Spartacus Blog

Did St Paul and St Augustine betray the teachings of Jesus?

John Simkin

While undergoing renovation and restoration, the roof of Notre-Dame cathedral caught fire on the evening of 15th April 2019. Burning for around 15 hours, it sustained serious damage. After years of preaching the need to shrink the public sector, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, pledged to mobilise the full resources of the state to get the roofless cathedral rebuilt within just five years. In the next couple of days France's three wealthiest families, multi-billionaires behind luxury giants LVMH Group, Kering and L'Oreal pledged a combined €500 million ($565 million) to the fund. (1)

As Aditya Chakrabortty has pointed out: "A billionaire class that shrieked at the wealth taxes of the former president François Hollande is happy to stump up whatever it takes now. A politician, Emmanuel Macron, who has repeatedly told the poor they must live on less and the workers that they must give more to bosses, now plays at being a national leader... Of course, we would prefer private millions to be pulled out from under goose-feather pillows and spent on public works. But we should also be asking why it takes an almighty conflagration to force this to happen; and why those generous donors are so averse to giving their money to democratically chosen priorities, which is what taxes represent. If the ultra-rich can chuck in so many millions of euros for a building, then what stops them ending hunger and poverty?" Soon after these announcements it was suggested that that all such donations should receive a 90% tax deduction. "In other words, the French public should pay for most of its beloved billionaires’ generosity." (2)

The following morning the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, was interviewed about the fire on Radio 4 Today's programme. John Humphrys asked him what Jesus Christ would have made of these generous donations to rebuild a cathedral when the same men were unwilling to help the poor. After a short embarrassing silence the Archbishop replied: "I think both can be done. There is enough food in the world to feed everybody, but not enough food for our individual greed, so I still want to say the building should be restored into its former glory, but the people who’ve been very generous should realise there are a lot of children in the world who are starving and we have the ability to feed everybody. So it’s not either or, for me it’s both.” (3)

It is noticeable that on the issue of poverty leaders of the established Church are rarely willing to refer to the teachings of Jesus. It is not surprising that when he was asked that question he did not think of Gospel of St Matthew where Jesus said: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Jesus suggested that those who kept their wealth for themselves would be punished: "Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (4)

Jesus criticized the emphasis placed on ownership of goods and property. According to the Gospel of St Luke, Jesus said "'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (5) He then goes on to say: "Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more." (6) It has been argued that Jesus' conception of God's kingdom - is a society based on love of others rather than self-centeredness and greed; an economy based on cooperation and consideration of others' needs rather than thoughtless competition." (7)

Jesus embraced the uncompromising egalitarianism of prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. He told his disciples: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you." (8) The vast majority of Jesus' pronouncements in the Gospels characterize the kingdom of God as an earthly reality. Jesus proclaims that God's kingdom will transform economic arrangements, as in his statement of class reversal, "many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”. (9) Jesus reiterated this truth in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, who complain that others, who did not work as long as they, were paid an equal amount. (10)

Church leaders today are much more likely to quote St Paul and St Augustine that the Four Gospels in explaining the Christian message. Karen Armstrong, argued in her book, The First Christian: St. Paul's Impact on Christianity (1983) that Paul's letters had betrayed "Christianity and ruined the original, loving teaching of Jesus. Paul is an apostle whom many love to hate: he has castigated as a misogynist, a supporter of slavery, a virulent authoritarian, and bitterly hostile to Jews and Judaism." (11)

Bartolomeo Montagna, Saint Paul (c. 1500)
Bartolomeo Montagna, Saint Paul (c. 1500)

It has been suggested that "Paul transformed Jesus' concern for collective social, economic, and political deliverance for his entire people into an obsession with the personal piety of individuals. Paul seems to have no room in his faith for thoughts of earthly freedom; it is heaven that holds his complete attention. For that reason, Jesus's central proclamation of the kingdom of God, which promises justice and deliverance on earth as in heaven, is all but nonexistent in Paul's writings." (12) When on the rare occasion he does refer to it, he reduces it to a matter of personal piety, where he warns that "neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts... will inherit the kingdom of God." (13)

In about 55 AD Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans. It is regarded as his masterpiece and the definitive summation of his theology. Paul explained he was the envoy of Jesus with a universal mission: "This gospel God announced beforehand in sacred scriptures through his prophets. It is about his Son; on the human level he was a descendant of David, but on the level of the spirit - the Holy Spirit - he was proclaimed Son of God by an act of power that raised him from the dead; it is about Jesus the Messiah, our Lord. Through him I received the privilege of an apostolic commission to bring people of all nations to faith and obedience in his name." (14)

Paul spoke of the apostolic commission bringing "people of all nations to pistis". The term appeared frequently on coins and inscriptions. When this word was applied to people, "pistis"meant the loyalty that subjects owed to the emperor. His "gospel" announced "the saving power of God for everyone who has faith... because in it, the justice of God is seen at work, beginning in faith and ending in faith." (15)

Philippe de Champaigne, Saint Paul (c. 1650)
Philippe de Champaigne, Saint Paul (c. 1650)

Paul then embarked on a scathing condemnation of the Romans: "They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." (16) This assault has been interpreted as a standard Jewish denunciation of the evils of the gentile world. However, a large number of non-Jewish writers and politicians agreed that Roman civilization was in moral decline. (17)

Paul finished by supporting those in authority: "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor." (18)

This is in stark contrast to Jesus view on tax collectors. It is also one of the things that divides him most strongly from the Judaean Jews, who for the most part were hostile to the Roman Empire. "Paul's respect for the empire made him urge not merely cooperation but positive support... He wanted to use the empire to further the gospel; thus the conversion of Sergius Paulus, a figure of the Roman establishment and Paul's first important Roman convert, would have been most significant for him. But it is also true that the conversion may well mark the first moment of Christianity's ultimate corruption, as Paul's mystical faith seeks entanglement with a political ruling class." (19)

Paul's defenders have pointed out that when Jesus was asked: "Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not. Should we pay or shouldn't we?" Jesus replied: "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." (20) Mark Dever, the author of God and Politics (2016), and much quoted by right-wing Christians in the United States, attempts to explain the point that Jesus is making: "As Christians, we believe that government is one of a number of enterprises that we can be involved in, that are not specifically Christian, but are good and even mediate the blessing of God to us... The Bible supports the implication of Jesus' exhortation here to pay for even non-Christian governments, because by the nature of what they do, governments are made to be good, to reflect God's own authority." Dever goes on to point out: "Utopian visions of politics or of nations always lead to tragedy. They always lead to tyranny and despotism and terrible distortions of God's will." (21)

Obery M. Hendricks, the author of The Politics of Jesus (2006) disagrees with this assessment. "A major reason for the lack of popular awareness of Jesus' political radically can be traced to the apostle Paul. He makes the point that as a Roman citizen "he was exempt from the economic pressures that weighed upon the people of Israel" and that he "did not grow up with the insecurity and fear that permeated the rural peasant culture in which Jesus spent his life." As a result "Paul's view of the political realities of life was very different from Jesus' perspective." (22)

St Augustine, another supporter of the political status quo, addressed the problem of inequality in his sermons. He told his followers that carrying too many possessions on the earthly pilgrimage is the result of being “weighed down by avarice,” which Augustine defined as “uncleanness of heart”. Avarice was the root of all evils. You see, he (Adam) wanted more than he had received, because God had not been enough for him.” (23) However, he quotes from the Bible that “If we must be avaricious, let us love him. If we desire wealth, let us desire him." (24)

Augustine was willing to defend the way wealthy people behaved towards the poor. Abuses of wealth in his society were so common that the poor may have believed it impossible for the rich to fulfill those conditions and live righteously. Yet Augustine warned the poor against judging the rich merely by the exterior signs of their wealth; they might be wealthy by accident of birth, but their devotion to God could rise above material attachments. Instead, he cautioned for even the poor to watch out for the desire for riches as Conservative politicians tell us, breeds envy: “What if as well as being poor you are also greedy, what if you’re both weighed down with want, and on fire with avarice? So if that’s the sort of person you are, whoever you are that are poor, it’s not that you have declined to be rich, but that you haven’t been able to be... God does not inspect your means, but your will. Consider what your heart is full of, not what your money box is empty of." (25).

In his The City of God, written between 412 and 427 AD, Augustine reinforces the idea of Christians supporting the authority of governments. This is reflected in his concept of the "just war". In doing so he has to ignore those aspects of the teachings of Jesus, that religious groups such as the Society of Friends (Quakers) and individuals like Martin Luther King, have been guided by in their faith. Love was central to the moral code taught by Jesus: "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." (26) "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven." (27)

It has been argued that Jesus's Sermon on the Mount is the essence of his political teaching. "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." (28)

Carl Bosch, Sermon on the Mount (1877)
Carl Bosch, Sermon on the Mount (1877)

It has been pointed out that Jesus was not advocating passivity: "Those to whom Jesus was speaking were not people with social or political power, but those who lacked it... Jesus is not making a general statement, he is speaking specifically to those whose social, economic, and political standing make them walking targets of humiliation and abusive power. And what he is telling his poor and powerless hearers is how to exercise power even when they are overpowered." (29)

Jesus urged his followers to use non-violence as a political tactic: "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?" (30) These people will deserve the highest honour: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (31)

After describing the horror of past wars Augustine argued: "If I attempted to give an adequate description of these manifold disasters, these stern and lasting necessities, though I am quite unequal to the task, what limit could I set? But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man's wrong-doing. Let every one, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery. And if any one either endures or thinks of them without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling." (32)

Augustine insisted that individuals should not resort immediately to violence, but quoting the teachings of St Paul, he justified the violence of the state: "For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." (33)

In Contra Faustum Manichaeum Augustine argues that Christians need not be ashamed to protect peace and punish wickedness when compelled to do so by a government. A just war is when it is: (i) a defensive war against an unprovoked aggression, where the consequences would be severe, chronic and certain; (ii) other means on repulsing the aggression have proved inefficient; (iii) the resistance have realistic chances to succeed the damage caused by the war are not greater than those which are intended to be prevented. (34)

Augustine approved self-defence when confronted with an unjust aggression. Nonetheless, he asserted, peacefulness in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a sin. Defense of one's self or others could be a necessity, especially when authorized by a legitimate authority: "However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, Thou shalt not kill." (35)

Whereas Jesus Christ questioned the values of his society, St Paul and St Augustine were both supporters of the status quo and accepted the authority of the Roman Empire. This of course has become an important aspect of the history of the Christian Church. It is why over the last 2,000 years the established Church has been willing to accept such things as slavery, sexism and racism and did little to question those in power to introduce fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, or the imposition of racial discrimination that took place in South Africa and the United States. Of course, those who really believed in the teachings of Jesus, were at the forefront on these struggles against these tyrannies. Unfortunately, they were in a minority as most Christian leaders, followed the tradition of St Paul and St Augustine, were willing to go along with those in power.

John Simkin (21st April, 2019)


(1) Julia Horowitz, CNN Business (17th April, 2019)

(2) Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian (18th April, 2019)

(3) Sara C Nelson, Huffington Post (17th April, 2019)

(4) Gospel of St Matthew (19:21-24)

(5) Gospel of St Luke (12:15)

(6) Gospel of St Luke (12:48)

(7) Obery M. Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus (2006) page 168

(8) Gospel of St Matthew (20:25-26)

(9) Gospel of St Matthew (19:30)

(10) Gospel of St Matthew (20:16)

(11) Karen Armstrong, St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle (2015) page 48

(12) Obery M. Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus (2006) page 85

(13) First Epistle to the Corinthians (6:9-10)

(14) Epistle to the Romans (1:2-5)

(15) Epistle to the Romans (1:16-17)

(16) Epistle to the Romans (1:27-30)

(17) Karen Armstrong, St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle (2015) page 101

(18) Epistle to the Romans (13: 1-7)

(19) Karen Armstrong, The First Christian: St. Paul's Impact on Christianity (1983) page 73

(20) Gospel of St. Mark (12:15-17)

(21) Mark Dever, God and Politics (2016) pages 24-25 and 55

(22) Obery M. Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus (2006) pages 80-81

(23) Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 177 (c. AD 400)

(24) Psalm 103:5 (1034 BC)

(25) Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 60 (c. AD 400)

(26) Gospel of St John (13:34-35)

(27) Gospel of St Matthew (5:43-45)

(28) Gospel of St Matthew (5:38-41)

(29) Obery M. Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus (2006) page 168

(30) Gospel of St Matthew (26:52-54)

(31) Gospel of St Matthew (5:9)

(32) Augustine of Hippo, The City of God (412-427 AD) Book XIX: Chapter VII

(33) Epistle to the Romans (13:3-4)

(34) Augustine of Hippo, Contra Faustum Manichaeum (c. 400 AD) Book XXII: Chapters 69-76

(35) Augustine of Hippo, The City of God (412-427 AD) Book II: Chapter XXI

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