The New Testament was penned by about nine different authors in the first century: Paul, Peter, Matthew, Luke, John, Mark, Jude, James, and the author to the letter of the Hebrews. Many of the writers claim to be eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus (Acts 2:32, 3:15, 4:18-20, 5:30-32, 10:39-40, 26:24-28; 1 Cor. 15:3-8; 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:16; John 19:33-35, 20:24-30; 1 John 1:1-2). Those who were not present for the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth were either closely connected to someone who was (tradition says Mark’s gospel was written under the tutelage of Peter) or researched their sources before compiling their work (Luke 1:1-4). When it comes to the reliability of their testimony, it seems reasonable to conclude that without sufficient reason, it should be believed. This idea is typically referred to as the principle of testimony. Richard Swinburne, the oxford philosopher of religion, states the axiom as follows: Unless someone is a liar or disturbed, their description of religious experience is probably true. The philosopher utilizes this principle in his defense of religious experiences as proof for God’s existence but it also applies to eyewitness testimony. Unless one has good reason otherwise, we should trust people’s testimony. When you think about it, we do this every single day. As a matter of fact, this is necessarily unavoidable. Any truth from history is dependent on testimony from another source (you were not there). Any truth from geography is dependent on the testimony from another source (you likely have not been there). Any truth from science is dependent on the testimony from another source (you personally did not do the experiment). So, to distrust the early apostolic account requires some sort of reason or motive that the early witnesses would have to taint their record. Who is to say they didn’t just make it all up? Let’s look at five possible motives for fudging the record: prosperity, prestige, power, passion, and pious fraud. We will confine our endeavors to one individual, the apostle to the Gentiles (Paul of Tarsus).
Someone might argue that the early disciples of Jesus taught he was crucified and resurrected to gain prosperity. There have certainly been people in recorded history who have used religion as a means to gain wealth in the past and even in our day. You might recall Johann Tetzel’s phrase as he sold indulgences to people during the time of the reformation: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” But is this the case with Paul? Did Paul preach the message about Jesus for the sake of money? It doesn’t seem so. Luke, his traveling companion, records that Paul stayed with Pricilla and Aquila in Corinth “…because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade (Acts 8:3; See also 20:33-34).” If he was in it for money, why continue his day job? Furthermore, Paul refused to be paid for his work in the churches from time to time. To further drive home the apostle’s desire for the Corinthians to lay down their rights for the sake of their fellow brothers (1 Cor. 7-11), he cites a personal situation in which he lays down a right to receive monetary support from the church despite him deserving such a right as an apostle of the church. He opens First Corinthians 9 with a list of rhetorical questions that imply positive answers (vv. 1-2). Paul offers four proofs of an apostle’s right to receive support from their churches: apostolic practice (vv. 4-6), custom (v. 7), the Old Testament law (vv. 8-13), and the Lord’s command (v. 14). Paul wants the Corinthians to follow his example of giving up justifiable rights but in the realm of their idolatry. After defending his high calling and special standing in the church and affirming his financial independence, Paul could now use his new freedom to advance the gospel at all costs without being in debt to anyone or any form of manipulation (vv. 19-23). We find the early Christian writer giving up being paid for his work in the church. If he was in it for the money, he did a terrible job. He, like the rest of the apostles, died a poor man’s death at the hands of the Roman Empire (John is the only one tradition says died of old age).
Maybe Paul taught the Christian message to gain a social standing among the cultural elites and upper echelon of the Jewish and Roman societies. After all, many times it was and is socially lucrative to be connected to the Church. We find this today in many small towns where the Church is still the cultural center for the people who live there or when people run for public office. This occurred in the past also. In January 313 A.D., Emperor Constantine issued the edict of Toleration (or edit of Milan) which was the first document in the Western world that allowed religious toleration. For the first time, Christianity was tolerated alongside other less-exclusive religions in the Roman Empire. One unfortunate result of this edict though was that it made conversion politically and socially expedient. For the first time, becoming a part of the Church was cool. Did Paul join the Church because it was cool and brought with it great prestige among his peers? Not a chance!
In fact, Paul says multiple times he left a very prestigious standing to become a Christian. He writes in his letter to the Philippians that “…If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless (Phil. 3:4-6).” This was Paul’s life. This was what gave him meaning and significance. This was his gain, his fortune, his joy. Different strokes for different folks—and Paul’s was that he belonged to the upper-echelon of law-keepers, the Pharisees, and that among them he was so zealous that he led the way in persecuting the enemies of God, the church of Jesus, and that he kept the law meticulously. He got strokes from belonging, he got strokes from excelling, he got strokes from God—or so he thought—for his blameless law-keeping. Paul mentions numerous times his social and religious pedigree before his life with Christ (Gal. 1:14; Acts 26:10-12). What did he do with his high standing before men once he became a Christian? He counted it all as rubbish. He wrote, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7).” He not only left prestige behind, he suffered for the sake of his new found religious identity at the hands of people in his former faith tradition (2 Cor. 6:1-10; 11:21-33). Paul did not gain prestige from becoming a follower of Christ. He lost it!
Karl Marx, the fountainhead of what we know as socialism, taught that religion was “a way for the rich and powerful to secure their hold on their wealth and power.” Nietzsche, the famous 20th century atheist philosopher, went even further saying “…any truth claim is a power trip. Any truth claim is socially constructed by your group. Any group that says this is what the truth is, is just trying to get my group under their thumb.” Could it be the case that Paul taught the Christian message to gain power over the masses? Was his new found faith the result of a cunning desire to wield the ecclesiastical reins in the helm of the religious culture of the day? It’s unlikely. One way we know it is unlikely is that Paul is recorded as shunning power in his writings. After hearing about power plays and divisions in the Church at Corinth, Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Cor. 1:10-15)” Paul went out of his way to avoid creating a cult following in the Corinthian community. He did not want the power. He mentions multiple times in his writings that one is the head of the Church. For those who don’t know, it is not the pope, pastor, or even the elders in the Church. The head of the Church is Jesus Christ (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22, 5:23). Again it should be pointed out, Paul left religious power to become a Christian (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:7). Christianity in no way had the upper hand in the first three centuries of the Church. Paul was not a political philosopher who was on speed dial for the emperor. He also was not a bedfellow with the chief priests of the Jewish synagogue. He eventually would literally lose his head under the power of Caesar Nero. Nero was on a power trip; not Paul.
Many times religious movements have an insidious and illustrious motive— passion. People become leaders because that opens doors and beds to them that were once off limits. An example of this is Mormonism. In Doctrines and Covenants, one of four authoritative books in the Mormon religion, it is recorded that “…And if Joseph Smith have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore he is justified for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth…(D&C 132:62).” Joseph Smith was allowed to have as many women as he wanted without ever transgressing the command to not commit adultery. Could the apostle Paul have the same weakness? Did he preach Christ to gain the ladies? It is highly unlikely. For one reason, he would have been viewed as a raving hypocrite because he condemned adulterous acts many times (Col. 3:5; 1 Cor. 5, 6:15-20, 7:5; 1 Thess. 4:3-6). Why would anyone listen to Paul if he was so obviously double-minded? Second, Paul taught that indulging in sexual immorality was deserving of divine judgment (1 Cor. 10:8). He was obviously a Jewish convert who believed God still hated sin and would punish it justly. And last, Paul is reported to have lived an exemplary life before the people he ministered to (Acts. 20:18-19, 24:14-16). If he was in it for the wild times with women, why was this not recorded? How did such a home wrecker who is ripping apart marriages and indulging in forbidden fruit dupe hundreds of people? The best answer is he didn’t. Passion was not a motive for becoming a Christian. The second century Christian writer Tertullian noted, “We Christians regard a stain upon our chastity as more dreadful than any punishment, or even than death itself.” His bold statement was recognition that sexual impurity would weaken the Christian witness. Paul certainly believed this.
David Hume once remarked in his book Of Miracles that “If, by the help of vanity and a heated imagination, a man has first made a convert of himself, and entered seriously into the delusion; who ever scruples to make use of pious frauds, in support of so holy and meritorious a cause?” Maybe Paul and the other disciples were just a bunch of deluded, pious frauds. They got themselves so fussed up in their religious affections that they deluded not only hundreds of people in various areas of the Roman Empire, but they deluded themselves as well. Does this motive work? No. This requires way too much faith. Those who suggest this must reckon with the facts. G.S. Fabers points out, “They must believe … that a man both of eminent learning and of strong prejudices against Christianity, to the amazement of the whole world, suddenly and unaccountably commenced a career altogether opposite to his former principles; that, in this career, without any assignable cause, he persevered through his whole life; and that at length he submitted to be put to death, rather than he would give up a set of opinions, which contradicted all the sentiments imbibed during his education, and which he had adopted wholly without reason.” Could someone do all that under the guise of a delusion? Furthermore, were people so dumb in the first century that they could not tell the difference between someone who was genuine and someone who was a pious fraud (some could Acts 8:9-24)? When one reads the writings of Paul of Tarsus, you do not find a mindless drone rambling on like a fool. You find a clear-thinking, rational individual who seems to know what he is talking about and backs up his message with his life (Rom. 3:8, 6:1-2; Phil. 1:27). This motive does not seem plausible and is founded on cultural arrogance more so than evidence.
From the brief perusal of possible motives, we have seen that there is no substantial motive Paul would have had for making up a false religion. He does not appear to have any reason to lie about what he knows. What this means is that his testimony should be believed. What did Paul and the other apostles believe? Historian, New Testament scholar, and theologian N.T. Wright noted:
Jesus believed it was his vocation to bring Israel’s history to its climax. Paul believed that Jesus had succeeded in that aim. Paul believed, in consequence of that belief and as part of his own special vocation, that he was himself now called to announce to the whole world that Israel’s history had been brought to its climax in that way. When Paul announced ‘the gospel’ to the Gentile world, therefore, he was deliberately and consciously implementing the achievement of Jesus. He was, as he himself said, building on the foundation, not laying another one (1 Cor. 3:11). He was not ‘founding a separate religion’. He was not inventing a new ethical system. He was not perpetuating a timeless scheme of salvation, a new mystery-religion divorced from the real, human Jesus of Nazareth. He was calling the world to allegiance to its rightful Lord, the Jewish Messiah now exalted as the Jewish Messiah was always supposed to be. A new mystery religion, focused on a mythical ‘lord’, would not have threatened anyone in the Greek or Roman world. ‘Another king’, the human Jesus whose claims cut directly across those of Caesar, did.
The early Church believed and preached a high and holy inside joke that a Jewish rabbi once was crucified and came back from the dead to be installed as the king of the cosmos. It was so humorous because it was true. You should trust their account.