Tag Archives: Alan F. Segal

Turning the Philippian Hymn into a Precambrian Rabbit

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Precambrian rabbit “© Glendon Mellow” See the Glendon Mellow : Art in Awe of Science for more.

This post attempts to build on my two recent posts about classicist John Moles’ discussion of the meaning and power of the name “Jesus” in the earliest Christian literature through reflections on a Hymn in Paul’s letters that seems impossible for most scholars to accept at face value.

I’ve made positive use of two of Alan F. Segal‘s major publications (Two Powers in Heaven and Paul the Convert) so when I saw his chapter on the resurrection in The Resurrection of Jesus (compiled/edited by Robert B. Stewart) I was not expecting what I in fact found there in his discussion of the Philippian Hymn — Phil. 2:5-11. Segal begins admirably but within a few lines he suddenly does a complete flip flop and it is difficult to understand how certain explications he offers have anything to do with the Hymn at all.

Being able to read the Hymn for what it is takes on a special significance if one goes along with widespread scholarly opinion that it had an independent and liturgical life before Paul added it to his letter, and that Paul’s own writings well preceded the Gospels. In other words, it is possibly one of the earliest clearly Christian writings that we know about.

I suspect that the Hymn (read without Gospel presuppositions) is exactly the sort of fossil that the rest of the evidence tells us to expect at this earliest strata of evidence. But the way it is interpreted by many biblical scholars actually makes it look like a precambrian rabbit.

What one observes across the New Testament epistles, Gospels and Acts is a general trajectory from a very high Christology to an increasingly humanized Jesus. The epistles (written before the Gospels) speak of a divine Christ figure worshipped alongside God. The Gospel of Mark gives us a Jesus who is the Holy One of God with power over all demonic forces and the forces of nature and by the time we read Luke and Acts we are reading about a Jesus who weeps and whose death has no greater significance than that of another human martyr. Given this trajectory from divine to increasingly human, with its implication that Christianity from its earliest days worked to steadily develop a more humanized Jesus, one would expect to find anything preceding the epistles will contain a Jesus with precious little humanity about him.

When Segal begins his discussion of the Philippian Hymn he sounds like he is about to demonstrate just this: read more »

Heavenly Visions: the foundation of Paul’s Christianity

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is an important ic...

Ladder of Divine Ascent: Image via Wikipedia

The New Testament epistles inform us that the original Gospel was a revelation from God. That means it did not originate by means of spoken tradition relayed from historical events, by word of mouth, from eyewitness or preacher to others. Rather, one might almost say that the medium itself was the message: the revelation or vision was, in a signifcant sense, the Gospel and conversion experience.

Thus Paul — thought by some scholars to be the real founder of Christianity — says that he was not taught the Gospel by men. “In Galatians 1, Paul claims that he did not receive the gospel from a human source. . . . In Galatians Paul speaks of his conversion as a revelation (apocalypse [1:12])” (Segal, 1990: 35, 36)

I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. . . . But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. (Galatians 1:12, 16) read more »

Does the notion of a crucified messiah need a historical easter experience?

It's the Easter Bonnie!

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It is interesting to read in a short section of Paul the Convert Alan F. Segal’s case for Christianity originating in an easter-type of experience of disciples of a historically crucified Jesus.

Having run across so many references to Segal’s book when I was reading about the heavenly ascent mystical experiences among Second Temple Jews and early Christians (blogged about in several posts in the first two weeks of March this year) I knew I could not continue posting along this line until I had read Segal’s book for myself. But this post addresses Segal’s encapsulation of the case that Christianity began when disciples of Jesus grappled with theology to explain his death. (I am aware Segal has only recently passed away, and I by no means intend any of the following post as a criticism of Segal personally. I hope it can be read as an impersonal argument. I find much of value in Segal’s works, including Paul the Convert, and of course in Two Powers, and respect him highly as a scholar.)

Segal’s argument

During the period of Jesus’ ministry some of his followers thought he was the messiah. Segal says only that it is “likely” that some of them did, but his argument depends on some of them certainly thinking so. Segal begins his explanation with this:

Since Jesus died a martyr, expectations of his resurrection would have been normal in sectarian Judaism. [Reference here to Segal’s Rebecca’s Children, pp. 60-67, 78-95] read more »

Visions that laid a foundation for Christianity?

Engraved illustration of the "chariot vis...

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Following the publication of Alan F. Segal’s recent book, it is clear that Jewish mysticism must occupy a more central place than has previously been the case in any construction of the matrices of Paul’s experience and thought. (Morray-Jones, C. R. A. 1993, “Paradise Revisited (2 Cor 12:1-12): The Jewish Mystical Background of Paul’s Apostolate. Part 1: The Jewish Sources”, The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 86, no. 2, p. 178.)

A number of scholars have suggested that mystical visionary experiences appear to have played a foundational role in the emergence of the Christian religion. (Recently I mentioned Larry Hurtado’s proposal that visionary experiences were at the heart of early Christians coming to exalt Jesus to a divine status.) If the visionary experiences initiated Paul’s missionary work, and we find indications that there were other early apostles basing their authority on similar visions, are we really very far from suggesting that Christianity itself originated in such experiences? read more »

Melchizedek, the Saviour of Israel

Melchizedek
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Continuing from my earlier post Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism, based on notes from Alan F. Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven. Segal discusses several divine mediators and archangels that once formed part of the kaleidoscope of Jewish sectarian belief systems. Some Jews even believed there were two Adams in Eden at creation. Segal wrote the following in response to Paul’s linking of a similar Adam idea with the Messiah:

This leads one to suspect that Christianity was the first to synthesize the various divine agents at creation by identifying all of them with the Christian messiah. (p. 190)

Another divine mediator of certain early (intertestamental, including first century) Jews was Melchizedek. The New Testament canon includes a book declaring Jesus Christ to be a Melchizedek priest.

I outline here Segal’s account of some of the details of this pre-Christian Melchizedek belief, with additional quotations from the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) literature.

Melchizedek, the archangel, may be identified in Qumran texts with The Prince of Light, the Angel of His Truth, the Spirit of His Truth, and with the archangel Michael.

The return of Melchizedek brings about the end-time judgement of God and the salvation of Zion. read more »

Did a Davidic Messiah have to be a descendant of David?

Rabbi Akiba (illustration from the 1568 Mantua...
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No. At least not in the time of Bar Kochba‘s revolt against Rome, 132-136 ce.

That’s if we can trust the later rabbinic evidence that attributed certain beliefs to famous Rabbi Akiba who supported Bar Kochba’s claim to be the messiah.

(The relevance of this discussion to Christian origins lies in the context of arguments that Jesus being said, at various places, to have been of the seed of David or of Davidic descent. For starters, given modern scholarly (archaeological) understanding of the reality of “King David”, and even the “Davidic dynasty”, there was evidently no such thing as a “family of David” existing in Palestine at the time of Jesus, before and later, anyway.)

Bar Kochba’s original name was Simeon ben Kosiba. It was subsequently changed to Bar Kochba, which was Aramaic for “Son of a Star”, an allusion to the prophecy of Numbers 24:17. (This sort of name change based on a pun on the original name in order to fit a biblical prophecy is worth keeping in mind when one compares other apparent puns in names found within the gospels.)

The rabbinic passage is discussing this bible’s reference to the plural “thrones” in heaven, one for the Ancient of Days, and another, presumably, for the Son of Man (Daniel 7:9, 13-14). The passage follows on from references to a biblical contradiction where God is described as an old man (with white hair) in Daniel 7, but as a young black-headed man according to their interpretation of Song of Solomon 5:11.

One passage says: His throne was fiery flames; and another Passage says: Till thrones were placed, and One that was ancient of days did sit!

— There is no contradiction: one [throne] for Him, and one for David; this is the view of R. Akiba.

Said R. Jose the Galilean to him: Akiba, how long wilt thou treat the Divine Presence as profane! Rather, [it must mean], one for justice and one for grace.

Did he accept [this explanation from him, or did he not accept it?

— Come and hear: One for justice and one for grace; this is the view of R. Akiba. (Hagigah, 14a) read more »