It’s the year A.D. 55. In the ring are two major contenders: In one corner, wearing the Jewish colors and representing the “Jesus-Jews” of Jerusalem and all the surrounding synagogues is the man who knew Jesus best: our Jesus-champion Peter!
And in the other corner, wearing the Gentile colors and representing the followers of the “Christos” is the man who never met Jesus and could care less about those who did: the challenger from Antioch Paul!
The two men circle the ring just once, glaring at each other and shouting insults, and then they come out fighting.
Peter maintains that all the followers of Jesus must be Jews, circumcised and bar mitzvahed, and observing the High Holy Days in the temple in Jerusalem, as well as obeying all 613 laws of the Torah, just like Jesus did right up to the day he died. He claims that Jesus lived and died a Jew, and that all of his followers must do the same. The idea that a person could be a follower of Jesus and not be a Jew is unthinkable, Peter says.
Paul says that’s nonsense. What does it matter what Jesus did or said, or where he lived and died? What matters is what the prophets have said about the Messiah, the Christos, and that’s the only “truth” Paul is preaching to his converts. He has baptized hundreds of Greeks in his travels. None of them have any intention of being circumcised or going to the temple in Jerusalem, and as for all those laws and restrictions — who needs them?
It must have been a wild fight. Paul describes it in his letter to his Greek converts in Galatia (Gal.2:11) and he says he got in Peter’s face and shouted him down. And the shout he used throughout the fight was this: “Peter, you’re not walking in the truth of the gospel.” It was all about the “truth.” Which one had it? Peter or Paul? Which one knew Jesus and his gospel better? The one who had lived with him or the one who had a “vision?”
Paul had never seen Jesus. He had never heard him speak and never shared any Jewish prayers or rituals with him, either in the synagogue or in the temple in Jerusalem. He had never walked the dusty Galilean roads with this Jesus of Nazareth, not even had a stiff drink with him at the local pub. For Paul, Jesus was a mythical image, seen only in a brief vision.
Peter, on the other hand, had lived with Jesus for three years. They went to synagogue together and traveled to Jerusalem for the temple sacrifices. Peter had heard Jesus preach to the crowds and had argued with him privately. Peter knew more about the message of Jesus than any other man alive, and certainly more than this arrogant up-start who created a “Christ Myth” from the prophets and called his anti-Jewish cult: Christianity.
And now it’s Peter who “doesn’t know the gospel truth?” That’s right. Peter loses this fight. Paul’s idea of Christianity becomes the winning theology that spreads throughout the known world and eventually fuels all the violent anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages. Christianity loses its Jewish roots because Paul says so.
Thirty years later, in the A.D. 80s, when the Christian church was firmly established in Paul’s Rome — not in Peter’s Jerusalem — Matthew’s gospel inserted a “Jesus-statement” instituting this Pauline church as Peter’s: “You are Peter and upon this rock, I will build my church.”(Matt.16:18) But it was too late. Paul had already won. Paul’s anti-Jewish, anti-Peter’s church had the “truth.” Matthew could call it Peter’s, but the truth was — it became Paul’s 30 years ago.
Does this sound familiar? Each side has the “truth,” and the other side is flat-out wrong. That’s the way Christianity started. From this first heavyweight fight, over 55 more fights erupted; (called heresies) each one claiming to have “the truth,” and each one condemned by some council or church group who had “more truth” and were able to punch harder and win.
Maybe Pilate was right in asking: “What is truth?” I know a few Middle Georgians (one with a Roman Collar) who think I do not have the truth, especially when I translate these ancient Greek scriptures. Maybe my friend, Judge Phil Brown, is right when he defines it this way: “What works is the only test for truth.”
What works for you?
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.