For all posts in this series: Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity
Previous post in this series: Part 12: A Different Perspective on the Corinthian Controversy (conclusion)
|We finally come to the question of how my Simonian hypothesis would deal with the inconsistent Pauline position regarding the Mosaic Law. Like resurrection, the Law was a subject about which Simon of Samaria’s teaching differed significantly from that of the proto-orthodox. So if the Paul who authored the original letters was Simon, we can expect to find in the canonical versions signs of proto-orthodox intervention aimed at the correction of his errors on that issue.
Most of what the Apostle wrote about the Law was in the context of its relationship to sin and justification. It is thought that Gal. 2:16 is the earliest mention in the letters of justification/righteousness/rectification (dikaioō; dikaiosynē) by faith apart from works of the Law. Teachers— again, apparently connected to the Jerusalem church—were pushing his Galatian faithful to receive circumcision and observe at least some parts of the Law. The teachers were likely preaching a justification that was in some way connected with the Law. The Apostle responded with a letter that put a different twist on this.
Justification and Law in the Apostle’s gospel
|Justification becomes easier to understand if God’s beef was with the sinfully proud spirits who ruled the world.|
Regarding justification by faith William Wrede long ago pointed out that:
The Reformation has accustomed us to look upon this as the central point of Pauline doctrine, but it is not so. In fact the whole Pauline religion can be expounded without a word being said about this doctrine, unless it be in the part devoted to the Law. It would be extraordinary if what was intended to be the chief doctrine were referred to only in a minority of the epistles. That is the case with this doctrine: it only appears where Paul is dealing with the strife against Judaism. And this fact indicates the real significance of the doctrine. It is the polemical doctrine of Paul, is only made intelligible by the struggle of his life, his controversy with Judaism and Jewish Christianity, and is only intended for this. (Paul, p. 123)
But if justification by faith was not at the center of the Apostle’s gospel, he did see it as at least a nonnegotiable implication. And this makes sense if, as I proposed in posts 7 through 9, the written source of his gospel message was the Vision of Isaiah. For the Vision foretells that preachers will be sent out into the whole world (Ascension of Isaiah 9:17, in the L2 and S versions), but does not say that the Law or Law observance will be part of what they preach. The Law is not mentioned at all in the Vision nor does it say anything about a distinction of Jews from Gentiles. It condemns the spirit rulers of this world and offers a life in heaven to their subjects, but gives no special prerogatives to the Jewish ones. The idea that the message must first be offered to Jews and only afterwards to Gentiles is absent.
One could easily conclude that if the Vision doesn’t require circumcision or Law observance as conditions for liberation from the rulers, it is wrong for preachers of the gospel to require such. Apparently all that is required to benefit from the preached message is to believe it and, while waiting for the imminent destruction of this world, to conduct oneself in a way pleasing to the God who graciously initiated the rescue.
Moreover, in the Vision the sinfulness that is spotlighted is that of the rulers of this world. It is their pride that God forcefully condemns. He sends his Son to
judge and destroy the princes and angels and gods of that world, and the world that is dominated by them. For they have denied me and said: “We alone are and there is none beside us.” (Ascension of Isaiah 10:12-13).
In the Vision men come across not as the guilty, but as the victims. Their plight is to live in a dark world run by rulers whose “envy of one another and fighting…” make it a place where “there is a power of evil and envying about trifles” (Ascension of Isaiah 10:29). The “angels of death” (10:14) keep those who have died locked in Sheol until the Son comes to free them.
In Galatians a similar emphasis has been noted by some scholars:
The redemption is, according to Paul, in a phrase which is brief and yet exact, release from the misery of this whole present world (Gal. 1:4). Every other conception of it, even release from sin, would be too narrow. The character of this present world is determined by the fact that men are here under the domination of dark and evil powers. The chief of these are the flesh, sin, the Law and death. (William Wrede, Paul, p. 92)
For Paul, the problem that needs to be addressed is not so much ‘sins,’ transgressions of divinely given commandments, as Sin, a malevolent enslaving and godlike power under which all human beings are held captive. (Martinus C. de Boer, Galatians: A Commentary, p. 35)
So it may be that the Vision of Isaiah holds the key to a correct grasp of what Paul meant by “justification.” Scholars have always had a hard time explaining that doctrine. A big part of their problem may be their belief that God and men were the parties at odds. Justification becomes easier to understand if God’s beef was with the sinfully proud spirits who ruled the world. In this case the Son’s intervention in the world not only vindicates God vis-à-vis these pretentious rulers, it also vindicates men in regard to them. God, by initiating the destruction of the world and its rulers, has in effect acquitted their subjects. His condemnation of the rulers has freed those they heavy-handedly ruled.
A God-less Law
|If we interpret Galatians in total independence of Romans (as its original readers had to do) . . . it looks like Paul denied God had anything to do with the Law.|
In light of the above the disparagement of the Law in Galatians appears in a different light, especially the surprising statement at Gal: 3:19-20:
The Law was instituted by angels through an intermediary. Now a mediator does not represent one person, but God is one.
These verses seem to imply that God was not one of the parties directly involved when the Law of Moses was given. An intermediary was necessary because the party that gave the Law consisted of angels. The intermediary in question was apparently Moses, and he spoke not for God, but for the angels.
What Paul says here [in Gal. 3:19] has caused many a headache to interpreters, for by suggesting that the Law ‘was ordained by angels through an intermediary’, Paul is apparently denying the direct divine origin of the Torah, something that would be quite unthinkable to Jews, and that is difficult to reconcile with Paul’s own teaching elsewhere. (John W. Drane, Paul — Libertine or Legalist?, p. 32)
If we interpret Galatians in total independence of Romans (as its original readers had to do), it appears more likely that Paul intended the mention of angels to disparage the Law, and on the basis of this particular passage we can only conclude that here he was meaning to issue a categorical denial of the divine origin of the Torah. (Paul — Libertine or Legalist?, p. 34)
There are scholars who think that Gal. 3:19-20 is saying even more than this. They think that when the passage is read independently of Romans it looks like Paul was denying God had anything at all to do with the Mosaic Law, that it was
something God did not intend to happen (Martinus C. de Boer, Galatians: A Commentary, p. 230).
Full responsibility for it belonged to a group of angels who acted without his permission. Some identify those angels as being the “Elements of the world” (stoicheia) who are spoken of in the very next chapter of Galatians (4:3 and 9).
But from this theory, that the Law was given by angels, Paul draws inferences which are quite foreign to the other representations of the view. Whereas these do not go beyond saying that the Law was made known on God’s behalf by angels, he advances to the statement, which occurs only in him, that the obedience rendered to the Law was rendered not to God but only to the angels. By means of the Law men were placed in pupilage to the World-Elements (stoicheia tou kosmou, Gal. iv. 3, 9), who kept them in dependence upon themselves, until God, through Christ, set them free from the curse of the Law (Gal. iv. 1-5). Accordingly when those who had been heathens submitted themselves as Christians to the Law this means, according to Paul, nothing else than that, instead of serving solely the one God, they once more (though in another form) submit themselves to the World-Elements, now rendered powerless by Christ, observing the “days, months, seasons, and years” which belong to their service (Gal. iv. 8-11)
…. With his assertion that the Law signified the dominion of angels, and not the dominion of God, Paul took a step outside the Jewish world of thought and prepared the way to Gnosticism. (Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, pp. 70-71)
Now, those mainstream scholars who interpret Gal. 3:19-20 in these ways do not, of course, see Paul as being the radical figure that I think he is. I would be very surprised if any of them has ever given a moment’s thought to the possibility that the passage belongs to a Simonian letter that was later interpolated. Usually it is surmised that Paul may not have been serious or may have only temporarily embraced such a radical idea regarding the genesis of Law. After all, what he wrote about it in Galatians must still be reconciled with what he later wrote in Romans, right? So, for example, H.J. Schoeps says:
It is clear that in the heat of the contest Paul had allowed himself to be driven to make assertions which on calmer reflection he could hardly have maintained seriously, if only not to run the risk of ridicule (Paul, p. 183).
And Heikki Räisänen writes that
In light of the context and the fact that Paul never returns to this suggestion of the origin of the law it looks as if he were simply toying with an idea which, however, seemed rather too daring even to him — at least later on. (Paul and the Law, p. 133).
I myself am not convinced that the Apostle later abandoned his claim that the authority behind the Sinaitic Law was angelic, not divine. If he abandoned it, why in his later letter does he say that “the Law came in stealthily in order to increase the trespass” (Rom. 5:20, my bolding)? I am aware that most translations render the first verb simply as “came in” or “entered.” But the Greek verb “pareiserchomai” means “to enter in stealthily” or “with unworthy motives” (see Bauer’s Lexicon). The only other time the word is used in the Paulines is at Gal. 2:4, and there translators correctly render the meaning as: “false brethren… came in stealthily to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” (my bolding). I can understand that the Apostle would accuse the false brethren of coming in under false pretenses, but why, if he thought the Law was from God, would he say that it too entered in a sneaky manner?
Did Paul reconsider?
But let’s go right to the part of Romans that is usually touted as the unmistakable evidence that Paul accepted the divine origin of the Law: Romans 7. It is supposedly there that we can read what a less emotional Paul thought on the subject:
Christian exegetes have been repeatedly embarrassed when their Jewish colleagues cite Paul’s intemperate and quasi-gnostic comments about the Law in Galatians (e.g. 3:19-20). In the state of embarrassment more than one Christian interpreter has turned to the seventh chapter of Romans, in order to remind the Jewish colleagues that when Paul was in his ‘reasonable and balanced mind,’ he characterized the Law as holy, just and good. (J. Louis Martyn, “Apocalyptic Antinomies in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,” New Testament Studies 31, p. 410)
At first blush Romans 7 does seem to provide assurance that the Apostle acknowledged the Mosaic Law to be from God (Rom. 7:22) and that he accordingly held it to be spiritual (Rom. 7:14), holy, just and good (Rom. 7:12). I would point out, however, that these clear positives about the Law belong to a passage that is one of the most bizarre anywhere in Paul’s letters.
In the thicket of Pauline scholarship, Romans 7 is no doubt the center of its darkest, thorniest, and most disputed territory… Readers of the New Testament from the second century onward have argued about Paul’s meaning. (Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert, p. 224)
There is perhaps no chapter in the epistle which has given rise to so many divergent interpretations as this. The most disputed question is, When Paul in this chapter says ‘I’, what does he mean? Mankind? The Jewish people? Himself as a non-Christian Jew? Himself as a Christian? (C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 140)
It was the Sphinx of ancient times who posed a mysterious riddle to travelers on their way to Thebes. In the same way, Paul bequeathed a mysterious riddle to interpreters of Romans by introducing the enigmatic “I” of 7:7-25. (Kari Kuula, The Law, the Covenant, and God’s Plan, volume 2, p. 238)
The main section of the chapter (7:7-25) is “something of an excursus” (Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 424). The Apostle, fearing that his readers might have drawn the wrong conclusion from what he had written, interrupted his argument and asked:
What then can we say? That the Law is sin? Absolutely not! (Rom. 7:7)
It may have looked like Paul was identifying the Law with sin, but here in Rom. 7:7 we are assured that we can rule out that interpretation. It turns out that what he meant was: the Law was something good that was used by sin to kill him.
Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Without the law sin lies dead. I was once alive without the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? Absolutely not! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Rom. 7:7-13, my bolding)
Having exonerated the Law, the Apostle then goes on to say more about the real culprit: Sin dwelling inside him.
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, nothing good dwells. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. I find, then, the law, that when I want to do right, evil is present. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Rom. 7:14-25, my bolding)
Normally the use of ‘I’ refers back to the speaker. But many scholars understandably have a hard time accepting that in these passages Paul could be speaking about himself. Nowhere else in the letters does he give any indication of being such a tortured soul. And his proud assertion in Phil. 3:6 that “in righteousness based on law I was blameless” is difficult to reconcile with the description here of his inability to observe the Law. Strange too for “a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5) are the words “I was once alive without the law, but when the commandment came …”
As Douglas Moo notes,
there is little evidence that a Jewish child was ever considered to have so little responsibility for the law as to be said to be “without the law” (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 430).
Attempts to explain Romans 7:7-25
It can scarcely be the Paul we know from elswhere so does the passage speak of . . .
- the typical Jew?
- the typical Gentile God-fearer?
- Unregenerate humanity?
- Everyman, including Christians?
So there are many who reject an autobiographical interpretation of Rom. 7:7-25 and propose instead that Paul is using a stylistic figure of speech. He is supposedly using it to more vividly portray the plight of Adam. Or, say others, the plight of a typical Jew. Or, according to others, the predicament of a typical Gentile God-fearer. Or of unregenerate humanity. Or of Everyman, including Christians. But as a glance at any thorough commentary on Romans will show, there are significant problems with each of these proposed solutions. And, in general, it can be objected that the Roman Christians Paul was writing to were people with whom he was not personally acquainted. So even assuming they would have recognized the kind of rhetorical device he was using, wouldn’t he have to say something to let them know who the “I” was? Could he really expect his unfamiliar readers to correctly figure out that key piece of information?
We have, then, what Thomas H. Tobin SJ refers to as a “kaleidoscope of interpretations” and, continues the Jesuit scholar,
one is tempted to give up in despair of ever understanding Paul’s purposes in writing this passage (Paul’s Rhetoric In Its Contexts — The Argument of Romans, p. 226).
Given this situation, I am not embarrassed to offer my own admittedly offbeat proposal.
Through the eyes of the interpolator
If it is hard for many to recognize Paul in the wretched man portrayed by Romans 7, it may be because this chapter was written by the proto-orthodox interpolator. That would be why the portrayal it contains does not match up well with the self-image of the Apostle that comes through elsewhere in the letters. Reread the puzzling passages and see how much sense they make as the work of an early interpolator who was trying to form a new Paul from the old one.
|According to Epiphanius, the Ebionites said Paul was a Greek born of Greeks, and only converted to Judaism as an adult.|
From this perspective it would be the interpolator who, speaking in Paul’s name, makes him acknowledge in Rom. 7:7-13 that the Law is holy, just, good, and spiritual. And if he makes him say the words “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came …,” it may be because the interpolator believed that the real Paul was originally a Gentile and had lied about his Jewish background. Some have suspected that the Apostle was responding to that kind of accusation in 2 Corinthians when he protested that he was a Hebrew and an Israelite (2 Cor. 11:22). Likewise regarding his assertion in Philippians that he was “circumcised the eighth day… of the tribe of Benjamin” (Phil. 3:5). According to Epiphanius, the Ebionites said Paul was a Greek born of Greeks, and only converted to Judaism as an adult:
They declare that he was a Greek… He went up to Jerusalem, they say, and when he had spent some time there, he was seized with a passion to marry the daughter of the priest. For this reason he became a proselyte and was circumcised. Then, when he failed to get the girl, he flew into a rage and wrote against circumcision and against the Sabbath and the Law. (Panarion 30, 16: 6-9)
The translation of this passage is Hyam Maccoby’s. I want to also include his caveat:
This account, of course, is not history. It is what Epiphanius declares the Ebionites were saying in the fourth century and is coloured both by Epiphanius’ hostility to the Ebionites and by the Ebionites’ hostility to Paul. Nevertheless, there is a core here that may well be true. (The Mythmaker — Paul And The Invention Of Christianity, p. 182)
The Ebionite information is interesting for another reason. It connects Paul’s first experience of the Law with his passionate desire to marry the daughter of the priest, and it says he turned against the Law when that desire was thwarted. Now compare that with Romans 7:7-8 where it is the 10th commandment, “You shall not covet,” that is singled out to illustrate Paul’s anguished situation:
I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.
Notice too the rhetorical questions and denials in the passage:
What then can we say? That the Law is sin? Absolutely not! (Rom. 7:7)
Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? Absolutely not! (Rom. 7:13)
We have come across this style of argumentation before, in 1 Corinthians (see post 6), and there it appeared to be the interpolator’s:
Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Absolutely not! (1 Cor. 6:15)
In Romans 7, then, we may be reading the interpolator’s take on Simon/Paul’s troubled relationship with the Law of Moses, including the Apostle’s first unpleasant experience with it. It may be the interpolator’s perspective that we have here, not the Apostle’s.
“The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul.’”(Mk. 3:22)
|Simon was said to be the first Christian heretic to be dismissive of the body and to teach deliverance from it.|
As I see it, verses 14-25 too would make sense as the work of the interpolator. He would know that the real Paul was Simon of Samaria and that he claimed to be some kind of new manifestation of the Son who had suffered in Judaea. So the new Paul is forced to confess that he had a visitor dwelling inside him but it was not the Son:
“For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, nothing good dwells” (Rom. 7:18)
The one who had taken up residence was Sin in person:
“So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me… Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Rom. 7:17 & 20).
Scholars shy away from using “possession” for the state that is portrayed here, but read 7:14-25 again and notice how appropriate that word is. The interpolator, I submit, made his new Paul vividly confess to having been possessed.
In this scenario it is Paul/Simon of Samaria who is made to cry out in Rom. 7:24:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Simon was said to be the first Christian heretic to be wrongly dismissive of the body and to make deliverance from it an important part of his doctrine. The interpolator may be engaging in some subtle humor here, by intimating that the reason Simon/Paul was so anxious to get out of his body was because he was sharing it with Evil in person!
There may be subtle humor too in the interjected exclamation “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” On the lips of the interpolator these words could mean: “Thank God that Simon got his wish. He was released from his body—by death!” Sin killed him (Rom. 7:11).
Now, of course, if I am right about the humor, the only ones who would have understood and appreciated it were those who were aware of what the interpolator was doing to Simon’s letters. It was perhaps with those insiders in view that the interpolator says at Rom. 7:1:
“I am speaking to people who know the law.”
All others would have been baffled. If that was his aim, he succeeded. Recall Alan F. Segal’s observation regarding the chapter:
“Readers of the New Testament from the second century onward have argued about Paul’s meaning” (Paul the Convert, p. 224).
Wringing one more concession from the Apostle
Before bringing this post to a close I want to take a quick look at the opening paragraph of Romans 7. It too contains an element that may be relevant to my proposal.
Do you not know, brothers–for I am speaking to those who know the law–that the law is binding on a man only during his life? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brothers, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Rom. 7:1-7, my bolding)
Scholars have long noticed that the bolded verses (Rom. 7:2-3) supply an example that doesn’t really fit the principle enunciated in 7:1. The passage is often brought forward as an illustration of Paul’s inept reasoning.
Paul is unable to distinguish between two quite different legal topics : (1) that a woman, after the death of her husband, is free to marry someone else; (2) that a person becomes free of legal obligations after his own death. Paul thinks that these two topics are equivalent, and slips from one to the other in a confused manner in elaborating his analogy to the abrogation of the law for Christians. (Hyam Maccoby, Paul and Hellenism, p. 138)
If the bolded verses are removed from the passage, the ones that remain would actually constitute a somewhat coherent argument: The law is only binding on someone while he is alive (Rom. 1:1). But a Christian, since he belongs to the body of Christ, has in a sense died with his crucified Lord (Rom. 7:4). Therefore, he is no longer bound by the law.
Now if indeed Romans 7 is interpolated, it would seem to be the interpolator and not the Apostle who supplied the inappropriate example in Rom. 7:2-3. When I ask myself why he may have done that, one possibility strikes me as plausible: He was forcing his new Paul to reject an egregious legal violation committed by the old one. Simon/Paul may be the Simon/Atomus mentioned by Josephus in Antiquities (20, 7,2). If so, he at some point apparently went on Felix’s behalf and persuaded Drusilla to leave her husband and marry the procurator. (Antiquities 20, 7, 2). In Rom. 7:2-3, then, just as in 1 Cor. 7:39 (see post 11), the interpolator’s aim may have been to make his new Paul clearly reject what the old one did. That the example didn’t quite fit his argument was not as important to him as making clear that his new Paul respected the indissolubility of marriage as stipulated by the Law.
I’ll stop here for now and in my next post will continue this discussion of Paul and the Law.