Is Ehrman’s Pre-Pauline Quotation an Anti-Marcionite Interpolation?

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by Neil Godfrey

howJesusRecently Bart Ehrman debated Michael Bird the question of how Jesus became God. Just as he had written in his book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee Erhman argued that

  1. the earliest devotees of Jesus viewed him as a normal man, a human messiah, who had been exalted to become God’s son at the resurrection.
  2. Later, Christians came to think that he was the Son of God prior to the resurrection and reasoned that he had been adopted as God’s son at his baptism, as we read in the Gospel of Mark.
  3. Still later others moved his divine sonship back to the time of his birth in Bethlehem. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus only came into existence as God’s son when born to Mary.
  4. Later still Jesus was thought to have been always divine, even before appearing as a man, as we read in the prologue to the Gospel of John.

My first response to this argument was that it ran counter to the pre-gospel evidence, the writings of Paul. But I double checked and saw that Ehrman does find stage #1 above in the writings of Paul. Paul does open his epistle to the Romans with a clear statement of #1 — Romans 1:3-4

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, 

A1 who was descended

  A2 from the seed of David 

    A3 according to the flesh 

B1 and was appointed 

  B2 the Son of God in power

    B3 according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead

Ehrman is well aware that the rest of Paul’s writings inform us that Paul had a much higher view of Jesus than we read in these opening verses of Romans. So I think his larger argument still founders on the reef of Paul. But my interest here is Ehrman’s use of Romans 1:3-4 as the starting point from which he builds his case.

Ehrman informs his readers that many scholars have long considered these verses, 1:3-4, to be pre-Pauline creed that Paul is quoting. Indeed, Ehrman writes (p. 223) that

it could represent early tradition . . . from the early years in Palestine after Jesus’s first followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead. 

Why early?

Part of the reason Ehrman thinks the passage is so early is because of the words translated “spirit of holiness”: such a turn of phrase is an Aramaicism and since Jesus and his first followers spoke Aramaic it follows that they probably formulated the creed. (I will leave the identification of the flaws in this argument up to readers.)

Another reason to judge the passage early appears to be the focus on Jesus as the Davidic Messiah. Ehrman calls upon the much later gospels to support him here. He uses their late testimony (in the belief that true historical data can be gleaned from them via criteria of authenticity) to affirm that the disciples of Jesus believed he was the Davidic messiah in his own lifetime and that they continued to believe this after his death (even though he failed to overthrow Rome as the Davidic messiah was supposed to do) because of the power he attained with his resurrection.

Why think the words are not Paul’s own but a quotation of a well-known creed?

Why does Ehrman (presumably following widespread and long-held scholarly opinion) believe these verses are pre-Pauline words being quoted by Paul?

He writes that the verses are

highly structured, without a word wasted, quite unlike how normal prose is typically written and unlike the other statements Paul makes in the context.

Further, the passage

contains a number of words and ideas that are not found anywhere else in Paul. 

Those unique ideas and phrases:

  • “seed of David”
  • Jesus being a descendant of David
  • “spirit of holiness”
  • Jesus becoming the Son of God at his resurrection

For a short two verses, those are a lot of terms and ideas that differ from Paul. This can best be explained if he is quoting an earlier tradition. (p. 221)

Paul nowhere else expresses any interest in (or even knowledge of) Jesus as an earthly messiah or a descendant of David. Paul nowhere else thinks of Jesus being made the Son of God only at his resurrection.

In fact — something Ehrman fails to mention despite his efforts to contrast verses 3 and 4 with everything we know about Paul’s Christology elsewhere — Paul stresses he is not the least interested in Christ “according to the flesh”. That Christ should be a descendant of David would have meant nothing to Paul. See 2 Corinthians 5:16:

Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer.

There is one more factor of interest for Ehrman in his argument that the passage is a quotation:

It is interesting as well to note — for purposes of showing that this is an existing creed that Paul is quoting — that one can remove it form its context and the context flows extremely well, as if nothing is missing (showing that it has been inserted):

“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, which he announced in advance through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his son . . . Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (p. 222)

The motive for quoting an anomalous creed

Why does Ehrman think Paul would quote such a creed? His explanation is that Paul is hoping to gain support from the Roman church to continue his missionary journey to “the ends of the world” i– that is, in Spain — even though the Roman church does not know him personally and has no doubt heard lots of negative rumours about him. For these reasons Paul, being the soft touch and gentle Christian that he is, very carefully opens up his letter with pains to get everything right and win the Romans on to his side: so he quotes a creed he is sure they are familiar with and that they would no doubt accept. Yes, Paul’s own views were more “sophisticated” than those of the creed, but Paul is meekly being “all things to all” men and women in order not to offend.

I find this explanation very strained. Sure one can find clues to justify each point made, but the overall conclusion as outlined here simply does not fit the larger themes of the epistle itself. Rather, the argument presented strikes me as lifting a few incidental remarks in the letter to central importance.

Questions Arise

But let’s leave that rationale aside for now and concentrate on the arguments raised in support of the passage being a quotation of a very early creed. Questions arise:

Is it really likely that a formal and structured creed would be born so very early after the personal experience of believing Jesus to have been risen from the dead?

Why does Paul not explicitly acknowledge that he is quoting a well-known creed?

If he feels he does not need to explicitly acknowledge the fact that he is quoting, is this because the creed is so very well and widely known? But if that is the case then why do we not find the thoughts expressed in it mirrored elsewhere as well?

As for the second question above, I decided to run a quick search through the rest of Romans to see how many times Paul did take the trouble to point out when he was quoting even very well-known passages. My recollection told me there were at least a couple of such instances. I ran a quick search for the translation words “as it is written” in the King James version and found they occurred fourteen (14!!) times. I think it is safe to conclude that we have here a fair indication that in the Greek text Paul had a habit of making it clear whenever he was quoting passages even when they were well known as such to all.

So we have another anomaly with verses 1:3-4, but not one that supports the view that they are a quotation.

But look again at the reasons Ehrman listed for believing the passage to be a quotation of a pre-Pauline saying. I am sure you are way ahead of me on this one already, so let’s pause to have a look at one set of criteria set out for identifying interpolations.

The reasons for quotation are the reasons for interpolation

William O. Walker in Interpolations in the Pauline Letters lists six criteria to assist in deciding whether a passage is a subsequent addition:

  1. text critical evidence — includes a study of other texts in which references are made to the document
  2. contextual evidence — contextual flows or breaks within the document
  3. ideational evidence — how does the idea at the heart of the questioned passage compare with the ideas throughout the main document?
  4. comparative evidence — compare the thought expressed in the questionable passage with related thoughts expressed elsewhere.
  5. motivational evidence — what do we know of the motivations of various interest groups relating to the thoughts expressed in both the larger document and the questionable passage?
  6. locational evidence — what is the impact of the questionable passage being located at this point in the text?


Ehrman has said that removing the passage in question from the letter leaves the remaining text flowing very well indeed thank you very much. #2 Contextual evidence.

Ehrman has said that the ideas expressed in the passage are alien to the Christology found elsewhere in the Romans. I added Paul’s stress upon not having any interest in Christ “according to the flesh”. #3 Ideational evidence.

Ehrman has compared the phrases used in the passage and found them unlike Paul’s usage elsewhere in Romans (e.g. “spirit of holiness” for the Holy Spirit). We also see that Paul often quotes well-known passages in Romans and at least fourteen times introduces them with a clear statement that he is indeed quoting: “As it is written”. There is no such indicator with the supposedly pre-Pauline creed. #4 Comparative evidence.

Ehrman has found motivation for a quotation in Paul’s eagerness to get off on common ground or at least a point all can agree upon with his essentially unknown readership who have heard negatives about him and from whom he wants support to continue his journey to Spain. I find this rationale too much of a stretch. If such were Paul’s motivation he would surely be expected to explain and explicitly justify his own Christological views at some point, but he does not. And it is not like Paul to play deceptive word-games to win favour. On the other hand, we do know that at the time Paul’s letters attracted renewed attention in the late first and early second century they were at the centre of a controversy between Marcionites and proto-orthodox. The “quoted” passage does indeed serve very well as an anti-Marcionite barb with its stress upon the humanity and Jewishness of Jesus. See my discussion on the vridar.info website: Romans 1:2-6 — Anti-Marcionite interpolation? #5 Motivational evidence. 

Ehrman suggests that Paul wanted to begin the letter with a sop. I suggest that by placing an anti-Marcionite passage at the very opening of the letter the reader is being disabused right from the outset of any suggestion that Paul should be interpreted in Marcionite ways. #6 Locational evidence.

Quotation of a pre-Pauline creed going right back to the first disciples of Jesus? Or an anti-Marcionite interpolation?

If the arguments swing more to the interpolation side then we are left without any Pauline testimony in support of Ehrman’s thesis for how Jesus became God.



  • Bee
    2016-02-24 21:46:57 UTC - 21:46 | Permalink

    I’d say your thesis is mostly correct. Rom. 1.2-3 looks like a later creedal formula. One that opens with a pro-fleshy, historicity dig against Marcionite spiritualism. However, it does still retain lots of Paul’s Marcionism spiritualism too.

    I see the final New Testament overall as, after later editing, continually trying to entertain the importance of 1) both the spirit, but also 2) the physical, material, fleshy side of life. Partly due to anti Marcionite physicalism. But also due to early proto scientific interest in physical things in general. So indeed, early on in Rom. 1.2-3. – in effect, in an topspinning editorial preface – care is taken to also insist not just on the spirit, but also on a material or “flesh”ly side to Jesus. Even though that was not typical for Paul. As you correctly note.

    By the way? It is well known that later additions to texts are most likely to occur at the beginning, or the end. Where 1) they can be more easily tacked on. And 2) where later editors can most effectively dominate a text. By their having the first introductory words. Or the last summation.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-02-24 21:52:19 UTC - 21:52 | Permalink

      Thanks for the pointers.

      • Bee
        2016-02-24 22:12:16 UTC - 22:12 | Permalink

        It’s odd that Ehrman sees a “creedal” side to this text, and takes this creed as earlier than Paul. Wheras of course, the first days of a new cultural trend, are often less formed, and too confused for formal creeds.

        Formal creeds are perhaps more typical not of early movements. But of later, more developed and formalized institutions. Like The Church. Which would compliment your theory of. Rom. 1.2-3 being not early, or original. But being instead a later interpolation.

        By I suppose, the later RCC, or Orthodox churches.

        • Pofarmer
          2016-02-25 05:23:11 UTC - 05:23 | Permalink

          It seems to me that these are the kinds of arguments one makes when one starts with ones conclusions.

          • Bee
            2016-02-25 13:32:51 UTC - 13:32 | Permalink

            The most popular tendency by far, is for our billion or so believers, to assume that of course their churches were formed in effect, by Jesus himself. Around say, 30 AD. This is what they have been trained to think for, usually, their entire lives. Often for hundreds if not thousands of Sundays, say.

            This view therefore is often so deeply ingrained, that it is all but impossible to question or dislodge it.

            However, there are a few methods that are useful. One of them is to employ the classic educational tool, of presenting the common view. But then presenting, debate style, a dramatically extreme counter to that view.

            Debates of this kind often tend to oversimplify at first. And to be quite ideological. But after a little of this, the ice is broken. And finally people begin to perceive nuances and finer points.

            And with ideologies having essentially cancelled each other out? The people are finally left, ideally, at the desired, neutral point. Free at last to examine the subject with neutral objectivity.

  • vinnyjh
    2016-02-25 13:52:43 UTC - 13:52 | Permalink

    Thanks for laying that out Neil. I have often thought that the reasons for thinking something is a creed sound much like reasons for thinking it might be an interpolation. I understand why confessional scholars wish to ignore the latter possibility, but I have never understood why purportedly mainstream scholars never address it. The only thing i can think is that it would force mainstream scholars to admit that they don’t know anything with the degree of certainty that they pretend to have. They can get away with it because they know that no one within the guild is going to call them on it.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-02-25 20:50:17 UTC - 20:50 | Permalink

      One detail I did not raise in the post was Ehrman’s discussion of the apparently formulaic nature of the language — its paralleled structure, tightness of words — with his claim that this is further evidence of a creedal statement. I did not introduce this point into the post because I was attempting to keep the post focused entirely on material that were relevant to relative dating/the interpolation question. Whether the verses were indeed a creedal formula or not seemed to me irrelevant as to when the words originated — whether they were pre or post Pauline. Though I did quickly suggest that a creedal formula is far more likely to arise late than early.

      • Paul
        2016-02-26 08:22:27 UTC - 08:22 | Permalink

        I couldn’t agree more to, Best for a serious study of Christian origins to be taken out of the hands of theologians (ie believers) altogether. Or even better if scholars stated their preferred hypothesis up front rather than leave it unsaid as if they were neutral. No one is neutral.

  • Paul
    2016-02-25 13:58:30 UTC - 13:58 | Permalink

    Paul was not the first Christian. There were Christians in existence before Paul so it is not strange that he should echo or quote a liturgical phrase or two that earlier Christians had coined. Before going down the interpolation path, which I regard as a last resort, let’s accept that the passage is genuine. The trouble with Ehrman is that he still insists on an earthly Jesus as core history without any evidence for this. He and all the historicists out there need to free yourselves from this and then you can start to understand how it all began…. Also it is clear that there were no disciples. The message was received by and preached by the apostles. This is clear from the early church fathers and Paul. Original Christianity in its theology did not require an earthly ministering miracle performing sage. This idea was added later. If you read Paul carefully you will see that he based his whole message on the scriptures and personal revelation. His key message was have faith in the resurrected Christ and you will be saved. Accretion of legends and embellishment and elaboration of ideas explains the whole process. Paul’s Christ was a secret messiah who was “made known” by the preaching of the apostles. Mark echoes this. By the time we get to John, Jesus is a full blown public figure. This would have been heresy to Paul as it diminished the need for faith. Of course Paul was dead a long time before John was written. The early canonical Wisdom of Solomon which was known to Paul and the early Christians spells it out quite clearly. Also Christ pre-existed as a theological entity in the form of the logos or the sofia. From there it was an easy step to posit his existence from the beginning of creation. But once again it wasn’t necessary to speculate about this as salvation required faith in the crucified messiah only. Paul says over and over we preach Christ crucified. Also Paul would have spoken Aramaic so that argument about an Aramaicism is irrelevant.

    • Bee
      2016-02-25 19:51:34 UTC - 19:51 | Permalink

      Paul indeed bases his Christianity on faith, far more than facts. And if he mentions material evidence in the flesh, he often implies that is secondary, it often seems. In this case, Paul would indeed be not really much support for a real, historical Jesus. That is not his concern much at all.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-02-25 21:08:01 UTC - 21:08 | Permalink

      I don’t think any argument should in principle be shelved as a “last resort”. I know we hear biblical scholars say that a lot, but I don’t know if we hear the same in other fields, especially classics. A scholar in Homeric studies would want to know if it is likely a particular line in Homer was not original; it is biblical scholars who seem to be keen to “protect and defend” the grounds for their and their flock’s faith who fear to lose any words in the Bible. A historian worth their salt wants to analyse the validity and authenticity of the raw materials they work with. Where there are doubts, they want to factor them in to their final arguments. This is nothing more than acknowledging the literary culture of the day — interpolations were “the way of things” back then: http://vridar.org/2007/04/15/a-literary-culture-of-interpolations/ and http://vridar.org/2011/06/03/a-case-for-interpolation-does-not-rely-on-manuscript-evidence/

      In a criminal investigation if police or a judge chose at the outset to interpret evidence pointing to a highly honoured and prominent social or political figure “as a last resort” and worked instead to make it point to a despised person of no account instead, they would be considered corrupt. It is unprofessional to decide in advance which way the evidence should preferably point — and to resist as far as one can the possibility it points where we don’t want to look.

      • Daryl
        2016-02-25 22:53:07 UTC - 22:53 | Permalink

        I was recently reading the commentary on 1st Thessalonians in the Oxford Bible Commentary. In it the scholar argued for the authenticity of the 2:14 passage where Paul blames the Jews for Jesus’s death. Despite it clashing so violently with what Paul wrote elsewhere, it was deemed by the scholar in question to refer to a riot and massacre that occurred in Jerusalem in 48 CE (mentioned by Josephus). This seemed a desperate attempt to avoid the possibility of interpolation at any costs, but I guess it offers a port for worried scholars in the stormy seas of critical investigation. Like Vinny, I wonder why supposedly critical scholars find the idea of interpolation so distasteful. It’s almost as if there’s some kind of gag reflex. I also see it when people dare to raise the idea that the various mystery religions of the time may have had an influence on Christianity’s beginnings. I understand why conservatives would do this, but the resistance of critical scholars is baffling, although I’ve become pretty accustomed to it reading mainstream literature.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-02-25 23:16:38 UTC - 23:16 | Permalink

          Yes, why do even secular critical scholars toe the line of the believer scholars? My only guess comes from reading about the state of play by scholars like James Crossley, Michael Goulder, Thomas Brodie and Hector Avalos – they all testify to the overwhelming dominance of the faithful, even if those faithful are liberal by layperson standards. It seems that even critical scholars must confine their studies to within boundaries acceptable to the dominant ethos led by Christian believers. And of course even believers can embrace a critical approach to some extent — hence their liberal beliefs — but they still stop questioning when they reach certain boundaries.

          Best for a serious study of Christian origins to be taken out of the hands of theologians altogether, — as Raphael Lataster suggests.

  • Steven C Watson
    2016-03-04 23:30:33 UTC - 23:30 | Permalink

    How long had Paul been doing this when he wrote Romans? Occasional letter writing was hardly his major form of teaching, let alone his only form. That would have been preaching. If he had been doing that for twenty years it would be unsurprising for rhythmic, creedal-sounding formations to crop up in his occasional writings. I know several people, including myself, who do this.

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