It is very common to think of Paul as a Christian. After all, so much of what is called Christian is based on his teachings which are a part of the Scriptures all Christians recognize. But surprisingly Paul did not actually refer to himself as a Christian. That is a misnomer. Defending himself before procurator Felix Paul he said the following:
“I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Torah and that is written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14 NASB).
“The Way” was the name of the movement that the Jewish Apostle mentioned. Standing before another a council, Paul identified himself as “a Pharisee, son of Pharisees”. Surprisingly in this passage, he does not say he was Christian who once used to be a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Paul implied that he was still a Pharisee. Defending himself before King Agrippa Paul insisted that he always “lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect” (Acts 26:5). Once again Paul says he was a Pharisee! Was he trying to mislead the king? Did he lie to the council in Acts 23:6? The Apostle spoke these words long after his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Somone may argue that Paul lied, others will insist that he told the truth. But one thing is clear, Paul does not call himself a Christian in the New Testament.
Of course, Paul was a follower of Christ. There is no dispute about that. But for some stubborn reason, he constantly chose to identify himself over and over with his Jewish heritage, even calling himself a Pharisee. There were groups of Jews in various cities across the Mediterranean who followed Jesus, but they also never thought of themselves as a separate religion and identified themselves as “The Way”. In fact, it is also common to hear that before Paul became a follower of Christ he persecuted Christians. But Acts 9:1-2 the text says he persecuted “The Way”.
“Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1-2 NASB)
Does it make a difference what we call it “Christianity” or “The Way”? To a serious student of the Bible, it does. And historical accuracy is very important when speaking of antiquity and reading the Scriptures! Even in the city of Ephesus Paul proclaimed the teachings of “The Way” in the Synagogue (Acts 19:9) and the disturbance that occurred there had to do with the teachings of “The Way” not Christianity. Paul preached the gospel (the good news) of Messiah, but he never preached “Christianity”.
If this sounds strange, its because we are used to seeing the world from our contemporary point of view. For many people today the gospel and Christianity are one and the same. That is how they encounter these ideas in their modern lives. In fact its hard for them to imagine one without the other. Everyone knows that pickles go with olives, bread goes with butter and cheese is paired up with crackers. This is intuitive, but only in some cultures and only today, not 300 years ago. To a historian, Church and Christianity are post-gospel developments.
There was no Church in the gospels. There was no Christianity as an organized religious institution when Paul was alive. And by the way, the same can be said of Judaism. Judaism as an organized religion also did not yet exist. There was no unified system called Judaism yet. In fact, Ἰουδαϊσμός (iudaismos) mentioned in Gal 1:4 should probably be translated “Jewish way of life” not Judaism.
In the 1st century, there was Paganism and also Hellenism – the Greek way of life and the universal practice of recognizing many divinities. Of course opposite of paganism there was a Jewish way of life and Israelite culture. But Judaism – Ἰουδαϊσμός (iudaismos) in the 1st century should be understood as ethnic, familial, religious and cultural affiliation which demanded loyalty to one God of Israel and was expressed in a specific list of practices and lifestyle.
What about Christians? Yes, that term already existed in the 1st century. In Acts 26:28 King Agrippa accused Paul of wanting to make him into a Christian. The author of Acts 11:25 tells us that many non-Jews embraced the good news as Jews from Cyrene proclaimed salvation it in Antioch. And these non-Jews were called Christians. Peter also uses this term in his sobering teaching:
“…to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.” (1 Peter 4:13-16)
In its earliest form the term Χριστιᾱνός (christianos) “Christian” or a Christ-follower, was the very politically-loaded term, affirming one’s loyalty to the Jewish Christ, rather than to Caesar and the gods of Rome. It was tied to Israel and Israel’s God. Most Christians today do not see the term from such a national or political perspective. No doubt as people spread the good news of Messiah’s sacrifice beyond the Jewish circles and more non-Jews embraced this teaching, the term came into more frequent and broader use. The Situation has changed. Now it is well-known and common and few people have heard of “The Way”
So, was Paul a Christian? Maybe… But not in his own words. As a Jew Paul’s loyalties to God and Israel were clear. He did not need another name to show his belonging to Christ since Messiah was a thoroughly Jewish concept already. Perhaps, being a Jew and a Pharisee who followed the Messiah was enough for Paul.