Anyone who reads the letters of Paul, carefully, thoughtfully, will be stumped by his failure to mention the ministry, teachings, and miracles of Jesus of Nazareth. How can that be? Since there is no hint in the New Testament that Paul ever met or even saw Jesus, it’s not a big surprise. We’re familiar, of course, with the dramatic story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, told three times in the Book of Acts. This is probably dramatic storytelling—like so much else in Acts—because Paul doesn’t mention it in his own letters. But after this life-changing conversion, wouldn’t Paul have wanted to pump the disciples for information about Jesus? The author of Acts reports that Paul did indeed head back to Jerusalem:   
“…he attempted to join the disciples, and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.” (Acts 9:26-28)
But the author of Acts is caught in a lie here. He had not read Paul’s letter to the Galatians: 

“…nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterward I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days, but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!” (Galatians 1:17-20)

Since we are so familiar with Peter as depicted in the gospels, we might imagine that Paul asked him a lot of questions about Jesus. But who was this Peter whom Paul visited? Chances are he wasn’t the guy who appears in the gospel accounts: we have no idea where those stories came from. They look too much like fantasy literature. In any case, whatever this Peter might have told him about Jesus didn’t end up in Paul’s letters. Paul never mentions the empty tomb, for example.
And why was Paul so emphatic (“I do not lie!”) that he didn’t mix with other disciples? He probably wanted to assure his readers that his knowledge about Jesus came directly from Jesus. That is, the risen Jesus in the spiritual realm. Earlier in Galatians 1 Paul had written: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (vv. 11-12)

This is the essence of Embarrassment One: Paul’s ultra-certain faith is based on his visions. Today, the professionals who study brain science would say, his hallucinations. We all know that devout folks dismiss visions of other religions, e.g., Protestants even ridicule Catholic visions of the Virgin Mary, nearly everyone laughs off Mormon vision claims. So many devout people—scattered across different religions, with conflicting concepts of god—have been certain they’re getting glimpses of happenings in the spiritual realm. If it’s someone in your own religion—especially long ago—folks say, “Isn’t that wonderful!” But if it’s outside your religion: “Isn’t that ridiculous!” 
Devout New Testament scholars, holding out hope that the gospels contain some glimpses of history, argue that “reliable” oral traditions about Jesus were in circulation in the decades before the gospels were written. But Paul seems not to have been aware of such stories about Jesus, or just chose to ignore them. Again, his credibility among his followers was based not on “things he might have heard about Jesus”—but on his communications from Jesus in the spirit world. 
Reliable oral traditions may just be wishful thinking. There is little ethical teaching in Mark’s gospel. Matthew decided to correct that by adding The Sermon on the Mount, which Luke shortened—and changed the wording. The author of John’s gospel omitted it entirely, and added lengthy Jesus monologues found nowhere else.
We are entitled to wonder, by the way, if Paul was aware of the Jesus stories that we know from the gospels. Paul’s advice in Romans 13 is a major puzzle: 
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”  (vv. 1-2)
He seems not to have known that Jesus was executed by Roman authorities—and, of course, this is simply bad theology: that all government authorities are divinely appointed. Paul was several stages removed from reality. He goes on to say, “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s agents, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due.” (vv. 6-7) What a perfect occasion to quote Jesus’ famous advice in Matthew 22:21, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…” But Paul simply wasn’t aware of anything Jesus taught. 
One comeback may be to point out that Paul quotes Jesus at the Last Supper (I Corinthians 11:23-26). How would he have known this? He wasn’t at the Last Supper, and bragged that he didn’t learn anything about Jesus from human sources. He states that “I received from the Lord” the famous words of the Eucharist, i.e., from his visions. When Mark created his account of the Last Supper, he probably quoted Paul’s version of the story.   
Embarrassment Two
Historians know very well that verifying anything about the life of Jesus cannot be done, because there is no contemporaneous documentation by which to do so. The gospels were written decades after his death, and the authors don’t mention their sources. Look at any modern biography of a person in history: at the back there will be pages listing the sources for the information provided in the book. We have none of that for Jesus.
But that kind of research—i.e., spending endless hours in libraries and archives—never occurred to Paul. His story of Jesus could be reconstructed from Old Testament texts. Committed to his particular vision-based theology, he was confident that his Jesus was foreseen in ancient texts. An article describing Paul’s approach, in considerable detail, was published here on the Debunking Christianity Blog on 10 November, by Greg G., How Did Paul Know What He Tells Us About Jesus? I recommend careful study of this article. At the outset he states:
“We often marvel at Paul's lack of interest in the life and times of Jesus. He says Jesus was born of a woman but says nothing about his mother. He tells us Jesus was killed for the sins of others but tells us nothing about where the event occurred. He tells us that Jesus was buried but he tells us nothing about the gravesite. Did Paul not think the information was available in his time?
And: “Paul tells us over and over that he got his information from the scriptures.” But this is not how to write history. This is a form of ancient superstition: that a god’s secrets about the future can be gleaned from studying texts written long ago.  One’s theology is the key to figuring out these secrets. The author of Matthew’s gospel provides extreme examples of this misguided approach, e.g., he quotes Isaiah 7:14 to prove the virgin birth of Jesus—but Isaiah 7 has nothing whatever to do with the birth of a supposed messiah many centuries later. Matthew also quotes Hosea 11:1 to account for his farfetched story (found nowhere else), that Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to keep Jesus safe. 
If you’re deep into Christian theology, you might think that Paul was on the right track figuring out Jesus from old manuscripts. But his faulty thinking here is a major embarrassment. 
On my YouTube channel, there is a playlist, “Please Stop Calling Him 'Saint' Paul, with four videos:
       Number 1     Number 2     Number 3     Number 4      

Embarrassment Three
It’s no surprise, given the violent, abusive god we find in the Old Testament, that Paul bought this theology too. Hence in Romans 1, he includes gossips and rebellious children among those who deserve to die. In Romans 2:5-8, we find this: 
“But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life, while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but injustice, there will be wrath and fury.
Churchgoers are most familiar with things Paul wrote on those days when he hadn’t forgotten to take his meds, and was in a good mood, e.g., I Corinthians 13, which includes the famous words, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…” But the fact remains, that for Paul, god’s default mood was wrath and rage. And a magical spell was a way to escape this: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
For more insight into Paul’s thinking, I recommend John Loftus’ article, Paul’s Christianity: Belief in Belief Itself, which is a longer version of the Foreword he wrote for Robert Conner’s book, The Jesus Cult: 2000 Years of the Last Days. In this piece Loftus quotes from Conner’s third essay in his 2019 anthology, The Case Against Miracles:

“A more mature modern psychology with superior investigative techniques and tools can now question whether Paul of Tarsus was functionally, if not clinically, insane—and whether the religion he championed is based on delusion.” (p. 545)
This is a major embarrassment indeed.
Embarrassment Four
Just a brief mention of this one. Anti-gay fanatics focus on Paul’s rant against both male and female homosexuals in Romans 1:26-27. 
“There! Doesn’t that settle it!” They don’t seem to notice that Paul wasn’t thrilled about male-female sex either: “And those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24) Not too many clergy quote this verse at wedding ceremonies! And they don’t mention I Corinthians 7:1: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” or vv. 8-9:
“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
Do the anti-gay fanatics follow Paul’s advice about straight sex? Get married in order not to be aflame with passion? Paul assumed that his lack of interest in sex was the ideal standard to live by. What a tortured soul, what an embarrassment. 
I suspect that if the New Testament were suddenly printed without the letters of Paul, many of the faithful wouldn’t notice or care. 
Wasn’t it a major blunder that the New Testament didn’t include letters written by Jesus himself? We can imagine Jesus’ Epistle to Saul of Tarsus, on how not to be a rogue apostle; his Epistle to Peter, on how to run a church without resorting to magical thinking; his Epistles to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, on how to avoid making up bad, mediocre, alarming Jesus-script; and Jesus’ Epistle to the Women of the World, on how to fight misogyny and arrogant patriarchy. 
With these letters, we’d have a much better New Testament. 
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 
His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here