Tag Archives: Paul

Was Paul Really Persecuted for Preaching a Crucified Christ?

Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, Saint Paul Stoned in the City of Lystra

Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, Saint Paul Stoned in the City of Lystra

Was Paul persecuted for preaching a crucified messiah?

In 1 Corinthians 1:23 we read that the message of “Christ crucified” was a “stumblingblock” or “offence” to the Jews. There is no explanation to inform us exactly why Jews were so offended by Paul preaching that a messiah had been crucified but that hasn’t prevented many readers from knowing the reason without any shadow of doubt.

The assumption has generally been that the Jewish idea of a messiah was a superhero who would conquer the evil powers of the world and set up the Jewish people as the ruling kingdom over everyone else. There is a further understanding that the Jews hated Paul enough to persecute him because his teaching about the messiah was so outrageous and offensive.

Let’s try the prediction test on the latter of these hypotheses.

If Paul’s crucified messiah really was a scandalous polar opposite (so opposite as to be virtually inconceivable or blasphemous to many Jews) to a standard messianic idea with which Jews as a whole identified, then we would expect to find Paul addressing that contrary messianic figure somewhere and making it clear why it was deficient and why his crucified messiah was indeed superior.

Unfortunately we find no evidence of any such polemic. Paul’s writings nowhere hint of that sort of clash of views.

And this is not surprising when we attempt to find out what the “Jewish” idea of a messiah actually was in the time of Paul. The was none. Or more correctly, there were several ideas alongside an apparent lack of interest in the idea altogether.

This post is not a synthesis of wide readings on scholarship of the nature and place of messianic concepts in Second Temple Judaisms; it is restricted for most part to two quite old publications by Morton Smith:

  • “What is Implied by the Variety of Messianic Figures?” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Mar., 1959), pp. 66-72
  • “The Reason for the Persecution of Paul and the Obscurity of Acts” (1967) in Ubach, E.E., Werblowsky, R.J. Zwi, Wirszubski, C. (eds.), Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem on his Seventieth Birthday, pp. 261-268

After addressing instances where scholars have read documents as if they were inkblots in a Rorschach test to find references to a messiah, Morton Smith in the 1959 article wrote: read more »

How the New Testament Works

David Trobisch reminds us in The First Edition of the New Testament that the books of the New Testament canon have been arranged in way that conveys its own message to readers. So editors responsible for the arrangement of the books send a message to readers. This is part of what Trobisch explains is “the editorial concept”.

So we open the New Testament and the first book we see is the Gospel of Matthew. Now the author’s name is nowhere found in the book itself. Someone has added the title and author heading to it. So who is this Matthew? We read the book and see Matthew is one of the Twelve Disciples. So the reader is led to understand that this first book is written by one of the Twelve who were with Jesus.

Next comes the Gospel of Mark, and the reader is left curious as to Mark’s identity. But the editor has collated other books and perhaps even added the odd “incidental” line that leads the reader to learn who he is, too. I’ll return to this later.

Then we read The Gospel of Luke. This work begins with a claim that leads readers to understand many others had attempted to write gospels before this one. The reader has already turned the pages of two of these. Now this Gospel is tied by the preambles to the Book of Acts that soon follows. Now Acts concludes suddenly with an imprisoned Paul preaching in Rome and waiting trial. The reader was expecting to read about the death of Paul. Moreover, some passages in Acts are written in the first person. It is natural, then, for the reader to conclude that Acts was written prior to the death of Paul.

And if Acts was written in the life-time of Paul, then so must have been the Gospel of Luke that precedes Acts. Yet the reader has seen that Luke follows earlier gospels still, such as Matthew and Mark. It is natural, then, for the reader to view these first three gospels as all being composed very early and during the life-time of Paul and other apostles.

read more »

Mark, Canonizer of Paul

dykstra1Until recently I have had little interest in arguments that our apparently earliest written gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was composed as an attempt to teach the ideas of Paul as found in his letters. After reading Mark, Canonizer of Paul by Tom Dykstra I am now more sympathetic to the possibility that the author of this gospel really was writing as a follower of Paul.

Dykstra introduces his argument by pointing out how curiously uninterested the author of the Gospel of Mark is in the contents of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is said to teach with authority and crowds are said to be impressed with his teachings but exactly what he taught in the synagogues or to those who crowded around to hear him in a house is left unsaid. Jesus does teach a lot of parables warning hearers of the consequences of not believing the gospel but the content of that gospel, the detail of what they must believe, is never stated. About the only teaching Mark’s Jesus is said to have delivered is little more than “Keep the commandments”.

Then there is the curious ending: why does Mark virtually leave the resurrection details out of the story altogether?

Dykstra sums up his argument:

The explanation I offer in this book can be summarized as follows. Mark’s primary purpose was to defend the vision of Christianity championed by Paul the Apostle against his “Judaizing” opponents. He undertook this defense because epistles written in the Apostle’s name were no longer deemed adequate, possibly because Paul himself was no longer around to personally defend his authority. Mark didn’t report any new teachings of Jesus because none were available to him: his main sources were the Old Testament, the Homeric epics, and Paul’s epistles, not the disciples or oral tradition. And so he wrote a Gospel that implicitly validated the authority of Paul and his epistles. . . .  My goal in this book is mainly to present the evidence for a literary relationship between Mark and Paul’s epistles. (p. 23, my bolding)

This situation makes sense, Dykstra suggests, if Paul had died and his teachings were in danger of being eclipsed by his opponents.

In chapter two and relying primarily upon Michael Goulder’s argument in St. Paul vs. St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions Dykstra presents a scenario of a sharp divide between two different types of gospels. Goulder was reviving (and responding to criticisms of) an 1831 interpretation by Ferdinand Baur.

Peter’s mission believed that the heavenly kingdom had already arrived and believers were already enjoying the resurrected life, while Paul stressed that the resurrection was yet to come and believers’ present life was more like the crucifixion. . . . Peter’s mission stressed tongues and visions and gifts of the spirit, while Paul’s stressed love and charity; Peter’s mission stressed the need to give away all of one’s possessions since the end had already come, while Paul’s mission advised people to keep working and earning a living. As will be seen, some of these differences are reflected in the text of Mark’ Gospel. (p. 35)

If the evangelist wanted to create a narrative to bolster the embattled teachings and authority of Paul he would need to project a dispute of his own and Paul’s day back into that narrative. The narrative would also need to show that apostles who came prior to Paul, even those claiming to be his brothers and those who were reputed as “pillars” in the church, failed to understand Jesus.

read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 9: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel (conclusion)

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This post continues my discussion of the Vision of Isaiah.

It will briefly consider some additional aspects of that writing that make it an attractive candidate as the source Simon/Paul’s gospel.

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An Assembly of Prophets

The Vision of Isaiah gives a significant role not just to Isaiah himself but also to a group of unnamed fellow prophets. Isaiah’s arrival at King Hezekiah’s court is the occasion for a gathering of forty of them who “came that they might greet him, and that they might hear his words, and that he might lay his hands on them, and that they might prophesy and that he might hear their prophecy” (Asc. Is. 6:4-5).

With Isaiah seated in their midst and his higher ranking confreres on his right (an arrangement that matches the Vision’s description of the lower levels of heaven), they hear, together with the king, the door to the heavens opened and the voice of the Spirit (Asc. Is. 6:6). And afterwards they are part of the select group that is allowed to hear Isaiah relate what he saw:

And after Isaiah had seen this vision he recounted it to Hezekiah, and to Josab his [Isaiah’s] son, and to the other prophets who had come. But the officials, and the eunuchs, and the people did not hear, apart from Samnas the secretary, and Jehoiakim, and Asaph the recorder… but the people did not hear, for Micah and Josab his son had sent them out… (Asc. Is. 6:16-17)

. . . it could explain why in Paul’s communities prophets played a prominent role, one second in importance only to that of apostles

The amount of attention and the role given to the prophets have led a number of scholars (Enrico Norelli, Robert G. Hall, Morton Smith, and Michael E. Stone) to surmise that the author was projecting his own community into the time of Isaiah. That is to say, the practices the author describes may well be the practices of his own community. Norelli, for instance, is of the opinion that

the Ascension of Isaiah reflects two phases in the history of a group of prophets who laid claim to a role of very high authority in the Christian community, a role much like the prophets who, gathered around Isaiah, are center stage in chapter 6. (Ascension du prophète Isaïe, p. 74, my translation).

Now if this is correct, and if the Vision was the source of Simon/Paul’s gospel, it could explain why in his communities too prophets played a prominent role, one second in importance only to that of apostles: “God has designated some in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets… (1 Cor. 12:28). Apostles who were also the recipients of revelations from the Lord were prophets too. But their apostolic ministry as itinerant preachers meant that those prophets who did not travel around were, in effect, the highest authorities on site in the various churches. read more »

Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 5 (How Paul Was Made)

brodie3Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

Chapter 16

PAUL: THE PENNY FINALLY DROPS

The last post in this series concluded with

If Brodie’s analyses are correct then it is clear that

the epistles and Luke cannot be taken at face value in writing a life of Paul. (p. 144)

One thing is clear. In recent years there has been a growing interest in literary analysis of the Bible and an increasing awareness of the use of the Septuagint in the composition of the New Testament works. And if literary analysis increasingly sheds light upon the Septuagint as a source of the epistles and Acts, reconstructing the life of Paul must become increasingly difficult.

So who or what was Paul and where did this character come from?

I’ve posted on a section of Alter’s book in The Literary Artistry of Genesis and drawn upon Alter’s principles to discuss the fictional character of the Gospels in Why the Gospels Are Historical Fiction.

For Brodie, the answer hit him (“with a shock”) in 2008 after years of absorbing the contents of the work of Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. To see Brodie’s thoughts on his first encounter with Alter’s work return to Act 3, Scene 1 (Too Strange!). In one of those light-bulb moments it suddenly occurred to Brodie that almost every chapter of Alter’s book aptly explained the New Testament epistles.

Like Hebrew narrative, the epistles are reticent. And composite. And repetitive. And, standing out from the list: like Hebrew narrative, the epistles are historicized fiction.

Historicized fiction.

A mass of data had suddenly fallen into place.

What hit me was that the entire narrative regarding Paul, everything the thirteen epistles say about him or imply — about his life, his work and travels, his character his sending and receiving of letters, his readers and his relationship to them — all of that was historicized fiction. It was fiction, meaning that the figure of Paul was a work of imagination, but this figure had been historicized — presented in a way that made it look like history, history-like, ‘fiction made to resemble the uncertainties of life in history’ (Alter 1981:27). (p. 145)

Rosenmeyer not mentioned by Brodie, but very pertinent to his argument.

Rosenmeyer not mentioned by Brodie, but very pertinent to his argument.

No doubt some will dismiss such an idea as unrealistic but to those people I would highly recommend reading Patricia Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions – some critical details are discussed in an earlier post. (Brodie does not list Rosenmeyer in his bibliography.) Brodie refers to other known cases of epistolary fictions: the letters between Paul and Seneca, as well as more recent examples.

My own thoughts in response to Brodie’s view is that such a Paul would explain how it was so easy for so many different Pauls to appear, each one representing a different type of Christianity. We have more than one Paul represented in the canonical epistles. We have another Paul in Acts; and another in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. And so forth. The many Paul’s appear to have been sculptured out of various theologies, not biographical memoirs.

Brodie nonetheless wants to emphasize that such a notion does not mean Paul has no value for the faithful. The Good Samaritan is a fictitious character but represents an inspiring “truth”. Similarly, Paul remains an inspiring character who captures the essence of Christianity. Brodie quotes C. Martini (The Gospel According to St Paul):

Paul is a representative figure for all of Christianity. (Martini 2008:15)

Paul is a figure to be imitated, a model for the faithful. Christianity is encapsulated in his persona. There may have been an inspiring figure on which the literary person was based, but that historical person is not the literary one.

Brodie was not the first to come to this view. Bruno Bauer had also concluded that both Jesus and Paul had been “non-historical literary fictions”. Bauer’s doubts were taken up by many of the radical critics among the “Dutch, French, Anglo-Saxon scholars at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century”. Brodie intimates that their doubts faded from the scene because their methods were largely undeveloped. (I’m not so sure that their views were sidelined because of criticisms of their “methods”. Brodie is surely being very optimistic in relation to his peers.)

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Paul as a Literary Figure – Direct Evidence from the Epistles

1. Authorship

It is now widely accepted that Paul did not write all the letters attributed to him in the NT. read more »

Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 4 (The Crumbling Evidence for Paul)

brodie3Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

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Chapter 15

PAUL’S BIOGRAPHY – INCREASINGLY DIFFICULT

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Chapter 15 of Thomas Brodie’s discovery memoir (Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery) surveys what can happen when one applies comparative literary analysis to the letters attributed to Paul. The third case study Brodie outlines is one I particularly love. How can one not be attracted to a scholarly synopsis that introduces a case for a view that one has long held independently as a consequence of one’s own personal analysis?

When I compare the conclusion of Acts (a conclusion generally regarded as problematic or otherwise incomplete) with other ancient (including biblical) literature I am almost sure there is nothing problematic about the ending of Acts at all. It is based upon the conclusion of Israel’s “Primary History”. That is, the conclusion of Acts is strikingly similar to the concluding chapter of 2 Kings. (I have posted detail on this before.) And of course once one recognizes that, the logical question to ask is whether the events of Acts leading up to that conclusion bear a similarity to the events in 2 Kings leading up to the liberal captivity of the king of Judah. In other words, does Paul’s journey to Rome evoke substantial literary connections with the exile of the captive “Jews” to Babylon? I believe it does. So I cannot help but take pleasurable notice when Brodie makes the same point.

Regrettably there is a dark side to this chapter, or at least to the way a key point the chapter makes was completely botched in a review by a certain associate professor and world authority on parallelomania studies between science fiction and religion. But I will save that for the “Who holds the pen?” section.

It’s an interesting time to be posting this review and overview. We currently have a series by Roger Parvus with a quite different take on the nature and origins of the Pauline letters. So plenty of scope to exercise our synapses. read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 2: The Letters of Paul

This is the second post in the series: A Simonian Origin for Christianity.

Some argue that Paul’s theology just underwent a very rapid development.

Or that he changed his position to suit changed circumstances.

Others chalk up the inconsistency to his temperament. He was impulsive and wrote things in anger that he probably regretted later.

Or he toyed with ideas that he never seriously embraced.

Some say he just had an undisciplined mind and that we should therefore not expect logical consistency from him.

Was he even aware that his assertions were contradictory? Some scholars think so, and that love of paradox may explain his apparent unconcern for contradictions. But others think he was clueless.

. . . from the very first indications in the extant record of the existence of a collection of Pauline letters voices were raised to protest that it had been tampered with. . . .

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A Reworked Collection of Simonian Letters

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Pauline Zigzags

A much rarer author portrait of St Paul C9th, ...

A much rarer author portrait of St Paul C9th, follows similar conventions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A major problem for Pauline interpreters has always been how to explain the inconsistency of Paul’s theology. The inconsistency shows up especially when the letters deal with subjects about which the proto-orthodox and early gnostics had differing positions. It is particularly noticeable in passages concerning the Law.

For instance, has the Law been abolished? Or is it still valid?

You can find passages in the Paulines to support both positions.

Can anyone actually do all that the Law requires?

Again, one can find Pauline passages to support either a yes or no answer.

Was the Law given by God? Or by angels?

That depends on which Pauline passage you look at.

Was the purpose of the Law to incite man to sin and multiply transgressions? Or to lead men to life?

Again, the letters can be enlisted to support either.

Did the author of the letters think that being under the Law was something to be rightfully proud of? Or was it slavery?

It depends.

All kinds of explanations have been offered to account for the zigzagging, but with nothing close to a consensus reached. There are those, for instance, who argue that Paul’s theology just underwent a very rapid development. Or that he changed his position to suit changed circumstances. Others chalk up the inconsistency to his temperament. He was impulsive and wrote things in anger that he probably regretted later. Or he toyed with ideas that he never seriously embraced. Some say he just had an undisciplined mind and that we should therefore not expect logical consistency from him. Was he even aware that his assertions were contradictory? Some scholars think so, and that love of paradox may explain his apparent unconcern for contradictions. But others think he was clueless:

[T]he thought wavers and alters with heedless freedom from one letter to another, even from chapter to chapter, without the slightest regard for logical consistency in details. His points of view and leading premises change and traverse without his perceiving it. It is no great feat to unearth contradictions, even among his leading thoughts. (William Wrede, Paul, p. 77, my italics)

Ten scholars who argue for interpolation

But there have always been scholars who solved the problem of Pauline inconsistency by questioning whether the letters were in fact the work of only one writer. And not just the Deutero-Pauline letters, but also the seven generally regarded as authentic. The inconsistencies existing right within the individual letters are such that many think it more likely that more than one writer was involved:

If the choice lies between supposing that Paul was confused and contradictory and supposing that his text has been commented upon and enlarged, I have no hesitation in choosing the second. (J.C. O’Neill, The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, p. 86) read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 1

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A Vridar reader, Chris S, recently expressed interest in my hypothesis that Christianity was Simonian in origin but pointed out that it would be helpful to have it laid out systematically in a post or series of posts. As it is, my proposals are scattered among random posts and comment threads. So this series will provide an overview of the hypothesis. I will first summarize the main ideas and then briefly defend them and show how they fit together.

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A Simonian Origin for Christianity

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Status of the Hypothesis

I want to acknowledge up front that my hypothesis is not completely original. It builds on the identification of Paul as a reworked Simon of Samaria that has been argued by Hermann Detering in his The Falsified Paul and by Robert M. Price in his The Amazing Colossal Apostle.

And I want to be clear that my hypothesis is still a work in progress. There is much that I continue to mull over and much that needs to be added. I am aware too that it is speculative. But, as I see it, one of its strengths is that it draws from the earliest extant descriptions of the internal quarrels that plagued Christianity at its birth and can plausibly account for a remarkable number of the peculiarities in those records.

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State of the Evidence: The Problem

The proto-orthodox claimed that their brand of Christianity was the original, and that their earliest Christian competitor, Simon, was the first who corrupted it. But there are good reasons to doubt their veracity. Their many known forgeries, false attributions, fabrications, plagiarisms, and falsifications are acknowledged even by mainstream scholars (see Bart Ehrman’s Forged for examples). Their one canonical attempt to write an account of primitive Christianity—the Acts of the Apostles—fails miserably to convince. It is widely recognized that its description of Paul and his relationship to the Jerusalem church is a deliberate misrepresentation.

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The proto-orthodox claim to unbroken continuity with the Jerusalem church doesn’t add up. . .

Did the proto-orthodox have no one to stand up to Simon’s successors between 70 and 140 CE?

They concede a continuous line of succession for heresy . . . yet are at a loss to tell us who prior to Justin undertook to refute those heretics.
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And their claim to unbroken continuity with the Jerusalem church doesn’t add up.

If they were in existence earlier than the 130s, why is Justin their first known heresy-hunter? Justin names no predecessor for that function in the generation before him. Nor do Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. Did the proto-orthodox have no one to stand up to Simon’s successors between 70 and 140 CE? They concede a continuous line of succession for heresy (Simon, Menander, Basilides and Satornilus), yet are at a loss to tell us who prior to Justin undertook to refute those heretics.

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The Question to Investigate

So I think it is entirely justifiable to question whether the proto-orthodox were in fact the first Christians. Basically, what I am doing is taking the few bits of information they let slip about Simon of Samaria, and seeing whether the birth of Christianity makes more sense with him as its founder.

I am investigating whether it makes more sense to see proto-orthodoxy as a second-century reaction to a first-century Simonianism that had grown, developed, and branched out.

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The Hypothesis

In summary form my hypothesis is this: read more »

Functions of Dionysiac Myth in Acts, #2

Continuing the Jesus and Dionysus posts (sharing the 2006 Hermathena article by John Moles) . . .

The status of Christianity against Judaism

The Dionysiac myth also serves as a framework through which to address the status of Christianity in relation to Judaism. The god came to Thebes, to his own people among whom he was born to Semele, but he came as a stranger, unrecognized, even punished by the king as a trouble-maker for introducing something new that had no rightful place in the established order.

Christianity must also be presented as something “new” (“new wine” and the “sweet wine” claims made at Pentecost) but as nonetheless legitimate. Luke achieves this by portraying Jesus as the natural progeny, the rightful heir, fulfilment, of the (reputedly) ancient Jewish religion. All the Jewish scriptures spoke of him.

The above is my own interpretation of the state of affairs and my own synthesis of a longer discussion by John Moles. I’m open for others to make modifications or corrections.

Interestingly another scholar, Lynn Kauppi, has found that the same scene of Paul “on trial” before the Athenians is bound intertextually to another famous Greek play, Eumenides by Aeschylus. Kauppi cites F. F. Bruce and Charles H. Talbert as earlier observers of this link.

See Kauppi: Foreign But Familiar Gods for three posts addressing the details.

Creating a new work by weaving together allusions to more than one earlier master was consistent with literary practice and the art of mimesis in that day.

In Acts 17 we come to a scene that serves as a mirror for the narrative of the whole of Acts (p. 85).

Paul enters Athens and attracts notice as a purveyor of “strange deities” and a “new teaching”. Since Paul has just visited the synagogue in Athens to discuss his teachings we know that what he is bringing to Athens is far from “brand new”. It is an interpretation of the existing Jewish scriptures.

The scene evokes the Athenian reaction to Socrates. Socrates, we know, was also accused of introducing new deities. So the Athenians are doubly in the wrong: they are repeating the sins of their forefathers who condemned the wise Socrates and they are themselves enamoured of novelty. Indeed, they are no different from the “strangers” among them who share the same shallow interests. So Athenian prestige and distinctiveness is cut down by narrator.

“Luke” plays with the ironies of double allusions here: the Athenians are like their ancestor judges who condemned Socrates for introducing “new” ideas and like Pentheus who condemned the stranger for introducing a “strange” god. All the while, along with the “strangers” in their midst, they condemn themselves for their own love of the novelty. The Jews in Athens, on the other hand, condemned themselves for their love of the old and rejection of the new revelation.

The relationship between Jesus-religion and Dionysus-religion

At one level Dionysus represents the totality of pagan gods and here (in Acts 17) we find Paul using a “recognized Jewish proselytizing technique” to bring pagans to Christ through their own gods. read more »

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

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) read 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.

read more »

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

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 read 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. read 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. read more »