In a recent blogpost, “Born of a Woman”: Paul’s Perfect Victim and the Historical Jesus, Joseph Hoffmann argued that as early as the 50s C.E. the apostle Paul was so disturbed by gossip about Jesus being born of an adulterous relationship that he had a “need to deal with it” in his letter to the Galatians. And that’s why he wrote in chapter 4 verse 4
. . . . when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law . . . .
It is easy to dismiss his explanation as “not persuasive” or “speculative” but it is also important, I think, to be able to put one’s finger on precisely why a proposition is “not persuasive” or insubstantial. The effort of thinking it through may even lead one to appreciate that perhaps there is more to the argument than first appears on the surface. But even if one finds nothing of value in it, the exercise of examining it methodically can only be a good thing. Scoffing, saying something is bunk or absurd, relying on a vague feeling that something is “not persuasive”, are cheap substitutes for argument.
So primarily for my own benefit I undertook to examine methodically Hoffmann’s view of Galatians 4:4. The post became very long so I have no illusions that it will be read by anyone except obsessive-compulsive personality types.
I will discuss the points of Hoffmann’s argument in the order he presents them.
But before he offers his own explanation he curiously asserts that “mythicists have a special antipathy” for this verse. I am sure this charge is news to (erstwhile) mythicist G. A. Wells, for whom Hoffmann once wrote a foreword (The Jesus Legend). Aren’t most mythical persons understood to have been born of women? A couple of Greek characters were born from father Zeus directly — one from his thigh and another from his head. Some Egyptian myths have hermaphrodites giving birth. But these are the exceptions. The family trees of mythical persons being born of women in Greek, Roman and a host of other cultures are labyrinthine.
Likewise Earl Doherty has written that the concept of Christ “coming into existence” or “being made” from a woman was surely derived the same way Paul says he acquired all his other information about Christ — from revelation, in particular revelation from the scriptures (Isaiah 7:14).
And don’t forget the Book of Revelation’s depiction of a woman giving birth in heaven. Indeed, one of the themes in the letter to the Galatians itself is the contrast between Jews who have a mundane birth and those they persecute who had a different kind of birth.
So let’s move on to Hoffmann’s actual arguments. He begins by establishing the security of the passage.
No serious suggestion of interpolation?
. . . . there is no serious suggestion that it is interpolated or “unoriginal” to the letter.
The first time I was introduced to the plausibility of a case for interpolation was some years ago when I read Bart Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. In that book Ehrman does not argue for interpolation but what he does say certainly opens the door to its possibility.
For the orthodox, Jesus’ real humanity was guaranteed by the fact that he was actually born, the miraculous circumstances surrounding that birth notwithstanding. This made the matter of Jesus’ nativity a major bone of contention between orthodox Christians and their docetic opponents. Marcion, as we have seen, denied Jesus’ birth and infancy altogether. In response, Irenaeus could ask, “Why did He acknowledge Himself to be the Son of man, if He had not gone through that birth which belongs to a human being?” (Adv. Haer. IV, 33, 2). The question is echoed by Tertullian, who cites a number of passages that mention Jesus’ “mother and brothers” and asks why, on general principles, it is harder to believe “that flesh in the Divine Being should rather be unborn than untrue?” (Adv. Marc. Ill, 11).
In light of this orthodox stand, it is not surprising to find the birth of Christ brought into greater prominence in texts used by the early polemicists. I can cite two instances. In both cases one could argue that the similarity of the words in question led to an accidental corruption. But it should not be overlooked that both passages proved instrumental in the orthodox insistence on Jesus’ real birth, making the changes look suspiciously useful for the conflict. In Galatians 4:4, Paul says that God “sent forth his Son, come from a woman, come under the law” (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναῖκος, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον). The verse was used by the orthodox to oppose the Gnostic claim that Christ came through Mary “as water through a pipe,” taking nothing of its conduit into itself; for here the apostle states that Christ was “made from a woman” (so Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. Ill, 22, 1, and Tertullian, de came Christi, 20). Irenaeus also uses the text against docetists to show that Christ was actually a man, in that he came from a woman (Adv. Haer. V, 21, 1). It should strike us as odd that Tertullian never quotes the verse against Marcion, despite his lengthy demonstration that Christ was actually “born.” This can scarcely be attributed to oversight, and so is more likely due to the circumstance that the generally received Latin text of the verse does not speak of Christ’s birth per se, but of his “having been made” (factum ex muliere).
Given its relevance to just such controversies, it is no surprise to see that the verse was changed on occasion, and in precisely the direction one might expect: in several Old Latin manuscripts the text reads: misit deus filium suum, natum ex muliere (“God sent his Son, born of a woman”), a reading that would have proved useful to Tertullian had he known it. Nor is it surprising to find the same change appear in several Greek witnesses as well, where it is much easier to make, involving the substitution of γεννώμενον for γενόμενον (K f1 and a number of later minuscules). (Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 238-239, my highlighting. — The second instance Ehrman addresses is found in Romans 1:3-4)
Ehrman’s surmise that Tertullian overlooked the passage because his version spoke of “being made of a woman” rather than “being born of a woman” strikes me with underwhelming force. Did not Ehrman just explain that the concept of “having been made from a woman” was even weightier than “having been born from a woman” since the latter allowed for a docetic or gnostic vision of Jesus slipping hermetically sealed through the body of Mary and into the world? Have not some scholars suggested that “made from a woman” may have been a deliberate counterpart to Eve being “made from” — not born — from Adam?
Although Ehrman does not argue for interpolation he nonetheless has given us:
- potential motive for interpolation (christological disputes)
- potential evidence for interpolation (Tertullian’s “odd” failure to quote the passage)
Surely we should add a third point here that opens the door onto interpolation just a little wider and that is alluded to by Hoffmann himself:
As it is generally agreed that Paul has no special interest in arguing any particular doctrine about the birth of Jesus, this single phrase is unparalleled in his genuine letters.
Earl Doherty has written up a statistical survey of Paul’s uses of the various words translated as “born” and demonstrated that uniqueness of the expression and context of Galatians 4:4. Although this was not part of an argument for interpolation I would think that the uniqueness of the Greek expression in Paul’s letters does tilt the question of authenticity another notch towards interpolation.
Paul needed to address the rumour that Jesus was a mamzer?
|(Mamzer: In the English use of the word, a child neither born nor begotten in lawful wedlock; an illegitimate child. There is no Hebrew word of like meaning. The mamzer, rendered “bastard” in the A. V., is something worse than an illegitimate child. . . . Jewish Encyclopedia)|
So when Hoffmann argues that Paul felt a need to address a scandalous rumour about the circumstances of the birth of Jesus, we naturally wonder how it might be that Paul would be content to “deal with” this rumour so tangentially (and only once) in a passage contrasting liberating spiritual works with subjection to material customs and rituals. Hoffmann does have an answer to this that we will examine shortly.
Till then, note the situation facing Paul according to Hoffmann:
By the fifties of the first century, Paul’s Jewish opposition included the well-known slander that Jesus himself was illegitimate, that his mother had been a prostitute.
A single verse, “God sent his son made from a woman under the law”, said by Hoffmann to be a digression from Paul’s main theme, does not indicate that Paul considered the rumour all that much to worry about. A mere “by the way” remark would suffice to scotch the rumour supposedly doing the rounds that Jesus was a bastard? And this nonchalance in a letter where he dedicates two chapters to squashing a rumour that he owed his apostleship to Jerusalem authorities?
Hoffmann later refers to this light response of Paul to such a rumour as “almost spasmodic”. Why such a low-key response? Why no outraged polemic?
The answer, to Hoffmann’s way of thinking (hopefully I have understood him correctly), is that Paul only knew the Jewish side of the rumour — presumably he knew no other counterclaim by way of historical tradition. The reason Paul objected to the unsavoury report was that it conflicted with his theological need for sacrificial victim who was perfect according to the Jewish law. That is, the sacrifice had to be born according to the law and not outside the law.
Hoffmann does not raise the obvious question that follows from his reconstruction. Why on earth did Paul exalt one he only knew to have had an illegitimate birth to the status of divine saviour if all he could muster against that common Jewish understanding was nothing more than his own theological belief that it must not be so?
But what does the evidence itself say? Which came first? The son of a harlot or the son of a virgin?
The most plausible explanations for the Talmud innuendo
|One needs “formal training” in biblical studies in higher institutes of learning in order to be able to write seriously that bad puns are a plausible criterion for historicity.|
According to Frank Zindler:
Even scholars who believe in the historicity of Jesus generally agree that even if the so-and-so of our passage
[m. Yebam. 4:13: Rabbi Shim'on ben 'Azzai said, "I have found a scroll of genealogies in Jerusalem; thereon was written: "That so-and-so . . . is a bastard [mamzar] born of an adulteress’; to confirm the words of Rabbi Yehoshua.”]
refers to Jesus, it cannot be accepted as an actual primary witness of his historicity, for the simple fact that the mamzer reference would have to be a reaction to an already developed theological doctrine, viz., the dogma of the virgin birth. That would put the passage as later than the edition of the Gospel of Matthew that first contained the genealogy of Jesus as traced through Joseph.†
At earliest, the passage would date to the time the genealogy in Matthew was altered to allow for addition of the virgin-birth tale [Matt 1:18-25].
Furthermore, since the first rabbinical contacts almost certainly were with Jewish Christians such as the Ebionites and Nazoreans — who generally did not subscribe to the pagan notion that gods might occasionally couple with human females — and not the Hellenized Christians who used gospels such as those now found in the Greek New Testament, it must have been quite late before the rabbis would have had occasion to retort to Greek idiosyncrasies. By just about anybody’s reckoning, that would have been far beyond the time of any eye witnesses to Jesus himself.
† An early Syrian manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew, known as the Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus, still preserves a genealogy in which Joseph is the father of Jesus. It makes it clear that the canonical gospels went through a three-stage evolution:
- (1) No ancestry or birth origin given for Jesus (as in the present gospels of Mark and John);
- (2) Adding a genealogy of Jesus traced through Joseph back at least to David to establish his messianic potential;
- and (3) Adding an account of a virgin birth and altering the previously invented genealogy to be compatible with it.
(The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, pp. 113-115, my formatting)
Such a model — from no ancestry, to a Davidic ancestry, to a virgin birth — offers the simplest explanation for the name of Mary’s paramour being a pun on the word “virgin”. The “Panther/Pandira” pun necessarily appears in response to the doctrine of the virgin birth. As Hoffmann earlier wrote:
The most plausible explanation of the name Ben Pandira (Pandera, Pantira) is that the Greek panthera (panther) was a pun on the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of a virgin (Greek, parthenos). (Jesus Outside the Gospels, p. 42, my emphasis. Hoffmann ventures to opine, without reference to any contrary evidence, that “since the pun is such a poor one we cannot rule out the possibility that there is a kernel of historical truth to the tradition that Jesus’ real father was known as Pandira.” (One needs to undergo “formal training” in biblical studies in higher institutes of learning in order to be able to write seriously that bad puns are a plausible criterion for historicity, even for historicity of an event supposedly occurring 150 years earlier.)
But note that the virgin birth narrative is not found in Paul. Nor does it appear in the earliest Gospel (Mark). The evidence we have testifies that it was not known until the late first century at the earliest — though recall that the earliest version of Matthew does not appear to know of the teaching either. So the available evidence is against the virgin birth being known as early as the time of Paul. We first encounter the Pandera response to it in Origen‘s writings against the Jewish critic of Christianity, Celsus.
The gossip about Mary
|If the evidence for our hypothesis is not there then, as long as one has had the specialist training, one is free to say, without further rationale, that the evidence we do have is an attempt to hide the evidence that is missing.|
Hoffmann next considers the gossip about Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom he suspects was really Mary Magdalene.
The basis of this surmise is that
clues concerning the “multiple Mary” conundrum of the gospels might be found in seeing the confusion as an effort to write around (or write out) the tradition that it was Jesus’ mother rather than a woman acquaintance—Mary Magdalene—who had the scarlet reputation (keeping in view that the floating tradition of the woman taken in adultery, usually assigned to Luke, is unnamed).
If the evidence for our hypothesis is not there then one is free to say, without further rationale, that the evidence we do have is an attempt to hide the evidence that is missing. Alternative hypotheses that draw on the evidence that is available — that the evangelist was drawing together conflicting literary traditions (see “What was Matthew struggling over?” below) — is not considered.
One does have to admire the courage of a scholar who can advance such baseless speculation — fed largely from Talmudic passages centuries later and that arguably never originally referred to Jesus or his parents at all — as worthy of serious contemplation. Again, one requires specialist training in New Testament scholarly studies to appreciate the gravitas of such a hypothesis.
He appears to draw upon the Catholic Encyclopedia when he writes that the Talmud itself testifies that Magdala (the hometown of Mary, presumably the same mother of Jesus) was notorious for the immorality of its inhabitants, although Hoffmann narrows this travel advice down by gender to “notorious for the looseness of the lives of its women.” He does not provide a Talmudic source for this assertion and I have not been able to track one down yet, either. Nor does he refer to any evidence that Magdala back then was even a Galilean toponym, another detail I have never been able to verify.
Examining and evaluating two Talmud passages
|The Talmud from the land of Jesus and his earliest disciples contains not a single reference to Jesus the Nazarene or his disciples.|
Hoffmann refers to a couple of passages from “the Talmud” that are widely thought to be about Jesus. However, it is worth noting the distinction between the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds whenever they are used in a discussion of Jesus and early Christianity in order to avoid the mistake of thinking there was a singular Jewish tradition supposedly about Jesus.
- The Palestinian Talmud is generally thought to have been completed around 395 C.E. As Frank Zindler points out, this Talmud, from the land of Jesus and his earliest disciples contains not a single reference to Jesus the Nazarene or his disciples.
- The Babylonian Talmud is variously said to have been completed one or two centuries later. It is only in this Iraqi set of documents that we find the name that has been identified as a reference to Christianity’s Jesus.
Surely this state of the Talmudic evidence for our Jesus is not what we would have expected if the Jesus traditions originated in Palestine.
Five to six centuries after the narrated time of Jesus the rabbis of Iraq apparently created various (and conflicting) biographies of Jesus just as the Christians were supposed to have done centuries earlier. Their lives of Jesus varied even more than those we find in the canonical Gospels.
- One Talmudic (Babylonian) Jesus lived around 100 B.C.E. in the time of Alexander Jannaeus. (Bishop Epiphanius seems to have known the same source for this datum and likewise dated Jesus 100 B.C.E. This belief was all perfectly natural and in accord with Bible prophecy that made it clear that the Jewish kings would cease to reign when the Christ appeared. Alexander Jannaeus was overthrown by the Roman general Ptolemy.)
- Another Jesus lived 100 years “after Christ” and was hanged in Lydda instead of being crucified in Jerusalem.
- The rabbis also gave “Jesus” a certain parentage and birth legend quite different from those in our Gospels. One Jesus was allowed five disciples.
|The lateness of the manuscripts prevents us from knowing if any of the “Jesus” references originated with the earliest edition or were inserted much later.|
This topic is a large one so I will only discuss here to the two Talmudic passages Hoffmann mentions in his blogpost.
b. Shabbat 104b: “HE WHO CUTS UPON HIS FLESH.” (i.e. the passage being discussed in the following. . . .)
It is a tradition that Rabbi Eliezer said to the Wise, “Did not Ben Stada bring spells from Egypt in a cut which was upon his flesh?” They said to him, “He was a fool, and they do not bring a proof from a fool.” Ben Stada is Ben Pandira. Rab. Hisda [217-309 CE] said, “The husband was Stada, the paramour was Pandira.” The husband was Pappos ben Jehudah,* the mother was Stada. The mother was Miriam the dresser of women’s hair, as we say in Pumbeditha, “Such a one has been false to her husband.”
* Pappos ben Jehudah lived a century after the time of the Gospel’s Jesus, so those who identify Jesus with either Ben Stada or Ben Pandira must place Jesus around 100 CE.
b. Sanhedrin 67a: . . . . And thus they did to Ben Stada in Lydda, and they hanged him on the eve of Passover. Ben Stada was Ben Padira [sic]. R. Hisda said: The husband was Stada, the paramour Pandira. But was not the husband Pappos b. Judah? — His mother’s name was Stada. But his mother was Miriam, a dresser of women’s hair? (. . . megaddela neshayia):- As they say in Pumbaditha, This woman has turned away from her husband, (i.e. committed adultery).
It is the rumours reported in these passages that Hoffmann suggests were circulating among the Jews and churches known to Paul in the 50s C.E. He does not explain how setting for this rumour is to be reconciled with the Talmudic setting of 100 C.E. and with this “Jesus” being hanged, not crucified, in Lydda.
Contrast the critical evaluation of Frank Zindler of these and related passages. He compares the two passages above along with another, b. Sanhedrin 43a, that introduces the name Yeshu the Nazarean.
Now that the passages relating Ben Pandira to Ben Stada have been examined, we can proceed to try to figure out their meaning and significance. The reader will note, first of all, that neither the Shabbat nor Sanhedrin passages mention Yeshu or Yeshua’ at all: they deal exclusively with the names Pandira, Stada, and Miriam. The Christians’ Jesus comes to mind simply because of the tradition that his mother too was named Miriam (Mary) and that he was executed (but not hanged!) on the eve of the Sabbath – which, according to John 19:31, was also the eve of Passover.
It cannot be doubted, however, that the substitution of Yeshu – and then Yeshu ha-Notzri – for Ben Stada in Sanh. 43a was done by scribes who had come to believe that Ben Stada was actually the Jesus whom the Christians had elevated to godhood. (It seems to me highly unlikely that the original version of this passage made any mention of Yeshu, given its great similarity with the Ben Stada passage Sanh. 67a.) Of course, there is an embarrassing problem in identifying Jesus with the ben Stada of Sanh. 67a. Jesus is supposed to have been crucified in Jerusalem, not hanged in Lydda – a town 23 miles NW of Jerusalem!
How could rabbis writing at least as late as the fifth century of the common era have made such a mistake? It would seem impossible that they should have been ignorant of such basic Christian ‘facts’ at a time when Christianity was thriving so conspicuously. The answer, I believe, lies in the likelihood that rabbis living in Babylon (Iraq) probably had little interaction with adherents of the ‘Great Church’ which had achieved theological and political hegemony in the core regions of the Roman Empire but had not been able to supplant early competitors still thriving in the imperial periphery. As late as the time of Mohammed [570-632 CE], holdout primitive forms of Christianity were the only sects known in Asiatic regions outside the realm of the Great Church. The New Testament gospel traditions we take for granted may have been completely unknown or at least sparsely disseminated in regions such as Iraq and Arabia. Instead, gospels now lost and differing sharply from our canonical gospels* may have been the main source of Christian information available to Babylonian rabbis and Mohammed alike. (It is unlikely that they would actually have read any of these gospels, but would have learned their details from frequent discussion and disputation with local Christians who used them as scripture.)
Even though the actual interpolation of the Pandira/Stada discussion into the Talmud Gemara must have been quite late, it may nevertheless have been conditioned by traditions going back to a period even earlier than the time when the canonical gospels were concocted. Potentially, it might provide information on the process by which the Jesus biography coalesced from the rumors and tittle-tattle of the late first century, even though it can be of no use in reconstructing the biography of an actual man.
If we refer back to the bolded text in either the Sanh. 67a, or Shabb. 104b) passages, we see at once that material must be missing. The blunt statement that “Ben Stada is Ben Pandira” looks like a marginal note that has been inserted into the text. If that is not the case, we have the peculiar problem that in Shabbat the equation must be attributed to R. Eliezer, but in Sanhedrin it must be attributed to R. Papa! It seems clear that this equation must be viewed as an unattributable insertion into both texts. . . . The statement that “The husband was Pappos ben Jehudah, the mother was Stada” contradicts Hisda’s claim that the husband was Stada and the paramour was Pandira. We are missing an attribution here. The remaining sentence – “The mother was Miriam the dresser of women’s hair, as we say in Pumbeditha, ‘Such a one has been false to her husband’ ” – is obviously an attempt to etymologize the name Stada as applied to a woman.
It is altogether possible that this haggadah was constructed with the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth in mind, even though the Jewish Christians of Babylonia are not likely to have believed that doctrine. It certainly seems to be grist for an anti-Christian, Jewish propaganda mill – a mill that substituted a banal bastardy for the preternatural parthenogenesis of Christian dogma.
Is it possible to draw any conclusions from this passage beyond the obvious, viz., that the rabbis who wrote it were in a state of total confusion and had no knowledge of any historical Jesus? What part of this would historical Jesus apologists have us believe is true?
- That Stada was Pandira, or that they were two different men?
- Should we believe that Stada and Pandira were two men, or a man and a woman?
- Can any of the Ben Stada passages we have examined . . . support the possibility that Ben (‘son of’!) Stada was a woman? (That is, after all, the conclusion to be drawn from this passage.)
- Are we to believe that Mary’s husband was actually Pappos ben Jehudah – a man who flourished during the first third of the second century?
- Should we believe that St. Joseph was Ben Stada?
That at least some rabbis equated Ben Stada with Jesus by the time the bolded text was inserted into the Babylonian Talmud is obvious from the parallel passage in b. Sanh. 43a, which says that Yeshu the Nazarene, not ben Stada, was hanged on the eve of Passover. Unfortunately, we cannot determine when the equations were inserted into the Babylonian treatises Shabbat and Sanhedrin. . . . (The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, pp. 238-241, my formatting and bolding.)
Given the nature of the evidence covered thus far, surely only the demands of dogma can persuade anyone to find in the above Talmudic passages any relevance to a study of Paul’s letters.
What was the author of the Gospel of Matthew struggling over?
|The evidence that exists points to Matthew’s Gospel being crafted out of conflicting literary interpretations — the messiah as a son of Joseph versus a prophecy of a virgin birth.|
Hoffmann interprets the author of the Gospel of Matthew “struggling” to counter a scandalous rumour about the parentage of Jesus when he writes in 1:18
Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way: When his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.
But we saw in the manuscript evidence above that a pre-canonical version of this gospel wrote that Joseph was the father of Jesus. If there is really any “struggle” here, is it not engaged in the author’s/redactor’s effort to displace a the fatherhood of Joseph — which some manuscript evidence indicates was in an earlier Gospel of Matthew — with the virgin birth in order to fulfill his prophecy of Isaiah 7:14?
See How Joseph was piously invented to be the “father” of Jesus for the evidence for the literary derivation of Joseph as Jesus’ “father”. The evidence that exists points to Matthew’s Gospel being crafted out of conflicting literary interpretations (the messiah as a son of Joseph versus a prophecy of a virgin birth).
Hoffmann’s challenge and response
Hoffmann has committed himself to entertaining no doubts as to the authenticity of Galatians 4:4 as the words of Paul. So he must explain
- why Paul drops in this passage out of the blue, contrary to the interests he expresses in the rest of his writings,
- digressing from the thought of the immediate passage,
- why Paul supposedly responds to a widespread belief that Jesus’ birth was illegitimate in such an uncontentious and spasmodic manner.
Hoffmann’s answer? Paul’s opposition to the scandal is not indignation but only academic — or theological. The rumour contradicts his need for a sacrifice who was born according to the law. Some readers might wonder such a thesis has lost touch with reality.
Paul requires a spotless victim, and for that reason it becomes necessary that Jesus is born according to the law, untainted by “unusual circumstances.” . . . .
But the crucial thing for Paul is to dispose of the historically inconvenient tradition that Jesus was born outside the law–a tradition that would have made his entire theological enterprise suspect: Only a victim who was born according to the law could die in accordance with the scriptures. . . .
This almost spasmodic reaching into and beyond history for meaning is one of the more difficult aspects of Paul’s theology, but it seems to me that there is no other explanation for why the “birth” of Jesus intrudes, in just the way it does, into his letter to the Galatians.
Hoffmann reasonably explains that “only a victim who was born according to the law” could qualify as the required sacrifice. But Galatians 4:4 does not say that Christ was born according to (“kata”) the law. It says he was made of a woman (the way Eve was “made” from Adam?) “under the law” — that is, under the authority and power of the law. He was subject to its penalties. One born under Sharia law is not by definition obedient to that law nor are they by definition born in wedlock.
Further, why do we see none of Paul’s well-known form for indignation? Hoffmann explains further:
Far from being ignorant of the Miriam-tradition, Paul needs to deal with it. It is possible, in fact, since he does not reflect anything like a developed apologetic stance toward the polemical Jewish tradition, that the only bit of historical information he knows is the Jewish side. Paul, in this case, becomes the inventor of the “fatherhood of God”-motif later exploited in the gospels This however is sufficient to explain why Paul refers to Jesus’ legitimacy “under the law” as a fact believed by Christians, denied by Jews, but absolutely vital for his theological agenda.
Did Paul never encounter a view opposing such a Jewish rumour when he visited Jerusalem and the leaders of the church?
If I am right, it means that the notion Paul knew “nothing” about the historical Jesus tradition is false; it means that not only did he know a strongly antagonistic tradition that remained a live issue for the gospel writers, but that his early theology pivoted on sweeping it aside. It is also rather explicit proof of the way in which Paul could dispose of problematical historical tradition in the interest of getting on with his work.
Raising more questions than have been answered
1. So why did Paul become a follower and worshiper of Jesus at all if all he knew was that he was a mamzer who had been crucified for sedition?
2. How did Paul come to attribute to Jesus a theology (that he was qualified to be a perfect sacrifice) that flew in the face of what everyone (as far as he knew) knew about Jesus’ birth?
3. If Paul knew nothing other than this “antagonistic tradition” about Jesus and that it attacked the very foundation of his theology, then why was he so muted and calm about it? Why, out of all his surviving words, do we have only this one verse matter-of-fact digression addressing such a critical factor?
4. And why did Paul not even say in that one verse that Jesus was born “according to the law” if that was the most important thing to point out? Note the verse says that the Son of God was born “under the law”. Not “kata” or “according to” the law. Under the power and authority of the law is not the same concept as being in accord with the requirements of the law. (The Greek words carry similar distinctions as their English counterparts.)
And IF Paul did indeed mean that Jesus was born “according to the law”, then note exactly what this accordance was. What was in accordance with the law was the fact that Jesus was born of a woman! “Born of a woman [in accordance with] the law” is how we must read Galatians 4:4 if we are to be guided by Hoffmann’s interpretations without letting his interpretation displace the verse entirely.
But Paul does not say “kata” or “in accordance with” but “(h)upo” or “under” the (power of the) law.
In reality, however, Hoffmann’s thesis would predict that Paul would unambiguously state that Jesus was born “according to the law”, that is, not born to an adulteress or prostitute as the common rumour was supposed to have it.
The thesis that the expression “born of a woman under the law” is a response to scandalous rumours about Jesus’ mother may have little to commend it by way of evidence, method or reason, but it does testify to considerable courage and optimism on the part of the scholar who is hoping it will contribute towards setting the historicity of Jesus on a secure footing.