Pharisees and Judaism, Popular (Gospel) Caricatures versus Modern Scholarly Views

Filed under: Gospel anachronisms — Neil Godfrey @ 10:51 pm
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Updated 18th January, 2013. 8:40 pm.

I recently confessed that I have too often written with the assumption that my points are surely so well-known that there is no need to explain them. This post attempts to make amends for one such recent gaffe. I explain why I claimed Hoffmann is out of touch with most scholarship with his views of the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day.

In my latest post addressing Hoffmann’s argument for an historical Jesus, I dismissed his claim that Paul came from a tradition that knew only a vengeful God incapable of forgiveness. I assumed most readers would know that such a view of the Judaism of the early and mid first century is widely understood to be a misinformed caricature of reality. One commenter pulled me up on that point.

So here I quote views of scholars on the nature of Judaism, and the Pharisees in particular, in the time of Jesus and Paul. First, here are Hoffmann’s words:

[Paul] finessed his disagreements into a cult that turned the vindictive God of his own tradition into a being capable of forgiveness.

I brushed this aside with the following comment:

I am astonished that Hoffmann would write such an unsupportable caricature as if it were fact. His view is surely out of touch with most scholarship that has addressed this question.

So I pulled out books from my shelves that I could quickly identify as having something to say about this question. I avoided any titles that might be associated with scholars of mythicist leanings or left-right-out-radicals, however. I tried to stick to well-known or highly respected names in the field and especially to include relative “conservatives” in the mix.

So here are the sorts of things I have been reading over the years and that have led me to conclude that certainly a good number of scholars no longer accept Hoffmann’s characterization of Judaism or Pharisaism today. Note the number of times they denounce as a modern myth any notion that God was harsh or that Jews did not know divine forgiveness.

maccobyHyam Maccoby: The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986)

In recent years, many Christian scholars have come to realize that this Gospel picture of the Pharisees [i.e. severely and cruelly legalistic, hypocritical and self-righteous] is propaganda, not fact. Our main source of authentic information about the Pharisees is their own voluminous literature, including prayers, hymns, books of wisdom, law books, sermons, commentaries on the Bible, mystical treatises, books of history and many other genres. Far from being arid ritualists, they were one of the most creative groups in history.

Moreover, the Pharisees, far from being rigid and inflexible in applying religious laws, were noted (as the first-century historian Josephus points out, and as is amply confirmed in the Pharisee law books) for the lenience of their legal rulings, and for the humanity and flexibility with which they sought to adapt the law of the Bible to changing conditions and improved moral conceptions. . . . (p. 19) (more…)


Paul and “The Ektroma” (Revisited)

Inquisition condemned (Francisco de Goya).

Person hiding face and showing posture of shame (while wearing a Sanbenito and coroza hat) in Goya’s sketch “For being born somewhere else”.  (Francisco de Goya). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Was Paul ashamed of his “claim to knowledge by revelation”?

Ed Jones recently sent me an email in which he once again repeats his view that the text of the Sermon on the Mount we find preserved in Matthew is authentic Jesus-movement tradition, while on the other hand Paul’s letters represent a “Great Mistake.” He writes:

Paul had one abiding problem – as he acknowledged “I was born out of time”; he never met the HJ [Historical Jesus], and thus denied the one indisputable basis for authority, apostolic witness. The best Paul could do was to claim knowledge by revelation. To make sense of this point one needs the get the history straight. Christian Origins and Jewish Christianity are serious misleading misnomers. [The term] “Christian” was first used of Barnabas and Paul’s mission in Antioch [Acts 11:26]; it was never used of the Jesus movement. (Ed Jones)

I have to disagree with at least two of Ed’s assertions. First, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the Acts of the Apostles when it comes to biographical information about Paul. In fact, anyone who argues that the Judean and Galilean followers (i.e., the “disciples”) have a claim on authenticity while Paul was a charlatan should certainly hold the Acts at arm’s length. For here we have an apologetic, late (second-century CE) work that desperately tries to gloss over Peter’s and Paul’s differences while practically erasing James altogether. Moreover, we have no evidence that Paul himself ever used the term “Christian” or for that matter would have even recognized the term. The only other NT book that uses Christian is the first epistle of Peter, also a very late work.

There’s that word again

Second, Paul never said he was “born out of time.” I fear we will never be rid of this awful translation. In 1 Cor. 15:8 Paul said, rather, that he was the ektroma. As I wrote earlier:

This translation masks an unusual word – ἐκτρώματι/ektromati — which refers to a miscarried fetus (ektroma). The untimeliness of the birth does not refer to lateness, but to being born too soon, and presumably means that Paul was calling himself some sort of monster. However, his meaning is far from clear and has long been the subject of debate. (Me)

Lately I’ve been researching the terms “born out of due time” and “ektroma,” and I’m now leaning toward Robert M. Price’s conclusion. But first some thoughts on terminology.



Questioning Paul’s Letters. Were they really “occasional”? Or rhetorical fictions?

Filed under: Brodie: Beyond Quest,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 1:58 pm
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Edited with a few minor additions and corrections of lots of typos at 16:16 pm CST (Australia) time, 21st Dec 2012.

I don’t know the answer to those questions in the title. But I have been looking at scholarly arguments that maintain Paul’s letters were, indeed, carefully crafted works of theological instructions that were composed in the form of occasional correspondence. That is, their appearance as spur-of-the-moment letters is a rhetorical fiction.

I have never known what to make of Paul’s letters. There are many reasons for that. But there have always been two reasons I have been at least open to questioning what they seem to be:

  1. rosenmeyerPatricia Rosenmeyer in 2001 published a book, Ancient Epistolary Fictions, demonstrating that the writing of fictional letters was an art form well known and practiced in the literary culture of the era we are talking about. I dot-pointed some of the highlights from her book in an old post of mine, Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions;
  2. I stumbled across a very modern voice from a 1904 publication warning New Testament scholars of the danger of accepting ancient sources at face value or according to their own self-witness, and the need always to demonstrate, never assume, that ancient sources are in fact what we (or even the ancients) think they are:
    • The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself [that is, we need to ask if our earliest references to Paul’s letters base their information or knowledge of those letters on what the letters themselves say, and not from any independent tradition]; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration. It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand . . . .

      This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

jerpaulEarlier this month I wrote my first post explaining why Paul’s letter to the Galatians may not have been spontaneously written by a fearful apostle agonizing over the possibility of losing his flock as most readers have always assumed: Sowing Doubt That An Emotional Paul Authored Galatians. Paul’s “spontaneous emotional outburst” may well be seen as an artful reconstruction of passages in Jeremiah. I will have more to say about the literary/theological nature of the “opponents” Paul speaks about in that letter later in this post.

There are many other passages in Paul’s writings that can be explained as being carefully crafted on Old Testament narrative passages and structures. I am currently catching up with one of Richard Hays’ works (The Faith of Jesus Christ) along similar lines, but till I complete that I will point to aspects of Thomas Brodie’s works. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, for example, that we have always taken to be Paul’s response to nasty squabbles within the Corinthian church involving members taking one another to court, may instead be a theological teaching based on, and “spiritualizing”, the teaching of Deuteronomy 1. To give just the bird’s eye overview (avoiding the details for now), we have in both passages (more…)


Paul: Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’


Chapter 7 of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ presents what I understand are the arguments of mainstream New Testament scholarship that Paul’s epistles testify to the existence of an historical Jesus. Its author, Mogens Müller (MM), is responsible for what has been praised as the best work to date on the expression “Son of Man”. He is also a leader in a project undertaking a new look at the relationship among the canonical Gospels that extends to recognizing their place in the wider Gospel literature, including apocryphal and gnostic gospels. In this chapter he places the Gospel of Luke around 120-130, which is interesting, and not very far from views often expressed on this blog, though I suspect MM’s reasons would be to some extent different from my own. His view that the synoptic gospels — Mark, Matthew and Luke — are successive stages of theological and narrative development surfaces regularly in this chapter. (I also like the look of his book The First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint.)

This is the irony one encounters when reading many New Testament scholars’ works. There is so much that is so interesting and thought-provoking. But when it comes to addressing the historicity of Jesus one is struck by the way the reader is asked to accept tenuously justified assumptions and sometimes what looks at least to this layman like circuitous reasoning. So my bias will show in what follows.

MM argues that the primary evidence for the historicity of Jesus is the impact such a figure had on believers after his death. (more…)


The historical Jesus in Paul? For and (mostly) Against

Robert Price includes a packed selection of arguments commonly raised to affirm Paul’s awareness of the teachings of Jesus along with the counterarguments. Little of this is new to many readers, but it seems appropriate to list the details as a sequel to my previous post that covered the main thrust of his argument in his chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’

But first, I’ll cover the evidence he piles up in response to two reasons often given to explain why we don’t find explicit references to Jesus’ life and teaching in the letters. Price is collating these from G. A. Wells’ The Jesus of the Early Christians. (As Earl Doherty has further noted, the argument becomes even stronger when it is realized it applies not only to Paul’s writings but to the entire corpus of New Testament epistles.)

Jesus’ biographical details were irrelevant to the matters that happened to arise in occasional letters

Although I have encountered this assertion many times I have never seen it demonstrated. Without demonstration the statement becomes a mere brushing-aside of a serious question.

On the other hand, one readily finds cases raised that do support the counter-claim. Price several the following from Wells’ early book. It’s easy to make a list of these here as I do below, but that is only for the sake of information. What really counts is some way to test the alternative hypotheses. Before reading the list it is a good idea to do two things.

  1. One, think through what one would expect to find in the data IF there were oral traditions making the rounds that relayed what Jesus was supposed to have said and done.
  2. Two, think through what we would expect IF sayings were imputed to Jesus by various churches to add authority to their customs or teachings. (This was the conclusion of form critics like Rudolf Bultmann.)

In other words, ask what each hypothesis predicts we will find. It’s a while since I’ve posted on Richard Carrier’s Bayesian theory and when I resume (I still hope to resume posting on his book) the next post will discuss the importance of testing the hypotheses that oppose your own. The best way to strengthen your own argument, Carrier points out, is to demonstrate the inadequacies of those of your opponents. (This, by the way, is one reason I am slow on the uptake with theories of Christian origins that are heavy on proofs or arguments for their own point of view but almost totally ignore alternative explanations. Think of the caricature of the boy who looks only for hints that a girl likes him but ignores all evidence that points to a different state of affairs.)

So it always pays to be slightly more generous to the arguments for the side you are against if you want to demonstrate their comparative inadequacy to your own. Of course, there is always a risk that you’ll end up not being quite so dogmatic for one point of view as when you started, but life is full of risks.

The following points are from Price’s/Wells’ list. Presentation and commentary are my own. (more…)


Does “Mythicism” Need an Early Paul? — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 6

Robert M. Price argues that it makes little difference to the case for Jesus being nothing more than a mythical construct if Paul’s letters are judged to be early or late, or even if written before the gospels. This is the theme of his chapter “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” in Is This Not the Carpenter?’: the question of the historicity of the figure of Jesus. He also raises the question of whether modern Christ myth advocates should be more critical of the Pauline epistles as an earlier generation of scholars were.

Today’s two main proponents of the Christ myth theory (Earl Doherty and George A. Wells) argue for the conventional view of the genuineness of Paul’s letters. Both agree that they belong to the mid first century period, well before the first gospel was composed. Most scholars certainly agree that the gospels were composed after Paul wrote his letters, but the “mythicist” argument goes one step further and says that interested parties only created a “biographical-historical” figure of Jesus well after Paul wrote his letters.

That is, the earliest evidence for Christianity, the New Testament epistles, testify only of a theological concept of Jesus. The concept of an earthly Jesus living out a career of teaching and healing, calling disciples and confronting Pharisees, was a relatively late development in the history of Christianity.

Price comments on the contemporary mythicists’ tendency to accept the Pauline epistles as genuine:

This makes them admirably early and leaves plenty of time for Gospel story-tellers to have done their subsequent work, historicizing Jesus and pillaging the epistles for sayings to reattribute to Jesus. one feels that things would begin to blur if the Gospels and epistles had to be placed as more or less contemporary. That condition would open up the possibility or need to find another solution for the lack of Gospel-type tradition in the epistles. (p. 100)

After covering in some detail the arguments and counter-arguments over whether any passage in Paul’s letters is indeed evidence that Paul knew any traditions stemming from an historical Jesus, Price casts back to earlier mythicists and what they had to say about the relationship between Paul’s letters (and their dogmatic or theological Jesus) and the Gospels (with their “biographical” Jesus), as well various arguments about relative dating and authenticity.

The critical passage in this chapter follows:

Even if all [the gospel] stories were to be found verbatim in the epistles, even if the epistles should all prove to be authentically Pauline, we would still be dealing with the (rapid) accumulation of stock, predictable hagiographic legends. We would still have to offer some pretty compelling reason for an impartial historian to accept the Gospel versions as historically true while rejecting medieval, classical, Buddhist or Hindu parallels as false. That is what the principle of analogy is all about. (p. 108 — Price is drawing on an insight first published a century ago by John M. Robertson in Pagan Christs (link is to the book online))

Price posits the argument slightly differently, but suggests the Christ myth theory would not be undermined even if the Gospels were found to be earlier than Paul’s letters: (more…)



Twenty years ago the late Michael Goulder wrote an article in which he argued that Paul was the Fourth Gospel’s Beloved Disciple (“An Old Friend Incognito,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 1992, Vol. 45, pp. 487-513). It is no secret that the Fourth Gospel’s Jesus is very different from the Synoptic one. Goulder proposed that its Beloved Disciple too is a very different version of a disciple we all know and love: Paul.

Michael Goulder

According to Goulder’s hypothesis:

John was writing round the turn of the century, and had not known Paul personally. He did know at least some of the Pauline letters which we have; and he inferred from them, reasonably but erroneously, that Paul had been one of the Twelve Apostles. He also inferred from them that Paul had been present at the Last Supper, the Passion and the Resurrection. He found reason for thinking that Paul had been loved by Jesus; but his reconstruction was met with so much incredulity that he felt obliged to keep his hero incognito. (pp. 495-96).

Thus, according to Goulder, it was a misunderstanding of certain Pauline passages that led the author of the Fourth Gospel to form a conception of Paul quite different from the one in the Acts of the Apostles.

  • The scholar suggested that the very expression “the disciple that Jesus loved” may owe its origin to a mistaken understanding of Gal. 2:20: “But the life that I now live in the flesh, I live in faith in the Son of God, who loved me . . .
  • And he noted how easily one could have wrongly inferred from the words of 1 Corinthians 9:1 (“Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”) that Paul, like the other apostles, had met and received his call to apostleship from Jesus during the time of the Lord’s public ministry.

One particularly interesting example brought forward by Goulder was 1 Corinthians 11:23 ff. (“For I received from the Lord, what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed, took bread etc.”). Goulder showed that the Fourth Gospel’s peculiar Eucharistic scenario could have plausibly arisen from a misidentification of the two occasions referred to by the 1 Corinthians passage, to wit:

“I received from the Lord” when I reclined on his breast at the Last Supper . . .  “that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed” after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, “took bread etc.”

In the Fourth Gospel the Beloved Disciple was present at the Last Supper, but there is no indication given that he was present at the earlier event. And in that gospel it is implied that it was at that earlier event—the Feeding in Jn. 6—that Jesus instructed his followers to observe a eucharistic eating and drinking. His eucharistic discourse is given on that occasion and, correspondingly, there is no eucharist celebrated at the Johannine Last Supper. Thus the Beloved Disciple would have learned from Jesus at the Last Supper what had transpired after the earlier event, the Feeding of the Multitude. (more…)


Christ among the Messiahs — Part 7

Continuing from Part 6 . . . .

The preceding posts have outlined Matthew Novenson’s argument that Paul’s concept of Christ (as expressed throughout his epistles) was entirely consistent with “the formal conventions of ancient Jewish Messiah language” that we would expect in any messianic literature of his era.

There are a few passages, however, that have been used to argue that Paul’s idea of Christ “demurred from, repudiated or even polemicized against” the Jewish theological notion of Messiah. Novenson rejects these interpretations and argues that even in these passages Paul uses χριστός within the range of conventional Jewish understanding of the Messiah.

1 Corinthians 1:23 “We Preach a Crucified Christ”

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Recent scholarly interpretation has generally viewed Christ here as “a meaning-less proper name” and hence the common translation as above, “Christ crucified”. An alternative translation that Novenson deploys is “a crucified Christ“. That definitely has a different ring to it. (more…)


Christ among the Messiahs — Part 5

Filed under: Messianism,Novenson: Christ - Messiahs,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 4:51 am
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Much New Testament scholarship has come to think that Paul did not believe Jesus was the Messiah in any sense that his contemporary Jews would have understood the word Messiah. Many Pauline scholars have concluded that for the bulk of Paul’s 270 references to Christ (Greek for Messiah) the word meant little more than a personal name, and certainly not the traditional Messiah of Jewish national aspirations.

Matthew Novenson (Christ among the Messiahs) argues otherwise. The previous posts in this series have sketched his arguments that Paul used the term Christ, not as a personal name nor as a title of office, but as an honorific comparable the honorifics applied to Hellenistic kings and Roman generals and emperors:

  • Epiphanes [God Manifest]
  • Soter [Saviour]
  • Africanus [conqueror of Africa]
  • Augustus [Venerable]

. . . . χριστός in Paul is best conceived neither as a sense-less proper name nor as a title of office but rather as an honorific, a word that can function as a stand-in for a personal name but part of whose function is to retain its supernominal associations. Consequently, we ought not to imagine Paul habitually writing χριστός as if it signified nothing, then occasionally recalling its scriptural associations and subtly redeploying it. We ought rather to think of Paul using the honorific throughout his letters and occasionally, for reasons of context, clarifying one of more aspects of how he means the term. (p. 138)

If follows that Novenson argues that Paul’s use of the word Christ (χριστός) is entirely consistent with what it meant among Jews of his day — a world-conquering and liberating Hebrew “Messiah”. Paul has not done away with the traditional messianic idea. Rather, Paul relies upon the same core Scriptural texts that other Jews likewise regarded as foundational to their understanding of who and what the Messiah was. I repeat here from Part 2 those half dozen central texts, none of which, interestingly, contains the word “messiah”. See part 2 for the explanation of why these texts are known to be central for Jewish concepts and discussions about the meaning of the Messiah.

Genesis 49:10

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the commander’s staff from between his feet, until that which is his comes; and the obedience of the peoples is his.

Numbers 24:17

A star will go forth from Jacob; and a scepter will rise from Israel; it will shatter the borders of Moab and tear down all the sons of Sheth.

Wenceslas Hollar - King David

Wenceslas Hollar – King David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2 Samuel 7:12-13

I will raise up your seed after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

Isaiah 11:1-2

A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow from his roots. The spirit of YHWH will rest upon him.

Amos 9:11

On that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and repair its breached walls, and raise up its ruins, and build it as in the days of old.

Daniel 7:13-14

I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like a son of man was coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and honor and kingship.

In this post I begin to look at some of the passages in Paul’s letters where Novenson finds Paul clarifying his use of the term χριστός/messiah. Novenson attempts to show through these passages that Paul’s use of the term is no different from what we would expect to find in any other Jewish or Christian text that we consider “a messiah text”.


Galatians 3:16 “Abraham’s Seed, Which Is Christ”

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Gal. 3:16)

But contrast the passage in Genesis that Paul is referencing (Genesis 13:14-17): (more…)


27. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 27

Slightly edited 3 hours after original posting.


Did the earliest Christians regard Jesus as God?



  • Did the earliest Christians see Jesus as God?
    • God vs. an emanation of God
    • Concepts of the Son and Logos; Paul and Philo
    • Epistolary descriptions of the Son
  • The Synoptic Jesus: Man or God?
    • Why Mark’s divinity for Jesus is subdued
  • The figure in the Philippians hymn: human or divine?
    • “Nature” vs. “image” in the Philippians hymn
    • Yet another “likeness” motif
    • What is the “name above every name”? “Jesus” vs. “Lord”
    • Another smoking gun


* * * * *

Jesus as God

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 231-240)


Was Jesus God?

But what precisely is meant by the phrase ‘Jesus was God’? Much of the problem lies in Ehrman’s semantic woolliness.

Bart Ehrman now embarks on what is probably the thorniest problem in New Testament research. How was Jesus regarded, not only by his followers, but by the earliest Christians who spread the faith? Ehrman declares:

the earliest Christians did not consider Jesus God. . . . scholars are unified in thinking that the view that Jesus was God was a later development within Christian circles. (DJE? p. 231)

But what precisely is meant by the phrase ‘Jesus was God’? Much of the problem lies in Ehrman’s semantic woolliness. Later Church Councils declared Jesus fully a co-equal with God the Father, of the same substance, two ‘persons’ within the Trinity. I am aware of no scholarship, let alone any mythicist, who suggests that this was the view of any segment of earliest Christianity.

But to say that Jesus was an “emanation” of God is something else. The difference between Paul’s Son of God and Philo’s Logos as an emanation of God is largely a matter of personhood. Philo does not personalize his Logos; he calls it God’s “first-born,” but it is not a distinct ‘person’; rather, it is a kind of radiant force which has certain effects on the world. Paul’s Son has been carried one step further (though a large one), in that he is a full hypostasis, a distinct divine personage with an awareness of self and roles of his own—and capable of being worshiped on his own.

But an “emanation” is not God per se. That is why Philo can describe him as “begotten” of God. He can be styled a part of the Godhead, but he is a subordinate part. (I have no desire to sound like a theologian, but to try to explain as I see it the concepts that lie in the minds of Christian writers, past and present. They are attempting to describe what they see as a spiritual reality; I regard it as bearing no relation to any reality at all.) Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:28 speaks of the Son’s fate once God’s enemies are vanquished, a passage which exercises theologians because it looks incompatible with the Trinity. For here Paul says that the Son “will be subjected” to God, in the apparent sense of being ‘subsumed’ back into God, who will then become One again—“so that God will be all in all.” There will only be one ‘person.’


The “intermediary Son” concept

Thus the “Son” which we find described throughout the epistles is viewed in the sense of an emanation of God, not God himself.

c. 1165 Sophia - Wisdom (Wikipedia)

There can be little question that the idea of the Son, Paul’s “Christ” and spiritual Messiah, arose from the philosophical thinking of the era, which created for the highest Deity intermediary spiritual forces and subordinate divine entities to fill certain roles and to be revelatory channels between God and humanity. In Judaism, this was the role of personified Wisdom, though her divinity was relatively innocuous and her ‘person’ perhaps as much poetic as real. (She may have been a later scribal compromise when an earlier goddess consort of Yahweh was abandoned). In Greek thinking, the intermediary force was the Logos, though in varied versions (the Platonic Logos and Stoic Logos were quite different), and with an independence and personification less developed than Paul’s.

Thus the “Son” which we find described throughout the epistles is viewed in the sense of an emanation of God, not God himself. He has a personification of his own, and he fills certain roles.

Consider three passages: (more…)


21. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 21

Filed under: Earl Doherty,Ehrman: Did Jesus Exist? — Earl Doherty @ 1:00 am
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“Key Data” in Proving Jesus’ Historicity – The Crucified Messiah



  • The conflict between messianic expectation and result
  • Assumptions based on the Gospels and Acts
  • Why did Paul persecute the early church?
  • Paul’s gospel vs. Ehrman’s view of early church beliefs
  • Christ as “curse” for being “hanged on a tree”
  • Paul switching horses in mid-stream
  • A new view of Christian origins
  • The traditional Jewish Messiah
  • Jesus as lower class Galilean peasant
  • Who would make up a crucified Messiah?


* * * * *

The Crucified Messiah

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 156-174)


A conflict between expectation and history

To introduce his second piece of “Key Data” which confer a “high degree of certainty that (Jesus) was an historical figure,” (p. 144) Bart Ehrman offers this:

These early Christians from day one believed that Jesus was the messiah. But they knew that he had been crucified. (p. 156)

This is a good example of what happens when one’s thinking is stuck firmly inside the box. The point Ehrman is making is that the concept of the “messiah,” the expectation of what he would be and what he would do, conflicted with the fact that Jesus had been crucified. In other words, historical expectations were at odds with (alleged) historical events. But if that is indeed one’s starting assumption, and if it is wrong, then it will lead us down all sorts of problematic garden paths and into conclusions which are not only erroneous but unnecessary.

The first part of this assumption, entirely based on the Gospels and Acts, is that certain people made judgments about a certain historical man. If that were the case, then an anomaly would certainly exist between traditional ideas about the messiah and what the life of that man actually entailed. Why, then, the question arises, did those people come to such a judgment when it conflicted so much with standard messianic expectation?

But all we have to do is ask: what if no judgment was initially made about any historical man? Everything that follows would then be entirely different, and perhaps more amenable to understanding how Christianity began and showing a conformity to what some of the texts themselves are telling us.

Paul’s persecution of the church

For reasons that may not seem self-evident at first, claiming that Jesus was crucified is a powerful argument that Jesus actually lived. (p. 156)

Ehrman’s route to supporting this statement is a complicated one. He first calls attention to Paul’s persecution of the church in Judea prior to his conversion. He notes that Paul says nothing specific about what the beliefs of that early church were, or on what particular grounds it was subjected to persecution by the authorities, with himself acting as their agent. Nothing daunted, Ehrman steps into that breach. But because he has made the initial assumption that an historical man was interpreted as the messiah, he embarks on a chain of speculation which not only contains problems, but also looks to be completely off the path of reality. (more…)


Christ among the Messiahs — Part 2

What “Messiah” meant at the time of Paul and the earliest Christians

Continuing with notes from Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism

by Matthew V. Novenson


christamongmessiahsThe messianic idea

We saw in Part 1 that interpreters of Paul have confidently concluded that whatever Paul meant by χριστός he did not mean “messiah”, but modern studies of messianism have shown that the meaning of “messiah” remains an open question.

Understanding what was meant by “messiah” was much simpler throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jewish and Christian scholars alike took for granted the existence of “the messianic idea” that was widely understood throughout the period of ancient Judaism. The evidence for this idea was not found in every text that made mention of a messiah, but it could be cobbled together by combining motifs from different documents.

So the Christian scholar, Emil Schürer, on the basis of the Apocalypse of Baruch and the fourth Book of Esdras, showed that this messianic idea entailed the following:

  1. The final ordeal and confusion
  2. Elijah as precursor
  3. The coming of the messiah
  4. The last assault of the hostile powers
  5. Destruction of hostile powers
  6. The renewal of Jerusalem
  7. The gathering of the dispersed
  8. The kingdom of glory in the holy land
  9. The renewal of the world
  10. A general resurrection
  11. The last judgment, eternal bliss and damnation

Jewish scholarship did not substantially differ, as seen from Joseph Klausner’s list of ingredients that make up the messianic idea:

  1. The signs of the Messiah
  2. The birth pangs of the Messiah
  3. The coming of Elijah
  4. The trumpet of Messiah
  5. The ingathering of the exiles
  6. The reception of proselytes
  7. The war with Gog and Magog
  8. The Day of the Messiah
  9. The renovation of the World to Come

Klausner conceded that no single text sets out this complex of ideas in full, but these points nonetheless are what the disparate texts mean when put together.

In other words, if a literary text lacks some of the pieces, that is the fault of the text, not of the messianic idea. The idea exists prior to and independently of the texts. (p. 37)

The messianic idea psychologized

What is more, in most modern accounts the messianic idea is described in specifically psychological terms: It is the force that animates the pious Jewish hope for redemption, either throughout Jewish history (in Jewish treatments) or at the time of Christ (in Christian treatments).

In this train we find discussions of the messianic idea arising out of a tenacious belief in a better future despite overwhelming troubles facing the present. Some authors have seen this as one of Judaism’s special gifts to the world alongside monotheism and ethical codes. Scholarly study has accordingly been less about the messiah figure than about the religious attitude and ideology that was the backdrop to various beliefs in such a figure.

The messianological vacuum

The concept of the “messianic idea” in Judaism started to unravel at the end of the Second World War with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars increasingly argued that the words for “messiah” and “christ” in the Second Temple period “had no fixed content” (De Jonge) and may even have had no special significance or meaning at all (James Charlesworth, Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green). They were labels that could be, and were, applied to a wide variety of persons and things. (more…)


Christ among the Messiahs — Part 1

Filed under: Novenson: Christ - Messiahs,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 12:16 am
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  • christamongmessiahsWhat did Paul — or any of the earliest Christians — mean when they called Jesus “Christ”? I mean before the Gospels were written.
  • If the idea of Christ for earliest Christians and Jews of their day meant a conquering Davidic king, how do we explain why early Christians referred to Jesus as “Christ” and “seed of David” if he was crucified?
  • Did not Paul apply the term Christ to Jesus as a personal name, not as a title? If so, did Paul have his own idiosyncratic view of what Christ meant, if anything, other than a name?
  • If Jews at the time of the Jewish revolt (66-70 ce) were expecting a Messiah who would rise up out of Judea and rule the world (as indicated in Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius), did Paul and other early Christians share this same view with application to Jesus?
  • Did Paul “de-messianize a hitherto-messianic Jesus movement” and turn a Jewish cult into a religion that came to stand in opposition to Judaism?

These questions are addressed and answered by Matthew V. Novenson in his recently published Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism. Matthew Novenson is a lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. He had earlier addressed aspects of them briefly in a 2009 JBL article, The Jewish Messiahs, the Pauline Christ, and the Gentile Question.

The Problem Stated

Novenson sets out the problem in his introduction:

The problem can be stated simply: Scholars of ancient Judaism, finding only a few diverse references to “messiahs” in Hellenistic- and Roman-period Jewish literature, have concluded that the word did not mean anything determinate [that is, it did not convey, for example, the idea of troubles in the last-days, with an Elijah precursor, a coming to overthrow enemies, establish the kingdom of God, etc] in that period [it was merely a word for anyone/thing “anointed”].

Meanwhile, Pauline interpreters, faced with Paul’s several hundred uses of the Greek word for “messiah,” have concluded that Paul said it but did not mean it, that χριστός in Paul does not bear any of its conventional senses.

To summarize the majority view: “Messiah” did not mean anything determinate in the period in question, and Paul, at any rate, cannot have meant whatever it is that “messiah” did not mean. (pp. 1-2, my formatting)

Novenson finds John Collins’ statement of the problem particularly pointed:

On the Christian side, we have had the astonishing claim that Paul, the earliest Christian writer, did not regard Jesus as the messiah. The ecumenical intentions of such a claim are transparent and honorable, but also misguided since the claim is so plainly false. Jesus is called Christos, anointed, the Greek equivalent of messiah, 270 times in the Pauline corpus. If this is not ample testimony that Paul regarded Jesus as messiah, then words have no meaning. (p. 2)

Novenson’s book argues that for Paul Jesus was the “messiah” in more than just name. But if so, what did the term “messiah” mean to Paul? Novenson will argue that Paul really did understand the word “messiah” in the same sense as other Jews of his day understood the term:

To rephrase my thesis from this perspective: Christ language in Paul is actually an invaluable example of messiah language in ancient Judaism. (p. 3) (more…)


Ehrman sacrifices Paul to launch his attack on mythicism

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (Photo credit: Wikipedia): Necessary for the gods to allow the Greeks to attack Troy

This is the third post in my series addressing Bart Ehrman’s rhetorical back-flips on his past writings and those of his scholarly peers in order to attack mythicism.

I quoted Ehrman in my earlier post, Ehrman explains: Doherty Could Be Right After All, insisting that Paul “was not principally dependent upon Plato”. No decent person would want to think that Ehrman was playing word games or simply being disingenuous here by specifying the name “Plato” and adding the qualifier “principally”. The context of his following sentence makes it abundantly clear that he is directing his readers to think that Paul was dependent upon Jewish traditions and scriptures in contradistinction to pagan philosophies.

Not even Paul was philosophically trained. To be sure, as a literate person he was far better educated than most Christians of his day. But he was no Plutarch. His worldview was not principally dependent on Plato. It was dependent on the Jewish traditions, as these were mediated through the Hebrew scriptures. (p. 255, Did Jesus Exist?)

But Ehrman is a well-read scholar so he knows very well that there is an abundant scholarly literature discussing the influence of ancient philosophy on the thinking of Paul. Is he turning his back on all this scholarship solely to attempt a punch at Doherty? Some of the literature addressing this that I have discussed in posts here:

Troels Engberg-Pedersen: Paul and the Stoics

Th. D. Niko Huttunen: Paul and Epictetus on Law

Abraham J. Malherbe: Paul and the Popular Philosophers (more…)


Ehrman hides the facts about Doherty’s argument: Part 1

Bart Ehrman accuses Earl Doherty of being “driven by convenience” and “simply claiming” that a Bible verse that contradicts his thesis “was not actually written by [Paul]”.

At the same time Ehrman admits that the particular verse is disputed by many scholars, but then in his ensuing discussion he hides (sic!) from his lay readers the reasons they dispute it.  Ehrman even conveys the false impression that all of the scholarly dispute is merely over a few words tagged on at the end of the verse; but surely knows that this is (to use his own damning words from another context) “simply not true”. I find it impossible to imagine that his simplistic and misleading discussion of this text would ever pass peer review were it submitted to a scholarly journal. No matter. He obviously thinks it is all his lay readers need to know; and that information that is only partial, or that is suppressed entirely, will serve more effectively to undermine Doherty’s credibility.

Ehrman’s accusation

Doherty refuses to allow that 1 Thessalonians — which explicitly says that the Jews (or the Judeans) were the ones responsible for the death of Jesus — can be used as evidence of Paul’s view: it is, he insists, an insertion into Paul’s writings, not from the apostle himself. (Here we find, again, textual studies driven by convenience: if a passage contradicts your views, simply claim that it was not actually written by the author.)  (p.  my emphasis)

Notice Ehrman is unambiguously “informing” his readers that it is entirely Doherty’s own self-serving opinion that “refuses” to allow a particular verse to be considered original to Paul. The only reason we are led to believe, and this is on the authority of the highly reputable popular author Bart Ehrman, that Doherty rejects the originality of this verse is “simply” because it “inconveniently” refutes his argument. Doherty “simply claims” a verse is a forgery because, Ehrman assures us, he finds it contradicts his argument.

This is not an isolated accusation. Earlier in his book Ehrman similarly claimed:

One way that some mythicists have gotten around the problem that this, our earliest Christian source, refers to the historical Jesus in several places is by claiming that these references to Jesus were not originally in Paul’s writings but were inserted by later Christian scribes who wanted Paul’s readers to think that he referred to the historical Jesus. This approach to Paul can be thought of as historical reconstruction based on the principle of convenience. If historical evidence proves inconvenient to one’s views, then simply claim that the evidence does not exist, and suddenly you’re right.

This is a mischievous falsehood. Earl Doherty and G. A. Wells are NOT the ones who claim that certain verses are interpolations in order to “get around” contradictory evidence to establish their case. The arguments for the two verses they cite (I don’t know that there are any more than two) being interpolations are long-standing and well established by Ehrman’s own scholarly peers.

First I will quote what Doherty himself says with respect to his reasons for rejecting the authenticity of this verse in 1 Thessalonians.

In my next post I will return to Bart Ehrman’s own attempt to argue for this verse’s genuineness and demonstrate how Ehrman misleads his less well-informed readers about the real reasons many of his own scholarly peers believe the verse was indeed an interpolation. (more…)


The War of the Heavenly Christs: John’s Sacrificed Lamb versus Paul’s Crucified God (Couchoud continued)

The Revelation of St John: 2. St John's Vision...

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Continuing here my series of outlining Paul Louis Couchoud’s work The Creation of Christ (English translation 1939), with all posts in the series archived, in reverse chronological order, here.

The previous post in this series presented Couchoud’s argument that Paul’s Christ was a God crucified in heaven, the result of a combination of feverish interpretations of the Psalms and other Jewish scriptures and a projection of Paul’s own experiences of suffering.

In the chapter I outline in this post Couchoud begins by narrating the departure of Paul and all the original Jerusalem pillars bar one. Paul, he says, with the demonstration of the converted gentile Titus before the Jerusalem elders, and the Jerusalem elders themselves, were moving towards a reconciliation at long last that culminated in the decree we read of Acts 15 — that gentiles need only follow a few principles ordained originally for Noah’s descendents plus one or two:

  • avoid eating meat offered to idols
  • avoid eating blood
  • avoid eating things strangled
  • avoid fornication (that is, marriages between Christians and pagans)

Couchoud does not know if Paul ever went so far as submitting to this Jerusalem edict, but he does declare that the communities Paul founded in Asia and others influenced by him did ignore it. These were “scornfully called” Nicolaitanes. They continued to live as they had always lived in the faith: buying meat in the market without asking if it had been sacrificed to an idol and tolerating marriages between Christians and pagans.

The authorities at Jerusalem scornfully called them Nicolaitanes, treated them as rebels worse than heathen, excommunicated them, and vowed them to early extermination by the sword of Jesus. (p. 79)

Then came the next turning point in church history:

In the meantime the haughty Mother Church was struck by an earthly sword. In the stormy year which preceded the Jewish insurrection, three “pillars” were taken from Jerusalem. About 62, after the death of the prosecutor Festus and before the arrival of his successor, James, the “brother of the Lord,” the camel of piety, was, together with others, accused by the high priest Ananos as a law-breaker, condemned, and stoned. Kephas-Peter, the first to behold Jesus, perished at Rome, probably in the massacre of the Christians after the fire of Rome in 64. At Rome, too, died his adversary who had in former days impeached and mocked him so vigorously, Paul. Nothing is known of their deaths, save perhaps that jealousy and discord among the Christians brought them about. (p. 80)

In footnotes Couchoud adds

  1. with reference to our evidence for the death of James that the phrase in Josephus appended to the name of James, “brother of Jesus called the Christ” have been added later by a Christian hand;
  2. with reference to Christian sectarian jealousy being ultimately responsible for the death of Peter and Paul he cites both Clemens Romanus V (Clement of Rome) and O. Cullmann, “Rev. d’Hist. et de Philosophie relig., 1930, pp. 294-300, as decisive evidence that there was jealousy and discord.

So this left John (more…)


The struggles of Paul (Couchoud continued)

Filed under: Couchoud: Creation of Christ,Luke-Acts,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 12:50 am
Map showing the routes of Apostle Paul's journeys.

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Couchoud follows the main outline of Acts in his account of the missionary career of Paul. Where and why he occasionally deviates from Acts is explained in context below. (All posts in this series, along with a few extras, are archived here.)

On first glance it appears that C is merely repeating a well-known set of missionary adventures of Paul. He is to a certain extent, but it is still worth reading in order to grasp the scenario of what he believes those early churches looked like. Keep in mind that the gospel narrative of an earthly life of Jesus has not yet been heard of. The religion is all about the expectation of a Son of God to descend from heaven.

More interesting for me is that it writing out the notes has driven home to me what I think are serious questions about the ostensible claims we find within the letters of Paul. My own comments are in italics and square brackets.

Barnabas and Paul, inspired by the Spirit, undertook their first missionary expedition:

  • Crossed island of Cyprus
  • Along southern coasts of Asia Minor
  • Through Pisidia and Lycaonia — both thickly populated and Hellenized
  • Into the Roman province of Galatia

They learned that preaching the gospel in the Greek world was no idyll. Blows were abundant and life itself was often in the hazard. (p. 48)

We know the story.

Traveling Jews were invited to say a few edifying words in the local synagogues.

Barnabas and Paul profited by this custom to announce the imminent Day of Doom, to reveal the mystery of Jesus Christ dead and risen, and to preach Salvation by his name. Not many Jews were interested; they were annoyed.

But then there was another group nearby, the fertile seed-bed of Christianity:

There were about every synagogue a number of men and women, especially women, who, though not Jews, feared the God of the Jews and desired to placate Jahweh by offering him worship. They formed a sort of floating, indefinite, and unorganized appendix to each synagogue. Among them were to be found the predestined Saints. They had to be detached from official Judaism, united among themselves in Jesus Christ, by means of baptism, by the holy kiss, by miracles and prophecies. Chiefs had to be found for them, and they had to be kept chaste and holy for the arrival of the Lord. This led inevitably to strife. The local Jews raised Cain. They protested to the authorities. The prophets usually left in a riot, in a shower of stones, but leaving behind a new ekklesia of Jesus.

So goes the story.

These two apostles returned to Antioch “in hope and experience.”

Paul’s next plan was for a longer journey. He took Silas, a prophet from Jerusalem, to re-visit the churches established in the first journey and to “maintain their fervour”. This time he set out north (and overland) from Antioch. (more…)


Earliest divisions in the Christian movement (Couchoud continued)

I liked this novel better than Couchoud's "Divisions" chapter. I suspect it gives some more realistic aspects of these early Christian years.

Unfortunately this is not my favourite chapter in Couchoud’s book The Creation Of Christ. But I’ve set myself a target and I have to get through this one to finish the book, so here goes. (The series is archived here.) (I personally suspect the stories in Acts are inspired more by Old Testament and Classical analogues than historical reminiscences, and motivated more by anti-Marcionite/pro-Catholic interests than disinterested archival dedication — though not totally bereft of historical re-writing at points here and there, but this post is for Couchoud so I’ll get out of the way for now.  Except to say I believe Earl Doherty’s model is a much more satisfactory explanation for the “riotous diversity” that characterized what emerged as “earliest Christianity”.)

But one point in C’s favour is his attempt to synchronize what he reads in Paul and Acts with political events in the broader empire.

Once again any emphases etc in the quotations is my own.

Couchoud says the apparitions of the Lord Jesus can be dated (via the writings of Paul) to the beginning of the reign of the reputedly “mad” Roman emperor Caligula  — 37-38 c.e.

These visions, he continues, all occurred in Palestine. Paul’s was the exception — and it was subject to doubt among his critics. (The last of the visions, according to Paul — says C — is to be dated 14 years before his own journey to Jerusalem, i.e. around 51 – 52 c.e.)

Of these visionary experiences, Couchoud suggests they conferred on the Jerusalem pillars a unique status:

They conferred on the community at Jerusalem and on its chiefs, Kephas, James, the Twelve, an unequalled title and right to decide all that might be postulated in the name of the Lord Jesus.

We know the names of some of these earliest visionaries: (more…)


Was Marcion right about Paul’s letters?

I have copied Roger Parvus's recent comment here as a post in its own right.  (Neil)

Couchoud’s books contain many valuable insights. He was rightly dissatisfied with the mainstream scenario of Christian origins, and he rearranged the pieces of the puzzle together in a new way that provides a fresh perspective on them. There is much that he says that I agree with. I would not be surprised, for instance, if he is right about the role played by Clement of Rome. But I am disappointed that Couchoud—like practically everyone else—still does not take seriously Marcion’s claim that the original author of the Gospel and Pauline letter collection was someone who professed allegiance to a God higher than the Creator of this world, to a God higher than the God of the Jews.

The automatic assumption on the part of confessional scholars

The automatic assumption on the part of confessional scholars is that Marcion must have been mistaken in his views regarding the origin of the Gospel and Pauline letters. I cannot recall ever having come across a single mainstream Christian book that even considered for a moment that Marcion may have been right. Their attitude is understandable since, if Marcion was right, it would mean that the original Gospel and the Pauline letters were written by someone who was basically a gnostic, by someone who sounds very much like Simon of Samaria or one of his followers. Perish the heretical thought! But even non-confessional admirers of Marcion like Couchoud seem likewise unable to take seriously Marcion’s claim. Instead they make Marcion himself the creator of the Gospel and say that he either created the Pauline letters or imposed his own religious ideas on letters that did not originally contain them. For some reason this solution is thought to be preferable to taking Marcion at his word. As far as we know Marcion never claimed to be the author of those writings. He claimed that when he came across them they were in a contaminated state. They had been interpolated by people who Judaized them, who turned their original author into someone who believed in a single highest God who was the God of the Old Testament and the Creator of the world. Is Marcion’s claim so unbelievable? Is it really out of the question that the original Gospel and Pauline letters were Simonian and that it was their opponents who Judaized those writings? (I say “Simonian” because the early record does not contain the name of any other first century Christians who held the belief that the creators of this world were inferior to the supreme God, and that those creators tried to hold men in bondage by means of the Law.) (more…)

The Pastorals, a remedy for a grave defect in Paul’s epistles (Couchoud)

My Couchoud series posts (outlines of his work discussing the beginnings of Christianity, The Creation of Christ) are archived here. This post continues the series.

The churches in Clement’s day, and in particular the Church of Rome, were governed by Elders. Paul, of course, knew of no such institution. The heads of the various churches in his day were the Prophets.

This grave defect had to be remedied, so our editor manufactured three new Epistles. For that he made use of another remnant — a letter of simple news addressed to Timothy by Paul from Nicopolis to Epirus. Out of this little thing he made three: two letters to Timothy and one to Titus; and the second letter to Timothy was Paul’s testament written at Rome. (p. 304)

He took a single letter and broke it into three parts that became the Pastorals, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Note the repetitions. Paul has forgotten a cloke at Troas on his way from Miletus to Nicopolis. He has escaped his enemies at Ephesus and thanks his friends by Timothy. (more…)


Paul’s Letter to the Romans – the creation of the canonical edition according to Couchoud

English: page with text of Epistle to the Roma...

Page with text of Epistle to the Romans 1:1-7: Image via Wikipedia

I continue here the series covering Paul Louis Couchoud’s argument for the creation of the canonical New Testament literature from the 1939 English translation of his The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity. The series is archived here — scroll to the bottom for the first posts where the overall purpose for which the literature is covered, along with when and why and why Couchoud suspects Clement of Rome as the editor (and author) responsible.

The guiding principle for the structure was Marcion’s “canon” that began with a Gospel and included ten letters of Paul.

Background: In brief, Marcion was a prominent leader of a form of Christianity that (at least until recently) has been generally believed to have rejected totally the Old Testament and taught that Jesus came down from heaven to preach about an Alien (unknown) God who was all love and higher than the Jewish God of the law and judgment. Marcion claimed Paul as his sole apostolic authority in opposition to the other apostles who never understood Christ’s message. Couchoud argues that a Roman church elder (he suspects Clement) attempted to unite the diverse Christianities represented by competing Gospels (such as Marcion’s Gospel, Matthew, John, Mark) bringing them all together through the themes expressed in Luke and Acts (his own creations, though Luke was largely a re-write of Marcion’s Gospel) except for the intolerable Marcionite views that had to be countered.

Couchoud has covered the creations and compilation of the Gospels and Acts, and now comes to the orthodox versions of the Pauline letters. Marcion had selected Galatians as the most appropriate for the introduction of Paul’s thought; “Clement”(?) preferred Romans as the one most potentially adaptable as a frame of reference for the “correct” reading of Paul’s corpus. (Marcion had placed it fourth.) This would leave nothing more to do than revise a few details here and there in the other letters.

This editor enlarged Romans to twice its original size. (Couchoud mainly follows Harnack’s reconstruction of Marcion’s thought, Gospel and epistles. I have begun posting elsewhere Sebastian Moll’s revision of Harnack’s basic premis in his 2010 work and must post more on that in the future. I keep with Couchoud’s thoughts here.) Massive additions were: (more…)


Paul’s Christ and Hercules Compared as Moral Examples

Filed under: Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 4:00 pm
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Niko Huttunen has extended Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s work on showing how the apostle Paul’s thought was in many respects a mutation of ancient Stoic philosophy: Paul and Epictetus on Law: A Comparison.

One detail of a more general interest (I think anyway) is Huttunen’s concluding discussion of comparisons of the philosopher Epictetus‘ use of Heracles (Hercules) as a role model and Paul’s similar treatment of Christ.

Epictetus found examples of perfect morality in Diogenes, Socrates and Heracles. They were fully obedient to the divine law. . . . Heracles had a special position compared with Socrates and Diogenes. Heracles was more than a moral example; he was a demigod still living and actively affecting life in the world. Though this side of his figure is downplayed in Epictetus’ descriptions, the remnants of it are still present. This makes him a closer analogy to the Pauline Christ than to Socrates or Diogenes. (p. 150, my emphasis)

Both Heracles and Christ are in a class above mortals since they are both designated sons of God in a special sense:

But nothing more dear to him than God. For this reason it was believed that he [Heracles] was the son of God, and he was. (Disc. 2.16.44)

for neither did [God] supply [much to] Hercules who was his own son (Disc. 3:26.31)

Like Christ Heracles was a moral exemplar by virtue of obedience to God and his law. (more…)


Critically evaluating Paul’s claims about Jesus

Filed under: Guignebert: Jesus,Jesus,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 9:04 am
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From the moment his followers believed that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the Prophets, the transformation of his life into myth began, and proceeded apace. (p. 108 of Jesus by Charles Guignebert, trans by S.H. Hooke)

It is refreshing to read some sound logical sense by a historical Jesus scholar in the swelling tide of apologetic publications. I like the way Guignebert (through his translator) worded the following:

The belief in this illustrious descent [of Jesus] is unquestionably very old, since Paul already knew and accepted it (Rom. i. 3, “of the seed of David according to the flesh”), but that is no reason for believing, without further investigation, that it was correct. There are still critics, even open-minded ones, who accept the possibility of its being so, but we cannot share their opinion. (p. 111, my emphasis)

No doubt more recent scholars have expressed the same critical nous, but there are many other historical Jesus scholars who since have attacked the very values of the Enlightenment, sneered at what they label a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (some even arguing that “charity” is a Christian duty owed to certain subsets of texts) (Bauckham et beaucoup al), and glided on the wind of postmodernism to substitute “even fabricated material . . . however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned” for genuine historical evidence (Allison).

So how does Guignebert investigate the correctness of this claim by Paul that Jesus was “of the seed of David”? (more…)


The Circumcising Gnostic Opponents of Paul in Galatia

This post continues from the previous two that argue for an unconventional understanding of Paul’s — and his contemporaries’ — understanding of what it meant to be an apostle and how this related to the truth of a gospel message being preached.

This post examines an argument that Paul’s opponents in Galatia were Gnostic Jewish Christians. It also incorporates a view of Paul that defines him, too, as embracing a certain Gnostic view of Christianity. In the course of discussion I discover reasons to refer to both Earl Doherty’s discussion of Paul’s view of Jesus being a son of David and Roger Parvus’s argument that the Ignatian correspondence was from the pen of an Apellean Christian who broke from Marcionism.

A minority view among biblical scholars holds that Paul’s opponents in the Galatian churches were not “judaizers” trying to persuade the Galatian followers of Paul to keep the whole law but were gnostics who (as we know several major gnostic groups did) practised circumcision for symbolic or “spiritual” reasons. Paul’s opponents in Galatia, these few scholars argue, were not siding with the Jerusalem pillar apostles, James, Peter and John against Paul. They were rather accusing Paul of being a subservient extension of these Jerusalem apostles and for that reason claimed he was both no apostle at all and that his gospel was a false one.

I have not yet sought out criticisms of this argument so what I post here is a raw (uncritical) summary of it as presented by Walter Schmithals in Paul & the Gnostics. (Some asides I enclose in tables and some of when I do include my own thoughts I type them in bracketed italics.) (more…)


Paul’s Gnostic heritage & Gnostic opposition

Filed under: Paul and his letters,Schmithals: Paul & Gnostics — Neil Godfrey @ 8:31 am
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Continuing from my last post — and in particular responding to the earlier commenters — here are some more shorthand notes from Walter Schmithals. Schmithals argues that Paul has a very Gnostic view of his apostleship in that for him an apostle is one who has a direct revelatory/visionary calling by God or Christ. In this he insists he is no different from those who were apostles before him, such as James the Lord’s brother, Peter/Cephas and John.

But there are other ways in which Paul separates himself from other Gnostic apostles who are apparently opposed to both Paul and the Jerusalem pillars.

In 2 Corinthians we read of

the demands which the Gnostic apostles in Corinth make upon Paul if they are to recognize him on an equal basis as an apostle, 44 . . . (p. 30 Paul & the Gnostics) (more…)


Jesus: the Same in both Paul and the Gospels

Filed under: Jesus,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 7:59 am
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Revised and updated 3 hours after original posting.

Both the letters of Paul and the narrative in the Gospels speak of Jesus crucified. Jesus’ death is significant. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus’ blood and Paul refers often to his blood. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke in particular stress his birth from a woman and we find a passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians saying Jesus was born of a woman. The Synoptic Gospels indicate Jesus was descended from David and in Paul’s letter to the Romans we likewise read Jesus was connected with David.

The contexts are quite different, of course. The Gospels are portraying a past narrative of an earthly mission of Jesus and Paul is addressing Jesus’ saving power in the “here and now and soon to be”.

And all of those references to Jesus’ crucifixion, blood, Davidic relationship, flesh, etc are derived from the same source. They are all speaking about the same thing. (more…)


Paul and Orestes before the Areopagus: the resurrection

Continuing from my previous post . . . .


Resurrection ἀνάστασιςin both Acts and Eumenides

A number of scholars have remarked upon the reference to the resurrection in Eumenides by Aeschylus when commenting on the reference to the resurrection in connection with Paul’s appearance in the Areopagus before the Athenians.

F. F. Bruce, in The Book of Acts, p. 343, when commenting on the scoffing Paul received after mentioning the resurrection, recalled the scene in Aeschylus’ play that likewise mentioned the resurrection in connection with a hero appearing before the Areopagus. Most Athenians, Bruce said, would, on hearing of Paul’s mention of the resurrection, have agreed with the sentiments expressed in the play by

the god Apollo, . . . on the occasion when that very court of the Areopagus was founded by the city’s patron goddess Athene: “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.” Some of them, therefore, ridiculed a statement which seemed so absurd.

The footnote supplied points to Aeschylus, Eumenides, lines 647-8, where the same Greek word, ἀνάστασις, is used in both the play and Acts 17:18, 32.

Similarly Charles H. Talbert in Reading Acts, p. 157, makes note of the same observation:

Scoffing is a typical response to speeches by fringe figures . . . Given the assumptions of Paul’s auditors, scoffing is an entirely appropriate response. Aeschylus, Eumenides 647-48, relates how, on the occasion of the inauguration of the court of the Areopagus, the god Apollo says, “When the dust hath drained the blood of man, once he is slain, there is no return to life.”

Lynn Kauppi sees more in the link between Aeschylus and Acts than a background pointer to a common belief among Athenians of the day. She suggests that the way “Luke” weaves the allusions into the scene of Acts 17:16-34 gives reason to think that his audience “may have observed an allusion to the Athenian literary tradition.” (The Greek text is from Perseus and the English translation from Kauppi’s manuscript.) (more…)


Paul: a recycled Peter and Jesus

Filed under: Luke-Acts,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 9:22 pm
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Saints Peter and Paul shown on the coat of arm...

Image via Wikipedia

This post cannot explore all the ways in which the life of Paul in Acts has been shown to be borrowed from the narratives about Jesus and Peter, but I will touch the surface of the general idea for now. I am relying on two works (I’m sure they’re not the only ones) that argue that the details in Acts (not the epistles) of Paul’s miracles, speeches and even some of his travels and adventures are literary borrowings from the lives Jesus and Peter:

Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts by Charles H. Talbert

Parallel Lives: The Relation of Paul to the Apostles in the Lucan Perspective by Andrew C. Clark.

Beginning with Clark’s book, we read:

[E]very miracle performed by Peter has its parallel in one wrought by Paul. . . . In addition to the miracles performed by Peter and Paul, Acts records other miraculous or supernatural events which they experienced, and in these too many parallels between the two may be observed. (p. 209)

Andrew Clark explores these parallels in minute detail according to six specific criteria (outlined in an earlier post here). I don’t have the time to give examples in this post, but would like to discuss a few of the cases in depth when free to do so. Here I will list the parallels that he lists before undertaking his detailed study of each. If one reads around the particular passages one will also note a broader contextual set of parallels. (more…)


Introducing Doherty: his preliminary observations on ‘A Heavenly Christ’

Cosmic Christ

Cosmic Christ by Alex Grey: Image by eworm via Flickr

In between (re-)reading at least half a dozen other works I have had a chance to catch up again with Earl Doherty’s new book, Jesus: neither God nor man: the case for a mythical Jesus. My last post with reference to Doherty was my response to the introduction to this work. Here are some comments on my reading of his first chapter.

My notes do not by any means represent the extent and depth of Doherty’s work. I am merely picking out tidbits that I find easy and interesting enough to share in a few words.

The natural way to preach the message

Doherty refers to Peter’s speech in Acts 2:22-36 as being the sort of message that one might expect the early Christian evangelists to preach among new audiences. He talks about Jesus the man, his astonishing deeds on earth, and though crucified, how he was exalted to heaven where he was made Lord and Christ.

This would surely have been the most natural and inevitable way Christian discussion and preaching would proceed. The movement had supposedly begun as a response to a human man. (p.19)

It was the man Jesus who had had such a profound impact on his followers and that led them to abandon their homes and families, their old customs and livelihoods.

But it’s not how the evidence tells us it happened

But what do we find in the letters of Paul and other early writers? They start with the divine Christ, the figure of the Son in heaven, and make their faith statements about him. And there is no equation with an historical man, a human preacher and prophet who had recently lived. Paul believes in a Son of God, not that anyone was the Son of God. (p. 19)

Paul summed up the core of the message he had passed on to the Corinthians:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor.15:3-4)

Doherty wonders why the identity of the human incarnation of this Christ was not part of the central message — even why the incarnation itself is not central. But he grants that we may suspect Paul omitted such “preliminaries” in a summary like this. So he turns to Paul’s “definition” of Father and Son:

yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (I Cor.8:6)

Doherty opines:

This is language very reminiscent of Greek philosophy. But it would seem that a fundamental description of the Son is not to include the fact that he was incarnated in the person of a human Jesus, the man through whom information about the Son was presumably derived. Such an idea Paul never mentions. (p. 20)

Faith is very important in Paul’s writings:

  • Faith in Jesus as the way to life
  • Faith God raised Jesus from the dead
  • (Faith that Jesus died, apparently from some passages)
  • Faith God has revealed the mystery about Christ now
  • But no reference to faith that the man Jesus of Nazareth had been incarnation of this Son, etc.

Other epistles contain “quite fantastic” descriptions of this Son:

He is the image of the invisible God, his is the primacy over all created things. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created. . . In him the complete being of God, by God’s own choice, came to dwell. Through him God chose to reconcile the whole universe to himself. . . . (Col.1:15-20 NEB)

Here is a being who is the very reflection of God, the very agent through whom God created the universe, the same one through whom he holds it all together, yet there is not a single mention in the entire letter that this same supremely exalted being was once a man on earth who had died the death of a criminal and had been exalted to become part of the Godhead. Was not faith in such a man able to find any place any such writings? Compare also the book of Hebrews.

The question that scholarship has never asked, yet is the most natural one of all



Paul’s understanding of the Earthly Leprechaun (not necessarily Historical) Jesus

Filed under: Eddy & Boyd: Jesus Legend,Jesus,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 3:11 pm
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This post addresses an argument that is found well beyond the covers of Eddy and Boyd. Nevertheless, I have been discussing in this blog bits of Eddy’s and Boyd’s case for refuting what they label the “‘legendary Jesus’ thesis” and defending the historicity of Jesus, and to mention them here seems an appropriate anchor. One of their discussions I have not yet covered is about Paul’s apparent silence about the life of the human Jesus.

Eddy and Boyd write:

In this [the “legendary-Jesus theorists”] view, Paul’s silence indicates that he did not view Jesus as a recent historical figure. (p. 201)

What E&B mean by “legendary Jesus theorists” covers a range of views including those who propose there was no historical person at all:

In this work, we will use “legend” in its more popular sense of a substantially nonhistorical/fictional story. (p.13)

Here is Eddy and Boyd’s list Paul’s references (my numbering) to a “recent historical Jesus” (p. 209): (more…)


Christian conversion – an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy

This is a continuation from Paul and the Stoics – 1, a look at Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s thesis.

The previous post introduced a model which enables us to see the stark similarities of the very structures and foundations of Paul’s theological thought with the Stoic philosophical teachings of his contemporaries. The source of these Stoic (and Pauline) concepts is traceable — not to a Palestinian itinerant or a blinding vision on a road to Damascus — but back to Aristotle.

The following synopsis is an overview of what Engberg-Pedersen’s model is all about. My discussion of it comes from me alone and is not part of E-P’s thoughts at all. Details will come in future discussions.

Aristotle’s Happiness :: the Stoic’s Reason :: Paul’s Christ

Whenever Paul in his letters turns to ethical discussions it is clear that he is intensely engaged in thought about the best form of human living, indeed, about the only right, overall shape of human life and behaviour in the here and now. When he bases his ethical discussions on the foundation of a full knowledge and grasp of Jesus Christ and the gospel, he is attempting to establish a general scheme or structure for the ideal and only right goal (ultimate point – telos) of how to live.

To this end Paul was engaged above all with practical thoughts and reasonings that lead to right actions or behaviours.

In doing this he is following in the footsteps of the Stoics who in this respect borrowed from Aristotle. Aristotle wrote that the good to which all aspects of one’s life should be directed was something final, perfect, indeed the most perfect thing. This “end” or “purpose” of a human life alone makes one’s life complete and self-sufficient. One reaches “perfection” in the sense of “being complete” and “having reached one’s end or goal” as a result of having lived a life in conformity with right behaviours, and right th0ughts that led to those right behaviours.

Aristotle and the later Stoics were strongly focussed on engaging in practical reasonings to understand how particular good acts could all be found to emanate from, and in turn be directed back towards, a single grasp or understanding of the “goal” or “directed end” of one’s life.

For Aristotle, this “end” was “happiness”. For the Stoics, it was “reason”. For Paul, it was “Christ”.

The Good in Relation to the World, Self and Others

For Aristotle the “good” that was the “end” of a human life consisted not only of justice (first of all), and moderation, courage, magnanimity, and more, but also of fundamental worldly goods that are needed to sustain life. Note that these qualities include not only “individualistic” virtues, but also “altruistic” ones too.

The Stoics modified Aristotle at this point, and excluded those worldly goods from the essence of what was “Good” for a human. The consequence of this was that Stoic philosophy extensively explored the question of how a “good” person was to relate to the material things of the world. But like Aristotle, Stoics also saw a virtuous life as consisting of qualities pertaining alone to an individual (e.g. moderation) as well as qualities that governed a person’s relations with others for the good of others (e.g. justice, magnanimity).

Paul clearly reflects the Stoic’s philosophy of ethics here.

To Know, To Will, To Do or Not To Do

Intellectual insight is of paramount importance to Aristotle when describing the moral person. For Aristotle, moral insight at the cognitive level is the key to controlling one’s desires and emotions. This intellectual insight is an ability to grasp what one’s life ought to be about and to accordingly understand the right acts one ought to do in order to achieve that end.

For Aristotle virtue is a state of mind that may not always be active. But thoughts — right understanding — can activate it and lead to perform right actions and behaviour.

This “activation” of virtue is Aristotle’s word “energeia”, and it is found in the same context in Paul’s address to the Galatians:

For in Christ Jesus . . . faith works (=is active; “energoumene”) through love (5:6)

Paul’s discussion in Romans 7 about mental conflicts over knowing what to do, knowing “the good”, yet failing to do it despite desiring to do what one intellectually knows to do, follows in the train of the same discussion initiated by Aristotle and developed by the Stoics.

Aristotle’s discussion concluded that there were three states of virtue:

  1. a fully virtuous person is one who has a state of desire and intellectual understanding that leaves no room whatever for a divided mind. By definition a fully virtuous person will always do what is required;
  2. a person who understands cognitively what is to be done, and desires to do it, but who simultaneously has countervening desires and thus has a divided mind, is the person who struggles against these pulls of the flesh and overcomes to do what is right;
  3. a weak-willed person is also of a divided mind, but gives in to their base desires.

Stoics placed even more emphasis on the cognitive understanding of the “end” or goal of one’s life and associated moral virtues than found in Aristotle. For the Stoics,

everything hangs on coming to see the good, on getting a proper rational grasp of it. Then all ‘passions’ will be blotted out. There will be no weakness of will. And one will always and only act upon one’s (new) insight. (p. 53)

That does not rule out the fact of human weakness or a life-long seeking after and growing in “perfection”. But the relevance of this Stoic teaching to Paul’s thought is surely obvious. E-P states

That is why the basic structure in Stoic ethics comes very close to describing a case of conversion. That that is one further reason why it is particularly relevant to Paul. (p. 53)


Much of what is described above may sound like bland truisms to some readers, but that is because we have been immersed in a culture rooted in Christian and Aristotelian traditions.

It is the cognitive foundation of Christian ethics and its related view of their place in the world, vis a vis God, other Christians and nonbelievers, that deserves examination and critique. A humanist (and more humane?) ethic, on the other hand, surely must be grounded in an integrated view of the whole person — thoughts and emotions, understanding and feelings. By pitting parts of our nature against other parts, I believe that our cultural and religious traditions have invited mental and emotional dysfunctions and abuses. I do not deny that some have also been led to lead better lives than they would otherwise have done also as a result of this tradition. But the tree needs examination for all the fruit it has borne, the good and the bad.

By reading Paul in the context of the ethical philosophical discussions that were part of his heritage one also potentially gains a clearer perspective of the nature of Christianity and its relevance for today. Do we really want to cling to an ethical, anthropological and cosmological system that is in excess of 2000 years old? Have we not made at least some progress morally since then?

I am also interested in viewing Paul through this perspective because of what it might well explain about the dichotomy between Paul’s letters and the Gospels. Paul’s Christ is surely a heavenly entity without any ties to this world apart from those of the core gospel message (his incarnation, death and resurrection). Paul’s ethics and Christ derive from reflection, thought, and a philosophical tradition, not from sermons on mounts or ministries of healing.

The Details

This introduces the overview of what E-P’s model is all about. Details of what happens at each point of the diagram to follow.


Paul and the Stoics – 1

In Paul and the Stoics (2000) Troels Engberg-Pedersen, building on major scholarly perspectives of Paul, argues for three new ways of understanding Paul’s thought and “theology”.

1. Historical reading

Following Malherbe (Paul and the Popular Philosophers, et al), E-P insists that Paul should not be seen as “against” some Greco-Roman background, but as “being ‘ part of a shared context’: a shared Greco-Roman discourse in which he participated as a Hellenistic Jew.” For E-P this means much more than compiling a stock-take of the points where Paul’s thought compares and contrasts with its religious-historical background. E-P goes much further than Malherbe by arguing that Paul’s overall thought shares the ancient ethical traditions of moral philosophers of his day.

In brief, the present work argues for similarity of ideas between Paul and the Stoics right across the board and fundamentally questions the widespread view that [there is a] basic, intrinsic difference between the perspectives of Paul the (Hellenistic) Jew and the ethical tradition of the Greeks. (p.11)

The basic similarity between Paul and the Stoics, argues E-P, is “not just with regard to a number of particular, relatively minor topoi, but to whole cluster of motifs that together constitute a major pattern of thought.” What does Paul share with the ethical view of his day, in particular with his contemporary Stoics? E-P argues that they both share “the idea of a ‘conversion’ or ‘call’ understood as a change in self-understanding“. More specifically, they share the idea of an ethical change as

a move away from identification with the self as a bodily, individual being,

via an identification with something outside the self,

and to a perspective shared with and also directed towards others,

[and this perspective will then also] issue immediately in practice.”

2. The validity of Paul’s discursive arguments apart from ideological critique

E-P describes his approach to Paul as a complement of Meeks’ study in The First Urban Christians. While Meeks interprets discrete ideas of Paul and metaphors he used through the actual community practices in relation to their wider social world, E-P focuses entirely on the discursive — sequential and logically knit — ideas of Paul. These, he believes, tell their own valid story without having to be subsumed under attention to arguments about social practice.

3. The consistency of Paul’s thought

Thirdly, E-P embraces the “Paul-was-positive-about-everything-distinctly-Jewish” arguments connected with Sanders and Räisänen. But where S and R see Paul struggling, even psychologically, from letter to letter to work out a consistent argument to accommodate a godly law with the saving power of faith in Christ, E-P, on the other hand, argues that there is far more consistency than S and R realized. This consistency is brought to light when the letters are read with an ancient Stoic’s perspective.

The Paradoxical Junction

So for all of Paul’s apocalyptic and religious terminology, Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s study of Paul’s epistles has concluded that, at core, Paul expresses a message that mirrors what contemporary Stoic philosophers understood as the human situation and the processes required for this to be exalted to an ideal norm.

Paul’s Christ, for example, serves the same function as Reason or “Logos” in the Stoic philosophy of Cicero and Seneca. One’s life is ideally to be found “in Reason/Christ”, conforming one’s life to that of the nature of Reason/Christ, with one’s fleshly desires and passions mortified, and in the process being found in a new community (whose polity is from above, not of this earth) of like-minded others.  Both Stoicism and Paul’s Christianity are normative. That is, both teach that one’s conduct is to be governed by clearly defined standards.

To take a trivial example, where the Stoics spoke of rationality and reason (though also identifying this with God), Paul speaks of God and Christ. Still, the claim is that it is the same basic structure that holds together Stoic ethics and Paul’s comprehensive theologizing. Only, where they set forth the structure in its transparent nakedness, Paul made use of the same structure, but in a welter of ways of speaking that were partly philosophical and partly metaphorical (though Paul himself probably considered them eminently ‘realistic’ and directly referential). (p. 47)

Of  course there are differences. Paul’s communities (churches) are more every-day realities than sought-for ideals; Stoic philosophy consistently enjoins compassion for a wider circle of humanity than do Paul’s letters.

Paul and the Stoics argues that the primary differences do not touch on the common substance underlying both Stoic and Pauline views of human nature and its transformation via a higher agent. The differences very often come down to being matters of expressive metaphors and presentation styles. Paul’s apocalyptic and religious language smokescreens the fact that his thought draws on the repository of Stoic philosophy. For all of Paul’s asserted concern for a time and event that is not yet here, but nonetheless imminent, and for “the Christ event” having initiated the time towards that final event, Paul remains committed and most concerned about the here and now, in particular about the cognitive understandings, self-identities, and behaviour and conduct of individuals and communities in the here and now.

The Model

E-P uses a diagram to illustrate his model to help readers follow the common thread in both Paul’s and Stoic writings. I have drawn a much simplified version of this:


E-P calls it the I-X-S model. Keep in mind that I have simplified E-P’s original diagram. I will also be compelled to somewhat simplify the explanation of the model.

The I box represents the individual before being converted (to either Stoicism or Christianity). This individual values and follows the basic self-centred desires, such as for food, clothing, pleasure and so on. It does not matter if this individual belongs to whatever other social groups, or even if he or she lives a life of isolation from others, the basic values of this person relate to the person’s bodily needs and interests.

The X box represents God, identified as Reason by the Stoics and with (sometimes as) Christ by Paul. When the individual (I) is “struck by” Reason/Christ (X) he attains a cognitive understanding of the nature of X, and responds with a desire to reach towards X. The individual begins to conform one’s values to those of X. This means that he comes to have an “objective” view of himself as a result of seeing himself in the same way X sees him. The individual’s desires and values now conform to those of X. The individual becomes of “one mind” with X.

The S box represents the quintessential social community. After the individual is “struck by” and reaches upward towards Reason/Christ, he or she is placed via X into this community of like-minded persons. This community is the one the individual comes to identify with, no matter what other attachments to former communities or groups remain. The individual now has the same values and objective outlook on himself and the world and all others in it. The individual now has the same concern for fellow community members as does X. He/she no longer primarily values her own interests, but the interests of all members equally. The community also reaches up towards X as it continues to seek to identify more with X and the values and mind of X.

The I box is placed lowest in the diagram to represent its “far removed from, or far below, the X” state in the cosmology. It is also placed on the left as an indicator that it is a condition that exists prior to its mutual relationship with X and being placed into the X-designated community.

Once an I is “in X” and then “in S”, one is “in” these absolutely, completely, as surely as black is black and white is white. In another sense, one is also progressing towards a fuller grasp of X and and a one-ness with S.

That’s enough for one post. Will continue with some specifics in another posting soon-ish.

Continued in Christian conversion — an idea crafted by Paul from ancient philosophy

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The diverse Jewish religious environment of Paul outmatches the imagination of Borg and Crossan

Following on from this previous post . . . . .

Borg and Crossan (B and C) (The First Paul) attempt to argue that despite Paul’s clear assertions that he sought to preach only “Christ crucified” and that “Jesus is Lord”, that this could not possibly have been true:

[W]e think the notion that Paul’s message was primarily or exclusively about the death of Jesus and not his life is highly unlikely. Indeed, we find it impossible to imagine. As an illustration, imagine a conversation between Paul and someone he sought to convert. Imagine, for example, Paul’s conversation with Lydia (Acts 16:13-15). (p. 126)

Borg and Crossan then portray Lydia as a very capable and intelligent woman (she was a seller of a luxury item) who was a gentile “God seeker”.

Now imagine Paul telling Lydia about Jesus. Imagine, also, that he focuses on “Christ crucified” (and also, of course, on “Jesus Christ is Lord”). One cannot imagine the conversation going very far before Lydia asks, “Well, this Jesus you talk about who was crucified and then raised from the dead, what was he like?” Paul says, “Never mind what he was like — what really matters is that he was the Son of God who was crucified and died for your sins.” Such an answer would have had no meaning for her. It would have been a conversation stopper.

For Paul to have told her about Jesus’s death would have had no meaning unless he also told her about what Jesus was like, about the kind of person he was. What was this person like who got crucified? What did he stand for that led to his execution by the powers that ruled his world and then his resurrection by God? Who was the Jesus who is now Lord? Proclaiming “Christ crucified” could not (and still cannot) exclude talking about what Jesus was like, what he taught, and what he stood for.” (pp.126-127)

It simply does not occur to many bible scholars (Borg and Crossan are not alone) who are, to a large extent, essentially supported  by various Christian communities, to re-examine their historicist assumptions that force them into the position of having to make up imaginary scenarios like the one above to support their arguments. There is simply no evidence that Paul was ever obliged to, or ever did, discuss the pre-crucifixion life and character of an historical Jesus. The evidence that we do have actually speaks against any idea that he did do this. But the assumptions from which Borg and Crossan are working force them to imagine that Paul must necessarily have preached something akin to one of our four narrative gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit now that I once thanked Crossan for helping me appreciate the importance of “historical methodology”. Well, his Historical Jesus did take me a long way forward from where I had been until that time. But boy have I learned so much more since. Mostly what I’ve learned since is not that hard, really. Simply study the historians and classicists of nonbiblical ancient history and literature topics and apply their methods consistently to the biblical topics too. No favourites or disciplines with special rules to make them somehow exceptional cases. (Okay, I had several years studying ancient history as an undergraduate so I guess it’s a bit easier for me than some others. But I’m trying to share on this blog.)

What else could Paul possibly have preached?

Just what he said he preached. Christ crucified, for starters. Why is this a problem for most? Because, I suspect, we start out with assumptions of Jesus’ historicity. The gospel crucifixion scene consists of only the last few chapters of each of the gospels. It is not enough of a narrative on its own. It needs all the earlier bits like the healings, the miracles, the teachings, the crowds and conflicts, to mean anything much. But all of these are generally acknowledged as having been written long after Paul.

All this starts to make more sense when we understand that first century c.e. Judaism was not the rigidly “monotheistic” cult that we associate with later rabbinism and today’s Jews. Whether we follow Margaret Barker and her The Great Angel : a Study of Israel’s Second God (which proposes that Judaism before the fall of the Temple in 70 c.e. contained factions that effectively still retained memories of El, Yawheh, Asherah as distinct yet all divine beings) or James F. McGrath and his The Only True God : Early Christian

Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (which argues that what passed for “monotheism” in the first century was a broader definition than we allow today), one soon learns that Judaism before the fall of the Temple was not the same as what it became in the second century.

Just a few drops to indicate the incredible diversity of Second Temple religious beliefs among Jews, which later rabbinic Judaism attempted to deny:

  1. For some Jews, individuals such as Jacob existed in heaven before they appeared on earth, as we learn from The Prayer of Joseph.
  2. And some wrote of subordinate heavenly beings with names like Yaoel, a contraction of Yahweh and El, as in The Apocalypse of Abraham, a text with remarkable echoes of the Gospel of John.
  3. Some factions also dedicated themselves to the study of “hidden wisdom” and roles of angels, as we learn from apocalyptic texts like the Book of Enoch.
  4. Even the New Testament cannot avoid reference to these narratives of great powers in heaven, including their Enochian source, as we see in Jude.
  5. For others, such practices had to be denounced and expunged, as we see from the survival of the texts that have since become the Jewish Bible and Christianity‘s Old Testament.
  6. I have also discussed in depth Levenson’s exploration of how the Isaac story among some Jews apparently became transformed into a death and resurrection narrative by the Second Temple period.Apocalyptic literarature of Second Temple Judaism
  7. And first century Jewish philosopher Philo also speaks of the Logos as a second god.
  8. Recall also the varied myths of Jacob’s Ladder,
  9. and speculations that changed the original Aramaic meaning of Son of Man in Daniel.
  10. and the “two powers in heaven” “heresy” with Metatron being found in the place of God in heaven according to visionary narratives.
  11. and those strange references in the New Testament and other unorthodox Jewish literature to Melchizedek
  12. and how seriously should we read take the description of a woman in Revelation being clothed with the sun — surely an obvious allusion to her divinity — who bore a child who was not crucified on earth but whisked immediately to heaven?
  13. and the survival of the Ugaritic divinities in various forms in the apocalyptic literature, and Margaret Barker’s discussions of the distinctions between El and Yahweh even in the OT.
  14. and the cosmic-spiritual meanings attributed to astronomical data, including within Mithraism of the same era.
  15. and the Qumran community with texts discussing unorthodox messiahs
  16. and Samaritan traditions, some involving John the Baptist,
  17. and some scholars suggesting a link between Simon the Sorcerer in Acts and Paul, and Damscus traditions
  18. and what do the above suggest about Paul’s reference to “the god of this world” who is responsible for the blindness of mankind and “the rulers of this age” or “the princes of this world“. In what sort of theological framework was he immersed?
  19. and what did he discuss among converts about the meaning of his vision of Jesus, and the times he felt himself taken up to the different levels of heavens, and the meanings of the “marks of Jesus” in his hands, as he also mentions in his letters, and the power of angels from heaven to preach, and what he meant by Christ being revealed “in him”, and being “set forth crucified” before the very eyes of the Galatians?
  20. To answer, these contents of Paul’s letters ought not to be overlooked as embarrassing oddities. We need to seriously consider how Christianity could have been so overwhelmingly dominated by Marcionites and Valentinians in the early second century, and that it was only as that century wore on that current orthodoxy began to gain the upper hand. Recall how the orthodox (Tertullian?) could even say that Paul was “the apostle of the heretics”.

Paul’s letters need to be read against this three dimensional context of Jewish religious speculation and writings, not just through the two dimensional OT and modern Christianity perspective.

Once we leave behind the monochrome Judaism of our OT and begin to enter the far richer and more complex world that was first century c.e. Judaism then Paul’s letters begin to need less creative imagination from Borg and Crossan to explain. Lydia was a capable and articulate woman who may well have been engaged by a theological-cum-philosophical discussion about powers and beings of heaven and what they offered anew for people like her on earth. Or maybe there was much allegorizing, as we find in the first gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Mark, seen by many as reflecting the theology of Paul, allegorizes the crucifixion to indicate the overthrow of the demonic powers of this earth and the opening of the gateway (cross/ecliptic . . .) between heaven and earth, an event privatized for Jesus at his baptism, but made available to believers with the tearing of the veil (representing heaven with its pattern of stars) that had hitherto separated the place of God from the place of humankind. Paul’s cross fits in well with theologies of the overthrow of demonic or “lesser god” powers, and declaring just and saved all who believe in their “oneness with God” through the cross, symbol of giving up all their earthly desires, and symbol of the gateway between heaven and earth.

I suspect Paul taught the sorts of things he wrote about. He discussed why and how circumcision was no longer valid because of the complex meaning — hitherto a mystery, as he says — of the crucifixion of Jesus. He taught about how a new way of relating to God could be based on faith in a crucified Messiah, much as Stoics could teach of a new way of living and relating to the cosmos through the denial of the flesh (see Engberg-Pedersen — will do some posts on his work some time). In both, new communities arose out of such teachings. All of this is lost to modern readers who are fixated on an historical interpretation of a narrative that in its original form was clearly allegorical — see my notes on Gospel of Mark on my vridar.info site.

By no means am I claiming that the above points as presented like this are proof or even linking evidence that Paul did teach something more esoteric than a biographical narrative. I can do no more in this post than point out the religious environment and suggest alternatives. There is certainly no evidence for B’s and C’s imaginative scenario — quite the contrary.


A capable, intelligent, “God-seeker” like Lydia was also immersed in this world of theological diversity, and no doubt would have been wrapped in any such discussion. The original narrator of the tale, the author of Acts and Luke, however, was a proto-orthodox Christian opposed to such speculations. For him, the literal interpretation of the narrative of Jesus was destined to replace the heretical speculations the original devotees of Paul clung to.

The crucifixion has no meaning without resurrection?

This is certainly true according to B and C. But if that was really true for Paul then one must remain at least somewhat perplexed by his frequent separate treatment of them – even sometimes discussing the meaning of the crucifixion without any reference to resurrection at all. When Paul does discuss resurrection, it is to affirm life after death and the ongoing Lordship of Jesus. These are not, contra B and C, presented as “answers” to the crucifixion. The death of Jesus has its own salvific value for Paul quite apart from any discussion of a resurrection. But this is another topic if I need to pull out the citations etc to make the point. Later. Enough blogging for one weekend.

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