A lot of people who really like Jesus, really don’t like Paul. One book puts it like this: everything good in Christianity came from Jesus, everything bad came from Paul.
This sort of makes sense. After all, Paul never met Jesus. Paul doesn’t sound like Jesus. Paul doesn’t seem that concerned with the details of Jesus’ life. Paul says a lot of things that you’ll never find in the gospels. It would be easy to say that Paul was a hijacker, who turned Christianity into something it was never supposed to be.
But sometimes when you’ve been with people a long time, it’s hard for them to see you as you are, or to understand what you’re really telling them. They have a hard time realizing you’ve changed. And it’s not until someone else comes along, someone new who truly gets you, that you are free to be your full self, the self you’ve claustrophobically been trying to express.
Paul is that person for Jesus. The apostles knew Jesus was radical, they knew he had changed a lot of things. They even knew he had risen from the dead. But they couldn’t see what Paul could see. Peter still struggled with talking to Gentiles, circumcision was still being debated. But Paul sees the genius at the heart of Jesus’ teachings, sees the paradoxical brilliance of victory through defeat, and spends the rest of his life trying to make that comprehensible to the outside world. He’s not interested in biography, or in repeating and expanding on the parables. He’s not interested in trying to maintain ties with the more traditional followers of Jesus. He wants only to spread the incisive ideas at the heart of Jesus’ message, to as many people as possible, in as clear a way as he can manage.
Paul, above all the other apostles, actually got Jesus. But then, the fact that the best apostle of all didn’t show up until almost too late…shouldn’t be surprising for the disciples of a man who said the last will be first.