It’s difficult to find a more influential person in the history of Christianity than Paul. There wouldn’t be such a thing as Christianity without Jesus, but it’s doubtful whether anyone would know about Jesus if it weren’t for Paul. Originally Saul of Tarsus, he was a tent-maker by profession, a Pharisee by training, and a Christian evangelist by divine calling. The story of how he converted from one of the most notorious persecutors of the new religion to its most fervent adherent is quite well-known. While riding his donkey on the road to Damascus, he saw a flash of light and heard the voice of Jesus.
Well, at least he THOUGHT he heard the voice of Jesus. As a skeptic, I find it more likely that he had a hallucination based partially on an attack of conscience (after all, it just HAPPENED to be the founder of the group Saul was persecuting that talked to him), but I guess there’s no way to know for sure. While the book of Acts suggests that he was pretty much immediately accepted by the other disciples, other evidence gives the impression that he disagreed with them on some key issues. And since Paul was better at getting the message out, his form of Christianity became accepted over that of the people who had known Jesus personally. In a way, this isn’t too surprising. Although Paul was originally a Pharisee, which meant he believed in strict adherence to the Jewish law, he decided that the death of Jesus had freed his followers from the law. As such, it was perfectly fine for a Gentile to become a Christian without becoming a Jew first. Accepting Jesus was the important part, not getting circumcised or keeping kosher. As such, I can see why Gentiles were more open to Paul’s interpretation. “Hmm, get part of my penis chopped off or just believe that Jesus saves from sin. Yeah, I think I’m going with the second one.”
Before his conversion, Saul of Tarsus was apparently a devastating foe of the early Christians, putting his encyclopedic knowledge of the scriptures to use to refute their claim that Jesus could have been the Messiah. Saul’s persecution of the first Christians involved his marshaling all of the same passages that Ben-Judah was supposed to have studied here in order to disprove that claim.
Later, of course, Saul famously changed his mind. But his mind was not changed due to his studying the scriptures. Indeed, once he changed his mind, he began to radically reinterpret those scriptures because his new beliefs required that he do so. But what changed Saul’s mind wasn’t the prophecies about the Messiah, it was his personal encounter with the risen Jesus.
I think this is an important point to the would-be evangelists who insist that Christianity must be true because Jesus fulfills so many of the messianic prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures. Because, really, I don’t think there’s much evidence that he does. A lot of what these Christians (including the authors of the Gospels) considered prophecies weren’t originally intended that way, and authors disagree on how some of the genuine prophecies were fulfilled. (Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem before moving to Nazareth. No, wait, they were only there as part of a census that was run in a bizarre fashion.) Also, the stuff about the Suffering Servant most likely was never identified with the coming Messiah until AFTER Jesus had died. It seems more likely to me that people were FIRST attracted to Jesus and his message, and THEN thought of ways he could fit the messianic prophecies. This definitely appears to have been the case with Paul.