Question: Why did the Apostle Paul take the simple moral message of a teacher like Jesus and turn it into such a complex theological system?
My Answer: There are a number of writers who assert the view found in this question. Their perspective seems to be that Jesus was merely a moral teacher, perhaps with a prophetic cast to his ministry, who presented a message of love and ethics. Then along comes Paul and turns Jesus into a demigod, and takes his moral philosophy and turns it on its head by rejecting the Law of Moses and making salvation the result of some mysterious thing called grace.
There are a couple of responses to this position. First of all, as to Paul turning the “man” Jesus into the Son of God—nothing could be further from the truth. One of the clearest presentations of the Deity of Christ is not found in Paul’s writings at all. It is in the Gospel of John. And when you read what Jesus said about Himself in any of the four Gospels, you clearly see that He unequivocally claimed equality with the Father. The concept that Jesus is divine originated with Jesus Himself… which is only natural, since He is God.
The next point is the implication that there is an inherent contradiction between the message of Paul and the message of Jesus. A careful reading of both the Gospels and the Pauline epistles will reveal no such contradiction. I challenge anyone to find one.
A third point must also be posited. I think part of the issue here is a misunderstanding of the chronology of the New Testament’s creation. The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) traditionally come first in our New Testament. Then comes Acts, and then the epistles of Paul and other writers. Many assume that this order is based on the sequence of the writing. First come the Gospels, which present the original message of Jesus in its most pure form. This is followed by the later interpretations and additions to Jesus’s message by Paul and other writers. The Gospels are early, and present the simple message of the Messiah. The Epistles are later and present a more complex theology, including the faith/grace message of Paul and the concept of Christ as the Son of God. But this is backwards.
Virtually all biblical scholars agree that the writings of Paul are the earliest compositions of the New Testament. Paul’s first epistles were written in the early to mid-50’s of the first century. The Gospels came decades later. What happened was this: Paul, Peter, and other early Christian leaders proclaimed the message of the Messiah, Jesus who was crucified, resurrected and coming again. They announced the Good News that men could be saved through faith in Christ, and accepting the graciously-offered free gift of redemption. Later, once many had become Christians and had accepted the Gospel message, the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to write the four Gospel writings to explain to the young church about the life and teachings of the Lord Jesus that they were already following. The proclamation of the Gospel message came first, and then the Gospel books. Understanding this will clear up a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about the relationship between the words of Jesus and the teachings of Paul.