Tread on me: the making of Christian morality 5

This essay follows A man named Jesus or something like that (September 23, 2011) and The invention of Christianity (October 28, 2011) in our series outlining the early history of the Christian religion.


St. Paul is one of very few persons who have single-handedly set the course of history. In the last two thousand years, human affairs have been to a large extent shaped by what he thought and said. Yet very little is known about him: his background, his birth-name, the religion he was raised in. Those are subjects for a later essay. What is known is that he invented a new god, a new religion, and a new morality.

He gave out his moral instructions in letters to congregations of Greeks in the eastern Roman Empire. How many letters he wrote is not known. Of the thirteen letters ascribed to him in the Christian bible, only seven [1] are believed by most contemporary scholars to have actually been written by him. From these seven we learn how Paul wanted followers of his Christ Jesus to live and behave.

It must be remembered that Paul started spreading his new religion and writing his letters before the gospels were composed to narrate a life story of Jesus of Nazareth and report what he said. Paul himself shows little or no interest in Jesus’s life before the crucifixion. He says that “he was rich and became poor for your sake”. [2] But he claims to be repeating actual words of Jesus only when he tells the story of “The Last Supper”, in which he has Jesus breaking bread and instructing his disciples that it is his body, and taking a cup of wine and instructing them that the wine is his blood, and bidding them eat his body and drink his blood in memory of him. But that event and those words, Paul admits or boasts, were made known to him by revelation [3] in the same mystical way that his apostolic appointment and Jesus’s divinity were made known to him. In other words, he made up the whole thing; the entire dramatic episode and the commandments in obedience to which the rite of the Eucharist was instituted by the Christian church.

What Paul taught was his own prescription for how human beings should live and conduct their relations with others. He wanted his converts to believe that it was what Jesus asked of them, implying in his letters that that was the case. [4] But it is his own, original, moral teaching that founded and formed the greater part of what came to be known as “Christian morality”. [5]

Briefly, but including all salient points, here is Paul’s moral teaching:

We are the filth of the world, the scum, the muck that is scoured from things. [6] The lowest of the low. [7]

Let us abase ourselves; be fools [8]; be humble, and associate with the lowly. [9]

Do only the most menial work for a living. [10]

Bear affliction with patience [11], even with joy. [12]

You must consider all others to be greater than yourselves. [13]

Love one another, love all. [14] Then you will be harmless and blameless. [15] That is what I ask you to do to make me proud of you. [16]

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. [17] Bless those who persecute you. [18] Let them do the most evil things to you, and return only good to them. [19] We glory in our suffering. [20] However hard your life is, rejoice and give thanks. [21] Never seek revenge. [22]

Obey the government. [23] Pay your taxes. [24]

Women, be silent in church. [25]

Marry if you must, but I would rather you remained unmarried and chaste as I am. [26] All of you should imitate me, as I imitate Christ. [27]

No matter how poor you are, no matter how hard you must toil, give all you can to me to take to the saints in Jerusalem. [28] Remember that when I was with you I worked night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you. [29]

Pray constantly. [30] Never feast or carouse, and stay sober. [31] Do not commit sexual immorality. [32] Attend quietly to what you must do, and mind your own business. [33] Be patient always, even when you need to admonish those among you who do not work hard enough. [34]

Share all you have so that you’ll all be equal in worldly possessions. [35]

Do all this for the sake of Christ. Because he died for you, because he suffered on the cross for you, you must bear all things for his sake. You belong to him because he bought you for a price. [36]

It is a morality that demands and glorifies self-abasement and self-abnegation, as a perpetual repayment of a debt imposed on all humanity by Jesus’s “self-sacrifice”.

It scorns talent, disregards personal ambition, forbids individual self-fulfillment.

So when conservative Christians claim – as they often do – that Christianity initiated and promotes individualism, they are plainly wrong. To the contrary: from its inception Christianity has been the enemy of individualism.

It planted the perverse value of subservience in Western culture; a value that was to re-emerge as an ideal in other collectivist ideologies. Paul’s idea that it was greatly good for the individual to subjugate himself to the community contributed even more profoundly to the ideology of Communism than did his doctrine of sharing and equality.

A morality that makes cruel and unnatural demands on human nature will nurture hypocrisy and breed despair: hypocrisy because sustained self-denial is impossible, so lip-service is substituted for obedience; and despair because to strive for the impossible is to ensure failure.

How then did a moral philosophy that requires men and women to be as worms in the dust succeed in attracting throngs of enthusiastic followers? That is a question for another essay on Paul and Christian morality.


Jillian Becker    December 22, 2011


[1] Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon

[2] 2 Cor 8:9

[3] 1 Cor 11:23-26

[4] Rom 15:15, 1 Cor 14:37, 1 Thess 4:2, 5:18

[5] Paul’s morality, but Jewish moral law remains in the background, with a shift of emphasis towards the sentimental, as in Rom 13:9

[6] 1 Cor 4:13

[7] Phili 2:3

[8] 1 Cor 4:10

[9] Rom 12:16

[10] 1 Thess 4:11, 1 Cor 4:12

[11] Rom 12:12-14

[12] 1 Thess  5:16,18

[13] Phili 2:3

[14] 1 Thess 4:9 , Rom 13:8, 1 Cor 13

[15] Phili 2:15

[16] Phili 2:16

[17] Rom 12:12

[18] Rom 12:14, 1 Cor 4:12

[19] 1 Thess 5:15, 1 Cor 4:12-13

[20] Rom 5:3

[21] 1 Thess 5:16-18, Rom 5:3

[22] Rom 12:19-21

[23] Rom 13:1-5

[24] Rom 13:6

[25] 1Cor 14:34,35

[26] 1 Cor 7:1-9.

[27] 1 Cor 4: 6 & 11:1

[28] 2 Cor 8:1-7 & 9:5-13, 1 Cor 16:1-3

[29] 1 Thess 2:9

[30] Rom 12:12

[31] 1 Thess 5:8, Rom 13:13

[32] 1 Cor 6:18

[33] 1 Thess 4:11,12

[34] 1 Thess 5:14

[35] 2 Cor 8:14, Rom 12:13

[36] 1 Cor 6:20