One of the most unlikely candidates for biblical scholarship is the modern cynic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, St. Paul’s fiercest denigrator. Nietzsche describes in uncompromising terms the corruptive effect Paul had on Jesus’ legacy in his penultimate work The Anti-Christ; a book so controversial that the 1999 edition was the first reprinting by a mainstream press of the original 1920 English translation. But, contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche was not anti Jesus. In H. L. Mencken’s introduction to The Anti-Christ, he claims that it was not Nietzsche’s intention in writing it to destroy Christianity; to ‘rob the plain people of the world of their virtue, their spiritual consolations, and their hope of heaven’. What Nietzsche challenged was ‘the elevation of those beliefs . . . to the dignity of a state philosophy’. A view upheld by his sister Elizabeth who acknowledged that, in spite of his hostile remarks towards Christianity, Nietzsche had a great admiration for the elevating effect that it had on the weak and the ailing, and a tender love for the Founder of Christianity (referring to Jesus not Paul).
Son and grandson of Lutheran ministers, what incensed Nietzsche was the way in which Paul had transformed Jesus into the Christ figure in order to promote his own perverted brand of religion. For Nietzsche, the whole history of Christianity, from the death on the cross onward, is the history of a misunderstanding of an original symbolism, replaced by a hostility to all of the great values of the past. What Nietzsche attempts to do is free Jesus from Saint Paul's dogmas: ‘a levelling, suffocating, hypocritical morality, they say is contrary to life, to the creative impulse, to the heroism of culture, protecting the weakness and mediocrity of the throng at the expense of the individual’.
If it had been possible for Paul to promote the idea of a Christian god, Nietzsche found it incredible that two thousand years had come and gone and we had not invented for ourselves a single new god! He criticised us for not having had the courage to confront the moral dogmas that have been passed on from one generation to the next and he challenged the belief that equates strong moral convictions with virtue. He substitutes the popular saying ‘to have the courage of one’s convictions,’ for one that would free us from received morality: ‘to have the courage to attack one’s convictions’, as for Nietzsche, ‘convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.’ And here we have the lie to popular characterisations of Nietzsche the atheist and Nietzsche the nihilist. Georges Bataille describes him as the atheist who bothers about God, because he recognised that, ‘not existing, the place that God left vacant laid all things open to destruction.’ The charge of nihilism often directed at Nietzsche is most likely to come from those who regard him as a destroyer of all things ‘decent’ and ‘sacred’ –in particular Christian moral values. Yet it is precisely this charge that Nietzsche directs against the clergy themselves: ‘that Nihilist, with his bowels of Christian dogmatism, regarded pleasure as an objection’. People are destroyed, says Nietzsche, by having to work, think and feel without inner necessity. Without any deep personal desire or pleasure, humans are simply mere automatons of duty and become ‘idiots’, devoid of personal integrity.
Nietzsche’s writing is full of such paradoxes, an ‘atheist’ who acknowledges the importance of God and a ‘nihilist’ who in the apparent act of annihilating Christianity, idealises with equal passion (ignoring some of its excesses and barbarity) the imperium Romanum. If these tensions are an intentional irony: a strategy to reinforce his cynicism, then they work well. Far then from being anti-Christ, Nietzsche was anti-Christianity.
Nietzsche’s most bitter condemnation is reserved for St. Paul in whom he singularly places the blame for the original corruption of Jesus’ philosophy. What is clear from reading his work, is that Nietzsche despised those who perverted Christianity in order to establish their own priestly control, instilling values and aims for the religion which Jesus had not intended. Nietzsche accuses Paul of nailing Christ to his own cross. Paul left nothing of the life, the example, the teaching, the meaning and the law of the whole gospels: ‘that counterfeiter in hatred had reduced it to his uses . . . he simply struck out the yesterday and the day before yesterday of Christianity, and invented his own history of Christian beginnings.’ Paul had no real use for the life of Jesus ‘what he needed was the death on the cross’ he willed the end and therefore also willed the means. But what he really wanted, claimed Nietzsche, was power: he took from Jesus, those concepts, teachings and symbols that served the purpose of establishing priestly tyranny over the masses and organising mobs.
To achieve his goals, Paul needed more than the death on the cross, what he needed was the resurrection. This was the ultimate weapon of control in Paul’s armoury. It served to enslave Christians with guilt and self-loathing during their life on earth, in the hope of achieving salvation after death!–‘the most contemptible of all unfulfilable promises, the shameless doctrine of personal immortality’. Paul’s central dogma of Christianity was cleverly underpinned with one of its most irresistible claims: that God sacrificed his only son for us in forgiveness of our sins. ‘Sacrifice for sin, and in its most obnoxious and barbarous form: sacrifice of the innocent for the sins of the guilty!’
The whole mythology surrounding Jesus dying on the cross ‘for us’ was just one example of Paul’s mission to create Christianity as a new bricolage religion with a world appeal. The technique was to appropriate at will elements of Jewish, Greek and any other tradition that suited Paul’s purpose. It is the symbolism surrounding events such as the resurrected Christ that has become the defining importance of Pauline Christianity. In focussing on such events, Paul swept aside the importance of Jesus’ teachings in order to emphasise a narrative based on symbolic events. The term “christ” itself, from the Greek to smear or anoint with oil (together with its Jewish connotation of a royal or priestly anointment) emphasises the creation and existence of a messiah rather than an earthly teacher or sage. Paul’s Christ cult worked as a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic movement. Greek speaking and drawing on Greek traditions of human sacrifice, the idea that Christ died for them on the cross was a notion that would have been abhorrent in traditional Jewish culture where human sacrifice was taboo. In the same way, the idea of resurrection from the dead would have been an anathema to the Hellenes, who viewed death as a final and often positive event; whether natural, in battle or even a planned suicide. Neither the Greek, Jewish, Samaritan or Galilaean traditions on their own could have engineered such a fantastic project, the brilliance of Paul’s mission was to create a myth that would appeal to and unite all these cultures.
That Paul’s fairy tale world is big enough today to allow millions of apparently sane and rational human beings to drive off in their cars every morning and work in universities, laboratories, banks and other businesses around the world, yet calmly sit in their gothic temples on a Sunday and engage in bizarre rights and rituals to the worship of a supernatural God, his risen son from a virgin birth, and a holy ghost, should set off some serious alarm bells. Whoever the real Jesus was, it would appear from the earliest descriptions of his teachings that he would not have identified with Christianity today, and would have been devastated by the abominations carried out in his name. Leaving aside all of the genocidal horrors committed over the centuries by Christian against non-Christian and rival Christian sects, the image of fat bishops in purple robes and gold chains just does not sit comfortably with Jesus the ascetic sage entreating his followers to abandon money, possessions and a roof over their head for a life of hardship and prayer.