2009-06-21

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Lydia

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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4 Comments

  • 2009-06-22 03:00:55 UTC - 03:00 | Permalink

    JW:
    “The Gospel of Mark, seen by many as reflecting the theology of Paul”

    It sure looks like Paul was a source for “Mark”. See the legendary Vorkosigan analysis:

    http://www.michaelturton.com/Mark/GMark10.html#10X

    The question is, is “Mark” primarily presenting Art or Theology? Is Art primarily what is being presented and Theology is just the selected subject matter or is Theology what is being presented but with style?

    Bible scholarship just assumes that “Mark” is Theology but this is based on the false assumption that the story was already known. This is false because “Mark” is the original story.

    In “Mark” everything, including Jesus, is subject to the Ironic style. Errorgo, Ironic Style was more important to “Mark” than jesus. This has the advantage of explaining how the author of “Mark” came to be unknown:

    Believer: Did you write “Mark”?

    Mark: Yes.

    Believer: Did you know Jesus or anyone who knew Jesus?

    Mark: No

    Believer: Why did you write “Mark”?

    Mark: To entertain.

    Believer: You did not write “Mark”.

    Once Christianity eliminated Mark as the author of “Mark” there was no one left who could have been the author.

    Additionally, “good news” is usually/always used ironically in the Greek Jewish Bible. We need to document this.

    Joseph

    • 2009-06-22 06:44:04 UTC - 06:44 | Permalink

      I think I used to have a number of discussions with Michael Turton on his Mark-Paul relationship — there is so much to suggest a relationship, but there is also, I think, much against as well. I sometimes wonder if the gospel author was a break-away from Paul, not a follower. Or maybe the gospel has been redacted to make it more compatible with orthodoxy, just as Paul has been also. Still an open question for me.

  • 2009-06-24 06:07:31 UTC - 06:07 | Permalink

    Margaret Barker sees the possibility of Jesus being depicted as part of the “royal tradition” where — according to the nonorthodox apocalyptic literature such as 1 Enoch — kings are associated with wisdom, the power to perform exorcisms of demons, miracles — all of which was eschewed by the Deuteronomists and what we have in our rabbinic/deuteronomistic OT.

    Also “euaggelion” was used of Roman emperors, too — such as the monuments of Augustus.

    Both these factors give indirect support to Aichele’s reference to good news in respect to the news about a king in the context of Mark 1:1.

    The most immediate and less subtle irony associated with Mark 1:1 is, as per Camery-Hoggatt (Irony in Mark’s Gospe) the fact that just after the great announcement of the opening line, followed by the dramatic build up by John the Baptist who is himself one of the greats, all Jesus does is go and get dunked in a stream, depart for a while, then come back and start preaching etc. — this is a prelude to the apparent anti-climax of the crucifixion (ditto after his transfiguration — big Mount Sinai like build up for a mere exorcism at the end) — where is the great judgement of the king? It is, of course, (though this is not from C-H), in his royal acts of excorcisms (as per that Jewish strand of religion that saw Solomon doing the same), etc. This king is on the outer, as is that stream of Judaism on the outer against the Pharisees/rabbinic groups with their Deuteronomist bias.

    Christianity began, I believe, as an outgrowth of that alternative strand of Judaism not represented in rabbinic or orthodox Christian interpretation of the OT and its response to the crisis of 66-70 c.e.

    Semitic and Egyptian (Coptic) strands of Christianity are today the only ones who preserve this memory with their ongoing respect for what was a much more respectable book among early Christians generally – the Enochian literature.

  • 2009-06-23 22:22:38 UTC - 22:22 | Permalink

    JW:
    “Mark’s” source for the Irony of a messenger with good news receiving an ironic reaction to the good news is the Jewish Bible (surprise). The legendary Vorkosigan has already walked these grounds for irony:

    Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark Chapter 1
    http://www.michaelturton.com/Mark/GMark01.html


    v1: George Aichele (2003) writes:

    “In the Old Testament, euaggelion appears only in 2 Samuel (LXX 2 Kings) 4:10, where David kills the messenger who brings the “good news” of Saul’s death. In addition, the plural form, euaggelia.appears four times in 2 Samuel 18:20, 22, 25, and 27, where it is used in the description of David’s reception of the “tidings” of Absalom’s death, and in 2 Kings (LXX 4 Kings) 7:9, where lepers discover the abandoned camp of the Syrian army. With the exception of this last instance, the message that is brought is not clearly a good one. None of these texts throws much light on the gospel of Mark’s use of the term, unless one wishes to argue that Mark is using the term ironically.

    JW:
    Yes, who would want to argue that “Mark” wanted to be Ironic?

    2 Samuel 4:10-12


    10 when one told me, saying, Behold, Saul is dead, thinking to have brought good tidings, I took hold of him, and slew him in Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his tidings.

    11 How much more, when wicked men have slain a righteous person in his own house upon his bed, shall I not now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth?

    12 And David commanded his young men, and they slew them, and cut off their hands and their feet, and hanged them up beside the pool in Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth, and buried it in the grave of Abner in Hebron.

    JW:
    Note that the theme from the Jewish Bible here is the ironic reaction of killing a messenger who thought he was bringing good news to his audience. Note additionally that David refers to this same phenomena happening in the past as an explanation for his present actions. This is the same primary theme in “Mark”, Jesus as messenger with good news ironically receiving a reaction of being killed for it.

    Joseph

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