Although almost every commentary on the book of Romans praises it as a masterpiece of Christian theology, there are several recent responses to Paul and Pauline theology which push back against this dominance in the formation of Christian theology. If you google “Jesus vs. Paul” you can find quite a few websites devoted to driving a wedge between Jesus and Paul, some in favor of Jesus, others in favor of Paul.
Some argue Paul ruined the (more pure) religion created by Jesus. For example, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne published a book calling Christians to follow Jesus. Red Letter Christians focused on the Sermon on the Mount as central to Christian ethics. Their mission is “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”
Others favor Paul, arguing Paul as the “real founder” of the Christian church. Jesus is more or less ignored in systematic theology, especially from the Reformed perspective. Sometimes Jewish scholars point out that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who was misunderstood by Paul. Historians who have no theological axe to grind often observe Christianity as we know it is derived from Paul and his letters.
But there are other more radical views. In 1986, Hyam Maccoby, for example, wrote a book entitled The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. His thesis is simple: Paul was a radically Hellenized Jew who recycled the mystery cults and Gnosticism into what we call Christianity today. He lied about being a Pharisee and was generally ignorant of what the Hebrew actually taught. Pamela Eisenbaum argues the opposite, in her 2009 Paul as not a Christian. For Eisenbaum, Paul was “unambiguously Jewish—ethnically, culturally, religiously, morally and theologically” (9). Paul was a Jewish teacher and Pharisee who came to believe Jesus was messiah. That belief by itself is not heretical (from a Jewish perspective), even if he was wrong.
Similarly, Dispensationalism is sometimes accused of ignoring Jesus since classic Dispensationalism dismissed the Sermon on the Mount as “future kingdom ethics” and over-emphasized Paul and his letters. For most classic dispensationalists the Sermon on the Mount is the charter for the future millennial kingdom and there is resistance to using the Sermon as a “core” for Christian ethics. This view has nearly died out even among modern dispensationalists, but the division between Jesus and Paul persists for many Christians.
Although “Jesus Only” sounds pious, the fact is Jesus does not fully explain what he is going to do on the cross nor does he present anything like a “systematic theology” of who he is as related to the Father. All Christians after Jesus struggle to understand who Jesus was and how he fits into the overall plan of God.
It is my view that Paul was a faithful interpreter of Jesus who was inspired by God to write the book of Romans. Paul does claim to be called by God to a particular ministry, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world. Why would a pagan Roman care about a crucified Jewish teacher who claimed to be a messiah, whatever that is?
Paul’s theology and ethics do not differ from Jesus as much as is often assumed. Romans 12 seems to know and use the same tradition Matthew used in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Paul did not reject the ethics of Jesus and substitute his own! Paul can therefore be considered a faithful interpreter of what Jesus did on the cross. He understood the story of the Hebrew Bible as believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to deal with the problem of sin.
To what extent do “red letter Christians” have a point? Has Paul’s theology about Jesus “gone too far”? Or is it later theology which has twisted the more simple religion of Jesus?